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Edinburgh, 5 May 2021

Good morning! Spring has arrived—cherry blossoms visible everywhere, tulips, gorse and (soon) heather decorating the hillsides... refreshing rains, cool mornings often above freezing, newborn white and black lambs skipping in the fields, migrating birds returning from Eastern Europe and even Africa—aye, it's enough to make one wax poetic.

Last night I had a grand time with brothers and sisters in the Persian Gulf (also known as the Arabian Gulf). It was heartwarming to see and speak with believers from six Arab states. Once travel restrictions lift, London (a one-hour flight from Edinburgh) is only 7 hours away from the Gulf. (Not possible given the current laws—for now we settle for Zoom.)

I'm also providing every person with teaching materials (both articles and books—shoot me an email if you'd like to help fund this, or just visit Support and scroll down to section IV).

The series is a 7-week midweek study on "Holy Spirit, Christendom, and Practical Living." Several hundred are joining from Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia (three cities), and the United Arab Emirates (three cities). 
  • The main item today: the continuation of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS). 
  • Next week: The final instalment of the DSS.
  • The week after: iFaith messages 79 and 80 (from 1 Kings).

Q&A 1604: Beauty Standards

Following is a question I've come across only twice in my life, but it's a good one, emerging from a Western cultural perspective, and deserves a response. It has to do with Sarai (Sarah), the wife of Abram (Abraham). For context, you may want to take a look at Gen 12:10-16. To read the Q&A at the website, click here.

In Genesis 12:4 we read that Sarai is considered to be a beauty: "When Abram entered Egypt, the Egyptians saw that the woman was very beautiful." And yet she's in her mid-60s [Gen 12:4; 17:17]. How could she be beautiful enough for the Egyptians to notice her? (What—"Pharaoh swept of feet by sexagenarian supermodel"?)

As noted in last week's piece on the DSS, the Genesis Apocryphon (1QapGen ar ix-20), though not part of the Bible, still sheds helpful light on ancient canons of beauty. This manuscript admires Sarah's good looks, with the following description:
  • A nicely shaped face. The aesthetics of bone structure and facial geometry vary across cultures. (Consider the practice of cranial deformation, once common in various parts of the world—like the Americas, Australia, and Europe—leading to an "ideal" head shape that was decidedly unEuropean!)
  • Attractive skin: Canons vary widely across the globe. Such considerations as markings, tattoos, colour, and fairness / darkness come into play. In numerous cultures, long ears are a mark of dignity and honour. And what about jewellery or other adornments? There's no single right or wrong here.
  • Lovely hair. Was this about colour, body, sheen, length, or something else? (And men like me might reasonably ask, "Is bald beautiful?")
  • Nice feet, nice palms, and long & supple fingers. An undergraduate Chinese History class amazed me: a century ago there were still people who esteemed bound feet! (In my opinion this was a cruel practice, but millions would disagree.) And is there a perfect hand size? What is "too large"? What is "too small"? Our assessments are subjective. 
  • Wisdom. Character and wisdom are rightly regarded as components of inner of beauty (1 Pet 3:4; Prov 31:30). 
There may be other factors to consider. Is youth more attractive than maturity? How about one's manners, family members, circle of friends, or breadth of experience? Older readers, are we to be disrespected (or ignored) just because the bloom of youth is past?

Such questions—and our answers—soon reveal cultural biases. When will our generation cast off the misguided prejudices of youth culture? Rather than idolising teens and twenty-somethings, shouldn't we (esp. as Christians) respect our elders, regardless of their age? Don't experience, graciousness, and wisdom far outweigh the fleeting attractiveness of youth? Think about it.

COVID Vaccination & Upcoming Tours

The following is an important note for participants in our upcoming Biblical Study Tours (BSTs).
  • Turkey (Oct 2021): Currently, only a PCR test negative result is needed (within 72 hours of your international flight). Our agents will help to arrange our PCR tests prior to our return flights. The testing fee is US$35. Our agents inform us that there is a small chance that this test may no longer be required by October, but please don't count on it. 
  • Israel (Feb 2022): Rules may change, but for now both COVID vaccination and PCR test are required for all entering Israel. Vaccinations must be FDA or EMA approved. The PCR test must be taken within 72 hours of your flight, and the printed negative test result must be presented on arrival. Then a serological test will be performed by Israel health officials at Tel Aviv airport.
  • Malta-Sicily-Rome (Oct-Nov 2022): It is too far out to say, but if I had to guess, I'd bet that the Maltese and Italian governments will block unvaccinated passengers from entering their country.
Respect public health regulations and don't assume you are exempt. On my last flight to the UK (a few weeks ago) a number of passengers were refused permission to board—and several more were removed from the flight—for not having their paperwork in order.

What I'm Learning from the Dead Sea Scrolls (part 3)

This is part 3 of 4 on what I've learned from my recent study of the non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls.
  • These are readily available in English / Hebrew. 
  • These DSS are nicely published (2019) in two volumes (about 1350 pages). Here is Vol. 1
  • For parts 1 and 2 of the  series, please see the previous two bulletins
Have "they" been hiding the truth from us? What embarrassing revelations are hidden in the Dead Sea Scrolls? Are the liberals pulling a fast one on us? Or maybe it's a fundamentalism stratagem. Conspiracy theories are rife. Please forget them; they are without merit.
  • Sure, there were delays in translation, and there were many "cooks in the kitchen" (occasionally bumping into one another), as well as some sensitive political issues. 
  • Yet the biggest reason it took over four decades to complete the translation project was probably the difficulty of the task. And the fact that the principal (most experienced) scholars were (unsurprisingly) older men who didn't all live to see their publication.
  • Our family enjoys 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles—with the picture on box cover as guide, of course. Not all DSS remnants are fragmentary, but a large number are—100,000 papyri and parchments ranging from minuscule scraps to lengthy scrolls. Now imagine a 100,000-piece puzzle, many pieces in poor condition or missing entirely, with no pictures (only text), in multiple languages, and without the jigsaw box cover. How quickly would you or I complete such a gargantuan project? These scholars deserve respect, not criticism.
  • Of course the fascinating story is more complicated than I am implying, but please pardon me for oversimplifying. (I'd rather you be intrigued than scared off by the complexities!)
  • So... was there a Vatican cover-up? Did Christians try to suppress this amazing discovery? No way!
  • DSS have all been available in English since the early 1990s — including the scraps that are essentially unidentifiable.
  • Moreover, the DSS boost our faith, as we will continue to see this week and next.
New Testament Background
As already noted, the Essenes of Qumran responded negatively to “the system." They viewed themselves as the true Israel (Songs of the Sabbath; War Scroll [1QM]), and did not hesitate to proclaim that without holiness no one would see the Lord.
  • They were willing to head in a new direction. Although their community and theology did not survive—the Pharisees and the Christians were the only sects within 1st-century Judaism still existing after the war with Rome (66-70 AD)—we can still learn from them.
  • The Essenes practiced frequent baptisms. These daily immersions were for ritual cleansing, and were self-administered. That's different from the NT, where baptism is a once-for-all act, and the subject is passive—he or she does (and earns) nothing, trusting rather in God's power to cleanse (Col 2:12). Yet not only the Essenes, but most Jews in the time of Jesus were accustomed to immersion, the stricter Jews on a daily basis, but all undergoing mandatory ablutions when they approached the Temple, as the archaeological evidence of scores of baptismal pools attests. The Jewish world was well familiar with immersion. 
  • With their common meals (see part 1), the sense of community was strengthened. Correct, this was an exclusive community, and it is doubtful they invited outsiders to sit sit at table with them. Still, community is good (see Acts 2:42-47; 4:30-32).
  • Dozens of phylacteries (small leather boxes containing biblical passages—reminders to keep Torah) have been found at Qumran. See Matt 23:5. The community had a high regard for Scripture, devoting countless hours to study and copying them in their scriptorium. 
  • The Essenes wrote about angels, demons, heaven, hell, the end-times, the Messiah, and much more. In many ways they shared the same theological world as the early Christians. Of course there are important differences. The Essenes waited for the new age to come in connection with an apocalyptic (and literal) battle, whereas the Christians taught that the age to come had already dawned in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.
  • The DSS illuminate the common genre of apocalyptic literature—that which we find in books like Daniel and Revelation, or the apocryphal 1 Enoch. For example, New Jerusalemcontains measurements and descriptions like those found in Rev 21:15 (4Q554, or 4Q; see also 5Q15 frag l, col 1-ii). For the doctrine of a new creation after the Last Judgment (2 Pet 3:13; Rev 21:1), see 1QS iv.25-26.
  • The DSS helps us to envisage the Temple complex, for example the Courtyard of the women and foreigners (11Q19 [11QTa or 11QTemplea], col xl.5-6). 
  • Whereas 4QMMT holds that we are justified by works of the law (Torah), the apostle Paul, though formerly a Pharisee, vigorously opposes this view (Gal 1-6). 
  • Essenes disagreed with the Pharisees, who permitted polygamy (CD 4.20-5.6; 6Q15; 4Q 226-273). Jesus too taught against polygamy. (His teachings on marriage were truly revolutionary.)
  • Josephus tells us that the Essenes taught one another to "hate evildoers and help the just." I did find one passage about not repaying aggression with evil (1QS x.10.17-18). Certainly there are not many passages like this in the DSS. This helps us to appreciate Jesus's teaching on enemies all the more (Matt 5:38-48)!
  • Here is an interesting parallel to Gal 5:16-21: Two spirits have been placed within us, truth and deceit: “… To the spirit of deceit belong greed, sluggishness in the service of justice, wickedness, falsehood, pride, haughtiness of heart, dishonesty, trickery, cruelty, much insincerity, impatience, much foolishness, impudent enthusiasm for appalling acts performed in lustful passion, filthy paths in the service of impurity, blasphemous tongue, blindness of eyes, hardness of hearing, stiffness of neck, hardness of heart in order to walk in all the paths of darkness and evil cunning” (1QS [Rule of Community] iii.17-18; iv.23).
  • Consider the Qumran doctrine of hell: “And the visitation of all those who walk in it will be for an abundance of afflictions at the hands of all the angels of destruction, for eternal damnation by the scorching wrath of the God of revenges, for permanent terror and shame without end with the humiliation of destruction by the fire of the dark regions. And all the ages of their generations (they shall spend) in bitter weeping and harsh evils in the abysses of darkness until their destruction, without there being a remnant or survivor for them…” (1QS iv.9-14).
    • Notice the language: "eternal damnation" and "permanent terror and shame without end"—yet also the phrase "until their destruction." The word "eternal" doesn't mean nonstop torture for all time (the teaching among many churches today).
    • In fact, in none of the extrabiblical DSS could I find the later doctrine of infinite torment. (Please correct me if you find a counter-example.)
  • Crucifixion until death for traitors and other criminals—a novel adaptation (11QTem64.7-13a [4Q524 = Temple Scroll], frag 14, 1-4; 11Q19 lxiv). Before this time (in the Roman period), crucifying or hanging people up was done only after they had died (see Deut 21:22). It was not a means of execution.
We have considered barely a dozen ways in which the DSS illuminate the NT. The best is yet to come!

Next week: What sort of Messiah was Qumran community expecting? Learn also the key DSS facts to know when sharing about this remarkable discovery in your evangelism.

Till next week...

Tomorrow Vicki and I will visit England for the first time this year (as cross-border driving is now permitted). It's a family visit—finally!

The Tuesday series with the Arab Gulf States continues till mid-June. Also upcoming are three interviews: with Third Drive, Truth Trauma Theology, and Kristin du Mez, the author of Jesus & John Wayne. (Thanks for your initiative, Otoma Edje.) This month also includes a session of the Athens Institute (Old Testament) and a special event with Christians in Hawaii (alas, only by Zoom!).

Please remember us in prayer.



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