What do Turkey, Bethlehem, and Tennessee Have in Common? They Don’t Bode Well for the Conservative Christian Subculture

Today three pieces of news landed in my inbox that I wanted to comment on briefly. All three, though for different reasons, give conservative Christians something to think about.

1) This is not new news, but “Biblical History Daily” (Biblical Archaeological Review) posted a brief article, “The Göbekli Tepe Ruins and the Origins of Neolithic Religion.” I first heard of this a few years ago, and digs have been going on there since 1994.

These ruins are of a 10,000 to 12,000 years old temple in modern day Turkey. The article asks whether this site, a sort of “Stonehenge,” is the oldest known religion in the world.

The article refers to it as “Turkey’s Stonehenge” because of the massive pillars that surround two large monoliths in the center. The pillars are fairly elaborately carved. The article states,

Given the early age of the site, equally surprising are the varied and often highly elaborate carvings that adorn the pillars of the Göbekli Tepe ruins. Among the pillars are detailed and often very realistic depictions of animal figures, including vultures and scorpions, lions, bulls, boars, foxes, gazelles, asses, snakes, and other birds and reptiles. In addition, some of the massive monoliths are carved with stylized anthropomorphic details—including arms, legs and clothing—that give the impression of large super-human beings watching over the enclosures.

We have here what seems to be evidence of a developed religious tradition 6000 to 8000 years before Abraham, the father of Israel, or 8000 to 10,000 years before Christ. You don’t need me to tell you that was a long time ago.

I just find that fascinating, and, if anything, a reminder that the biblical book of Genesis (which tells the story of father Abraham) giving us no more than a very small slice of one nation’s traditions. It also makes it a bit hard to read Genesis 1-12 (where Abraham makes his appearance) as a literal chronology of events, from creation to Abraham about 2000 years later.

2) An online article from NPR, “Dig Finds Evidence of Another Bethlehem,” tells us that the traditional site of Bethlehem (near Jerusalem) may not be the Bethlehem where Jesus was born. Another town called Bethlehem was found about 100 miles north, in the Galilee region.

Archaeologist Aviram Oshri comments that this site was occupied by Jews at the time of Jesus and is only about 7 miles from Nazareth–which is where Mary and Joseph began their journey to Bethlehem in order to register, as the biblical story goes.  A 7 mile donkey ride seems more reasonable than a 100 mile donkey ride, given Mary’s condition.

Though this may smack of borderline heresy for some, prominent New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen reminds us that, “early Christianity only started to pay attention to the Judean Bethlehem in the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.”

A similar issue is well known in Old Testament scholarship: the location of Mt. Sinai. It was a longstanding tradition that Mt. Sinai was located in the southern Sinai peninsula (St. Catherine’s monastery), but it makes little sense for the Israelites to have wandered that far south. It is also unlikely that Moses would have driven his sheep so far south from Midian in Exodus 3.

I can imagine some people being very upset that tradition has been so unsettled–especially those who took Holy Land tours and have rolls of film of “Jesus’ birthplace.” Oh well. This isn’t the first time that tradition has given way to truth.

3) According to his website, much beleaguered Old Testament professor Christopher Rollston has resigned from his position at Emmanuel Christian Seminary over an issue that began with this article concerning woman in the ancient world. On his website, Rollston states that he has resigned “willingly” after reaching an “amicable resolution” with his former employer.

I am very sad to hear this, but this is just one of many such instances in recent years of trained and highly competent scholars crossing the wrong people.  Such public statements as Rollston makes are also common, and almost written in a code. To resign “willingly” more often than not means that the professor recognizes there is no way forward and that termination, with a drawn out and ugly public process beforehand, was inevitable, and he’d rather not spend the next few months (or years) waking up to it. “Amicable resolution” means the two parties agree not to perpetuate the conflict any further in public venues, which almost certainly involves a financial settlement.

Losing a job is difficult, but Rollston did the right thing. He needs to go where his gifts and training are valued rather than a problem to be solved. But conservative institutions are going to continue losing highly trained and talented good scholars over embarrassingly parochial issues.  I sometimes feel it’s best for these schools simply to come clean and say, “We are not interested in academic integrity as much as maintaining the theological distinctives of of our tribe at the expense of academic integrity.” Maybe some school should stop offering academic degrees.

All three of these issues have very obvious solution, at least from an intellectual point of view, though that would require some theological flexibility on the part of some.


  • Mark Chenoweth

    The first one raises the most questions, not even from an inerrantist POV, but from a broadly theological POV. I think it’s crystal clear that the monotheistic God we find shortly before Christ’s coming was NOT the God that the first humans believed in.

    Much more work needs to be done on WHY this is the case if Christianity is true. For one thing, I think it makes Christian inclusivism far more appealing because otherwise, these people would all be going to hell because they weren’t monotheistic circumcised Jews. A theology of “you must be evangelized and hear the gospel to be saved” doesn’t work very well with this situation.

    Secondly, how do we think of original sin in this situation? Maximus the confessor might help: He holds that man sinned “at the instant he was created.” He obviously didn’t take Genesis 2 and 3 as a flat literal account of “what happened.” Possibly man turned away from God as soon as his consciousness permitted him to do so and this is why we don’t find the first humans as monotheistic Jews. Supposing our first ancestors never sinned, maybe they would have matured very quickly into Christians!

    Nevertheless, their passions overtook them and this possibility was wiped out immediately. Their experience of God wasn’t completely false but it wasn’t as true as Christ’s experience of God that he brought in the NT. I think we can even say this for the entire OT as well, as Enns and Sparks have said.

    Polkinghorne Robin Collins and others seem to take a similar view of original sin. http://home.messiah.edu/~rcollins/

    • peteenns

      Mark, I agree that evolution in isolation is not the only, or even the most pressing issue, compared to the antiquity of human culture. If I remember correctly, the first sweat lodges are much older than this temple–the number “40,000 years ago” sticks in my head though I can’t verify it.

  • http://www.gentlewisdom.org/ Peter Kirk

    Our only records of Jesus being born in Bethlehem come from Matthew and Luke. Matthew 2:1,5,6 and Luke 2:4 make it explicit that the Bethlehem both these authors had in mind was in Judea. So what evidence is there for Jesus being born in any other Bethlehem? Nothing at all! (Oh, and I couldn’t read the article you link to as “This page is blocked by PC Tools Spyware Doctor http://www.npr.org was blocked because it is on the banned sites list.”)

    • Brian S

      Also, Micah 5:2 explicitly prophesied that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem in Judea. Why would two descendants of David not go to Judea to be registered in their ancestral home?

  • Just Sayin’

    “prominent New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen reminds us that, “early Christianity only started to pay attention to the Judean Bethlehem in the fourth century, when the Emperor Constantine declared Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.””

    Wasn’t it Emperor Theodosius who did this, not Constantine? He only took Christianity off the proscribed “list”.

  • David

    I think the implication that humanity evolved in its idea of God is not only demonstrable historically but offers no threat to a Christian worldview. Consider it this way–OT Judaism (which changed over time itself) was the way in which God’s people related to Him for roughly 1,500 years until Jesus, at which point, things changed in God’s relationship with man. If you follow the chain backwards (far backwards,) it’s not implausible (quite the opposite) to say that early humans didn’t have a solidified monotheistic view of God.

    For example, I offer the Lakota Sioux, distant neighbors of my own Cherokee ancestry. Lakota religion, focusing around Wakantanka, the Great Mystery, is at one time monotheistic, polytheistic, and panentheistic, but is, at the end of the day–mysterious. Vague, undefined. And that’s frankly how most Indians I know like it.

    Even in the OT this is the trend–initially vague references to this God, that turn into revelation of this God, that then open up more questions about Him, that are all ultimately settled in the person of Jesus…who then gives us more questions.

    I once read a novel about Gobleki Tepe where, in the end, the grand secret of Gobleki Tepe was that religion was essentially humanity’s greatest oppressive tool, forced on the kindly inhabitants of Gobleki Tepe by their vengeful gods, a Neanderthal-esque people who were allegedly responsible for all sorts of other evils as well. I think the mystery is hardly that exciting or convoluted–Gobleki Tepe simply shows us that mankind evolved in its ideas of God as God revealed Himself and continued to speak with man.

  • Damien

    What is sad is that I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have been in trouble had he offered much of the same arguments in support of complementarianism/patriarchy. If he had said that the Bible has a “masculine feel” and that it was God’s providence that ensured it was so, he probably wouldn’t have had to resign. Or if he had said, “yes, there are some things that we disapprove of, but who are we to say that our ways are better? God’s ways are higher than ours and we should submit.”.

  • Stephen W

    What donkey?

    • peteenns

      What, don’t you believe what the Christmas cards tell you? :-)

  • Peter

    Emmanuel never had an issue with the content of the huffpo article. That is one of the most misunderstood aspects of this whole ordeal. This false dichotomy of liberal professor vs. head-in-the-sand conservative institution is lazy work by the blogosphere. Unfortunately it became about the constituency and their money. Emmanuel’s financial situation dictated much of its response and we (I am a current student) are worse off for it.

    • peteenns

      That is a good point, Peter. I agree constituency fear is a major factor, as it always seems to be. But even there, schools need to decide whether to maintain academic integrity or bow to pressure.

      • Peter

        Thank you for your response, Dr. Enns. You blog has jived with much that I have learned in seminary to the positive, no matter the undisciplined perceptions that are out there. I appreciate your humor and honesty in the midst of all the vitriol.

        Your point of view is understandable. There is a bit of self-preservation in everyone’s response to these issues. However, I find even the dichotomy of academic freedom or loyalty to constituency to be a bit lofty. It would be nice, even from a dark corner of this world, for acknowledgement that someone’s ox is always being gored, whether it concerns the preservation of the institution or the academe, and that it really is unavoidable. Where is the balance between this academic integrity and loyalty to the constituency? Can there be a balance? Idealism on the academic or confessional front is to be lauded, but pragmatism sets in when pressure is applied. Institutions with large endowments can afford to absorb such push back (something I would hope Emmanuel would have done if it had the means). Should institutions such as Emmanuel, then, incur self-inflicted wounds to preserve academic integrity? These are the questions we as students wrestle with even as we are closed off from most of the information. It is frustrating.

  • Brian S

    Peter – Is not orthodoxy more important to the church than scholarly attainment? When you teach at a religious school, you may need to agree to hold certain beliefs just as if you were a minister in a church. This seems to have been forgotten.

    • Peter

      Brian, your response may be true for some situations, but the lion share of controversies in seminaries deal with inane points of contention that do not deserve the attention they get. You are making a broad generalization by making it about pure orthodoxy (which there is none) and academic enlightenment.

      • peteenns

        Peter, though, one of Rollston’s colleagues publicly made it about orthodoxy, did he not?

        • Peter

          I do not think so. Publicly, Dr. Rollston’s colleague argued that the huffpo article lacked a corrective to this marginalization of biblical women and he did so rather loudly. The colleague claimed that he was not speaking for the institution, yet invariably that is the way it was perceived. His concern, warranted or not, was it lacked sensitivity to an audience that was already semi-hostile toward the bible. I can’t speak for this other professor of mine, but every indication I have is that he acknowledges this marginalization and supports women in ministry. The seminary holds this view as well in spite of being part of a largely conservative tradition.

  • Jim

    Many thanks for posting these recent news releases and for your comments. The first one is a non-issue as we all know that Satan and his demons fiddled with carbon decay in the past to make things look older than they really are. The temple at Göbekli Tepe was probably built just a day or two before the flood. :)
    I liked the release on the finding of a Bethlehem near Nazareth. A few months ago I had come across one of Aviram Oshri’s earlier publications on this dig site (Archaeology 58 (6) 2005). But what caught my attention was Paula Fredriksen’s comment “that early Christianity only started to pay attention to the Judean Bethlehem in the fourth century …” as Just Sayin’ mentions in a comment above. I’m not a biblical scholar so could anyone fill me in on the historical background regarding Paula’s comment?
    Once again thanks for your posts.

  • http://www.rollstonepigraphy.com Christopher Rollston

    Dear Dr. Peter Enns,
    Thanks for your original, perceptive post.

    Christopher Rollston

    • peteenns

      You’re welcome, Christopher, and may God give you wisdom these next few months.

  • Brent

    Pete: I’d be interested in your thoughts on the Bethlehem article. Seems to me the issues other commenters raised above aren’t completely trivial as they get to some of the issues of inerrancy you often insightfully blog about. Theologically and Biblically, the Judean Bethlehem has to be preferred since this is the ‘city of David.’ But as the article points out, it makes little sense historically or geographically. Yet unlike ‘clashes’ between biblical and historical accounts that require ‘reinterpretation’ (such as, say, clashes between Genesis and evolutionary science), this one would seem to imply the Bible is just wrong about what it says. It would also seem to raise questions about whether some NT authors might have willingly written these wrong things in order to strengthen the theological narrative, as some have argued. Ultimately, of course, this does not have to seriously impact our faith or even our reading of the Biblical narrative, but it would be a pretty serious pill to swallow for many. Appreciate your work on the blog, as always!

  • Jeff

    Why is the issue about Mary going to Bethlehem of Judea about her riding a donkey in her last month, when the Scripture says nothing about going in her last month? Last time she went to Judea at Elizabeth’s house she stayed 3 months! It would not be surprising that Mary could have left Galilee when she was 6 months pregnant this time around. All I am saying it that it is not quite so simple.

  • Jim

    Jeff, I guess my question was not aimed at verifying the mode/timing of transportation, but more along the lines of whether the Bethlehem that Oshri discovered is a viable option, and whether the “in Judea” phrase was possibly a later insert in a scribal attempt to line up with the Micah prophecy re the statement made by Paula Fredriksen. I would suppose that if Joseph and Mary were trying to get the best travel deal, then booking an earlier trip (a few months in advance) would have saved some money and as you mentioned might have been more comfortable too. :)

  • Mark Chenoweth

    Yeah, I’m not too sure about this Bethlehem thing. The NT isn’t the OT and the references are a lot more trustworthy. I would personally trust the evidence the NT gives us over an archaeological dig at this point. Plus, this is nothing new. NPR, like the History Channel likes to stir up trouble (I know I sound like a fundamentalist, but I think it’s true). The history channel said the same thing in a program back in 2005.

    I will give the NT historical record the benefit of the doubt on this one. Not because the NT is inerrant and perfect, but simply on a historical basis, I think we have more reason to believe the NT. Shedding fundamentalism doesn’t mean we believe all the “new and shocking ” bible discoveries without really thinking about them.

    Evidence for human evolution and a development from henotheism to monotheism? Sure. But not so much regarding the Bethlehem discovery.

  • http://www.sinnersprayerbook.com/ Darryl

    Peter – Have you seen one of the creationist responses to the Gobekli Tepe find? I found this article:

    Naturally they question the dating of the structure, and conclude that it must be a post-flood civilisation. They also state:

    “To put things in perspective—archaeologists are claiming that, 12,000 years ago, people were capable of carving these huge monuments. This is supposed to be long before any sort of written language, thousands of years before the Egyptian pyramids, and prior to the settlement of Sumer. Out of nowhere, we have this ancient monument, and then humans supposedly put down their chisels and don’t build anything for thousands of years more—but when they do, we get Sumer and the Egyptian pyramids. This stretches credulity. ”


  • Jim

    Mark, thanks for your insights.

  • Derek

    Thanks for the heads up on this one Pete, appreciate it! Thanks also to Darryl for linking to creation.com for their views on this. I’ll look at some more sources and investigate things further.

    I think we need to be careful before we rush gleefully into one direction in order to break free from the chains, so to speak.

  • eric kunkel

    The Judean Bethlehem has wonderful shops and a great tourist industry, which was up and running full speed when I was there. And apparently now that things are better on the West Bank, it is going full steam again.

    Why ruin a good thing. (But seriously it is better that there is much more in the way of peace there now; not so in Gaza.) But that is a different matter. But as to the texts:

    There may have been many towns named Bethlehem. Like many named Springfield, just watch the Simpsons. The Bible does specify one in Judea. The current Bethlehem is very close to Jerusalem, which may explain Jesus visiting the Temple with his parents, his acquaintance with Lazarus, Mary and Martha in nearby Bethany, etc.

    Also the Bible story of Mary’s ride is an arduous quest, it seems. Not a local trip.


  • Bryan

    I just read a National Geographic article on Göbekli Tepe (June 2011). It is not a monotheistic temple, it is clearly animistic and pagan. And according to the article, it is nine miles outside of Şanlıurfa, which is apparently considered by some Islamic tradition to be the birthplace of Abraham (there is now dispute over whether it is Şanlıurfa or some place in Southern Iraq.)

    Pagan religions are obviously have known to existed before Abraham’s time. The only religious idea I see being “contradicted” by the existence of the Göbekli Tepe temple is “young-earth” Creationism. But anyone still adhering to the idea that earth is only 6,000 solar years needs–and I mean NEEDS–to read “The Science of God” by Orthodox Jewish nuclear physicist Gerald Schroeder. The six “days” of creation are not a myth or a fiction, but they conform (in an almost eerily accurate way) to the age of the universe if seen through the lens of modern astrophysics. You really need at least a tenuous grasp on the theory of relativity to understand it, but to oversimplify, one “day” as measured from the spatial perspective of the earth’s location at the moment of creation can equal millions of years where the earth is now located. Because space and time are relative, and time is essentially motion through space, time passes at different rates in different parts of the universe. Schroeder has a Ph.D. in nuclear physics and earth science from MIT and served on the US Atomic Energy Commission, and his book , written from an Orthodox believer’s point of view, changed my life.

    As for point #2, if someone has true faith it lives in their heart. New information that seems to contradict long-held tradition can only be seen as a new opportunity to expand and strengthen an intellectual understanding of Scripture built upon a non-intellectual belief. The whole point of faith is that it cannot be proven with evidence from the eyes or ears or fingers. If you start with a seed a faith you will be rewarded, but only if you nourish that seed with knowledge from God’s world around us.

    I read Mr. Rollston’s article. I did not like it. It is overly-simplistic in dealing with a very, very complex topic. I’m not saying he should have been forced to resign over it. But it is not a helpful article at all, in my opinion. I will point out one fact which he omits from his litany of Biblical “misogyny.” The story of creation is told in order of ascending biological relation to humanity. First the creation of space, then inanimate matter on earth, then plants and vegetation, then sea life, then land animals, then man, and then…woman. According to the chronology of Genesis, woman is the apex of God’s created life forms.

  • rvs

    Perhaps Mark Noll was wrong: the scandal of the evangelical mind in many of these institutions that Dr. Enns is on about is that the mind does not want to know. –A profound misunderstanding of 1 Cor. 8:1 comes into view. “Knowledge puffs up” takes as its antithesis ignorance, not humility. Sigh. Thanks for this great post and sobering prophecy vis-a-vis institutions that tend to bite off their noses to spite their faces.

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