Jesus in Our Own Image

Back in December, a team of five prominent biblical scholars and historians wrote a response piece to Peter Wehner’s “The Forgotten Radicalism of Jesus Christ.” In an article entitled “What the New York Times Gets Wrong About Jesus,” Marc Brettler, Paula Fredriksen, Amy-Jill Levine, Margaret Mitchell, and Candida Moss go over seven areas in which Whener demonstrates historical “myopia.” They conclude by writing that Wehner 

yanks Jesus out of his historical context and ignores the only Scripture – what the church calls the Old Testament and the source of the “radical teachings” of the imago dei and of social justice – Jesus and his disciples followed. That’s not good news, whether for Jesus or for his modern-day followers.

This sort of criticism could be leveled at any number of Christian pastors and even politicians, men and women prone to use Jesus for specific rhetorical purposes. For some, Jesus is a Jewish Ronald Reagan, while for others he is a Jewish Che Guevara. In both cases, Jesus is (to borrow from Genesis 1:26-28) made in their own image and likeness. 

For example, in Luke 9 Jesus tells the disciples to go on their journey woefully unprepared: “Take nothing for your journey, no staff, nor bag, nor bread, nor money – not even an extra tunic” (v. 3). A few chapters later and Jesus issues new instructions: “But now, the one who has a purse must take it, and likewise a bag. And the one who has no sword must sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). Conservative John Eidsmoe in his book God and Caesar contends that here “Jesus commanded military preparedness” and advocated for armed self-defense.[1] Sarah Palin, the former governor of Alaska and one-time candidate for the office of Vice President, believed that Jesus would have been a supporter of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, claiming that based on Luke 22:36 “Jesus is a proponent of carrying.”[2]

Liberals too are guilty of such appropriation. For example, Peter Dreier, a professor of political science at Occidental College, wrote in a 2016 article for the Huffington Post that 

[a]s people around the world celebrate Christmas, it is worth remembering that Jesus was a socialist. Of course, he was born long before the rise of industrial capitalism in the 19th century, but his radical ideas have influenced many critics of capitalism, including many prominent socialists and even Pope Francis.[3]

Dreier cites passages like Matthew 6:24 and Luke 12:15 in support of what he believes to be Jesus’ economic views. 

There is a word historians use to describe both of these takes: anachronism. As Paula Fredriksen aptly writes in her book Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews, “The historical Jesus was never and can never be our contemporary. To drape him in garments borrowed from current agendas while asserting that these agendas were actually his only distorts and so obscures who he was.”[4] In the piece that Fredriksen and her colleagues wrote in response to Wehner, they point out that the anachronism goes further than just misunderstanding Jesus. Wehner also misunderstands the Judaism of the first century. Wehner’s piece, they write, “is not only bad journalism; it is bad theology and bad history.” 

There’s a lot of that going around these days.

[1] John Eidsmoe, God and Caesar: Biblical Faith and Political Action (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1997), 49, 50.

[2] Mark Hensch, “Palin: Jesus would fight for the Second Amendment” (11.19.15),

[3] Peter Dreier, “Jesus Was a Socialist” (12.25.16),

[4] Paula Fredriksen, Jesus of Nazareth: King of the Jews (New York: Vintage Books, 1999), 270.

Joel Marcus: Neither a Deity Masquerading as Human nor Divinized at the Transfiguration

Joel Marcus, Mark 8-16: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Yale Bible (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2009), 1117-1118.

There is no indication within the Markan story…that Jesus is merely masquerading as a human being, as gods and angels do in Greco-Roman epiphany stories; the Markan Jesus’ total participation in the human condition, culminating in his painful and even despairing death, seem to exclude such a possibility. Similarly, it is unlikely that 9:2-8 is the moment at which Jesus is divinized within the Gospel, as in Apuleius’ description of Lucius’ initiation; in the transfiguration Jesus is showing what he already is (cf. 1:11) rather than becoming something he was not before….

Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements

I was recently reading Michael Kok’s blog and he alerted his readers to a new free online resource to which he has contributed: the Critical Dictionary of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements. Commissioned by the Center for the Critical Study of Apocalyptic and Millenarian Movements and edited by James Crossley and Alastair Lockhart, the CDAMM may due for the study of apocalypticism that resources like the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy does for philosophy. At the very least, it will provide laypeople (like me) with a scholarly source to use as a resource for research and writing. 

One of the many reasons it should prove to be an invaluable resource is both the diversity of subjects and its variety of contributors. For example, it is not merely Christianity that is in view in the CDAMM but also Judaism, Islam, and even religions that incorporate UFOs (to name a few). Additionally, you’ll find articles by Kok, John J. Collins, Sarah Rollens, and many more. And it’s not just ancient apocalyptic movements discussed by even more contemporary ones like the Branch Davidians. Heck, there’s even an entry for games in the Far Cry franchise

So, when you get a chance, take a look and see what’s in the CDAMM. You might learn something. I know I have!

Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis: ‘The Skeptics Annotated Bible’ (#3)

For more posts in this series, “Evangelical (Atheist) Eisegesis.

In The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible,[1] Steven Wells lists a total of six contradictions in the first chapter of the Gospel of Mark: at Mark 1:9; 1:11; 1:12-13; 1:14-17; 1:21, 29; and 1:23-24. He also points to an example of a false prophecy (1:2), three absurdities (1:10-11a, 1:23-26, 1:39), and two additional absurdities coupled with conflicts with science and history.[2] This post will focus on the purported contradictions which Wells offers. But before we begin, allow me to summarize the chapter.

The first chapter of the Markan Gospel is swift, introducing abruptly both John the Baptist (1:4) and Jesus (v. 9). Following the latter’s baptism by the former (vv. 9-11), the narrative moves to the wilderness for a brief interlude (vv. 12-13) before the return of Jesus to Galilee where he begins declaring the imminent reign of God (vv. 14-15). As he walks along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus calls four men, two pairs of brothers, to follow him (vv. 16-20). Together they go to Capernaum where over a twenty-four-hour period he teaches, heals the sick, and casts out demons (vv. 21-45).  

Contradictions Galore

The first contradiction Wells notes appears at Mark 1:9 and is listed as contradiction number 333 – “Where did John baptize?” At the end of SAB, readers will find a listing of 471 contradictions in the Bible. Number 333 reads as follows:

333. Where did John baptize?
In the Jordan River. Mt 3.6, Mk 1.9
In Bethabara, beyond the Jordan. Jn 1.28

Setting aside the textual variant in John 1:28,[3] it isn’t obvious to me why this should be considered a contradiction. When the KJV states that John was baptizing in Bethabara “beyond Jordan,” it isn’t claiming he was baptizing in a river different than what the Synoptics claim. Rather, it is giving a specific locale – Bethabara, a town traditionally located on the Jordan River. Perhaps the confusion is over the phrase “beyond Jordan.” If so, that’s a simple matter to clear up: “beyond Jordan” means on the other side of the river, i.e. on the eastern side. There is, then, no contradiction: all of the canonical Gospels agree that John baptized in the Jordan.[4]

The second contradiction that appears in Mark 1 has to do with God’s address to Jesus at his baptism. It is listed in the back of SAB as contradiction number 335.

335. At his baptism, did God address Jesus directly?
Yes. Mk 1.11, Lk 3.22
No. Mt 3.17

This is a contradiction and a rather interesting one at that! In Mark and Luke, it is Jesus who is addressed by the voice from heaven: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11, NRSV; cf. Luke 3:22). But in Matthew’s Gospel, the voice says something a little different: “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The differences may seem subtle, but they are profound, at least for the purposes of each narrative. I won’t discuss that here, but interested readers can listen to episodes 2 and 3 of the first season of my podcast Amateur Exegesis to learn more. 

The third contradiction concerns what Jesus did following his baptism by John. It is listed as contradiction number 415.

415. What did Jesus do after his baptism?
He went immediately into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil for 40 days. Mk 1.12-13
He called his disciples and attended the wedding at Cana. Jn 1.35, 43; 2.1 

This is definitely a contradiction but not in the way Wells thinks. Strictly speaking, John has no baptism narrative. It is only in the Synoptics that Jesus is baptized.[5] So, the question, at least as far as the Gospel of John is concerned, is poorly framed.[6] The more interesting question would be, What were Andrew and Peter doing when they were called to follow Jesus? In the Gospel of Mark, they are fishers working along the Sea of Galilee (Mark 1:16-18). In the Gospel of John, Andrew is a disciple of John the Baptist and Peter is off somewhere else (John 1:38-42). 

The fourth contradiction is to be found in vv. 21 and 29. It is contradiction number 416. 

416. Where did Peter and Andrew live?
Capernaum. Mk 1.21, 29.
Bethsaida. Jn 1.44

This is only possibly a contradiction. It is true that in the Gospel of Mark, Peter’s and Andrew’s home is in Capernaum. But Bethsaida, a city along the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee, wasn’t all that far from Capernaum. It’s possible that the brothers were born in Bethsaida and grew up there but later moved to Capernaum. One reason for thinking this is that Jesus is said to have been from Nazareth (Mark 1:9; 6:1-6) but he also resided in Capernaum, making his home there (Mark 2:1). So, it is conceivable that Peter and Andrew did something similar. But, it could also be that as far as the Johannine author is concerned, Peter and Andrew were from Bethsaida and lived there all their lives. 

The fifth contradiction is found at Mark 1:14-17. It is number 337.

337. Which came first: the calling of Peter and Andrew or the imprisonment of John the Baptist? 
The imprisonment of John the Baptist. Mt 4.12, 18-19; Mk 1.14-17
The calling of Peter and Andrew. Jn 1.40-42, 3.24

Wells is absolutely correct that this is a contradiction. The Synoptics portray the calling of the first disciples as happening after John’s arrest, but John’s Gospel has John free and baptizing long after the first disciples have been called. There is no way to reconcile these without resorting to some ad hoc explanation like two arrests or some such reasoning.

The final contradiction, number 417, is about the status of those who know Jesus is God’s messiah. 

417. Are those who believe that Jesus is the Christ born of God?
Yes. 1 Jn 4.2, 15, 5.1
No. Mk 1.23-24, 3.11-12, 5.7; Jas 2.19

Let’s begin with the low-hanging fruit: James 2:19 has no bearing whatsoever on this discussion. All it shows is that the demons are monotheists just like the Jamesian author’s audience. But what of these other texts, specifically in Mark where the demons recognize Jesus for who he is? Does this contradict statements like, “Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God” (1 John 5:1)? I’m not sure that it does. For starters, that the demons in Mark’s Gospel recognize him as God’s agent does not entail that they “believe” in him. The way Wells seems to construe “believe” is that it means assent to a fact, when in reality it means something more like allegiance or faithfulness. Therefore, to believe in Jesus as messiah isn’t simply to agree that’s who he is but rather it is to be faithful to him. The Markan demons are categorically against him, representing their ruler Satan in the struggle against God’s impending reign and therefore don’t “believe” in him. There is no contradiction here. 


Of the six contradictions proffered by SAB in Mark ch. 1, two do not seem to be contradictions at all and another is only a possible contradiction. Nevertheless, three out of six isn’t too terrible, I suppose. 

[1] The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, Steve Wells, editor (SAB Books, LLC: 2013).

[2] For an overview of what Wells considers absurd, conflicting with science, etc., see pp. xi-xvi in SAB.

[3] See Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft, 1994), 171.

[4] Interestingly, in the online version of SABthis contradiction no longer appears.

[5] Or, at least, explicitly baptized. 

[6] Though another issue is that John’s Gospel never mentions the temptation in the wilderness. 

Helen Bond: Hazardous Reading of Ancient Texts

Helen K. Bond, The First Biography of Jesus: Genre and Meaning in Mark’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2020), 8.

If we are to understand a text, particularly one from a distant culture, we need to be attuned to its historical context. Any piece of writing contains far more meaning than that expressed solely by the words on the. Texts assume and evoke cultural knowledge, and without this any reading is hazardous…. The difficulty for any modern interpreter of Mark’s bios, of course, lies in what is “unsaid,” the vast store of cultural assumptions that Mark’s audience instinctively brought to bear on their understanding of his work.

Script for Amateur Exegesis – Season 2, Episode 3: “Pondering Paul”


In his classic biography of the 16th century German Reformer Martin Luther, Roland Bainton describes a pivotal moment in Luther’s life. 

On a sultry day in July of the year 1505 a lonely traveler was trudging over a parched road on the outskirts of the Saxon village of Stotternheim. He was a young man, short but sturdy, and wore the dress of a university student. As he approached the village, the sky became overcast. Suddenly there was a shower, then a crashing storm. A bolt of lightning rived the gloom and knocked the man to the ground. Struggling to rise, he cried in terror, “St. Anne help me! I will become a monk.”[1]

According to Bainton, Luther felt bound to this vow, thinking that he had “been summoned by a call from heaven to which he could not be disobedient.” Two weeks later, having gotten his affairs in order, he joined an Augustinian monastery, much to the chagrin of his father.[2]

Were you to search all of Luther’s extant writings, you would never find this story told. That is, Luther is not the source for this tale – at least not directly. Yet many biographers of Luther and historians of the Reformation employ this narrative as if it were the gospel truth. Stephen Nichols, an evangelical author associated with Ligonier Ministries, wrote in his 2006 book on the Reformation that this scene on the road to Erfurt was “[a]n early turning point in Luther’s life,” who took the thunderstorm “to be the very judgment of God upon his soul,” prompting him to enter monastic life wherein his “struggles intensified,” leading him to a veritable existential crisis that brought him to faith – true Reformation-style faith – in Christ.[3] Similarly, in Eric Metaxas’ 2017 biography of Luther, which one historian described as an attempt to portray the Reformer as “a hero cast in a Whiggish mold” and was a work “full of overblown claims,”[4] the storm takes on cinematic flavor. Metaxas writes, 

The raging electrical storm so frightened [Luther] that all of the worst phantasms of his demise and damnation were before him, as real as and more frightening than the raging storm, and the great weight of it all simply became unbearable. When an impossibly close blast of lightning struck, Luther collapsed to the wet ground in abject terror and cried out to Saint Anne. “Hilf du, Sankt Anna!” he shouted. “Help me, Saint Anne!” And then into the rain and wind he shrieked the words that would change his life and the future of the world, words none heard but him. “Ich will ein Monch warden!” he shouted. “I will become a monk!”[5]

Neither Nichols nor Metaxas provide a source for this scene on the way to Erfurt. As already indicated, they didn’t get it from Luther himself. So, where did this story come from? 

Before he became an Augustinian monk, Luther lived in the “high-powered academic town” of Erfurt[6] where he studied law. He befriended Crotus Rubeanus, a fellow student who would later become a famous scholar.[7] Over a decade after Luther’s decision to become a monk, and just a couple of years before the famous incident at the Diet of Worms, Rubeanus wrote a letter to the “reverend and beloved Martin,” describing him as a “defender of true piety” and acknowledging that his work was divinely inspired.[8] He wrote to Luther, 

Divine Providence intended this when, as you were returning from your parents, a thunderbolt from heaven prostrated you like another Paul on the ground before the town of Erfurt and forced you from our company, sad at your departure, into the walls of the Augustinian fold.[9]

This is the earliest known reference to the storm story: not a letter from Luther but a letter to him. It would not be unreasonable to think that Rubeanus heard it from Luther, although it is interesting that in his version there is no vow to St. Anne. But we would be remiss if we did not note the rhetorical function of the story, at least in the mind of Rubeanus. As historian Scott Hendrix explains, Rubeanus compared Luther’s experience “to the conversion of St. Paul in order to give Luther quasi-divine sanction for resisting Rome.”[10] In other words, Luther is cast as a sixteenth century apostle Paul who would in the eyes of many rediscover the gospel and take on the impiety of Rome. But if Luther was, to quote Rubeanus, “another Paul,” who then was the original? 

Welcome to an extended episode of Amateur Exegesis.


In the last episode, we discussed the prescript of Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, we went over two of the senders in the superscription (Silvanus and Timothy), the adscription (“to the church of the Thessalonians”) and the greeting (“grace…and peace”). Paul himself we left for this week’s and next week’s episodes, episodes that will be longer than usual. As for Paul, who was he? How had he become a follower of Jesus? What was he like before he became a follower? What was he like after? When was he born? When did he die? Was he married? Did he have children? Where was he educated? Was he educated? What did he look like?

Some of these questions are easier to answer than others and much depends on our sources. For example, we don’t find in the documents that comprise the New Testament any physical description of the apostle Paul. However, in one ancient narrative, the Acts of Paul and Thecla, we read this description of him: 

“And [Onesiphorus] saw Paul coming, a man small in size, bald-headed, bandy-legged, of noble mien, with eyebrows meeting, rather hook-nosed, full of grace. Sometimes he seemed like a man, and sometimes he had the face of an angel” (Acts of Paul 3.3).[11]

While scholars have noted that such an elucidation of Paul’s physical characteristics “is unparalleled in ancient Christian literature,”[12] its historical value lay less in what it says about Paul and more in what it says about ancient Christian conceptions of him.[13] This is because the Acts of Paul belongs to the late second century CE, not the middle of the first in which Paul lived and died. 

And when did Paul die anyway? How did it happen? How old was he? These too are difficult to answer given the available evidence. To know how old Paul was when he died we need two pieces of information: the year of his birth and the year of his death. Regarding the year of his birth, the data is virtually non-existent: “We are especially ignorant about Paul’s early life,” writes J. Albert Harrill.[14] Harrill ventures a guess of about 10 CE, placing the apostle in his twenties when he first becomes a follower of Jesus. E.P. Sanders conjectures that because Paul “was in the prime of his life” around the middle of the first century CE, then perhaps he was “born around the same time as Jesus or a little later,” anywhere from 4 BCE to 4 CE.[15]

At the other end of Paul’s life we have somewhat better information but not by much. The earliest source that alludes to Paul’s death comes from the end of the first century in the epistle of 1 Clement.[16] There the anonymous author writes to the Corinthians of “the greatest and most righteous pillars [who] were persecuted and fought to the death” (1 Clement 5:2).[17] He begins first with the apostle Peter (v. 4) before moving on to Paul (vv. 5-7) about whom he writes, 

After he had been seven times in chains, had been driven into exile, had been stoned, and had preached in the east and in the west, he won the genuine glory for his faith, having taught righteousness to the whole world and having reached the farthest limits of the west. Finally, when he had given his testimony before the rulers, he thus departed from the world and went to the holy place, having become an outstanding example of patient endurance (vv. 6-7).

But when did this happen? And how did Paul die? At the end of the second century, the Alexandrian Christian Clement offers a timetable of sorts, set in the polemical context of tracing the proto-orthodox movement back to Jesus himself. He wrote, 

For the teaching of our Lord at His advent, beginning with Augustus and Tiberius, was completed in the middle of the times of Tiberius. 

And that of the apostles, embracing the ministry of Paul, ends with Nero. (Stromata 17)[18]

Other early Christians agreed, not only placing the end of Paul’s life during the reign of Nero but also at the emperor’s hands. Writing sometime in the late third or early fourth centuries, Lactantius, a tutor of Constantine’s son Crispus, placed the lives of Peter and Paul squarely in the period of the reign of Nero. In his version of events, Peter is killed once Nero realizes that the pagan cults are being emptied through conversion to Christianity. “[H]e was the first of all to persecute the servants of God,” Lactantius writes. “He crucified Peter and killed Paul” (The Deaths of the Persecutors 2).[19] This places the death of Paul sometime between 54 CE when Nero’s reign began and 68 CE when his reign ended. 

And how did Paul die? Tertullian, writing in the late second or early third centuries, claimed that Paul was beheaded (Scorpiace 15). In the Acts of Paul and Thecla which we referenced previously in this episode, a defiant Paul tells Nero that should he kill him then and there he would rise again and appear to him (Acts of Paul 3.11.4). Not long after this, Paul is praying toward the east with his hands raised when his executioner comes. He goes silent and bends his neck to take the blow. We then read this: “When the executioner cut off his head milk splashed on the tunic of the soldier” (3.11.5). Word of this miraculous occurrence reaches Nero who doesn’t know what to make of it. And then in front of the emperor and a host of others, Paul himself appears just as he said he would: “Caesar, behold here is Paul, the soldier of God,” the apostle says. “I am not dead but live in my God. But upon you, unhappy one, many evils and great punishment will come because you have unjustly shed the blood of the righteous not many days ago” (3.11.6). 

Despite these concrete narratives and statements, they are still not well supported, amounting to guesses as to the fate of Paul. The lesson here is clear: historical sources make or break chronologies. And for the book ends of Paul’s life, our sources aren’t great. If we want to reconstruct the life of Paul, then we have to be content with not knowing a great deal. It is certainly entertaining to read these later narratives and they are instructive of what Christians in later generations thought of their faith’s premier advocate, but our interest here is historical. What can or can’t we say about Paul with confidence? And what exactly are the sources we have available to use in our reconstruction? As far as New Testament documents go, we have two main sources of information for Paul: his letters and the Acts of the Apostles. It is to the latter, the book of Acts, we now turn.


Of the twenty-seven documents that make up the New Testament, only five of them are narratives: the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and the Acts of the Apostles. Though some have contested it,[20] the author of the Gospel of Luke and the author of the Acts of the Apostles seems to have been the same person. Christians in the second century identified this author as Luke,[21] the “beloved physician” (Colossians 4:14) who had been a travelling companion of the apostle Paul (Philemon 1:24; cf. 2 Timothy 4:11). Many Christians today find this attribution correct. 

The Genre of Acts

What kind of work is the Acts of the Apostles? For starters, the name “Acts of the Apostles” was probably not original to it. It first appears in the second century from the pen of the apologist Irenaeus who refers to it using this title in the third volume of his work Against Heresies (3.13.3). As a title, Acts of the Apostles is, as Margaret Aymer explains, “somewhat misleading.”[22] Though his letters demonstrate he thought of himself as an apostle (e.g., 1 Corinthians 1:1, 9:1-2, etc.), the criteria for apostleship laid out by the author of the book of Acts excludes Paul from being one (Acts 1:12-26). Only once in all of the book of Acts does the author refer to Paul as an apostle (Acts 14:14).[23] In all likelihood the book of Acts was originally without a title: “Even in the Hellenistic period,” wrote Hans Conzelmann in his commentary on Acts, “a title is superfluous for a Greek book.”[24]

The genre of the book of Acts has been hotly debated for some time now and there are seemingly as many proposals as there are proposers. Scholars have suggested and defended a wide range of ancient genres into which the Acts of the Apostles might fit:[25] biography, novel, epic, and historiography. Yet one of the main difficulties is the flexibility of genre even in ancient times,[26] resulting in overlap that at times defies rigid categorization. Consequently, no single proposal “has emerged as the critical opinio communis,” writes Mikeal Parsons in his commentary on Acts.[27] Instead, scholars are increasingly recognizing the book of Acts as a “popular” work, one that is “[u]nrestrained by the conventions governing elite literature,” wherein “popular writers were able to blend genres and create new ones.”[28]For example, in her recent volume Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives, scholar Christy Cobb writes that the author of Luke-Acts “drew from genres such as biographies, epics, and novels when composing both texts.” For scholars like Cobb, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles were “a part of the developing menippean genre,” [29] a kind of smorgasbord of genres that eventually lead to the formation of the ancient novel.[30] Reading Acts as a menippean text, Cobb writes, “provides a possible solution to the debate on the genre of Acts, as it incorporates both the novelistic and historical aspects of the narrative and preserves the aretological and pedagogical value of the text.”[31] Cobb’s proposal is by no means definitive but it does attempt to do justice to the fact “that Acts represents a blending of genres.”[32]

The issue of the genre of Acts may seem like an academic rabbit trail, impertinent to reading Paul’s story within its pages. But the reason identifying genre is so important is because it helps to frame how we understand what we read. To put it another way, genre informs our expectations of what we read. By employing a variety of subgenres, each with their own characteristics, the book of Acts emerges not as objective history but as artful story telling not without its own motivations. So, when conservative apologists (correctly) assert that the author of Acts gets a host of things correct about the Mediterranean world,[33] those correct observations should be set in the wider context of the genre, or better genres, of the book of Acts with all their complexities. In other words, these things require an appreciation of nuance.

The Story So Far 

In his first appearance in the Acts of the Apostles, Paul’s name isn’t Paul but Saul. Having angered the Jewish council with a lengthy and poignant sermon rehearsing Israel’s complicated history and relationship with its god (Acts 7:2-53), Stephen is taken outside the city of Jerusalem by an angry mob to be stoned to death (vv. 54-58a). Encumbered by their coats, the stone-wielding men take them off and, to quote Acts 7:58, “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” They then proceed to stone Stephen to death (vv. 59-60). But why was Stephen targeted? How has the story progressed to this point? 

As I discussed earlier, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles are connected to one another. In many ways, the book of Acts is a sequel to the Gospel. It is this interconnectedness that led the prolific biblical scholar Henry Cadbury to coin the moniker “Luke-Acts” for the pair.[34] The Gospel of Luke, based in part on the Gospels of Mark and Matthew, tells the story of Jesus’ birth, death, and resurrection. Its closing scene, in Luke 24:50-53, depicts Jesus rising into heaven after which the disciples return to Jerusalem and the temple. The book of Acts picks up on this, summarizing the ground covered in the previous volume of the Gospel (Acts 1:1-3) and adding additional details. For example, the disciples witness two angels who declare that Jesus will return from heaven one day (vv. 10-11). More importantly, in v. 8 Jesus tells the disciples that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In the narrative that follows, this progression becomes the program for the narrative.[35] Upon returning to Jerusalem, the disciples appoint a new member to replace Judas Iscariot (vv. 12-26). In ch. 2, the holy spirit that had been foretold both by Jesus (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5) and according to the apostle Peter, the prophet Joel (Acts 2:17-21; cf. Joel 2:28-32 LXX) descends upon them: a baptism of both spirit and fire (Acts 2:1-4; cf. Luke 3:16). This possession by God’s spirit causes them to speak in other languages (Acts 2:4) and creates the impression among the locals that these believers are intoxicated (vv. 5-13). In response, Peter offers a sermon (vv. 14-36) wherein he explains that what is happening is part of God’s salvific program and that should they wish to avoid God’s judgment they must acknowledge that the one they had crucified is the one God made to be both Lord and Messiah (v. 36). In response, some who heard Peter join the ranks of Jesus’ followers by undertaking the rite of baptism: “So those who welcomed [Peter’s] message were baptized,” writes the author of Acts, “and that day about three thousand persons were added” (v. 41). Later, in v. 47, we are told that the church continued to grow daily. 

Much of the narrative from chs. 2-5 focuses on Peter: he heals a disabled man at one of the temple’s gates (3:1-10), he speaks to a crowd alongside John in Solomon’s Portico (vv. 11-26), he is arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin where he proclaims the gospel of Jesus to those within earshot (4:1-22), he confronts a dishonest couple – Annanias and Sapphira – for withholding proceeds from the sale of land from the apostles (5:1-11), and he, along with the other apostles, face persecution at the hands of the high priest and his minions, a scene that ends without any violence whatsoever thanks to Gamaliel – not a Jesus follower (5:17-42). So far in the story, the narrative has focused on Jerusalem and its population of Jews. But beginning in chapter six, the story slowly begins a shift in emphasis. [36]

A rift forms between Diaspora Jews[37] who follow Jesus and Palestinian Jews who follow Jesus over neglect of widows in food distribution (6:1). The Twelve convene, and they decide to form a group of seven men who will take over the tasks of caring for the widows and other concerns so that the disciples can focus on prayer and teaching (vv. 2-4). One of the seven is Stephen, “a man full of faith and the Holy Spirit,” according to the narrator (v. 5). Stephen is able to work miracles but runs afoul of the Jews who arrest him and claim that he was speaking “blasphemous words against Moses and God” (vv. 8-15). “Are these things so?” the high priest asks him in 7:1. Rather than give a “yes” or “no,” Stephen delivers a sermon that begins with Abraham and ends with the present moment as he stands before the council (vv. 2-53). The end of Stephen’s homily summarizes perfectly Israel’s history as he sees it: 

You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you are forever opposing the Holy Spirit, just as your ancestors used to do. Which of the prophets did your ancestors not persecute? They killed those who foretold the coming of the Righteous One, and now you have become his betrayers and murderers. You are the ones that received the law as ordained by angels, and yet you have not kept it (vv. 51-53).

The narrator vividly depicts the response of the council: “When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen” (v. 54). It is at this point in the narrative of Acts that we meet Saul, better known as Paul. 

Paul Before His Damascus Road Experience

Most of us are familiar with what happens to Paul later on in the narrative of Acts, when he encounters Jesus on the way to the city of Damascus. But what information about Paul’s life before that moment can we glean from the book of Acts? Three things in particular stand out.

First, Paul is a Roman citizen by birth. When he stands before the Roman tribune, a military officer stationed in Jerusalem who was responsible for a garrison of soldiers (Acts 21:32; 22:22-29), the tribune asks Paul if he is a Roman citizen to which Paul replies in the affirmative. “It cost me a large sum to get my citizenship,” he tells Paul. “But I was born a citizen,” he replies. This may seem like a rather innocuous and irrelevant piece of information to most modern people. For example, in the United States those born on American soil or to American parents are automatically considered citizens. But this was not the case for the vast majority of people born in the Roman Empire. Harrill estimates that during the time of Paul, less than one percent of Mediterranean people were Roman citizens.[38] To become one, either your parents had to be citizens, in which case you would have received a birth certificate indicating your status; you were a slave of a Roman citizen and freed; you performed a special service for the empire; or you were discharged from military service.[39] Citizens enjoyed a variety of privileges including the right to vote in the city of Rome, freedom from certain types of punishment like scourging, and the right to appeal to Rome directly, bypassing local authorities.[40] Paul invokes these privileges at certain points in the story of Acts and when characters in the story find out that Paul is a citizen their reaction to him markedly changes (e.g. Acts 16:37-39).

Second, Paul is a Pharisee. “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees,” Paul tells the council in Acts 23:6. The Pharisees were a sect of Judaism that was first formed in the Hellenistic and Roman periods during a time of “pronounced Jewish sectarianism.”[41] According to Josephus, the Pharisees believed, among other things, in the immortality of the soul and the existence of post-mortem rewards and punishment (Antiquities 18.13-14). In Acts, Paul describes the Pharisees as “the strictest sect of our religion” (Acts 26:5) and states that he trained at the feet of Gamaliel (22:3), a first-century Jewish teacher known not only from the book of Acts (cf. Acts 5:35-39) but also from the Mishnah (e.g., m. Sota 9.15, m. Pesachim 10.5). And it is Paul’s training as a Pharisee that is used to explain the third thing that stands out about Paul’s life before his encounter with Jesus.

Third, Paul is a persecutor of the church and, as Paula Fredriksen points out, as far as the Paul of Acts is concerned, persecution means execution.[42] Returning to the martyrdom of Stephen in Acts 7 reveals quite a bit about Paul’s role in that affair and what transpired afterward. Many readers glance at v. 58 which describes the stone-throwers laying their coats “at the feet of a young man named Saul” as being just an interesting detail meant to do little more than introduce Saul into the narrative of Acts as one holding the coats of Stephen’s killers. But that phrase, “at the feet,” does some heavier lifting than suggesting Saul was an attendant at an outdoor cloakroom. Elsewhere in Acts, “at the feet of” a person or persons suggests submission to and acknowledgement of an authority. For example, early in the book believers who sold their land and houses are said to have “brought the proceeds of what was sold” and “laid it at the apostle’s feet” (4:34-35). And as I just mentioned a few minutes ago, Paul claims that he was educated “at the feet of Gamaliel” (22:3). Therefore, “at the feet” functions as a circumlocution for authority.[43] This coheres with how Paul depicts himself when he stands before Agrippa in Acts 26: “I not only locked up many of the saints in prison,” he reports, “but I also cast my vote against them when they were being condemned to death” (v. 10). Paul is thus depicted as a member of the Sanhedrin, not simply their agent.[44]

The Aftermath of Stephen’s Death and the “Conversion” of Saul

Following Stephen’s death, the author of Acts reports that “Saul approved of their killing him” (Acts 8:1). And this marks the beginning of something new in the story of Acts. Whereas in chapter five, the persecution endured by the disciples ended up with no real consequences, the death of Stephen is a spark that ignites the fury of persecution: “That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem,” the text reports. And juxtaposed the image of lamenting believers burying their beloved Stephen in v. 2 is the image of Saul “ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women” who “he committed…to prison” in v. 3. But as quickly as Paul had entered the story he departs it, and the rest of chapter eight is devoted to two stories involving a colleague of Stephen named Philip (cf. 6:5). The first involves the preaching of the gospel in Samaria (vv. 4-25), evoking the words of Jesus from 1:8 – “You will be my witnesses in…Samaria.”[45] The second story (vv. 26-40) anticipates what becomes the main thrust of the remainder of the book of Acts: the mission to the gentiles.[46] It is against this backdrop – the progression from Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth – that we read the story of Paul found in chapter nine. 

It opens ominously with the words “Saul, still breathing threats and murder” (v. 1). The use of the Greek adverb eti – rendered as “still” in the NRSV – lets the reader know that though Saul has not been mentioned since the beginning of ch. 8, he certainly hasn’t been dormant.[47] Far from it for, as we learn, he has received permission from the high priest to extend his work as a veritable inquisitor from the environs of Jerusalem to the Diaspora city of Damascus in Syria “so that if he found any who belonged to the Way”, v. 2 reports, “men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.” That Damascus held a Jewish population is unsurprising,[48] but, given the narrative of Acts up to this point, the existence of followers of “the Way,” a metonym for the Jesus movement, in the city is. Regardless, Damascus is where he is headed and, as we will soon discover, he finds followers of the Way there. 

As he approaches the city, a light suddenly flashes from heaven: “He fell to the ground,” the narrator tells us, “and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’” (vv. 3-4) We aren’t told that Saul saw anyone; in fact, the details of the narrative militate against the idea. He instinctively inquires, “Who are you, Lord?” to which the voice replies, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting” (vv. 5-6). Saul is then instructed by Jesus to go into Damascus and wait further instructions. In v. 7, we find out that Saul was not travelling alone and therefore there were witnesses to what had just transpired: “they heard the voice, but saw no one.”[49] And neither did Saul for, v. 8 reports, “though his eyes were open, he could see nothing” and was led by the hand to the city where for three days he fasted (v. 9). “He who a moment ago was so powerful has now become utterly powerless,” wrote Ernst Haenchen.[50]

Meanwhile, in Damascus dwelled a follower of Jesus named Ananias. Ananias has a vision of Jesus that begins with the Risen One speaking this disciple’s name. “Ananias,” Jesus calls. “Here I am, Lord,” the man replies (v. 10). The scene is reminiscent of ones we find in the Jewish scriptures: “Abraham,” God spoke to the patriarch in Genesis 22:1.” “Here I am,” Abraham replied” (cf. 1 Samuel 3:2-18). Jesus tells Ananias to go to Straight Street to the house of Judas for there he will find “a man of Tarsus named Saul” in prayer (v. 11). “[H]e has seen in a vision a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight,” Jesus explains in v. 12. The author of Acts here uses a technique sometimes referred to as “mutually interpretive visions”[51] or “corresponding visions”[52] which are, in the words of Luke Timothy Johnson, “a masterful way of merging individual experiences into a shared narrative.”[53]Interestingly enough, it is also a motif that became typical of ancient fiction.[54] Its use, Mikeal Parsons notes, “highlights God’s control of the action.”[55]

Despite this request from Jesus, Ananias is reluctant. After all, he tells his Lord, Saul has a reputation of doing horrible things to those who invoke Jesus’ name (vv. 13-14). But Jesus reassures Ananias that this Saul – the man who viciously persecuted the saints – has become one himself and will be the means by which the gospel is spread to the “Gentiles and kings and before the people of Israel” (v. 15), a ministry which entails suffering (v. 16). Ananias follows Jesus’ command, locates Saul, lays his hands on him, and tells him that the one who appeared to him on his way to Damascus is the one who has sent Ananias to heal him of his blindness (v. 17). “And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored,” we are told in v. 18. Saul is then baptized and fed (v. 19). 

We could spend a number of episodes dissecting these nineteen verses from Acts 9 alone but time does not permit. We should, however, highlight a few things that will aid us in our discussion of Paul later. Allow me to enumerate them: 

  • Saul is described as a persecutor of the church and a violent one at that. To recall the words of Paula Fredriksen, for the Paul of the book of Acts, persecution means execution.[56]
  • Saul’s mission to Damascus was purportedly done with the authority of the high priest of Jerusalem.
  • This authority included the right to arrest followers of Jesus and bring them back to Jerusalem, no doubt to stand trial.
  • It is outside of Damascus that Saul encounters the risen Christ.

These details will be of interest when we examine Paul’s own claims about his “conversion” experience found in his letters.

Paul in Damascus and Jerusalem

According to Acts 9:19, Saul spent “several days” with Jesus followers, dubbed “disciples,” in Damascus and, v. 20 reports, “began to proclaim Jesus in the synagogues, saying, ‘He is the Son of God.’” The irony of all this is not lost to those in the synagogue: “Is not this the man who made havoc in Jerusalem among those who invoked this name? And has he not come here for the purpose of bringing them bound before the chief priests?” they ask (v. 21) His preaching to the Jews of Jesus’ divine sonship creates in them anger and, “[a]fter some time had passed,” they plot to kill him (v. 23), “the first of several Jewish plots” that he would experience over the course of his life (e.g., Acts 20:3, 19; 23:30).[57] When word of the plot reached Saul’s fellow believers, they sneaked him out one night, lowering him through an opening in a wall, tucked away in a basket (vv. 24-25). 

Saul makes his way back to Jerusalem and tries to connect with Jesus followers there, but they haven’t forgotten what Saul had done before he had left for Damascus (v. 26). Recall that in 8:1-3, following the death of Stephen of which Saul had approved, a “severe persecution” had broken out against believers in the city and Saul himself was conducting house-by-house searches for those who followed the Way. The trepidation, like that of Ananias, is understandable. It is Barnabas who brings Saul before the apostles and tells them of the former persecutor’s newfound faith: he “described for them how on the road he had seen the Lord, who had spoken to him, and how in Damascus he had spoken boldly in the name of Jesus” (v. 27). Though not explicit in the text, Saul’s activity in vv. 28-29 suggest that the apostles gave their stamp of approval on Saul joining their ranks.[58] But Saul’s preaching, as in Damascus, gets him into trouble with Greek speaking Jews in the city and, as in Damascus, he is whisked off to safety, this time headed for the city of Tarsus: home. But this time, he returns home as a follower of Jesus, having been “legitimized by Jerusalem.”[59]

Before we continue, we should notice a couple of things about this part of Paul’s story in Acts. First, we see some recurring patterns. In both Damascus and in Jerusalem, Saul preaches first to the Jews who, in turn, plot to kill him. He is then rescued by believers to move on to somewhere else. Second, Paul is brought before, not a singular apostle, but the apostles. This will be important later. 

Paul and Barnabas: A Dynamic Duo 

With Tarsus, the story of Paul in Acts pauses and the narrative shifts back to Peter, the one who had been the book’s main protagonist up until chapter seven. Time does not permit us to examine the significance of all that transpires in chapter ten, but it is summed up nicely in 11:38 after Peter reports what transpired in Caesarea: “When [the apostles] heard this, they were silenced. And they praised God, saying, ‘Then God has given even to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life.” A few verses later and Barnabas, who had been sent to Antioch by the church in Jerusalem, leaves for Tarsus to find Saul and bring him back to Antioch (vv. 22-26). There the pair remain for a year where, v. 26 reports, “the disciples were first called ‘Christians.’” A prophet from Jerusalem predicts that a famine would affect all the world (which Luke reports happened during the reign of the emperor Claudius) and so the disciples in Antioch decide to send relief to those living in Judea by way of Saul and Barnabas (vv. 27-30). 

Following the martyrdom of James, the imprisonment of Peter and his miraculous escape, and the death of Herod by an angel from God (12:1-23), Saul and Barnabas in 12:25 either return to Jerusalem if you’re reading manuscripts like Sinaiticus and Vaticanus or from Jerusalem if you’re reading Codex Bezae[60] or P74.[61] The thorny textual issue aside,[62] at the beginning of chapter thirteen Saul and Barnabas are in Antioch, not Jerusalem, where at the urging of the holy spirit they are commissioned to preach the gospel by the church there (13:1-3). They end up on the island of Cyprus at a city called Paphos where they encounter a magician named Bar-Jesus who was with the proconsul Sergius Paulus. (vv. 4-7). It is at this point in the narrative of Acts that the author informs the reader that Saul was “also known as Paul” (v. 9) and from now on we hear only of Paul, not Saul.[63]

In 13:14, “Paul and his companions” (v. 13) wind up in Antioch in Pisidia where Paul attends the local synagogue and preaches a message about Jesus (vv. 14-41). He is initially well-received but the following sabbath is faced with persecution and driven out of town by instigation of the Jews (vv. 42-50). They reach Iconium where the pattern repeats: Paul and Barnabas go to the local synagogue, they preach about Jesus, and are met with resistance spurned on by gospel-rejecting Jews (14:1-7). Ditto for Lystra (vv. 8-20). 

The Council at Jerusalem

After a scene in which Paul and Barnabas enjoy some respite in Antioch of Syria (vv. 21-28), the narrative of chapter fifteen edges back to Jerusalem into the central section of the book of Acts, a “watershed” moment.[64] “From this point on,” writes Conzelmann, “the apostles disappear, even in Jerusalem itself.”[65] Moreover, as Acts is intended to tell the story of how the church went “from a community that is (a) Palestinian, (b) Jewish, and (c) Torah observing into a movement that is, for the most part, (a) diasporan, (b) gentile, and (c) nonobservant of the Torah,”[66] this section plays a pivotal role. 

The story begins not in Jerusalem but in Antioch where believers from Judea arrive in town and teach that gentiles, in order to be saved, must undergo the rite of circumcision (15:1). In other words, these non-Jews must become Jewish proselytes if they want to be saved. Charles Talbert points out that the position of this pro-circumcision party was not without some support from the Hebrew scriptures: Abraham, a gentile, was circumcised (Genesis 17:10-14), circumcision was a requirement for those who wished to become one people with Israel (Genesis 34:15-24), and those non-Jews who wished to celebrate Passover with Israel had to be circumcised (Exodus 12:44, 48).[67] But, as Talbert goes on to say, “diversity of opinion existed in the first century” regarding the question of circumcision for non-Jews.[68] For example, according to the book of Jubilees, without circumcision an individual was bound for destruction (Jubilees 15:26-27) while in other Jewish traditions (e.g. t. Sanh. 13:2) the view seems to have been that some Jews thought that gentiles could be saved without circumcision.[69] For these believers from Judea, the answer was clear: gentiles must be circumcised.[70] It is interesting to note, however, the way in which the author of Acts describes these pro-circumcision believers. They aren’t “individuals…from Jerusalem” but rather “individuals…from Judea.” The author of Acts, Conzelmann observes, “uses the general term ‘Judea’ to indicate that they were not agitating under orders from the Jerusalem church.”[71] Their stirring up of trouble and creating of dissension (v. 2) is set in contrast with the unified front of the apostles in Jerusalem as well as the notion that Paul’s theology about gentiles was in line with that of the Jerusalem church. 

In light of this conflict over the role of circumcision, the church in Antioch appoints Paul and Barnabas (and some others) to go to Jerusalem and inquire of the apostles themselves (vv. 2-3). Upon their arrival, the delegates report their evangelistic success (v. 4) but not without a word from the other side: “But some believers who belonged to the sect of the Pharisees stood up and said, ‘It is necessary for them to be circumcised and to keep the law of Moses’” (v. 5). The gentiles, in their view, must become proselytes to Judaism if they wish to truly be followers of Jesus. 

A council is convened, and a debate ensues (vv. 6-7a). Then Peter, one of the apostles, presents his case against prescribing circumcision for gentiles. “It is an argument from experience,” Talbert notes,[72] and depends upon Peter’s experiences found in Acts 10 and 11. In v. 8, Peter notes that God gave the gentiles he encountered the holy spirit and, “in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us,” (v. 9) that is, between gentile followers of Jesus who are uncircumcised and Jewish followers of Jesus who are. He closes by reaffirming his belief that Jewish and gentile Jesus followers are saved the exact same way: through the grace of the Lord Jesus (v. 11). In this scheme, circumcision has no place. After all, Peter asks in v. 10, why would anyone want to place on their necks the yoke that neither they as Jews nor their ancestors were able to bear? 

Following Peter’s rousing speech, Paul and Barnabas regal the council with “the signs and wonders that God had done through them among the Gentiles” (v. 12), language that not only confirms Peter’s testimony[73] but reaffirms that the gentile response is the work of God himself.[74] But the meeting doesn’t close with Paul and Barnabas but with James, the brother of Jesus. He opens by first summarizing Peter’s speech, referring to him as Simeon (v. 14). “Simeon” (as opposed to “Simon”) is an Aramaicism[75] and an indication that the author of Acts is trying to portray James as speaking Aramaic rather than Greek.[76] Peter’s speech, James claims, is in agreement “with the words of the prophets” (v. 15). He then proceeds to quote a pastiche of texts, the bulk of which come from Amos 9:11-12 as it is found (with some modification) in the LXX (vv. 15-18).[77] As Talbert points out, the language of rebuilding the “dwelling of David” is an allusion to the resurrection of Jesus and the statement that “even all the Gentiles” will seek the Lord speaks to the conversion witnessed by Peter, Paul, and Barnabas in their journeys.[78] Following his citation of Holy Writ, James first states negatively that the requirement of circumcision and Torah observance generally should not be required of “those Gentiles who are turning to God” (v. 19). He then affirms that instead gentiles should “abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood” (v. 20). “The Gentile Messianists are to behave in this way,” writes Talbert, “not because the law says so but because it is the minimum that will allow Jews who observe the law to associate with Gentiles who do not.”[79]

The Band Breaks Up

After James’ speech, the council decides that they will send two of their own, Silas and Judas called Barsabbas, to accompany Paul and Barnabas on their journey back to Antioch (v. 22). The two are to deliver a letter “to the believers of Gentile origin in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia” (v. 23) that explains the purpose of their visit and lays out the rules decided upon by James, Peter, and the rest (vv. 24-29). Upon delivery of the message, both Silas and Judas are well received and, after spending some time in town, return to Jerusalem, leaving Paul and Barnabas behind (vv. 30-35). 

According to v. 36, Paul approached Barnabas with the suggestion that they return to those cities wherein they had proclaimed the word of the Lord to check on their status. Barnabas wants to bring along John Mark who, in chapter thirteen, had abandoned Paul’s mission to Perga for Jerusalem (13:13). Paul, reeling from this desertion, dissents, creating a rift between Barnabas and himself (15:38). “The disagreement became so sharp,” writes the author of Acts, “that they parted company” (v. 39). Barnabas takes John Mark and heads for Cyprus; Paul takes Silas who we met earlier in the chapter and heads for Syria and Cilicia (vv. 40-41). But this disagreement between the two is not devastating to the mission of the gospel: “Far from harming the mission, the parting thus occasioned actually doubles it,” Haenchen reminds us.[80] With the addition of Silas to Paul’s missionary band, the movement toward the epistle of 1 Thessalonians begins. As I noted in episode two, the “Silvanus” of the letter’s prescript is no doubt the “Silas” of the book of Acts. 


What does the future hold in store for Paul and Silas? How does Timothy, also mentioned in the prescript of 1 Thessalonians, enter into the situation? In the next episode, we’ll continue our brief discussion of Paul’s story in the Acts of the Apostles up to the mission to Thessalonica in ch. 17. We’ll preface that discussion with an overview of 1 Thessalonians 1:2-10, the beginning of the epistle’s proem. That’s next time on Amateur Exegesis

[1] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1950), 21.

[2] Bainton, Here I Stand, 34. 

[3] Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 26, 30-31.

[4] Carlos Eire, “Slaying the Dragon of the Dark Ages” (12.18.17),

[5] Eric Metaxas, Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World, electronic edition (New York: Viking, 2017), Chapter Two: Lightning Strikes.

[6] Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015), 30.

[7] Hendrix, Martin Luther, 29.

[8] “Crotus Rubeanus to Luther – October 16, 1519,” in Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 1 – 1507-1521, Preserved Smith, translator (Philadelphia: The Lutheran Publication Society, 1913), 229, 233.

[9] “Crotus Rubeanus to Luther – October 16, 1519,” in Luther’s Correspondence and Other Contemporary Letters, vol. 1 – 1507-1521, 233.

[10] Hendrix, Martin Luther, 33.

[11] Translation taken from The Apocryphal New Testament: A Collection of Apocryphal Christian Literature in an English Translation based on M.R. James, J.K. Elliot, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[12] János Bollók, “The description of Paul in the Acta Pauli,” in The Apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla, Jan N. Bremmer, editor (Kampen, the Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing Co., 1996), 1. 

[13] J. Albert Harrill, Paul the Apostle: His Life and Legacy in Their Roman Context (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 108.

[14] Harrill, Paul the Apostle, 24.

[15] E.P. Sanders, Paul: The Apostle’s Life, Letters, and Thought (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2015), 4; cf. Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald, “Introduction,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, second edition, Wayne A. Meeks and John T. Fitzgerald (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2007), xix-xx.

[16] On the dating of 1 Clement, see The Apostolic Fathers, Bart D. Ehrman, editor and translator, Loeb Classical Library (London: Harvard University Press, 2003), 1:23-25; The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, third edition, Michael W. Holmes, editor and translator (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 35-36.

[17] Translation taken from The Apostolic Fathers: Greek Texts and English Translations, third edition, Michael W. Holmes, editor and translator.

[18] Translation taken from The Ante-Nicene Fathers: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, vol. 2 – Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria, Philip Schaff, editor (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2004).

[19] Translation taken from The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, vol. 54 – Lactantius: the Minor Works, Sister Mary Francis McDonald, translator (Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University Press of America Press, 1965).

[20] E.g., Patricia Walters, The Assumed Authorial Unity of Luke and Acts: A Reassessment of the Evidence (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).

[21] For an overview, see John Nolland, Luke 1 – 9:20, Word Biblical Commentary (Nashville, TN: Word, Inc., 1989), xxxiv-xxxv.

[22] Margaret Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” in Women’s Bible Commentary, revised and updated, third edition, Carol A. Newsom, Sharon H. Ringe, Jacqueline E. Lapsley, editors (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2012), 536. 

[23] Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” 536; Richard I. Pervo, Acts: A Commentary, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009), 29.

[24] Hans Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, James Limburg, A. Thomas Kraabel, and Donald H. Juel, translators, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1987), 3. 

[25] Mikeal Parsons, Acts, Paideia Commentaries on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2008), 15; cf. Daniel Marguerat, The First Christian Historian: Writing the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 26-30.

[26] Barbara Shellard, New Light on Luke: Its Purpose, Sources and Literary Context (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2002), 17.

[27] Parsons, Acts, 15.

[28] Pervo, Acts, 18.

[29] Christy Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power in Luke-Acts and Other Ancient Narratives (Cham, Switzerland: Palgrave MacMillan, 2019), 16.

[30] Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power, 42

[31] Cobb, Slavery, Gender, Truth, and Power, 45.

[32] Parsons, Acts, 15.

[33] E.g., Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2004), 255-260; Josh McDowell and Sean McDowell, Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Life-Changing Truth for a Skeptical World, updated and expanded (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 2017), 86-89.

[34] E.g., Henry J. Cadbury, “Lexical Notes on Luke-Acts I,” Journal of Biblical Literature, vol. 44 no. 3/4 (1925), 214-227; cf. Marguerat, The First Christian Historian, 43.

[35] James D.G. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996), 10-11.

[36] Daniel R. Schwartz, “Paul in the Canonical Book of Acts,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, 189.

[37] Cf. Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 45.

[38] Harrill, Paul the Apostle, 98.

[39] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, third edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2003), 62-63.

[40] Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 63.

[41] Mary Joan Winn Leith, “Israel among the Nations: The Persian Period,” in The Oxford History of the Biblical World, Michael D. Coogan, editor (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998), 277.

[42] Paula Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans Apostle (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2017), 82.

[43] Luke Timothy Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, Sacra Pagina (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1992), 140.

[44] Pervo, Acts, 630; cf. Parsons, Acts, 341.

[45] Charles Talbert, Reading Acts: A Literary and Theological Commentary, revised edition (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2005), 74.

[46] Cf. Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 159.

[47] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 162; Pervo, Acts, 240.

[48] Erich S. Gruen, Diaspora: Jews Amidst Greeks and Romans (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 106.

[49] Against the image of Paul’s traveling companions as some kind of police escort, Ernst Haenchen (The Acts of the Apostles: A Commentary, Bernard Noble and Gerald Shinn, translators [Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1971], 322n5) writes that “[t]o imagine Paul roving outside Judaea with a squad of Jerusalem temple-police is enough to place this hypothesis in the realm of fantasy.”

[50] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 322.

[51] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 164.

[52] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 72.

[53] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 164.

[54] Conzelmann, Acts of the Apostles, 72. Parsons (Acts, 129) provides examples of this motif in ancient literature.

[55] Parsons, Acts, 129.

[56] Fredriksen, Paul: The Pagans’ Apostle, 82.

[57] Parsons, Acts, 134.

[58] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 332.

[59] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 75.

[60] D and others read apo.

[61] P74 and others read ex.

[62] For an overview, see Bruce M. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the New Testament, second edition (Stuttgart: German Bible Society, 1994), 350-352.

[63] On Paul’s two names in the Acts of the Apostles, see the classic article by G.A. Harrier entitled “Saul Who Also Is Called Paul,” Harvard Theological Review, vol. 33 no. 1 (January 1940), 19-33. See also Martin Hengel, The Pre-Christian Paul, John Bowden, translator (London: SCM Press, 1991), 105n73-106; Margaret Aymer, “Acts of the Apostles,” Women’s Bible Commentary, 543.

[64] Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, 195.

[65] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 115.

[66] Schwartz, “Paul in the Canonical Book of Acts,” in The Writings of St. Paul: A Norton Critical Edition, 188.

[67] Talbert, Reading Acts, 128.

[68] Talbert, Reading Acts, 128.

[69] See Parsons, Acts, 208-209.

[70] Talbert, Reading Acts, 129.

[71] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 115; cf. Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 442-443.

[72] Talbert, Reading Acts, 130.

[73] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 447.

[74] Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 263.

[75] Conzelmann, The Acts of the Apostles, 117; cf. Dunn, The Acts of the Apostles, 203.

[76] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 447.

[77] On the modifications made to the text, see Johnson, The Acts of the Apostles, 265.

[78] Talbert, Reading Acts, 131.

[79] Talbert, Reading Acts, 133. Dunn (The Acts of the Apostles, 204) states that “the Noahide laws…became the basis for association.” 

[80] Haenchen, The Acts of the Apostles, 474.

Some Recent Pieces on Cush and the Cushites

“Can Ethiopians change their skin or leopards their spots?”
– Jeremiah 13:23a, NRSV

In December I came across three pieces discussing the subject of biblical Cush and the Cushites. The word “Cush” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word kûš, a term used a couple of dozen times in the Hebrew Bible. An individual from Cush is kûšî, another term that shows up a couple of dozen times in the Jewish scriptures. But who were the Cushites and where was Cush? In “Representing Cush in the Hebrew Bible,” Kevin Burrell notes that “[t]he vast majority of references to Cush as a geographical region denote the African land on the southern border of ancient Egypt, known most commonly today as Nubia.”[1] In that piece, Burrell goes on to describe the various ways in which Cushites/Nubians are represented in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Isaiah 18:2 (NRSV) describes them as “tall and smooth” and Jeremiah 13:23 depicts them as having distinctive skin. Moreover, he notes that “Cushites appear predominantly in military contexts” and are thus seen “as a martial nation,” a reputation attested to in other ancient Near Eastern depictions.[2]

Cush is also the subject of another article Burrell wrote for ASOR back in December.[3] There Burrell goes over much of the same material he covered in his piece for BAR but there are helpful maps and charts that readers may be interested in. 

Finally, Reginald O’Donaghue wrote a piece over at his blog in December asking the question, where was biblical Cush?[4] O’Donaghue’s focus is specifically on the reference to Cush found in Genesis 2:13 and the otherwise unattested Gihon River. He thinks that the Gihon River is something akin to the cosmic sea found in various ANE mythologies since it is said to encompass Cush, “very strange for a normal river, but exactly what we would expect for a cosmic sea.”[5]

[1] Kevin Burrell, “Representing Cush in the Hebrew Bible,” Biblical Archaeological Review, vol. 46 no 5 (Winter 2020), 62. 

[2] Kevin Burrell, “Representing Cush in the Hebrew Bible,” 64.

[3] Kevin Burrell, “The Cushites: Race and Representation in the Hebrew Bible,”

[4] Reginald O’Donaghue, “The Location of Biblical Cush” (12.3.20),

[5] Cf. Rodney Steven Sadler, Jr., Can a Cushite Change His Skin? (New York: T&T Clark, 2005), 23-25.

Featured image: Mary Harrsch (Wikimedia Commons)

Evangelical Eisegesis: A Dalliance with Daniel #3 – Belshazzar, Nebuchadnezzar, and Nitocris


In the narrative arc of the book of Daniel, the Neo-Babylonian monarch Nebuchadnezzar II is heavily featured in the first four chapters. By ch. 5, he is no longer king of Babylon and instead Belshazzar sits on the throne. The impression one gets from reading Daniel 4-5 is that the monarch that immediately preceded Belshazzar was Nebuchadnezzar, an impression strengthened by the familial language used to relate Nebuchadnezzar with Belshazzar: Nebuchadnezzar is Belshazzar’s “father’ (Aramaic, ʾab; vv. 2, 11 [2x]) and Belshazzar is Nebuchadnezzar’s “son” (Aramaic, bar; v. 22). Historically, this is problematic. 

One problem is that of succession. According to the Uruk King List, a list of monarchs that reigned over the city of Babylon, Nebuchadnezzar was succeeded by Amel-marduk, not Belshazzar.[1] Moreover, there is no Belshazzar mentioned on the list. This succession is also implied by a stele purportedly containing the words of Adad-guppi, the mother of Nabonidus.[2] Again, there is no mention of a Belshazzar. The Deuteronomistic Historian, writing sometime in the fifth or sixth centuries BCE, names Evil-merodach (i.e., Amel-marduk) as Babylonian king, implying that he succeeded Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:27).[3] Thus, if the Danielic author is implying in his narrative that Belshazzar was monarch immediately following Nebuchadnezzar, he is doubly wrong: the immediate successor of Nebuchadnezzar was Amel-marduk, and Belshazzar is not mentioned as a king of Babylon. 

Another problem is familial. In a prayer to the god Sin, Nabonidus requests that the moon deity “instill reverence” for his ancestral god in “Belshazzar, the eldest son my offspring.”[4] In another text, an interpretation of a dream found on a clay tablet, the author refers to “Nabonidus, king of Babylon, my lord” and to “Belshazzar, the son of the king, my lord.”[5] Neither of these texts, nor any extant, refer to Belshazzar as the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar. Instead, Belshazzar is always connected to Nabonidus. Thus, if the Danielic author is suggesting that Belshazzar was the actual son of Nebuchadnezzar, he is undoubtedly wrong. 

“Son” as “Descendent” 

In a recent piece over at her website,[6] business professor and Christian pop-apologist SJ Thomason contends that when the book of Daniel refers to Belshazzar as the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar that what is intended is something else entirely. She writes, “The Aramaic term for son can be used to describe a male in a person’s lineage. Compare this with the reference to Jesus as the ‘Son of David’ even though He is many generations down the lineage of David.” Thus, in describing Belshazzar as the son of Nebuchadnezzar, the author of the book of Daniel is implying that he belongs to Nebuchadnezzar’s lineage. Moreover, Thomason writes that when referring to Nebuchadnezzar as Belshazzar’s father, it is not necessarily the case that he means father since “the Aramaic word for father (‘ab’) can also refer to grandfather, great grandfather, ancestor, predecessor, etc.” 

For this logic to work, Belshazzar must be in some way physically related to Nebuchadnezzar. That is, they must share some genetic link. After all, even Jesus’ status as “Son of David” is bolstered by the Matthean and Lukan genealogies that trace his lineage back to the famous king of the united Israelite monarchy (Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 3:23-38; cf. Mark 10:47-48; Romans 1:3). The connection, per Thomason, is to be found in a woman named Nitocris. 

Belshazzar was the heir, descendent, and eventual successor to the throne through Nebuchadnezzar’s daughter, Nitocris. Archaeological findings have confirmed that Nabonidus is the father of Belshazzar. Historians in the Boston Museum have noted that Nabonidus was married to Nitocris.[7]

As the business professor goes on to note, Nitocris is mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus in relation to an individual named Labynetus. Undoubtedly, “Labynetus” refers to Nabonidus, though the name is a Hellenized form of his name,[8] not “Roman” as Thomason claims. More importantly, Thomason fails to note that a Babylonian queen named Nitocris is attested to only in Herodotus, and it is not without its difficulties. 


In Herodotus’ Histories, there are actually two women who go by the name Nitocris: a Babylonian queen mentioned in 1.185-188 and an Egyptian one mentioned in 2.100. It is, of course, the former with which we must concern ourselves. To preface his discussion of Nitocris, Herodotus explains in 1.184 that while there were a number of Babylonian kings who were responsible for the “design and ornamentation of the walls and sanctuaries of Babylon,”[9] there were also two queens, separated from one another by five generations. The first he mentions is Semiramis who was responsible for “the remarkable dykes on the plain” that prevented severe flooding from the Euphrates.[10] “Semiramis,” historian Amélie Kuhrt writes, “evokes the Assyrian queen-regent, Shammuramat, active in the late eighth century [BCE], which fits [Herodotus’] chronological scheme.”[11] Semiramis was a character of legendary proportions. According to Ctesias, another Greek historian roughly contemporary with Herodotus, Semiramis was the daughter of a Syrian goddess (F1b. Diodorus 4.3). In Ctesias’ scheme, it is Semiramis who was responsible for the founding of the city of Babylon, attributable to the fact that she “was extremely ambitious by nature and eager to surpass the reputation of the man who had ruled before her” (F1b. Diodorus 7.2).[12] It is likely true that Semiramis was ambitious, but it is untrue that she founded Babylon as the earliest mention of the city can be traced to the late third millennium BCE,[13] long before the era of Semiramis. As Paul-Alain Beaulieu observes, “There is no basis for [Ctesias’] tale, as for almost every alleged historical fact reported by Ctesias concerning Assyria and Babylon.”[14]

Semiramis’ connection to Babylon seems dubious, though some aspects of Herodotus’ description of her may have historical verisimilitude.[15] We are able to connect Semiramis to a historical person quite easily, recognizing that “Semiramis” is a Hellenized form of “Shammuramat.” But what of Nitocris? As I already mentioned, Herodotus’ Histories contains two powerful women named Nitocris, one of which was an Egyptian. Space does not permit a full treatment of that Nitocris who must have predated her Babylonian counterpart by well over a millennium, but Alan Loyd in his commentary on Book Two of the Histories speculates that Nitocris is the Hellenized version of the Egyptian Nt-íkr.tì, a name that “was particularly common in the Late Period” of Egyptian history in which Herodotus writes.[16] If Labynetus was the Hellenized version of the Akkadian Nabonidus, Semiramis the Hellenized form of the Assyrian Shammuramat, and Nitocris the Hellenized form of the Egyptian Nt-íkr.tì, for what Babylonian name is this Nitocris the Hellenized version?

Nitocris: A Queen Par Excellence 

As we will discuss momentarily, Herodotus envisions Nitocris as the mother of the last king of Babylon, the one against whom “Cyrus’ strike was launched” (1.188). Prior to his ascending to power, Cyrus’ homeland of Persia had been under control of the Medes (1.102). It was during the reign of Astyages that Cyrus led a revolt, overthrowing the Median king and bring the Medes under Persian dominance (1.127-130). But the Medes had been a superpower in their own right and so Herodotus notes that Nitocris “noticed the size and restlessness of the Median empire,” ever mindful that impressive cities like the Assyrian metropolis of Ninus (i.e., Nineveh) had fallen to them (1.185) Consequently, Herodotus tells us, Nitocris prepared Babylon for a possible incursion, giving the city a “thorough defensive system” (1.186). 

The first thing that Nitocris did was to redirect the flow of the Euphrates River such that any assault by ship would be laborious and time consuming. As he notes here and in 1.180, Babylon was bisected by the Euphrates, and so an enemy coming down the river would have easy access to either district of the city. Nitocris purportedly remedied the situation by digging channels to the north of the city that made the normally straight river crooked. In addition to this, she raised the embankments along the river which, Herodotus interjects, “is well worth seeing for its bulk and height.” Finally, to the north of the city she had a lake created with a pavement surrounding it. Though Herodotus doesn’t make explicit for what the lake was intended (he may not have known),[17] it was perhaps intended to be filled with water that could be released as a deluge should enemies invade.[18]

It is clear from reading this section on Nitocris in the Histories that Herodotus greatly admires the woman: she was “a more intelligent ruler than her predecessor” (1.185). However, the description of her achievements is questionable. For example, Nebuchadnezzar II was responsible for various waterworks, including beginning work on the Royal Canal, sometimes referred to as Nebuchadnezzar’s Canal, that linked the Euphrates and Tigris Rivers. In addition to this, he built the Median Wall north of the canal and Babylon.[19] Moreover, he was apparently behind the creation of a water reservoir that could supply water for crops and flood the region in the event of an enemy incursion.[20] Could it be that Herodotus is attributing to Nitocris the achievements of Nebuchadnezzar?[21]

Another issue has to do with her relationship to Labynetus. According to 1.188, Nitocris is the mother of Labynetus and it was against him that Cyrus waged war. If Labynetus is Nabonidus then we have a problem. As I discussed previously, on a stele purportedly containing the words of Nabonidus’ mother she refers to herself as Adad-guppi, not Nitocris. Further, the implication of 1.188 is that Nitocris was married to the king of Babylon also named Labynetus, from whom the current Labynetus had received his name “and had succeeded to the Assyrian kingdom.” However, not only was Nabonidus’ father’s name not Labynetus,[22] his father was not a king! Historian Amanda Podany writes, “Nabonidus did not refer to his father as a king, because he was not one…. His surprising success at taking power was, he believed, ordained by Sin, the moon god, and foretold in a dream.”[23] Additionally, none of the achievements attributed to Nitocris by Herodotus are found in any description of Adad-guppi extant. Finally, an addendum to Adad-guppi’s stele claims that upon her death Nabonidus placed her “in a hidden tomb.” Herodotus, however, writes that Nitocris “had a tomb built for herself over the busiest city gates, in a prominent place right about the actual gates” (1.187). That is, it was not hidden at all. While it isn’t entirely clear where Herodotus got his story about Nitocris, it is clear that whoever she is she cannot be Adad-guppi, the mother of Nabonidus. 

Nitocris: Mother of Belshazzar?

Thomason, however, makes no claim that Nitocris was the mother of Nabonidus. Rather, she contends that Nabonidus was married to Nitocris and that the “son” to whom Herodotus refers in 1.188 is actually Belshazzar, Nabonidus’ son. Moreover, Thomason asserts that Belshazzar could be considered the “son” of Nebuchadnezzar because his mother, Nitocris, was his daughter thereby making Belshazzar a descendant. 

Thomason provides no support for the claim that Nitocris was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar. She certainly didn’t get it from Herodotus. In his commentary on Daniel, John Collins notes that some have suggested “Nabonidus might have married a daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, as Neriglissar had done, but this is mere speculation, unsupported by any evidence.”[24] In truth, it looks like Thomason got it from an entry on,[25] a site to which she frequently appeals. An examination of that piece reveals no source for its claim regarding Nitocris’ relationship to Nebuchadnezzar. To reiterate Collins, it is “mere speculation, unsupported by the evidence.” 

What of the claim that Herodotus refers to Belshazzar in 1.188 and not Nabonidus? This view has had its proponents, including historian Paul-Alain Beaulieu. In his work on Nabonidus, Beaulieu proposes that the “son” of 1.188 is the product of Nabonidus and Nitocris and therefore Belshazzar.[26] One of his reasons for thinking so is because he views the references to Labynetus in 1.74 and 1.77 as being about Nabonidus. But this is not at all certain and some scholars recognize the possibility that the Labynetus of 1.74 is none other than Nebuchadnezzar II.[27] Because of this possibility, Kuhrt suggests that Labynetus is “a portmanteau name for all Babylonian kings.”[28] Thus, both Nabonidus and his father as well as Nebuchadnezzar could all be called by Herodotus “Labynetus.” 

For the sake of argument, let’s assume that Herodotus is referring to Belshazzar in 1.188. Is Herodotus getting the history correct here? Was it against Belshazzar that Cyrus waged war? Doubtless, no. Historical sources indicate that Nabonidus had left Babylon during the third year of his reign and made his way west, spending a number of years in the city of Tema.[29] During this time, he left Belshazzar in charge, referred to as “the crown prince.” Beaulieu notes that sometime around 543 Nabonidus returned to Babylon and Belshazzar’s role as regent ceased. Four years later, Cyrus began his invasion into Babylonia and in October of 539 Babylon fell to the Persians. But who was the monarch reigning in Babylon at this time? Nabonidus. In fact, one ancient text asserts that it was the Babylonian god Marduk himself who caused Babylon to fall to Cyrus and for Nabonidus to be “delivered into [Cyrus’] hands” because Nabonidus “did not worship him.”[30] Thus, if Herodotus was asserting that Belshazzar was the one against whom Cyrus directed his war, he is undoubtedly wrong. 

That Herodotus is wrong is unsurprising to historians. Herodotus’ claims are often contradicted by archaeological and historiographical findings. With regards to Babylon specifically, Kuhrt explains: 

Babylon was never ruled by a queen: Nitocris cannot be accommodated into our fairly full picture of Babylonia’s history….The palace of Babylon lay fairly close to the central temples, not on the other side of the river; the city was enormous (c. 850 ha.) but nowhere near the size envisaged by Herodotus; it had eight gates no a hundred; the ziggurat did not have a spiral ascent; ill people were not displayed in public squares; girls were neither auctioned off nor prostituted to earn their dowries; nowhere in the quite dense documentation do we hear of women being compelled to have intercourse with random passersby as part of a cult. The two images – Herodotean and Babylonian – cannot be easily harmonized, and attempts to do so remain methodologically questionable.[31]


It is therefore very likely Herodotus was wrong about Nitocris. As evidence for Thomason’s views, Herodotus offers no viable support. If the “son” of Nitocris in 1.188 is Nabonidus, Herodotus is wrong both about her name and her history. If the reference is instead to Belshazzar, he is wrong about who was king of Babylon when Cyrus invaded. Either way, Herodotus fails to make the case for Thomason that she thinks he does. 

We must also keep in mind that Herodotus is our only evidence for a Babylonian queen named Nitocris. While Thomason asserts that she was the daughter of Nebuchadnezzar, Herodotus never makes such a claim and to my knowledge there is no other extant source that does. Thomason would do well to either support her claim with evidence or retract it. But alas, to do the former would require an actual interest in conducting research; to do the latter would require an interest in honesty.

Thomason, unfortunately, has no interest in either.  

[1] See “The Uruk King List from Kandalanu to Seleucus II,” A. Leo Oppenheim, translator, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, James B. Pritchard, editor, third edition with supplement (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1969), 566.

[2] See “The Mother of Nabonidus,” A. Leo Oppenheim, translator, in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 561; cf. C. J. Gadd, “The Harran Inscriptions of Nabonidus,” Anatolian Studies, vol. 8 (1958), 47, 69. 

[3] There is an implicit contrast made in the text of 2 Kings 25 between the harsh treatment of Nebuchadnezzar of Judean captives and the gentler treatment of Evil-merodach. According to v. 27, it is in the first year of Evil-merodach’s reign that he releases Jehoiachin of Judah from prison. It is therefore a change in regime that explains this change in treatment. This suggests that the Deuteronomistic Historian knew that Evil-merodach succeeded Nebuchadnezzar for the throne of Babylon. Cf. Walter Brueggemann, 1 & 2 Kings, Smyth and Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon, GA: Smyth and Helwys Publishing Inc., 2000), 605-606.

[4] Translation taken from Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “Nabonidus’ Rebuilding of E-lugal-galga-sisa, The Ziggurat of Ur (2.1123B),” in The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, William W. Hallo, editor (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2:314.

[5] Translation taken from “Dream Portending Favor for Nabonidus and Belshazzar,” in Albert T. Clay, Miscellaneous Inscriptions in the Yale Babylonian Collection, Yale Oriental Series – Babylonian Texts Vol. 1 (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1915), 55. 

[6] SJ Thomason, “Daniel in the Lion’s Den: Belshazzar, Nabonidus, and Nebuchadnezzar” (1.3.21),

[7] Because Thomason does not provide a citation for her claim regarding historians at the Boston Museum, I attempted to track it down myself but couldn’t find it. I did, however, find something on Nitocris at the Brooklyn Museum which can be viewed here. The entry is problematic and so my hope is that someone who holds a PhD would not think that such a site is credible enough to bolster their argument. But alas, I’ve been let down by Thomason before. 

[8] David Asheri, “Book I,” in A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV, Oswyn Murray and Alfonso Moreno, editors (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 135.

[9] Translation taken from Herodotus, The Histories, Robin Waterfield, translator (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). Unless otherwise noted, all translations of the Histories are from Waterfield’s translation. 

[10] Such flooding may have partly been the inspiration behind the Deluge tales found in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the biblical story of Noah found in Genesis 6-9. Cf. David R. Montgomery, The Rocks Don’t Lie: A Geologist Investigates Noah’s Flood (New York: W.W. Norton, 2012), 153; Irving Finkel, The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood (New York: Anchor Books, 88.

[11] Amélie Kuhrt, “Babylon,” in Brill’s Companion to Herodotus, Egbert J. Bakker, Irene J.F. de Jong, and Hans van Wees, editors (Leiden: Brill, 2002), 496.

[12] Translation taken from Ctesias’ History of Persia: Tales of the Orient, Lloyd Llewellyn-Jones and James Robson, editors (New York: Routledge, 2010).

[13] Paul-Alain Beaulieu, A History of Babylon: 2200 BC – AD 75 (Medford, MA: John Wiley & Sons Ltd., 2018), 50-51.

[14] Beaulieu, A History of Babylon, 2. This should not be taken to mean that Semiramis was of no historical consequence. Marc Van De Mieroop (A History of the Ancient Near East: ca. 3000-323 BC, second edition [Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007], 244-245) notes that “she remained so influential in the reign of her son Adad-nirari III (ruled 810-783) that official inscriptions mentioned the two as acting together.” Cf. Sarah C. Melville, “Royal Women and the Exercise of Power in the Ancient Near East,” in A Companion to the Ancient Near East, Daniel Snell, editor (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 223.

[15] Asheri, “Book I,” 204.

[16] Alan Lloyd, “Book II,” in A Commentary on Herodotus Books I-IV, 312; cf. Robin Waterfield, “Explanatory Notes,” in Herodotus, The Histories, Robin Waterfield, translator, 624.

[17] Asheri, “Book I,” 205.

[18] Asheri, “Book I,” 205.

[19] Beaulieu, A History of Babylon, 232.

[20] Asheri, “Book I,” 204-205.

[21] Robin Waterfield, “Explanatory Notes,” in Herodotus, The Histories, Robin Waterfield, translator, 612.

[22] According to the Sippar Cylinder of Nabonidus, his father’s name was “Nabû-balāssu-iqbi, the wise prince, the worshipper of the great gods.” See Paul-Alain Beaulieu, “The Sippar Cylinder of Nabonidus (2.123A),” in The Context of Scripture: Canonical Compositions from the Biblical World, William W. Hallo, editor (Leiden: Brill, 2003), 2:310-311. 

[23] Amanda H. Podany, The Ancient Near East: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 114.

[24] John J. Collins, Daniel: A Commentary on the Book of Daniel, Hermeneia Commentary Series (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1993), 32.

[25] “Who was Belshazzar?”

[26] Paul-Alain Beaulieu, The Reign of Nabonidus: King of Babylon 556-539 B.C. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1989), 80-81.

[27] Asheri, “Book I,” 135.

[28] Kuhrt, “Babylon,” 486.

[29] See A. Leo Oppenheim, “Text from the Accession Year of Nabonidus to the Fall of Babylon,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 306.

[30] See A. Leo Oppenheim, “Cyrus,” in Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, 315-316. Nabonidus was devoted to the god Sin, not Marduk. 

[31] Kuhrt, “Babylon,” 495-496.

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