A Recent Article on Canaanite DNA

Canaanite Article

A recent journal article published in the American Journal of Human Genetics has made headlines in the last couple of days because of the implications that its findings might have for the historical accuracy of the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible.[1] The article is basically a report about five genomes that were sequenced from bones that are approximately 3700 years old from the Canaanite city of Sidon in modern-day Lebanon. These genomes were then compared to the genome sequencing of 99 modern-day people from Lebanon. The results, at least for the researchers, were quite surprising: modern-day people from Lebanon are mostly descended from the Canaanite population who inhabited the same area in biblical times.

For anyone who knows the history of this region, these findings should not have been surprising. However, the authors of this article presented their findings as though they should be surprising, at least to those who are familiar with what the Bible has to say about the Canaanites.  Partway through the article, the authors included a very curious statement – at least from the perspective of a biblical scholar – about what the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible has to say about the Canaanites. It says:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.[2]

It was this statement that caught the attention of the media and caused this article to make headlines in the last couple of days. Take, for example, the article by Nicholas St. Fleur in The New York Times. This is how the article opens:

There is a story in the Hebrew Bible that tells of God’s call for the annihilation of the Canaanites, a people who lived in what are now Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Israel and the Palestinian territories thousands of years ago. “You shall not leave alive anything that breathes,” God said in the passage. “But you shall utterly destroy them.” But a genetic analysis published on Thursday has found that the ancient population survived that divine call for their extinction, and their descendants live in modern Lebanon.[3]

When I first read this article and glanced at a few other articles that basically said the same thing, I assumed that they misinterpreted something that was said in the original study. But then I read the statement from the original article that was quoted above and saw that there was no mistake: the reason why these articles were framed the way they were (i.e. the Bible is wrong because the Canaanites actually did survive) is because of the line quoted from the article above. So, in one sense, it is hard to blame articles like the one from The New York Times. On the other hand, a little bit of research or a quick phone call to a biblical scholar would have cleared up any confusion that was caused by the original article.

Let’s take a look at that statement again:

Uncertainties also surround the fate of the Canaanites: the Bible reports the destruction of the Canaanite cities and the annihilation of its people; if true, the Canaanites could not have directly contributed genetically to present-day populations.

But does the Bible actually say that the Canaanites were completely annihilated? And would the Bible lead one to believe that the Canaanites would have made no genetic contributions to the present-day population of Lebanon or elsewhere? The answer to these questions is a complete and unequivocal “no”.

There are four main problems with the statement that was made in the article:

(a) First, the Old Testament makes it clear that the people of Israel did not, in fact, destroy all of the cities of the Canaanites or annihilate all of their people. A quick look at Judges 1, for example, shows that the Israelites weren’t able to conquer large chunks of the land of Canaan. Over and over again it says that the people of Israel failed to drive out the inhabitants of the land. And even when they did gain the upper hand in terms of power, they were only able to subject many of the Canaanites to forced labour: but they weren’t able to destroy them and they weren’t able to drive them out of the land. So the article is completely mistaken when it says that, according to the Bible, the cities of the Canaanites were completely destroyed and that the Canaanites themselves were completely annihilated.

(b) Second, the city of Sidon lies outside of the area that was conquered by the people of Israel. A common phrase in the Old Testament or Hebrew Bible to describe the entirety of the land of Israel is the phrase, “from Dan to Beersheba”. Geographically, Beersheba lies at the very bottom of the land of Israel (i.e. in the south) while Dan lies at the very top (i.e. in the north). Sidon, however, is located northwest of Dan: it was not part of the land of Israel. So even if the Israelites had annihilated the Canaanites in territories it conquered, the people of Sidon would not have been included in that number.

(c) Third, the Old Testament is quite clear about the fact that the Sidonians continued to live and prosper long after the Israelites settled in the land of Canaan. In fact, according to 1 Kings 5:6, the Sidonians provided the timber for Solomon’s temple and apparently had friendly relations with both David and Solomon. According to Ezra 3:7, the people of Sidon also provided timber for the Second Temple hundreds of years later. So there is no reason from a biblical perspective to think that Canaanites from Sidon could not have contributed genetically to modern-day people from Lebanon.

(d) Fourth, as anyone familiar with ancient Near Eastern history should know, the Phoenicians, who were famous among other things for their maritime empire and the invention of the alphabet, were, in fact, Canaanites from the region around Sidon. In fact, the Carthaginians/Punics from the Punic Wars with Rome were descended from the Phoenicians. Punic is simply a dialect of Phoenician/Canaanite. The name Hannibal, which is quite familiar to anyone who knows Roman history, is actually a Canaanite name meaning “Baal is gracious”. The reason why this is important to know is because in Mark 7:24-30, Jesus is confronted by a Syrophoenician woman from the region of Tyre (in Matthew 15:22 she is simply called a Canaanite!). The NRSV is right in translating Mark 7:26 this way: “Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin.” So the New Testament itself makes it clear that the people who were living in what is now modern-day Lebanon were descendants of the Canaanites/Phoenicians.

So this article is simply mistaken when it says that, according to the biblical account, the Canaanites were completely wiped out and that, from a biblical perspective, they could not have made a genetic contribution to modern-day people from Lebanon. Instead of making the Bible look silly, the authors of this article and every other article that was based on it only succeeded in making themselves look silly. A little bit of research, on the part of the authors of the original article or on the part of the authors who based their work on this article would have gone a long way.[4]

(Postscript #1 – I forget where I saw this but I’m pretty sure that I saw one comment somewhere that said something like, “I guess the people of Sodom did survive!” I wasn’t totally sure where they got this from until I realized that they probably mistook Sidon for Sodom. Place palm on face and shake head….)

(Postscript #2 – The value of these findings, at least from my perspective, is to dispel the popular belief that everyone in the Middle East who speaks Arabic is ethnically Arab.  While this is something that should have been known without the findings of this article, the findings of this article certainly help to dispel this myth.  If I were writing an online article for a newspaper or magazine based on the findings of this study, this is the part that I would have focused on.  I definitely would have made the connection with the biblical Canaanites, but not to show that there was something wrong with the biblical accounts.)

Mark Steven Francois

[1] Haber et al., “Continuity and Admixture in the Last Five Millennia of Levantine History from Ancient Canaanite and Present-Day Lebanese Genome Sequences,” The Journal of Human Genetics (2017), http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2017.06.013.

[2] Ibid., 2.

[3] Nicholas St. Fleur, “Fate of Ancient Canaanites Seen in DNA Analysis: They Survived,” The New York Times (July 27, 2017): https://nyti.ms/2tNIYNy.

[4] It should be noted that the article by Kristin Romey on the website for National Geographic (http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2017/07/canaanite-bible-ancient-dna-lebanon-genetics-archaeology.html) did not fall into the same mistake as the original article and the articles that were based on it (“Biblical accounts generally portray Canaanites as the arch-enemies of early Israelites, who eventually conquered Canaanite territory and either exterminated or subjugated its people.”). Romey’s article is certainly less sensational but it is more accurate.

 

Classical Syriac Grammar – Chapter 1 (Estrangela)

Classical Syriac Grammar

In my free time (as a hobby) I am writing a free online grammar for Classical Syriac, which will eventually appear in all three Syriac scripts.  I have just posted chapter 1 of the grammar in the Estrangela script (https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/).  Three of the practice sheets for this chapter have already been posted – the rest will appear as soon as they are ready.  As always, feel free to download and print as many copies as you would like.  However, please do not alter any of the material, post it to another website, or publish it in any other form.  Thanks!

 

Syriac Alphabet (Estrangela) Tracing Sheets

Syriac Grammar - Aphabet Tracing Sheets - Estrangela

I have just uploaded tracing sheets for the Syriac alphabet (Estrangela) for chapter 1 of the online grammar I am writing and plan to post on this website as the work progresses.  You can find the tracing sheets here under chapter 1: https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/.  Feel free to use them but don’t alter them or republish them in any other format, including other websites.  Enjoy!

 

“Masters Obey Your Slaves?” Craig Keener’s Bizarre Interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9

1. Craig Keener - Masters Obey Your Slaves

I recently came across an article written by Craig Keener that has to do with the implications that Ephesians 5:21 has for Paul’s instructions to slaves and slave owners in Ephesians 6:5-9 (http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/). In Ephesians 6:5, the Apostle Paul tells slaves to obey their masters according to the flesh (i.e. their earthly masters) with fear and trembling and with sincerity of heart. As one could imagine, this would have been a passage that slave owners in the New World would have used quite frequently on their own slaves, invoking the authority of God’s Word to produce obedience in their slaves.

In the introduction to his article, Keener notes that this is precisely the kind of scenario that one reads about quite frequently in slave narratives.  In response to this particular use of this text, Keener says: “What the slaveholders didn’t bother to quote was the context, which goes on to say, ‘masters, do the same things to them’ (6:9). That is, if slaves have to obey their masters, masters also must obey their slaves!”[1] Keener is aware that this would have sounded strange on the ears of many of Paul’s hearers, but notes that this is precisely the point: “Did anyone in the first century take Paul literally on that point? Probably not. But that doesn’t change that what he actually said expressed one of the most radically antislavery sentiments of his day.”[2]

After reading Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:9, I have to admit that it sounds very strange on my ears as well. And there is a very simple reason for that – it’s because Keener’s interpretation goes against the entire thrust of this passage and against the overall context in which this passage is found. It is an example of allowing modern-day values and modern-day concerns to skew the plain sense meaning of the passage when read both in its historical and literary contexts. But, of course, this isn’t something that I can simply assume or assert – the case needs to be argued from the passage itself.

But before we can get into why Keener’s interpretation of this passage isn’t really plausible, we need to ask what arguments led Keener to come to this conclusion. Based on what we can see in this article, there are two main reasons why Keener came to this conclusion:

(a) The first reason has to do with Keener’s understanding of Ephesians 5:21, which says, “[Watch carefully how you live your life]…submitting to one another in the fear of Christ.”[3] According to Keener, this means that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 (i.e. husbands and wives, children and parents, and slaves and slave owners) are being told that they need to submit to each other in each of these relationships. In other words, wives are supposed to submit to their husbands but husbands, by the same token, are also supposed to submit to their wives. In the same way, slaves are supposed to submit to their masters but masters are also supposed to submit to their slaves.

(b) The second reason has to do with the wording of the instructions that are given to Christian slave owners in Ephesians 6:9, which says, “And masters, do the same things to them” (Καὶ οἱ κύριοι, τὰ αὐτὰ ποιεῖτε πρὸς αὐτούς). Accodring to Keener’s understanding of this passage, “the same things” refers to the command in 6:5 for slaves to obey their earthly masters: just as slaves are supposed to obey and submit to their earthly masters, earthly masters are supposed to obey and submit to their slaves.”

So what should we say about Keener’s interpretation of this passage?

There are at least two main problems with Keener’s interpretation of this passage:

(a) First, Keener’s interpretation of this passage is based, at least in part, on a very poor interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Like we saw earlier, on Keener’s reading of this passage, Paul is telling the various groups listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 to submit to each other in their respective relationships, with each party submitting to the other party. While this certainly would be a plausible interpretation if we only had verse 21, everything that Paul has to say in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 argues against this understanding of this passage.

A much better understanding of Ephesians 5:21 is that Paul wanted believers to submit to other members of the church who had rightful authority over them.[4] “Submitting to one another in the fear of Christ,” doesn’t mean that each of the parties listed in Ephesians 5:22-6:9 should submit to the corresponding party listed in the passage; it means that believers should submit to the corresponding party that is in authority over them.

How do we know that this is the case? Let’s start off with the least controversial reason. In Ephesians 6:1-4, which Keener only mentions at the very end of his article, it says that children are supposed to obey their parents. Paul even quotes one of the Ten Commandments to prove this point. But Paul never says that parents are supposed to obey or even submit to their children. This would be absurd! Even Keener, at the end of his article, says, “Also, there is much less mutual submission in the instruction to fathers: children do need guidance.”[5] This is an incredible understatement, which shows the weakness of his interpretation of Ephesians 5:21. Parents are not supposed to submit to their children. Parents are not supposed to obey their children. What does it say instead? It says that fathers shouldn’t make their kids angry or resentful but should raise them in the teaching and instruction of the Lord. Children are supposed to obey their parents; but fathers need to make sure that they don’t abuse the authority that God has given them over their children. What is Paul doing in this passage?  He is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instruction to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused and that it is exercised in a Christ-like way.  This is the pattern that we will see in each of the other pairs of relationships as well.

The second least controversial reason (believe it or not!) for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken is because in Ephesians 6:5-9, Paul tells slaves to obey their earthly masters, as one would expect in that historical context, but he never tells Christian slave owners to obey their slaves. He never tells Christian slave owners to submit to their slaves. What does he tell slave owners to do? He tells them to stop threatening their slaves because their Master in heaven, both the slave’s and theirs, doesn’t play favourites, which is likely a veiled threat of God’s judgment if they treat their slaves too harshly. What is Paul doing in this passage? Just like in the instructions he gave to children and parents, he is indicating which party should submit to the other and then gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority is not abused.

But what about Paul’s words at the beginning of verse 9 (“And masters, do the same things to them”)? As we saw earlier, Keener understands this as a command for masters to submit to their slaves. But this is hardly plausible given the pattern that we saw in Ephesians 6:1-4, the inherent nature of the master-slave relationship, and the instructions that actually come after these words in the second part of verse 9. In the second part of verse 9, Paul simply tells Christian slave owners to stop threatening their slaves. He doesn’t tell them to submit to them or to obey them, which would make no sense in this context. So what does “the same things” refer to? Based on the clear connections between the second part of verse 9 and the instructions given to the slaves earlier, “the same things” clearly refers to seeing Christ as your master (vv. 6-7, 9), doing the will of God from your heart (v. 6), and serving with the knowledge that the Lord will reward everyone for whatever good they have done, whether slave or free (v. 8). It clearly does not refer to masters obeying their slaves.  (This point actually answers the main issue being dealt with in this post but, for now, it is simply evidence that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is mistaken.)

The third, and most controversial reason, for why Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is implausible is because in Ephesians 5:22-33, wives are told to submit to their husbands but husbands are never told to submit to their wives. Keener acknowledges this point but dismisses it: “Some object, ‘But submission is explicit only for the wife!’ Ah, but the command to love is explicit only for the husband (5:25). Yet we understand that all Christians should love another (5:2), and that all Christians should submit to one another (5:21).”[6] But Keener’s objection, however, fails to take into account the context of Ephesians 5:22-33. While it is true that all Christians are supposed to love each other (Eph. 5:2), Keener completely misses the function of 5:25 in this context. As we saw in the other two examples, Paul starts off by listing the party that needs to submit to the other party. Next, he gives instructions to the party in authority to make sure that that authority isn’t abused and that they exercise it in a Christ-like manner. The instructions in this section aren’t simply interchangeable: they follow a very specific pattern and the differences in the instructions can’t be simply swept aside.  The reason why husbands are not told to submit to their wives is because, according to what Paul has to say in this passage (whether we agree with it or not), God has given husbands a position of authority over their wives.  They are told to love their wives to makes sure that they don’t abuse that authority and to makes sure that they exercise it in a Christ-like way.  (Keep in mind that we are not dealing with how to apply this passage today – we are simply dealing with what Pau is saying in this particular historical context.)

So it is clear that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 is simply mistaken, which means that his understanding of Ephesians 6:9 is also mistaken: Ephesians 5:21 does not mean that slave owners should submit to their slaves.

(b) The second major problem with Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 6:5-9 is that it seems to have been influenced by the need to harmonize Ephesians 6:5-9 (and 5:22-33!) with modern-day values and concerns. What are those modern-day values and concerns? There are two of them: our modern-day disapproval and outrage against slavery and our modern-day dislike for hierarchy in marriage. Again, it is interesting that Keener’s interpretation of Ephesians 5:21 stops short of applying it in any meaningful way to Ephesians 6:1-4. This likely has to do with the fact that there is little modern-day disapproval of parents having authority over their children. But there is a need among many interpreters to make Paul match up with our values and with our concerns when it comes to gender roles and the issue of slavery. There is a need among many interpreters to see Paul as a progressive. Keener even says in this article that Paul was a progressive thinker for his day.

However, from a strictly historical perspective, it is a priori unlikely that Paul was progressive when it came to most social issues.  In other words, our default position should be that Paul was “a man of his times” unless there are very strong reasons to think otherwise.  Ephesians 5:22-33 and 6:5-9 count as evidence to prove this point. Seeing Paul as a progressive when there is every reason to think that he wasn’t seems to me to be the result of an overly theological/normative interpretation of Paul rather than the result of a historical/descriptive interpretation of Paul. Before we deal with what implications these passages might have for our view of husband-wife relationships today or even of master-slave relationships in New World slavery, we need to figure out what Paul meant in his own historical context and then move on from there.

So was Paul telling masters that they should obey or submit to their slaves? Certainly not! This interpretation of Ephesians 6:9 makes no sense in the context of Ephesians 6:5-9 or in the context of Ephesians 5:22-6:9. It also makes no sense Paul’s particular historical/cultural context.  How do we deal with the issue of Paul and slavery? Well…that’s something that we might have to deal with in another post. But, regardless of how strong our opinions might be on slavery or hierarchy in marriage, we can’t deal with these issues by making Paul say something other than what he is actually saying.

Mark Steven Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College

[1] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/

[2] Ibid.

[3] The verb “to submit” in 5:21 is a participle that modifies the verb “to live your life” (περιπατεῖτε) in 5:15. Ephesians 5:21 is giving one specific example of what it means to watch carefully how you live your life. Given the relationship of the verb “to submit” in this passage to the verb “to live your life” in 5:15, translations like the NIV are completely justified in translating it as a command in English.

[4] Note that in this passage, Paul’s wording assumes that the slave owners are also Christians.

[5] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/.

[6] http://www.craigkeener.com/mutual-submission-ephesians-521/.

What is Classical Syriac?

What is Classical Syriac?Note: This post will form part of chapter 1 of a free online Syriac Grammar that I will be writing and posting in stages on Between the Perfect and the Doomed.  Check out https://markfrancois.wordpress.com/syriac-grammar/ for practice sheets and chapters of the grammar as they become available.

What is Classical Syriac?

There are a number of different answers that can be given to the question, “What is Classical Syriac?” depending on the perspective of the person who is either asking or answering the question.

  • For the person interested in ancient Semitic languages, Classical Syriac is a late dialect of Aramaic that was widely used in what is now Southeastern Turkey, Syria, Iraq, and Iran from the beginning of the common era all of the way into the medieval period and beyond.
  • For the person interested in church history, especially in the patristic period, Classical Syriac is a welcome and, in some cases, even a surprising addition to the better known languages of the early church (i.e. Greek and Latin) that were used to produce material that was formative for the life and faith of the Christian church.
  • For the person interested in the rise and spread of Islam or in the history of the Crusades, Classical Syriac is a language that opens up lesser-known resources that are of incredible value for understanding the people, beliefs, and events of these time periods.
  • For members of the Assyrian Church of the East, the Syrian Orthodox Church and others, Classical Syriac is the language used in their Bibles and in the liturgy of their church.[1]
  • For modern-day Assyrians in the Middle East and spread throughout the world through immigration and, in far too many cases, because of war, systematic persecution, and even genocide, Classical Syriac is the ancestral language of their people that, even though not always understood, helps to define them as a people.

Syriac is all of these things and more. But, for this chapter, our focus needs to be on Syriac as a language. What can be said about Syriac from a linguistic perspective?

Classical Syriac as a Language

As was mentioned earlier, Classical Syriac is a dialect of Aramaic. This means that Classical Syriac, along with Hebrew, Phoenician, and other Canaanite dialects, belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages.[2] This means that Syriac, like other dialects of Aramaic, shares a great deal in common with Hebrew, including cognate vocabulary, a similar manner of forming verbs, and other grammatical features. As part of the wider family of Semitic languages, Syriac also shares a great deal in common with Arabic and Akkadian (i.e. the various dialects of Assyrian and Babylonian). This means that Syriac is much easier to learn for someone who already knows the grammar of one of these other languages.

(For speakers of modern dialects of Syriac, it should be kept in mind that words in modern Syriac might not always have the same meaning as the same words in Classical Syriac. For those who know one of these other Semitic languages, it should be kept in mind that cognate words in these other languages do not always have the same meaning in Classical Syriac.)

As a dialect of Aramaic, Classical Syriac is quite similar to Imperial Aramaic (e.g. the Aramaic of Ezra, Daniel, and the Jewish papyri from the Egyptian fortress at Elephantine), both in its vocabulary and structure as a language. Students with a background in Classical Syriac will have a distinct advantage when learning Imperial Aramaic and vice versa. That being said, there was a significant amount of development between Imperial Aramaic and Classical Syriac so the differences between the two phases need to be studied carefully. The closest dialects to Classical Syriac in the Aramaic branch of the Northwest Semitic family are Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Mandaic.[3]

One of the most fascinating things about Syriac as a language is the influence that Greek has had on the language. The traditional areas where Syriac was spoken were taken over by the Macedonian and Greek armies of Alexander the Great and were ruled for centuries by the Greek-speaking Seleucid Empire and the Greek-speaking portion of the Roman Empire.[4] While the dominance of Greek on an everyday level was largely isolated to the Greek-speaking cities of these empires,[5] the Greek language left an incredible mark on the development of Syriac as a language. This can be seen especially in the vocabulary of Syriac, which has many words that are simply taken over directly from Greek (e.g. ܦܪܘܿܠܘܿܓܼܝܲܐ [prōlōgyā] = προλογία [prologia] = prologue; ܐܲܩܘܼܠܘܼܬܼܝܲܐ [’aqūlūtiyā] = ἀκολουθία [akolouthia] = order, sequence).

Thus, in many ways, Syriac is a fusion of several different worlds: the ancient with the classical; the near eastern with the Mediterranean; the Christian with the pre-Christian (both Jewish and pagan); and the Christian with the Islamic. The traces of this fusion have left an unmistakable and indelible mark on both the language and literature of Classical Syriac, which is part of the excitement of studying this language.

Mark Francois, Ph.D. Graduand, The University of St. Michael’s College

[1] For a concise description of the various churches from the Syriac tradition see Sebastian Brock, An Introduction to Syriac Studies (Gorgias Handbooks 4; 2nd ed.; Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2006), 67-78.

[2] Note that Steven C. Hallam, in a recent grammar of classical Syriac, confusedly classifies Classical Syriac as an East Semitic Language (Basics of Classical Syriac [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2016],13). While Classical Syriac certainly was used in the eastern part of what is now known as the Middle East and falls under the category of Eastern Aramaic, as a dialect of Aramaic it clearly belongs to the northwest Semitic family of languages. At present there are only two languages that are classified as East Semitic: Akkadian and Eblaite.  For a discussion of Aramaic in the context of Northwest Semitic languages, see Joseph Fitzmyer, The Semitic Background of the New Testament, Volume 2: A Wandering Aramean: Collected Aramaic Essays (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 63-74.

[3] See Takamitsu Muraoka, Classical Syriac: A Basic Grammar with a Chrestomathy (2nd ed.; Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 2005), §1.

[4] It should be kept in mind that Greek was the common language for culture and administration in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. Even in the western part of the Empire, where Latin predominated, Greek was still used by a sizeable portion of the population and even came to have an impact on the development of Latin itself. See Geoffrey Horrocks, Greek: A History of the Language and Its Speakers (2nd ed.; Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 125-6.

[5] J. N. D. Kelly, Golden Mouth: The Story of John Chrysostom – Ascetic, Preacher, Bishop (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1995), 2.

The Translation of οὐρανός (ouranos) in the Phrase “New Heavens and New Earth”: An Appeal for Consistency

1. New Heavens Article

Where will believers be spending eternity? Will it be in heaven? Or will it be in a new creation – on a new or renewed earth? One of the key phrases in the New Testament that describe where believers will be spending eternity is the phrase “new heavens and new earth” – or some variation of that phrase.

But what does the phrase “new heavens and new earth” actually mean? While it is difficult to imagine that there would be any difficulty with understanding the second part of the phrase (i.e. “new earth”), there is quite a bit of confusion – at least on a popular level – about what the first part of the phrase means (i.e. “new heavens”).

Some of this is due, no doubt, to an inherited tradition that says that believers will be spending eternity in heaven. But part of the blame, no doubt, has to do with how this phrase is translated in most English translations of the New Testament. In most English translations of the New Testament, this phrase is translated as “a new heaven and a new earth” – or something along those lines.

The key issue here is how the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) should be translated. Should it be translated as “heaven” or should it be translated as “heavens”? While the difference in English, at least from the point of view of spelling, is only an s, the presence or absence of that s makes a tremendous amount of difference in terms of how this phrase is understood – or at least in terms of how this phrase should be understood.

The focus of this post will be on how the NIV, both in the 1984 edition and the 2011 edition, translates the phrase “new heavens and new earth”.[1] The same post could have been written about any number of English translations of the New Testament, but the NIV is a useful version to work with because it is so widely used and because the phrase “new heavens and new earth” is translated quite well when it appears in the Old Testament (Isa. 65:17; 66:2). However, in my opinion, it is translated incorrectly in the two places it appears in the New Testament. This article, in many ways, is an appeal for consistency: the translators of the New Testament should follow the example of the translators of the Old Testament in how they translate the phrase “new heavens and new earth”.

1.  Heaven vs. Heavens in English: What’s the Difference?

We can begin by asking the question – what difference does it make if the word heaven has an s at the end of it or not? In other words, what is the difference between the words heaven and heavens in English?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word heaven without an s refers to “a place regarded in various religions as the abode of God (or the gods) and the angels, and of the good after death, often traditionally depicted as being above the sky.”[2] The word heavens, on the other hand, refers to “the sky, especially perceived as a vault in which the sun, moon, stars, and planets are situated.”[3]

The Cambridge English Dictionary has similar definitions. Heaven without an s is “the place, sometimes imagined to be in the sky, where God or the gods live and where good people are believed to go after they die, so that they can enjoy perfect happiness.”[4] For the word heavens or the heavens, they simply put “sky” as the definition.

It seems clear then, in English, that the word heaven without an s refers to the place where God lives while the word heavens refers to the sky or, more specifically, anything that human beings can see when they look up into the sky.

This leads us, then, to the problem that we’re dealing with in this article, namely, how the NIV translates the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) in the phrase “new heavens and new earth” when it appears in the New Testament. The phrase “new heavens and new earth,” or some variation of that phrase, appears in two passages that are key (or, at least, should be key) for understanding what the New Testament has to say about the final state of believers: 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1. The two passages read as follows:

2 Peter 3:13 – But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. (NIV)

Revelation 21:1 – Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. (NIV)

Notice that in both passages, the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) is translated as heaven without an s, which would indicate that the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) refers to the place where God lives. So, according to the NIV (whether intended or not), not only will God create a new earth in the final state, he will also create a new heaven. But is this really what the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) refers to in these passages?

2. Does οὐρανς (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) Refer to the Place Where God Lives in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1?

Despite the NIV’s translation of οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) as heaven in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, there can be little doubt that the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) actually refers to the skies or anything that human beings can see when they look up at the skies in these passages. This can be seen for at least three reasons:

(a) First, it can be seen from the origins of the phrase “new heavens and new earth”. While the phrase “new heavens and new earth” was clearly borrowed from Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22, which will be discussed under the next point, the ultimate origin for the phrase “new heavens and new earth” is Genesis 1:1.

In Genesis 1:1, it says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (NIV) The word heavens in this case, as the Old Testament translators of the NIV recognized, refers to the skies or, more specifically, anything that can be seen by human beings when they look up into the skies. Genesis 1:1-2:3 (or thereabouts) is the account of how God made the skies and the earth and then filled them. This is the first creation, the creation that was corrupted by sin in Genesis 3. In Revelation 21:1, God is making a new creation: he is taking the old creation – what the NIV (wrongly) calls the first heaven and the first earth – and he is making something new, reversing the devastating effects that sin had on the old creation.

In this context, it is understandable why God would have to make new heavens: the old heavens and the old earth (i.e. the original creation) had been corrupted by the effects of sin (Rom. 8:22) and needed to be made new. But why on earth (pun intended) would God need to make a new heaven (i.e. the place where he lives)? Was that place corrupted by sin? Was that place in need of restoration for the final state?

The origin of the phrase “new heavens and new earth” in Genesis 1:1 shows quite strongly that the word οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) in 2 Peter 3:13 and both occurrences of the word in Revelation 21:1 should be translated heavens.

b) Second, it can be seen by how the phrase “new heavens and new earth” is translated by the NIV in Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22. Notice how the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim, “heaven, heavens”) is translated in these passages:

Isaiah 65:17 – “See, I will create new heavens and a new earth. The former things will not be remembered, nor will they come to mind.” (NIV)

Isaiah 66:22 – “As the new heavens and the new earth that I make will endure before me,” declares the LORD, “so will your name and descendants endure.” (NIV)

Why does the NIV translate the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim, “heaven, heavens”) as heavens in both of these passages? It is not because the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) is not in the singular: the word שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) is virtually always found in this form, regardless of whether or not it refers to heaven or the heavens. The reason שָׁמַ֫יִם (shamayim) is translated as heavens in these passages is likely due to the fact that the Old Testament translators of the NIV recognized the connection with Genesis 1:1 and simply have a good understanding of Hebrew idiom. In Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22 it is clear that God is making new heavens and a new earth, a new creation to replace the old one.

In this regard, it is interesting that the NIV puts quotation marks around the phrase “a new heaven and a new earth,” in Revelation 21:1, indicating that it is a quotation or an allusion to Isaiah 65:17. If the phrase is translated new heavens and new earth in Isaiah 65:17, wouldn’t consistency demand that it be translated the same way in Revelation 21:1? The only reason for translating it differently would be if Greek idiom required that οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) be translated as heaven in Revelation 21:1 rather than heavens (see discussion below).

c) Third, the context of 2 Peter 3:13 should make it clear that οὐρανός (ouranos, “heaven, heavens”) should be translated as heavens rather than heaven. The word οὐρανός (ouranos) occurs a total of five times in 2 Peter 3 (vv. 5, 7, 10, 12, 13). In every instance except for 3:13, the NIV translates οὐρανός (ouranos) as heavens. Why? Because the context demands it:

2 Peter 3:5 – But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water. (NIV)

2 Peter 3:7 – By the same word the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of the ungodly. (NIV)

2 Peter 3:10 – But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare. (NIV)

2 Peter 3:12b – That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. (NIV)

But after translating the word οὐρανός (ouranos) so consistently as heavens throughout the entire passage, the translators shift inexplicably to the word heaven in verse 13. The context, however, as the NIV itself makes perfectly clear, demands that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) be translated as heavens.

It should be clear, then, that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in both 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 should be translated as heavens (i.e. the sky) rather than heaven (i.e. the place where God lives).

3. Does Greek Idiom Require that οὐρανς (ouranos) be Translated as Heaven in 2 Peter 3:13 or Revelation 21:1?

But before we can come to a final conclusion, we need to ask whether or not there is anything in the Greek text of 2 Peter 3:13 or Revelation 21:1 that would demand that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) be translated as heaven rather than heavens.

The Greek texts of these two passages read as follows:

2 Peter 3:13 – καινοὺς δὲ οὐρανοὺς καὶ γῆν καινὴν κατὰ τὸ ἐπάγγελμα αὐτοῦ προσδοκῶμεν ἐν οἷς δικαιοσύνη κατοικεῖ.

Revelation 21:1 – Καὶ εἶδον οὐρανὸν καινὸν καὶ γῆν καινήν. ὁ γὰρ πρῶτος οὐρανὸς καὶ ἡ πρώτη γῆ ἀπῆλθαν καὶ ἡ θάλασσα οὐκ ἔστιν ἔτι

The most significant thing to point out on a grammatical level is that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) appears in the plural in 2 Peter 3:13 while in in Revelation 21:1 it appears in the singular.

It should be noted, however, that the issue of whether or not the word οὐρανός (ouranos) is in the singular or in the plural has no bearing on how these words should be understood in 2 Peter 3:13 or Revelation 21:1. There is no one-to-one correspondence between οὐρανός (ouranos) in the plural and heavens with an s in English or οὐρανός (ouranos) in the singular and heaven without the s in English. In other words, the fact that οὐρανός (ouranos) appears in the plural in 2 Peter 3:13 and in the singular in Revelation 21:1 has no bearing on how the word is translated into English.

The word οὐρανός (ouranos) in the singular can refer both to the place where God lives (e.g. Mark 13:32) or the skies (e.g. Heb. 11:12). Similarly, the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in the plural can refer both to the place where God lives (e.g. Mark 11:25) or the skies (e.g. Heb. 1:10).[5] How these forms are translated into English depends on the context where the words are used. As we have already seen, the contexts of 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 demand that οὐρανός (ouranos) be translated as heavens rather than heaven.

Conclusion

Based on these observations it should be clear that the word οὐρανός (ouranos) in 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 should be translated as heavens rather than heaven. This is based on the distinction between heaven and heavens in English, the fact that οὐρανός (ouranos) clearly refers to the skies in both 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1, and the fact that if the NIV were consistent in its translation (i.e. if οὐρανός [ouranos] in 2 Peter 3:13 were translated in the same way as the other five uses in the same chapter and if Revelation 21:21 were translated in line with Isaiah 65:17 and 66:22), it would translate οὐρανός (ouranos) as heavens in both passages. The passages would then read as follows:

2 Peter 3:13 – But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

Revelation 21:1 – Then I saw “new heavens and a new earth,” for the first heavens and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea.

Where, then, will believers be spending eternity? On a new earth. The word heavens in the phrase “new heavens and new earth” simply refers to what believers will see when they look into the sky. When John saw news heavens and a new earth he was saying that he saw a new creation, one that would supersede the one that was made in Genesis 1:1, which, though good, was damaged by sin.

So, for those responsible for translating the NIV (or other versions that have the same or similar issues), it is well worth taking another look at 2 Peter 3:13 and Revelation 21:1 to see if the current translation communicates what was intended by the authors of these verses.

Mark Steven Francois (Ph.D. Graduand, University of St. Michael’s College)

[1] Note that the same problems occur in the 1984 version of the NIV.

[2] https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/heaven

[3] Ibid.

[4] http://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/heaven

[5] The use of singular vs. plural seems, in many cases, to be purely stylistic. Matthew and Hebrews, for example, prefer plurals whereas Mark and Luke/Acts prefer the singular.

Thesis Abstract

Website Picture - Thesis

For those of you who are interested in knowing a little bit more about what my dissertation was about (you might regret it!), I’ve posted the abstract for the dissertation below.  The full dissertation will be available on T-Space (University of Toronto) by December.  My plan is to revise it and then publish it in the next year or two.

Abstract:

This study concludes that only three passages from Deuteronomy 28 have a close historical relationship with curses from the Succession Treaty or Loyalty Oath of Esarhaddon (EST): Deuteronomy 28:23-24 (EST 528-533), Deuteronomy 28:53-57 (EST 448-451), and, more tentatively, Deuteronomy 28:25a,26-33 (EST 419-430). A comparison of curses in multilingual texts shows that while some change can occur when curses are translated from one linguistic, cultural, or religious context to another, curses with a close historical relationship to each other are connected through clusters of concrete anchor points including cognate vocabulary, lexical equivalents, similar modes of expression, similar imagery, and shared subject matter. Based on the absence of clusters of concrete anchor points, significant differences in both content and subject matter, and the fact that these differences cannot be adequately explained by normal changes that occur when curses are translated from one linguistic, cultural, or religious context to another, EST 472-493 (=§56) and Deuteronomy 28:20-44, EST 418a-c and Deuteronomy 28:34-35, as well as most of the freestanding parallels between EST and Deuteronomy 28 cannot be said to have a close historical relationship with each other. Based on the fact that Deuteronomy 28:23-24 preserves an earlier form of the curses in EST 528-533 as well as on signs of interference from one or more mediating sources in Deuteronomy 28:27-29, the most likely explanations for the remaining parallels are a mediated non-vertical genetic relationship or a close common tradition. Based on evidence that Deuteronomy 28:25a,26 and 28:30-33 might not, in fact, have a close historical relationship with EST, the best explanation for the parallels between EST and Deuteronomy 28 is a close common tradition. Based on either possibility, attempts to interpret Deuteronomy 28 or the wider context of Urdeuteronomium on the basis of EST are generally misguided.

(c) Copyright by Mark Steven Francois 2017