I recently read The Gospel and the Land of Promise (Christian Approaches to the Land of the Bible). Published in 2013, it’s a collection of essays arising from a one-day colloquium at Auckland’s Laidlaw-Carey Graduate School on July 9, 2009.
I had attended the colloquium, knowing it would be some kind of conference but, unfamiliar with the term, I looked it up and found I was going to either ‘an informal meeting for the exchange of views’ or ‘an academic meeting at which specialists deliver addresses on a topic or on related topics and then answer questions relating to them’.
Great, I thought, I’d love to hear specialists, ask them questions and exchange views. To my dismay, I spent the day listening to seven anti-Zionists. There wasn’t any exchange of views and when I asked questions, no answers, until the very end when the featured speaker, Peter Walker from Oxford University, agreed that the colloquium had indeed been one-sided. To add balance, he then described several weaknesses in his own thinking.
I was also surprised that much time was spent knocking down straw-men or extremist views. Since I agreed with most of the speakers’ premises but few of their conclusions, I kept waiting for them to address the views of those present but, in vain. Personally, I don’t know anyone holding the views they so carefully demolished but if they do, why not invite them along to the colloquium, as in Acts 15? Why not invite others who are not extremist for a peaceful exchange of views?
The book is no better. Described in the title as offering more than one approach, it is more accurately described on the back cover by supporters Chris Marshall as ‘a rejoinder to Christian Zionism’ and Colin Chapmam as having ‘thrown down the gauntlet to Dispensationalists and Christian Zionists’.
My first question is, therefore, why not include at least one other approach? Why are these good men not following through on promises of humbly engaging? Iron that avoids the honing or sharpening steel remains blunt. Even worse, what example is being set for the students at Carey and Laidlaw? Solomon tells us that ‘the first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him’.1 We’re not supposed to reach conclusions before we’ve heard both sides properly examined.
My second question is, why ask challenging questions of the audience and then avoid any opportunity for answers or even questions that could lead to discussion? To make up for this apparent lack, I want to offer an answer to one challenge.
Several of the speakers and writers raised the same issue from almost every angle: ‘Why the sudden dearth of land language in the New Testament?’
This was specifically asked by Alastair Donaldson who writes that ‘land [was] a constant theme in the Old Testament, yet one that is barely noticeable in the New’. He then quotes Peter Walker saying that ‘scholars struggle to find in the New Testament more than a handful of references that “unambiguously refer to the land of Israel”’ before concluding, ‘this dramatic shift in focus provokes us to ask two questions: Why the sudden dearth of land language in the New Testament, and what does this near silence suggest concerning the significance of the land from a New Testament perspective?’
Mark Strom also makes this point: ‘Paul never used the vocabulary of “land”. His references to Israel are to the people, not to the land… The land that had formerly preoccupied him as a Pharisee… just does not figure in his writings. Arguments from silence are of course inconclusive. But these are loud silences.’ He then proceeds to argue and draw conclusions from his imagined silences.
So too does Phil Church: ‘There is not one reference to the land of Israel in the writings of Paul, James, Peter, or Jude, or in the Book of Revelation. This also applies to Rev 20:1-6…’
On another occasion, at a meeting at Laidlaw with Bob Mendelsohn from Jews For Jesus, another Laidlaw lecturer, Gordon Stewart asked: “What are we to make of the silence in the New Testament regarding the land?”
So let’s consider this “silence in the New Testament regarding the land”, especially in ‘the writings of Paul, James, Peter, or Jude’, as Phil Church suggested.
(i) The literal, geographical context
Where were the gospels set? All four indisputably in the land of Israel – it’s mentioned over twenty times so I won’t list them but that fact really matters, as we will see. How about the Book of Acts? The first 12 chapters were located in the land of Israel, so too chapter 15, and chapters 21 to 26. Why not the other chapters? Because the rest describe Paul’s overseas travels and he wasn’t in the land of Israel at those times.
So what are we make of the ‘dearth of land language in the New Testament’ so far? All of the above references are literal rather than ‘land language’ but there seems to be an abundance in the first five books, all pointing to something.
(ii) The historical context
All four gospels describe events in the land of Israel from about 5-6 B.C. until the resurrection of Jesus in 30 A.D. The Book of Acts describes events mostly in the land of Israel up until about 65 A.D., the climax of which is Paul’s being sent from the land of Israel to Rome.1 So… where are the majority of Jews throughout this whole time? In the land of Israel. They weren’t sent into exile until 70 A.D. so until then, there was simply no issue regarding the land.
(iii) Paul’s Letters
It’s the same with Paul’s thirteen letters. All written before he was executed in about 67 A.D., there was no extant issue regarding the land.
(iii) James’s Letter
James, a major leader in the church in Jerusalem, wrote to ‘the twelve tribes who are dispersed abroad’.2 ‘Abroad’ from where? Israel, of course. He was martyred in about 62 A.D. when there was still no issue regarding the land.
(iv) Peter’s Letters
Peter was martyred in Rome during Nero’s reign, i.e. before 68 A.D., when there was no issue yet regarding the land.
(v) Jude’s Letter
Jude’s letter is thought to have been written about 65 A.D. when there was still no issue regarding the land. Since it only contains 25 verses, it is naturally silent about most doctrines and issues. Are we to renounce everything else that Jude doesn’t mention?
(vi) Letter to the Hebrews
Some prefer to argue from the silence in Hebrews. However, it’s also silent about Jerusalem being destroyed, surely great evidence for its argument comparing the Mosaic and New Covenants. It seems to have been written before there was an issue regarding the land.
There are no ‘loud silences’ regarding the land, not even a quiet silence. When almost all the books and letters of the New Testament were written, the land just wasn’t an issue. Our anti-Zionist friends are standing too close to a tree to see the forest. It didn’t become an issue until after 70 A.D.
After 70 A.D.
On the other hand, there are all of Jesus’ parables and predictions from 30 A.D. that Israel would be exiled from the land and Jerusalem left desolate. I won’t write them all out for lack of space but look at them all: Matthew 22:7, 23:34-39; Mark 12:1-11; Luke 19:41-44, 20:9-18, 21:20-24. That’s surely a lot of ‘land language’ – the Jews are going to lose it to the Gentiles. They’re also going to regain it from the Gentiles after “the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled” (Luke 21:24). Peter Walker had the humility to acknowledge that he could not satisfactorily explain this away, nor 2 Thessalonians 2:4. Another speaker at the colloquium, however, told me that he didn’t think Luke 21:24 should be in the Bible!
The Book of Revelation
Is there really ‘not one reference to the land of Israel… in the Book of Revelation. This also applies to Rev 20:1-6…’? I don’t understand what Phil meant in referring to Rev 20:1-6 – I wouldn’t look there anyway – but I can immediately think of four. Why would he ignore those? I don’t accept the nonsensical argument that no-one understands Revelation. Besides, the challenge was, does it refer anywhere to the land of Israel?
This truly remarkable book was written in about 95-96 A.D., after the sacking of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Jewish exile from the land. Since the issue, at last, exists to be addressed, it’s no surprise at all to find that Revelation carefully addresses it – every believing Jew in John’s audience would surely want to know about their Promised Land.
(i) ‘The Holy City’
Firstly, Revelation 11:1-13 is explicitly set in the land of Israel. Yes, the passage is metaphorical but the metaphor depends on a geographical location: John is sent to the Temple Mount in the “holy city” which is to be trodden under foot by the Gentiles (v. 2) Know of any other possible place on the planet besides Jerusalem? John even repeats the phrase about Gentiles that Jesus used in Luke 21:24 to describe Jerusalem. And just in case we still missed the geographical location, John adds that although it’s metaphorically called Sodom and Egypt, it’s literally ‘where also their Lord was crucified.’ Was Jesus crucified at some other place that we don’t know about?
(ii) From Israel to the Wilderness
Secondly, Revelation 12:1-17. Yes, this too is metaphorical. The woman giving birth to Jesus of Nazareth was Israel ‘according to the flesh’. Because she then rejected her own Son, she was sent from the Promised Land back into the wilderness, “the wilderness of the nations”2 “until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled”.3 Was the land she had to leave not the land of Israel? Where was she to return when the time was fulfilled? To where she is now – in the land of Israel.
(iii) ‘From the East’
Thirdly, Revelation 16:12-16. Yes, another metaphor but again dependent on a geographical location: Israel. The passage begins with the Euphrates River and ‘the kings from the east’. 4 East of where? The Euphrates River was the eastern border of the Promised Land as ruled by David and Solomon. The passage ends at Har-Magedon, literally the Mount of Gathering, which is another name for Jerusalem.
(iv) ‘The Beloved City’
The fourth reference is in Revelation 20. I agree with Phil Church that it’s not in Rev 20:1-6 but it is in v. 9 – the last battle is a battle for ‘the beloved city’. There’s only one city described that way in the Scriptures: Jerusalem, “the city of the great King”.6
In conclusion, there are questions to be answered, especially the appalling plight of the Palestinians. Since this seems to be the primary issue motivating our anti-Zionist humanitarian organisations like TEAR Fund, why don’t we focus on that instead of simplistically accusing Israel? As Peter Walker says, we should also be discussing ‘how to evaluate the return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel in our day’. Surely this is essential. He also calls us ‘to take the debate forward in further creative ways – ways that foster both biblical faithfulness and Christian charity’. Given that all of those quoted above are godly, sincere brothers in Christ, this surely is our way forward and I invite them to engage in a proper dialogue at any time they would like.
Written in Nov 2013. As of today, 23rd Feb 2017, the only response to this situation from anyone at Carey Baptist College or Laidlaw College has been from Rod Thompson, principal of Laidlaw (2011-2015). In 2014, he acknowledged that Laidlaw had indeed been unbalanced in its stance, partly due to its own lecturers and partly due to visiting speakers such as prominent anti-Zionists Stephen Sizer and Alex and Bishara Awad. To make amends, Rod planned to host a national conference in which both sides of the Israel/Palestine debate could be heard and questioned but, unfortunately, this did not eventuate. My offer of a respectful discussion of Laidlaw’s published material still stands.