One way to distinguish Central Asia as a region is to say that it is the part of the world dominated by Turkic or Persian-related languages. When it comes to Persian-related languages, we’re talking groups like the Dari, Tajik, Kurdish, Luri, and Balochi. There are hundreds of millions of people who speak Persian itself (also known as Farsi) or languages closely related to it.
These hundreds of millions of people are overwhelmingly Muslim – and they might be surprised to hear that Jesus spoke a word from their ancestral language while on the cross.
That word is what we know as paradise. I won’t get into the details of the etymology, but this ancient Persian word for walled enclosure and garden came into many of the languages of the ancient world, including Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic forms. No doubt the Jewish community living under Persian rule is where much of this linguistic influence came from. Plus, the Persians were the superpower of the region for quite some time. The vocab of the superpower tends to spread, just as here the local Central Asian form of laptop is, well, laptop (but said with an “ah” and an “oh”).
The old Persian term’s connection to a garden is what linked it with Eden, and thus with our concept of paradise – not only Eden lost, but heaven as well, and Eden one day restored.
And he said to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.” (Luke 23:43 ESV)
These are the words Jesus spoke to the dying thief on the cross who simply asked to be remembered. In this saying Jesus uses the word paradise to refer to having died and being welcomed into the presence and rest of God – Abraham’s bosom as it were.
This is not the only Persian loan word in the Bible. There are dozens of them. Somewhere around eighty in the book of Daniel alone. Yet Jesus’ words on the cross are coming at the very climax of redemptive history. And one of them is Persian. I find this fascinating. Iranians I’ve shared this with are struck as well. It’s one more example of the capacity for any human tongue to be redeemed and used in the service of God.
And what a great opening to go on and share the gospel.
This week I came across this article by Dr. Charles L Quarles of SEBTS, titled Was New Testament Wine Alcoholic? It contained this interesting trivia: ancient writers and the water to wine dilution rates mentioned in their works.
The article goes on to argue that the most likely water to wine dilution rate of Jews in the New Testament period was 3:1, which was equivalent to a beverage that is only 3% alcoholic. In other words, equivalent to a modern low-alcohol beer. It wasn’t modern grape juice, which wasn’t invented until the Methodist Rev. Welch came along in the 1800s. But neither was it basically the same thing as a contemporary shiraz.
If this is true, then it’s a finding likely unsatisfactory to both sides of the Christians and alcohol debate. The wine consumed by Jesus was actually alcoholic, but in a pretty mild way. You’d have to drink a lot to get drunk. However, you could indeed get drunk from the common wine of the Jews if you wanted to. And there was certainly other wine around that was stronger, judging from the biblical passages addressing the dangers of drunkenness, as well as the testimony of the ancient writers in this Quarle’s article.
While I find the historical context interesting and helpful – these kinds of details really do matter for good interpretation – I’m not at all sure that it changes the biblical principle. Namely, drunkenness is a sin, and any alcohol consumption should be governed by a Christian accordingly (Eph 5:18). This principle seems sound and stable no matter the alcohol content of a given drink.
Just this past week, *Darius was sharing his testimony. It involved his amazement that during our first time hanging out together, I didn’t drink with him and his friends, breaking their expectations of what an American was supposed to be like. But I was then and am still under a no-alcohol covenant required by my organization. Darius wanted to know why I wasn’t partaking of the alcohol they had on hand and that’s what got us into a gospel conversation. That conversation led to more talks, until Darius came to faith.
I smiled as he recounted this story, because in previous years I had had the exact opposite happen. When I was here previously with a different organization, I had felt unexpectedly led to have a beer with my new Muslim friends. That act of partaking led to good gospel conversations, and *Hama ended up coming to faith.
So which is it? Have a beer for the sake of the gospel or abstain for the sake of the gospel? Both, it seems, according to the place where God sovereignly has you. Both can be done for the sake of love. And both postures can bridge to the heart of the matter – that we need new hearts.
“There is nothing outside a person that by going into him can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him.” (Mark 7:15 ESV)
Wait, can biblical wisdom really leave the door open to both? Won’t that be harmful or confusing?
“For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, ‘He has a demon.’ The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Look at him! A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’ Yet wisdom is justified by her deeds.” (Matt 11:18-19 ESV)
Two distinct traditions exist regarding the apostle Thomas, and these appear, at first glance, mutually exclusive. According to Eusebius of Caesarea and later Nestorian sources, the apostle brought the Gospel to the Parthians. By contrast, acording to the apocryphal Acts of Thomas and the Syrian DidascaliaApostolorum, the Doctrine of the Apostles, of the same age, he traveled to the court of King Gondophares in India… The two Thomas traditions can, in fact, be harmonized, since historical evidence, in the form of coins bearing his name and a stone inscription, proves the existence of the Indo-Parthian king Gondophares. He ruled over the region now encompassing south-eastern Iran and Pakistan, from c. 19 to 50 CE. It is thus conceivable that Eusebuis could have characterized his empire as ‘Parthian’. While nothing has been conclusively determined regarding the historical veracity of the Thomas mission, the possibility of his journey to India cannot be excluded, especially since regular maritime traffic took place between Rome and India.
Remember that sweeping accusation from Titus 1:12-13, where Paul that all Cretans are “always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons?” Well, it’s actually a quotation. And that quotation has a known context, which I had never heard before. Turns out it’s a fight about whether or not the chief of the gods could be dead in a tomb. Paul – whether he’s alluding to this context or merely commandeering a well-known literary rebuke – agrees, following with quite the understatement. “This sentence is true” (v. 13). Clearly, Paul and the Holy Spirit weren’t messing around. This Cretan tendency toward empty and deceptive talk had gone far enough.
“Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” Paul quotes Epimenides, a Cretan poet from the sixth century BC. In his poem Cretica, Epimenides accuses the Cretans of being liars and evil beasts because they claim to host a tomb of Zeus, the chief of the gods. Since Zeus “lives and abides forever,” the Cretans must be liars. Paul quotes from this same poem in his sermon to the Areopagus in Acts 17:28. Crete also claimed to be the birthplace of Zeus, known in antiquity as the Dictaean Cave, which legend placed on the slopes of Mount Ida, Crete’s tallest mountain. Reputedly from Knossos, Epimenides was supposed to have the gift of prophecy, which was bestowed on him after he allegedly slept for 57 years in a cave sacred to Zeus.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, Note on Titus 1:12-13
Ever feel offended by broad-brush statements of scripture like this? That feeling’s probably a good sign of an area where we are being shaped more by our culture’s mores than by God’s word. Anytime we feel that inner twitch – that’s a good place to pause and lean in. Why exactly does this rub me the wrong way? And what might that mean?
In the region surrounding the principality of Orhay (Edessa), which claimed for itself the title of the first Christian state in the world, there was also a latent monotheism. There the god Marilaha was worshiped as the universal Lord-God. This proto-monotheism first paved the way for the success of Judaism in Edessa. Since there were in Edessa, as in all of Syria and western Mesopotamia, numerous examples of divine triads, the environment was again peculiarly receptive to Christianity, as it enriched these two concepts with the figure of a divine-human mediator and made them more accessible.
Baumer, The Church of the East, pp. 11-12
What exactly was going on in the progression of ancient peoples away from a pantheon of gods and toward something more like monotheism? And this seemingly right around the coming of Christ? Was the Holy Spirit using the influence of Judaism to slowly disseminate ideas in the ancient world that would prepare the it for the gospel? Or resurrecting an ancient “memory” of the monotheistic origin of the broken polytheistic systems of late antiquity?
Whatever was going on, a remarkable number of peoples in the Roman and Persian empires – and in their borderlands – were peculiarly ready for the preaching of the Incarnation and the Trinity. Perhaps this is one part of what the Scripture means when it says, at the fullness of time (Gal 4:4).
… our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, (2 Timothy 1:10 ESV)
2 Tim 1:10 brought life and immortality to light. First-century tomb epitaphs indicate that for most pagans, death was accepted (at best) with calm resignation. In traditional Greco-Roman religions, death was the end of everything. The best that could be hoped for was a shadowy existence in Hades, the realm of the dead. Paul contrasts this world of shadows with the light of immortality that faith in Christ brings.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible
What an interesting contrast between the shadows of the pagan afterlife and the shining glory of the biblical vision of paradise and resurrected bodies. I’ve said it before, but we should not be shy to sometimes speak of ourselves as those who humbly “seek for glory and honor and immortality” (Rom 2:7). Especially when contrasted with the inferior pagan visions of the afterlife. Nothingness? Loss of individuality as we’re assimilated into the Atman? Gardens and virgins? Clouds and baby cherubs? No thank you, we have been freely welcomed into something so much better. Superior glory and satisfaction awaits – a life and immortality of light.
Paul worked very hard at Thessalonica at his profession (tentmaking) so that he would not be a financial burden to the church while he was there. The church at Philippi had sent Paul financial assistance when he was working in Thessalonica (Phil 4:15); perhaps the financial assistance from Philippi was at the beginning of his ministry, functioning as “seed money” allowing Paul to rent a shop and purchase raw materials. Although shops sometimes were open in the late afternoon for more leisurely browsing, the average Roman merchant worked intensely in the six hours before noon and then closed the shop. Daylight was the main requirement for conducting business; hours would be longer in the summer and shorter in the winter. Paul reminds the church that he even worked when most places were closed for the evening. By using the plural “we,” he implies that Timothy and Silas worked with him. This would have been a good model of Gentile-Jewish cooperation for Thessalonian believers and may have been part of the reason the Jews in the city were upset with him. He also may have “outworked” the competition, and financial envy perhaps contributed to opposition to the apostle.
ESV Archaeology Study Bible, p. 1779
Living in Central Asia, where the bazaar/market is a prominent feature of every city, Paul keeping his shop open after the others have closed is a vivid picture – and a challenging example. These notes on this passage (1 Thess 2:9) are helpful biblical background when considering the issues of contemporary tent-making and supporting locals.
The shield protected the bearer from both hand-carried and missile weapons. In the Pauline analogy, the shield is used to “extinguish all the flaming darts of the evil one” (v. 16). Horse archers constituted the main combat units in the Parthian Empire – Rome’s primary eastern foe in this period. The Parthians’ fearsome reputation, having defeated the Roman legions in numerous battles, made Paul’s analogy of the flaming darts, or arrows, of Satan appropriate.
ESV Archeology Study Bible, p. 1756
Though Christians and Westerners are generally aware of the northern barbarian threat to the Roman Empire, most learn almost nothing about Rome’s bitter rival empire to the East, the Parthians. WordPress, the platform I’m using, provides me a useful illustration here as it doesn’t even have Parthian in its dictionary and keeps flagging it as a misspelling. It’s as if we are conscious of the peoples east of the Euphrates up until the book of Malachi. Then, all of the sudden, the light of historical consciousness turns off and the focus shifts to the West.
Yet here was an empire not only able to go toe-to-toe with Rome, but even able to defeat many Roman armies throughout the centuries. The Parthians had risen to power following the collapse of Alexander the Great’s empire. At first glance they seem to be an interesting blend of Greco-Persian cosmopolitanism and the horse culture of the great steppes. They were certainly much more tolerant of early Christianity than the Romans were – an important point not to be dismissed. The great persecutions of Christians under Zoroastrian rulers would not come about until the Parthian empire gave way to the Sassanians and Rome had been Christianized.
Though we may be ignorant of them, inhabitants of the Roman empire would have been very aware of this other superpower. I found it interesting that this street knowledge of the political enemy may provide background for the familiar Armor of God passage in Ephesians chapter 6, particularly the part about “flaming darts” (6:14). As the passage quoted above states, the Parthian horse archers were the main fighting force of the Parthians. Apparently they were so skilled that they were able to ride their horses without stirrups and fire their arrows accurately at the enemy legions – even turning their torsos to shoot backwards while their horses sped in the opposite direction. This particular tactic came to be known as the “Parthian Shot.” This may have come down into modern English as “parting shot” since authors like Arthur Conan Doyle used “Parthian Shot” in their writing to describe a last comment or jab given during an exit.
Returning to Paul and Ephesians 6, the image the original readers may have had in mind was that of a Roman soldier’s shield deflecting the flaming arrows of Parthian horse archers – archers who were shooting at them while simultaneously riding with terrifying skill. Sounds like quite the dangerous situation, especially for a foot soldier. As such it was an effective analogy, not just communicating the danger posed by Satan’s attacks, but also the tremendous power provided by this shield of faith.
The Irish are part of a larger ethnic grouping called the Celts (preferably pronounced with a hard “c”) who first entered western consciousness about 600 B.C. – only a century and a half after the legendary founding of the City of Rome – when, like the German barbarians long after them, they crossed the Rhine. One branch of the Celtic tree settled in present-day France and became the Gauls, whom Julius Caesar would conquer in the century before Christ and who in their Romanized phase would produce the effete Ausonius. A cognate tribe settled the Iberian peninsula and became great sea traders; indeed, found as far afield as New Hampshire – which would make the Celts the first Europeans to reach the Americas. In the third century B.C., Celts invaded the Greek world, advancing as far south as Delphi and settling in present-day Turkey, where, as the Galatians (note the similarity of consonantal sounds in “Celt,” “Gaul,” and “Galatian”), they were recipients of one of Paul’s letters.
There are some passages of scripture that we tend to merely skim before quickly moving on. For me, the genealogies were definitely that kind of content. Sure, I believed that all scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching and instructing in righteousness (2 Tim 3:16). But it was awfully hard for me to see how the genealogies would actually impact my life as a believer or be relevant in evangelism. “Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Ram” is not exactly the inspirational material that typically shows up on Christian embroideries. Sure, the genealogies served an important historical purpose, but I assumed that was about it. I would be proved powerfully wrong.
When my friend *Hama agreed to read the Bible with me, we started in the book of Matthew, probably for the simple reason that it was the first book in the New Testament which I had given him in his language (The Old Testament wouldn’t be published for another 8 years). As a twenty-year-old new to the Middle East, this would be my first time studying the Bible with a Muslim friend. So why not start with Matthew?
I was not expecting the first half of the first chapter to deal such a blow to my friend’s worldview.
“Bro,” Hama said. “Jesus is incredible.”
“I agree. But why do you say that?” I replied.
“Look at his family line… look at all of the prophets in his line. There are so many, starting all the way back at Abraham. Bro, I never knew this.”
“And?” I was not understanding why we shouldn’t just take note of this neat historical content and move on the meatier portions.
Hama’s eyes had that far-off look he got whenever his mind was working hard. He seemed conflicted.
“…Mohammad doesn’t have a family line like this… he doesn’t have any kind of lineage to compare to this.” Hama was disturbed.
I didn’t know this at the time, but genealogy, specifically thefather-line (patrilineage) is a cornerstone of Middle Eastern and Central Asian identity. You are who your fathers were. Their honor and their shame is imputed to you and your success and the success of your descendants depends on being able to draw upon an honorable reputation rooted in ancestry. A traditional Middle Easterner must be able to name their male ancestors at least to the seventh generation. Even though this is becoming a little less common among the modern and urbanized, it still is a primary lens through which people understand who they are and who others are. Your father-line makes a claim about you; it is a message in itself.
Hama was seeing something in Matthew in his first reading that I had never seen despite many years of devotions in Matthew, sermons, and bible classes. His Middle Eastern culture was helping him to understand implications of the text that I had missed as an American raised in Melanesia. In this and many other areas, Hama’s culture was not too far off from Jewish New Testament culture. He saw Matthew 1:1-17 as a devastating blow against what he had been taught his whole life – that Mohammad’s lineage was just as strong as that of the other prophets.
Yes, Islam maintains that Mohammad was descended from Abraham via Ishmael, but from Ishmael to Mohammad spans over two thousand years of plain old human without a whiff of inspired revelation. But Jesus, his line contained Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Judah, David, and Solomon! And all of them descendants of Abraham through Isaac’s line, not Ishmael’s. Jesus’ claims therefore to be The Prophetof Prophets are bolstered by this amazing pedigree. Mohammad’s seeming emergence out of nowhere six hundred years later as “the seal of the prophets,” in this light, appears to be unnatural and not in keeping with how God acted in history – always sending his prophets through Isaac’s line and with a strong prophetic father-line.
It was a blow that shook Hama’s world. It’s easy to take for granted religious claims that everyone around you simply repeats your whole life. But when faced for the first time with a compelling counter-claim, that’s when we get a true sense of just how strong a case our belief actually has. Sure, everyone in the bazaar says that Mohammad’s descent from the prophets legitimized his claims. But Matthew, in a thoroughly Middle Eastern way, had just thrown down the gauntlet.
It wasn’t the only way in which God would vindicate the gospel’s truth to my friend Hama, the jaded wedding musician. But it was a powerful start. One that I at least had never anticipated. Yet this is exactly what happens when we work through scripture with those who are different from us. We see new aspects of the text’s meaning, not different meaning, but insights uniquely apparent to those from other cultures. The diamond gets turned to reveal new beauty that was there all along. The Holy Spirit uses passages we gloss over as the vehicle for his convicting work. This argues, by the way, for the importance of working through books of the Bible systematically in our cross-cultural evangelism and discipleship – we just don’t know where exactly in the text the lightning is going to strike. And it may be where you never expected it.