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Jeffrey Niehaus: Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology

In the next several chapters, Niehaus compares and contrasts specific parallels between the pagan literature of the ancient Near East and the Bible. Chapter Two is on “God and the Royal Shepherd,” three on “Covenant and Conquest,” four, “City, Temple, Image,” five, “City and Temple: Abandoned and Restored,” six, “The Covenantal Household: Destruction and Salvation,” and finally, seven, “The Restoration of All Things.” In each of these chapters, Niehaus surveys an abundance of ancient Near Eastern pagan literature, Sumerian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hittite, etc., but especially, Egyptian, on the specified topic and then carefully draws correspondences with the biblical material. In each case, he aims to show both that the biblical revelation drew on prevalent, and to an extent, true, themes in surrounding cultures and also that the biblical revelation is itself uniquely complete and true. In the process, Niehaus manages to open up incredible insights into the breadth and depth of Sacred Writ.

In the final chapter, “Conclusion: A Symphony of Parallels,” Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology suggests that demonic influence and activity was responsible for parallels between ancient Near Eastern pagan literature and the Old Testament and whole Bible. Yet it also suggests the parallels are “rooted in truth: revealed truth in the Old Testament and the Bible, and distorted truth in the ancient Near East.” Denying that the parallels may have been coincidental, Niehaus argues that the nature of false religions inevitably leads to the conclusion that demonic powers must have been behind them. However, he also argues that God in his providence used the parallels in ancient Near Eastern thought to prepare people for truth, albeit in “darkened and polytheistic forms.” Such truth could have no saving power but God could still use it to bring saving truth to light. Niehaus concludes that in this way God was glorified even in pagan religions “for even in their darkness the pagans had retained or obtained common grace reflections of his truth.” Of course, it is the fuller revelation of this truth in Christ that now makes salvation possible, and all Christian theology as well.

Overall Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology by Jeffrey J. Niehaus is great work. The undergirding argument that neither pagan literature nor biblical revelation is dependant on the other but that both are the results of God’s providence and power, albeit in vastly differing ways, is consistently and cogently presented. Thus, Niehaus commendably and remarkably unravels threads of theological meaning latent in the structures of the background of biblical culture. Yet his reverence for the unique inspiration and authority of the Holy Bible is everywhere evident. Therefore, the result of reading Ancient Near Eastern Themes in Biblical Theology is a deeper, fuller, richer appreciation and understanding of the Scriptures and their central themes. As such it is a highly recommended read.

However, Niehaus somewhat clumsily tries to combine the theological category of “common grace” in the revelatory process with a doctrine of total demonic inspiration of non-Christian religions. In other words, frequently he explains parallels between the ancient Near East and the Bible by appealing in the same breath to God’s gracious activity and to demonic activity. It ought to be one or the other or even here the one and there the other; but it ought not to be both together indiscriminately. At the very least, one should carefully explicate the distinctions. Unfortunately, Niehaus argues simultaneously for preparation through divine inspiration and distortion through demonic inspiration. Of course, Scripture does teach that pagan sacrifices were demonically inspired (e.g., 1 Co 10:20-21). And the universality of God’s grace is certainly biblical (Titus 2:11). However, the two are certainly not synonymous. Integrating the two indiscriminately is ill advised. As for the former, Paul does not seem to be referring to the kind of topics that Niehaus labels “parallels” – e.g., covenant or restoration – but to the horror of idolatry itself as demonic. It does not necessarily follow that recognizable truth from a Christian perspective found in pagan religions is demonically inspired as well. As for the latter, it is inappropriate to identify, even ever so indirectly, God’s gracious providence with the demonic. The repulsiveness of this approach shows when Niehaus (inadvertently?) makes God and demons collaborative partners in preparing people for divine truth and scriptural salvation.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Winter 2010

About the Author: Tony Richie, D.Min, Ph.D., is missionary teacher at SEMISUD (Quito, Ecuador) and adjunct professor at the Pentecostal Theological Seminary (Cleveland, TN). Dr. Richie is an Ordained Bishop in the Church of God, and Senior Pastor at New Harvest in Knoxville, TN. He has served the Society for Pentecostal Studies as Ecumenical Studies Interest Group Leader and is currently Liaison to the Interfaith Relations Commission of the National Council of Churches (USA), and represents Pentecostals with Interreligious Dialogue and Cooperation of the World Council of Churches and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs. He is the author of Speaking by the Spirit: A Pentecostal Model for Interreligious Dialogue (Emeth Press, 2011) and Toward a Pentecostal Theology of Religions: Encountering Cornelius Today (CPT Press, 2013) as well as several journal articles and books chapters on Pentecostal theology and experience.

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