Stump a Bible Scholar: Wrestling with Zoroastrianism Influences

Stump a Bible Scholar: Wrestling with Zoroastrianism Influences September 23, 2014

BC_JerrySumney_bioTuesday is Stump a Scholar Day here at Patheos Progressive Christian — and no question is too tough or too radical for our experts!

This month, we’re answering your questions about the Bible with resident expert Professor Jerry Sumney. Dr. Sumney is professor of biblical studies at Lexington Theological Seminary and the author of Colossians: A Commentary (2008) and Identifying Paul’s Opponents (1990). He’s also the author of the new Bible: An Introduction, Second Edition from Fortress Press, a dynamic interactive digital textbook for learning about the Bible on your own.

This week’s question comes from a commenter on the blog here, who asks: 

How do you wrestle with the potential influences (Like Zoroastrianism) on both Judaism and the New Testament texts?

Professor Sumney responds:

Every book of the Bible was written to address the immediate context of its author(s) and first readers. This means that the language used and the ideas presented must draw on known elements of the culture, including the thought of other religions. So we should expect to find language and concepts from the surrounding culture in the biblical writings. The authors of the biblical texts sometimes infuse those terms and  beliefs with new content; other times they adopt much of the view found in the other religion.

We can see different ways ideas outside Judaism and Christianity influenced the texts with a few examples. For example, the story of creation in Genesis 1 was significantly influenced by the Enuma Elish, a Babylonian creation narrative. The author of Genesis 1 adopts parts of the way the Enuma Elish tells of the creation, but makes creation the work of one God rather than multiple gods. Here the Genesis author intentionally co-opts a competing narrative, giving it a new meaning. The book of Daniel works differently, accepting more from the surrounding culture. It draws on Persian understandings of the afterlife when it speaks of the righteous who will shine like stars (12:1-3). In the New Testament, descriptions of end-time events clearly influenced by religions other than Judaism.

While this may seem problematic at first, we can set these borrowings in the broader context of God revealing of Godself in the world. The biblical texts never claim that they are the only source of revelation of or from God. In fact, Paul explicitly says that God is known to the world through the nature of creation. The world itself is an instrument of revelation of the nature of God according to Paul (Romans 1:19-20). So religions outside Judaism and the early church may well have understood some things about God clearly before they were recognized by Judaism and the church. The communities of the authors of biblical books then recognized the truth about God that these other religions had perceived and adopted and adapted those beliefs for their own use. If we view the presence of influences from other religions in the context of the broader revelation of God in the world, they seem like as less of a problem. We might even be able to see such borrowing as encouraging, as another sign of God’s presence in the wider world.

Got a question?  We’ve got an answer!  Join the new Stump A Scholar series every Tuesday here at Patheos Progressive Christian!

BC_TheBibleInteractiveTextbook_bioAnd to learn more about the Bible on your own, check out The Bible: An Introduction, Second Edition interactive digital textbook by Jerry L. Sumney here!


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