Critical Objections to the Genuineness of the Bible Book of Ezekiel

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GLEASON L. ARCHER, JR. (1916-2004), (B.A., M.A., Ph.D., Harvard University; B.D., Princeton Theological Seminary; L.L.B., Suffolk Law School) was a biblical scholar, theologian, educator, and author. He was a professor of Old Testament and Semitic Languages at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, where he taught from 1965 through 1991.

As recently as the eighth edition of Driver’s ILOT, the genuineness of Ezekiel had been accepted as completely authentic by the majority of rationalist critics. But in 1924 Gustav Hoelscher advanced the thesis that only a small fraction of the book was by the historical sixth-century Ezekiel (i.e., only 143 verses out of 1273) and the rest came from some later author living in Jerusalem and contemporaneous with Nehemiah (440–430 B.C.). In 1930 Professor C. C. Torrey published a discussion of his view that no part of Ezekiel came from the sixth century, or even from the two centuries succeeding. He dated the earliest stratum of the book of Ezekiel at 230 B.C. and deduced that it was written in Jerusalem rather than Babylonia. Not long afterward it was reedited by a redactor who gave it the appearance of having been written in Babylonia by one of the Captivity. It should be mentioned that Torrey did not believe in the historicity of the Chaldean destruction of Judah or the removal of the Jewish population to Babylonia in any sort of national captivity. Few scholars, however, have followed him in this skepticism, and in more recent years the cumulative data of Palestinian archaeology (as interpreted, e.g., by W. R Albright) point to a complete cessation of Israelite occupation in Palestine during the greater part of the sixth century. G. A. Cooke, who put out the ICC volume on Ezekiel in 1937, still adhered to the view that the historic Ezekiel was the basic author of the book, for he felt it would be just as hard to believe in the supposed late redactor as it would be to accept at face value the statements of the text itself. Nevertheless, the more recent trend in Liberal circles is to deny the genuineness of Ezekiel and to insist that it was really composed in Palestine some time after the restoration from exile. Thus N. Messel in 1945 ventured to date the work at about 400 B.C. Bentzen declared, “The book as it now stands is no authentic work of the prophet Ezekiel.”

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Two main grounds have been advanced for the denial of this book to the sixth-century prophet Ezekiel.

  1. The prophet who pronounced doom upon Israel could not possibly be the same as the one who held forth heartening promises of future blessing. In other words, the historic Ezekiel must have been a preacher of darkness and doom and afforded his nation no ray of light or hope. But it should be pointed out that nearly all the Old Testament prophets who foretell catastrophic judgment also predict subsequent restoration and the ultimate bestowal of covenant grace on the chastened nation of Israel. This observation applies to Amos, Hosea, Micah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, just to name a few of the outstanding examples. Even Nahum speaks of eventual deliverance and triumph for Israel (2:2) and the destruction of her foes (1:15). The same is true in Zeph. 3:14–20. Only by a rigid dogmatism can these various Old Testament prophets be carved up into different sources and thus preserve the hypothesis that the threatener can only threaten and the promiser can only promise. Even Hugo Gressmann was led by an extensive study of these prophets to this conclusion: “World renewal necessarily follows upon world catastrophe.”
  2. It is alleged that the author of Ezekiel betrays a Palestinian viewpoint rather than that of an author writing in Babylonia. For example, Ezekiel is portrayed as enacting symbolic prophecies for the benefit of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, which of course they could not have witnessed had he been living in the land of the Chaldeans more than a thousand miles away. In answer to this it should be pointed out that there is no hint or suggestion in the text of Ezekiel itself that the prophet performed his symbolic actions in the presence of Jerusalemites actually living in Jerusalem. On the contrary, it indicates that his audience was composed of citizens of Jerusalem who shared exile with him in Tell Abib, Babylonia. In 2 Kings 24:14 we read that when King Jehoiachin was taken into captivity in 597 B.C. with his princes and “mighty men of valor,” the number of captives deported to Babylon (including the craftsmen and skilled workers) numbered no less than ten thousand. Since the great majority of these must have been residents of Jerusalem, there is no difficulty in supposing that Ezekiel had a very considerable audience of Jerusalemites to whom he might preach, right there in Tel Abib by the Chebar.
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Second, it is objected that the author betrays an eyewitness knowledge of such events as took place in Jerusalem itself and which could have been witnessed only by actual bystanders. Thus in chapter 8 the author describes the idolatrous worship of the elders in the Jerusalem temple; in 11:13 he refers to the sudden death of one of their number (Pelatiah, the son of Benaiah). In 12:3–12, he refers to Zedekiah’s attempt to escape from Jerusalem by night; in 21:18 he depicts Nebuchadnezzar consulting omens at a crossroads on the way to Jerusalem; and in 24:2 he refers to his encampment outside the city walls. The only reasonable conclusion to draw, according to these critics, is that the author lived in Jerusalem in the last years before the final destruction of 587 B.C. (Most advocates of this theory, however, make the author subsequent to the Exile and understand his work as a mere fictional account pieced together from oral tradition.)

Yet it should be noted that many of these references in Ezekiel are perfectly compatible with the supposition that tidings of the events related might have had opportunity to get to the exiles in Babylon by the time the author wrote what he did. In other cases, an introductory statement is given (e.g., in chap. 8) that what the author relates consists of a vision supernaturally imparted to him by the Lord. Only on the basis of antisupernaturalistic presuppositions can the factor of divine revelation be ruled out as an explanation of how Ezekiel could have had such an exact knowledge of what was going on in the Lord’s house back in his native land. Nor can it be successfully maintained that even the assumption of an author living in Jerusalem can satisfactorily explain all the material contained in the text, for some of these visions are obviously of supernatural origin. This is preeminently the case with the vision of the departure of the shekinah glory of the Lord from the temple as set forth in 10:4 and 11:23. Only upon the supposition that Jehovah miraculously conveyed these scenes to His prophet in the form of a spiritual vision can these passages in Ezekiel be intelligently understood.

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Discrepancies Between Ezekiel and the Priestly Code

Reference has been made in chapter 12 to the role assigned by the Wellhausen school to the sixth-century prophet Ezekiel in laying the foundation for the work of the priestly school. To him or his immediate disciples were attributed the Holiness Code (Lev. 17–26) and the first stages of a new doctrine that the priesthood should be confined to the descendants of Aaron rather than allowed to the tribe of Levi as a whole (cf. Ezek. 44:7–16, which assigns a privileged status to the family of Zadok). But the advocates of this school insisted that document P could not have been in existence before Ezekiel’s time; otherwise he would not have ventured to prescribe regulations which markedly differ from those laid down in the Priestly Code. As a matter of fact, there are striking divergences in three general areas: temple dimensions, temple furniture, and the ritual of sacrificial worship. It was for this reason, of course, that some of the ancient Jewish authorities, especially those connected with the school of Shammai, entertained doubts as to the canonicity of Ezekiel—overlooking the possibility that the temple regulations in chapters 40–48 were not intended to be implemented in the period of the old covenant, but rather in the final kingdom of the messianic age.

It should be observed that the theory of post-exilic origin for the Priestly Code does not really furnish an adequate explanation for the divergences just referred to. It is an undeniable fact that the provisions in Ezekiel differ just as much from document D, and even document H, as they do from P. For example, there is absolutely no mention in Ezekiel of the tithes and gifts which are to be presented for the firstborn (such as are prescribed in D and E), nor of the Feast of Pentecost and the regulations pertaining to it, nor of such particular provisions as the avoidance of ascending by steps to an altar. Since all these matters just mentioned are included in Deuteronomy, the same type of logic which makes Ezekiel earlier than P would compel us to make him earlier than D as well.3 It is noteworthy that Ezekiel presupposes the same general system for sacrificial worship as that set forth in P: burnt offerings, sin offerings, peace offerings, and a clear distinction between the ritually clean and unclean. All these regulations are set forth with the implication that this sacrificial system was well known to its readers and had been practiced from ancient times.

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Perhaps the most striking evidence along this line is that the temple dimensions given in the last part of Ezekiel differ not only from those in the Priestly Code but also those of the Solomonic temple as described in 1 Kings 6–7. If Ezekiel’s divergence indicates earlier authorship, then a consistent application of this criterion would compel us to understand Ezekiel as earlier than the erection of the Solomonic temple. Here again then we must acknowledge that this whole line of reasoning leads to ridiculous results and cannot be adhered to as a serviceable criterion for comparative dating.

Another type of divergence which the post-exilic date for P does not explain is found in Ezekiel’s vision of the apportionment of the Holy Land among the twelve tribes during the millennial kingdom. As the metes and bounds are given in chapter 48, a geography somewhat different from that which presently exists in Palestine seems to be quite definitely implied. Quite significant extension of the northern tribes into the eastern area beyond the Jordan River seems to be clearly involved (for Dan, Asher, and Naphtali—which includes Damascus and points east). Manasseh and Ephraim likewise extend as far as the Syrian Desert. Below the Sea of Galilee comes Reuben (on the west of the Jordan). Then Judah forms a box above the Jerusalem enclave from the west coast to the Jordan, Benjamin, Simeon, and Issachar all stretch from the coast to the Dead Sea. Below them Issachar, Zebulun and Gad have similar horizontal strips from the Wadi el ’Aris to the Edomite border. This new distribution of tribal territories differs quite markedly from that which was allotted each tribe under Joshua.

Since Ezekiel had been brought up in Judah and must have been thoroughly familiar with the lay of the land in his own generation, he could not have been speaking of an apportionment to be enacted in the near future. He must have had reference to a new state of affairs to be ushered in at the end time. If this is true in regard to geography, there seems to be no reason why it may not also apply to the cultus itself.

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

Problem of the Fulfillment of Ezekiel 40–48

These chapters contain a long and detailed series of predictions of what the future Palestine is to be like, with its city and temple. To an open-minded reader, it is safe to say the predictions of these nine chapters give the appearance of being as literally intended as those contained in the earlier part of the book (e.g., the judgments upon Tyre and Sidon in 26–28, which found literal fulfillment in subsequent history). The question is whether the plans set forth in chapters 40–48 are ever to be realized. If no temple is ever going to be erected in accordance with these specifications, and if there is to be no such holy city as the prophet describes, and if there is to be no such apportionment of the land among the twelve tribes as he indicates, we are faced with a portion of Scripture containing false prophecy.

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The only way to avoid this conclusion, according to many interpreters, is to understand all these provisions as intended in a purely figurative way. These chapters should be understood as referring to the New Testament church, the spiritual Jerusalem: This line of interpretation is widely held even by scholars of undoubted orthodoxy. In the New Bible Commentary we read, “The conclusion of Ezekiel’s prophecy, therefore, is to be regarded as a true prediction of the kingdom of God given under forms with which the prophet was familiar, viz., those of his own (Jewish) dispensation. Their essential truth will be embodied in the new age under forms suitable to the new (Christian) dispensation. How this is to be done is outlined for us in the book of Revelation (21:1–22:5).”

The application of Ezek. 40–48 to the New Testament church side-steps some of the difficulties attendant upon a more literalistic interpretation. This is especially true of the regulations for blood sacrifice which appear in these chapters and which can hardly be fitted into a post-Calvary economy of salvation, if the sacrifices themselves retain their atoning significance (with which of course they were invested in the law of Moses). In the Epistle to the Hebrews, such passages as 10:4 make it clear that no more animal sacrifices are necessary or efficacious for the atonement of sin. Hebrews announces that the one atoning deed of the Lord Jesus has a permanent efficacy which does away with the Old Testament priesthood of Aaron and the sacrifices of the Levitical code. As H. L. Ellison puts it in Ezekiel, the Man and His Message, “In addition they [the opponents of the literalistic interpretation] cannot see why, when water, bread and wine have met the symbolic needs of nearly a thousand generations of Christians, the millennium will need more. The King has returned and the curse on nature has been lifted; why should the animal creation still lay down its life?” It cannot be denied that this is a persuasive line of reasoning, and it is not surprising that a great majority of Conservative scholars are content to dismiss Ezekiel’s temple as a mere allegory of the Christian church.

It nevertheless remains true that this matter cannot be so easily disposed of, for the stubborn fact still remains that we have here eight or nine chapters of prophetic Scripture which assure believers that God has a definite plan in the future for Jerusalem, the Temple, and Palestine, all of which give definite and precise measurements and bounds for the temple buildings and precincts and for the division of the tribal territories of the Promised Land. It is also true that the passages referred to in the book of Revelation provide rather dubious support for identification of Ezekiel’s temple with the church age. Thus in Rev. 21:22, we learn that in the New Jerusalem there is to be no temple at all, and this appears to be a rather startling type of fulfillment for four chapters (Ezek. 40–43) which describe the future temple in great detail, especially in view of the fact that Ezekiel makes a clear separation between the temple and the city (48:8, 15).

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A similarity has been pointed out between the symbolic river in Ezekiel and that in Rev. 22:1, but it should be noted that the river of John’s vision flows from beneath the throne of God and of the Lamb, whereas the river in Ezek. 47:1 flows from the threshold of the temple. Undeniably there is a relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament passages involved, but it seems to be a relationship of the intermediate or typical to the consummate and eternal. In other words, the future millennial kingdom is to be a provisional economy which prepare the way for the new heavens and the new earth announced in Rev. 21 and 22.

It is quite significant that even some who hold that the New Testament church is the fulfillment of Ezekiel’s temple feel hesitant to affirm that the church is what Ezekiel had in mind as he composed these chapters. In the New Bible Commentary article referred to above, on page 663 we read: “Ezekiel has advanced plans which he expected to be carried out to the letter. To make them a deliberately symbolic description of the worship of the Christian Church is out of the question.” This comment of course raises the question, was Ezekiel mistaken in his expectation? If these plans of the temple and Holy City were of his own devising, it is perhaps conceivable that he could have been in error (although such error could hardly have become part of Holy Scripture). But the prophet makes it abundantly plain that he did not devise these plans himself, they were revealed to him by the angel of the Lord who showed him the splendors of the completed temple precinct and measured for him all its metes and bounds. If then there was a mistake in expectation, it must have been shared by the angel of the Lord (unless, of course, Ezekiel has not given us a trustworthy account).

In view of the foregoing considerations, the present writer has come to the view that a moderately literal interpretation of these chapters is attended by less serious difficulties than a figurative interpretation. Much caution should be exercised in pressing details, but in the broad outline it may be reasonably deduced that in a coming age all the promises conveyed by the angel to Ezekiel will be fulfilled in the glorious earthly kingdom with which the drama of redemption is destined to close. The sacrificial offerings mentioned in these chapters are to be understood as devoid of propitiatory or atoning character, since Christ’s sacrifice provided an atonement which was sufficient for all time (Heb. 10:12). Nevertheless, the Lord Jesus ordained the sacrament of holy communion as an ordinance to be practiced even after His crucifixion, and He specified that it was to be observed until His second coming (1 Cor. 11:26: “till he come”). By premillennial definition, the Millennium is to follow His second advent. If, then, there was a sacramental form practiced during the church age, why should there not be a new form of sacrament carried on during the Millennium itself.?

We in this age are hardly more competent to judge concerning the new requirements and conditions of the future millennial kingdom than were Old Testament believers competent to judge concerning the new forms and conditions which were to be ushered in in the New Testament age after Christ’s first advent.

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It should be added that some writers on this subject have introduced questionable precision of detail in their interpretation of what the millennial kingdom will be like, such as the exclusive Jewishness of the citizenry, or the supremacy of the Hebrew race as an ethnic unit over all the nations of the earth. Yet there are many indications in the Old Testament prophets that Jewish and Gentile believers shall be incorporated into one body politic in the coming age. For example, we find it clearly implied in Isa. 11:10–12 that both the Hebrew ˓am (“people,” KJV) and the Gentile gōyɩ̂m (“Gentiles,” KJV) will be included under the rule of the same Messiah and enjoy equal standing before Him. The symbol of the good olive tree in Rom. 11 seems to indicate that all Christians, whether Jewish or Gentile in background, are brought into organic relationship as members of the same body, and there is a suggestion that this condition will continue even in the end time (cf. Gal. 6:16, which seems to speak of the Church as the Israel of God).

For these reasons, the sharp dichotomy maintained between Israel and the church by Unger seems very difficult to maintain. However, it should be recognized that a belief in the millennial fulfillment of Ezek. 40–48 does not necessarily involve any clear separation between Jewish and Gentile believers, nor does it require any identification between the “prince” (nāsɩ̂ʾ) or “ruler” of the latter-day commonwealth mentioned in these chapters (44:3; 46:2; etc.) and the person of the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It is far more likely that this “prince” is to be understood as a vice-regent, ruling under the authority of the Messiah (whose empire, of course, will extend to all the nations of the earth).

It is highly significant that recent evangelical commentaries, such as that by F. F. Bruce in The New Layman’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 1979, pp. 894–99) and by Ralph Alexander in Expositor’s Bible Commentary, vol. VI (Zondervan, 1986, pp. 942–96) both give serious attention to all the particulars of this Millennial Temple and Holy Land as a sure prophecy certain of future fulfillment. Alexander has this to say about the sacrifices to be maintained during this final stage of history (prior to the lowering of heaven to earth in the New Jerusalem): “The sacrifices in the millennial sacrificial system appear to be only memorials of Christ’s finished work and pictorial reminders that mankind by nature is sinful and in need of redemption from sin. The very observances of the Lord’s Table is an argument in favor of this memorial view. The Lord’s Table is itself a memorial of Christ’s death.” (EBC, 6:951).[1]

[1] Gleason Archer Jr., A Survey of Old Testament Introduction, 3rd. ed. (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994), 410–419.

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