By Gordon Franz
Sefar Ya’akov, written by Ya’akov Ben-Zavdai, was addressed to Messianic Jews residing in the Diaspora, outside of Eretz Yis-rael. This small epistle, only five chapters long, has a distinct Jewish flavor based on the teachings of Yeshua ha-Mashiach.
I believe that James, the son of Zebedee, wrote this epistle soon after AD 30, as a follow-up letter, in order to encourage Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus who had come to faith during the annual pilgrimage of Shavuot (Pentecost) in Jerusalem (Acts 2).
In the First Century AD, there was a Jewish community living on the island of Delos. This island, situated at the center of the Cyclades Islands, was famous in Greek mythology as the birthplace of the god Apollo and his sister, the goddess Artemis.
This article will give a brief overview of the history of the island, and will discuss the Jewish and Samaritan communities that resided on the island, as well as the synagogue that was discovered during the archaeological excavations in 1912-13. The setting of the epistle of James is a synagogue in the Diaspora. I will use the Delos synagogue to illustrate several passages in the epistle. Using our “sanctified imagination,” we will try to comprehend how a Jewish believer in the Lord Jesus on the island of Delos would understand the word-pictures in the epistle in light of the First Century AD history, geography, and material culture. The archaeology of the islands of Delos and Rheneia, an island opposite Delos, will help to illustrate the word-pictures. To conclude this study, I will discuss the implications for the dating of the epistle of James.
A BRIEF GEOGRAPHY AND HISTORY OF THE ISLAND OF DELOS
Delos is a small island in the center of the Cyclades. Pliny describes these islands as “lying round Delos in a circle which has given them their name”. He goes on to state, “By far the most famous of the Cyclades and lying in the middle of them, Delos, celebrated for its temple of Apollo and for its commerce” ( Natural History 4.12:65; LCL 2: 165,167).
If one climbs to the top of Mt. Cynthus on a clear day, the islands of Siros can be viewed to the west, Tinos to the north, Mykonos to the northeast, Paros and Naxos to the south.
The island is 5 km long in a north-south direction. At its widest, it is 1.3 km in an east-west direction. The highest mountain is Mt. Cynthus which rises 112 meters above sea level. From a spring on the side of the mountain, flowing for 1.2 km, is the River Inopus, that flows into the Bay of Scardanas.
The first settlement on the island of Delos was discovered on Mt. Cynthus dating to the 3rd millennium BC. It did not seem to last long and the island was abandoned until the late Mycenaean period (1580-1200 BC) when the plain below the mountain was inhabited.
It was colonized by the Ionians about 750 BC. At this point in history, the island takes on its sacred status. Homer’s Odyssey (Book 6, line 162; LCL 1: 233) and the Homeric Hymns, written about 700 BC, said that Delos was an important religious center. It becomes important because, according to Greek mythology, the island of Delos offered Leto a place to safely give birth to Apollo and Artemis from the fury of Hera, the wife of Zeus ( To Delian Apollo LCL 325-337).
Athenian influence was exerted over the island in the 6th century BC. They “purified” the island by removing all the burials from the area around the Temple of Apollo in 540 BC.
The Persian Wars broke out about 490 BC. An alliance of Greek city-states was formed, called the Delian League, against the Persians in 478/7 BC. Delos became the center for this league and the treasury was kept on the island.
In the winter of 426/5 BC the second “purification” of the island occurred. This time all the burials from the island were removed and reburied in what the archaeologists call the “Purification Trench” on the island of Rheneia (Catling 1996:443).
From 314-166 BC, Delos enjoyed a period of independence and prosperity. The island began to develop as a commercial center with public and private banks. There was extensive building activity and foreigners began to populate the island.
In 166 BC the Romans gained control of the island. They put Athens in charge of the island and made it a free port. With economic prosperity came foreign influence. Foreigners from Italy, Egypt, Syria, Phoenicia, Israel brought their cults with them and built temples and shrines to their gods.
In 88 BC, Menophanes, an officer of Mithradates VI, “razed Delos itself to the ground”. If one can believe the reports of Appian and Pausanias ( Description of Greece III:23.3-5; LCL 2:147), upwards to 20,000 people were killed on the island in this attack. In 69 BC, the pirates of Athenodorus, sacked the island, and it never regained its glory. It’s religious and commercial influenced waned. As Strabo put it, “When the Romans again got the island, after the king withdrew to his homeland, it was desolate; and it has remained in an impoverished condition until the present time” ( Geography 10.5.4; LCL 5: 167).
However, in 58 BC, the Roman Senate confirmed privileges on the people of Delos. Throughout the First Century AD, there was a community on the island, and life went on under the control of the Athenians.
In the second century AD, during the reign of Hadrian, the Athenians put the island up for sale, but there were no takers! In fact, Pausanias states, “Delos, once the common market of Greece, has no Delian inhabitants, but only the men sent by the Athenians to guard the sanctuary” ( Description of Greece 33:2; LCL 4: 69).
At the end of the 3rd century AD, there was a small Christian community on the island. Toward the end of the 7th century AD the island becomes abandoned.
For a detailed history of the island, see Laidlaw 1933.
THE JEWISH AND SAMARITAN COMMUNITIES ON THE ISLAND OF DELOS
Jewish and Samaritan communities on the island of Delos are well attested to in the contemporary literature as well as inscriptions discovered in the excavations on Delos and Rheneia.
The first mention in the literature to a Jewish community on the island of Delos is in I Macc. 15:16-23. This passage contained a letter from the Roman proconsul, Lucius Calpurnius Piso (140-139 BC). It affirmed that the Jews were friends of Rome and the various kings should protect them.
During the reign of Julius Caesar, two edicts were given that protected the rights of the Jews on the island of Delos, both are recorded by Josephus ( Antiq. 14: 213-216; LCL 8: 561-563 and 14: 231-232; LCL 8: 571-573).
Two funerary stela of Jewish women who were murdered on Delos were found on the island of Rheneia. Each stela contained a prayer for vengeance against the murderers (Deissmann 1995: 413-424). Interestingly, the Greek form of “El Elyon” (“God, Most High”) is used on both inscriptions. This name also appears on one inscription found in the synagogue.
Recently, two Samaritan inscriptions were found 90 meters to the north of the synagogue building. One read, “The Israelites on Delos who make offerings to hallowed Argarizein crown with a gold crown Sarapion, son of Jason, of Knossos, for his benefactions toward them” (Kraabel 1984: 44). The second one said, “[the] Israelites [on Delos] who make offerings to hallowed, consecrated Argarizein …” (Kraabel 1984: 45).
One can assume that both communities were engaged in the trade and commerce on the island.
THE SYNAGOGUE ON THE ISLAND OF DELOS
Excavations on the island of Delos began in 1873 and were conducted by the Greek Antiquities Service and the Ecole Francaise d’Archeologie at Athens. The most intensive excavations were carried out between 1902 and 1914. During the 1912-13 excavations, a synagogue building was discovered by the excavator, Andre Plassart. The site was later re-excavated by Philippe Bruneau in 1962 and published by him in 1970 and 1982.
The structure is located in a residential area in the northeast part of the island. It consists of several rooms. The main room, the hall of assembly, measures 16.9 meters north-south by 15.04 meters east-west, with a triportal entrance. The assembly hall was divided into two rooms, probably after the War of Mithridates in 88 BC. In the northern room, there are marble benches that line the wall. In the center of the west wall is a kathedra (throne) with a footstool. The entrance to a cistern is located In the southern room.
Four inscriptions were found in the excavations. Each contained the words, Theos Hypsistos (“God, the Most High”) or Hypsistos (“the Most High”). The former is translated El Elyon in the LXX (cf. Gen. 14: 19,20,22; Goodenough 1957). This name of God also appears on the “Vengeance Inscription” from the island of Rheneia. One also contained the word proseuchai, sometimes translated “prayer halls” and could refer to a synagogue.
The excavator concluded that the synagogue was in use from the First Century BC into the Second Century AD. Recently, Monika Trumper published a comprehensive article advocating that this structure is the oldest original synagogue building in the Diaspora (2004). She contents that there were five phases of occupation from the 2nd century BC to the 2nd century AD. This, however, is not the final excavation report.
The identification of this structure has been hotly debated. The original excavator, Andre Passart, identified it as a Jewish house of worship (1913). E. L. Sukenik, in his Ancient Synagogues in Palestine and Greece, followed this identification (1934). In 1935, Belle D. Mazur came out with a study, Studies of Jewry in Ancient Greece disputing this identification. As a result of this study, Sukenik reversed his position on the structure (1949). Edwin R. Goodenough, in his monumental work, Jewish Symbols of the Graeco-Roman Period (1965:2: 71-75) anaylized Mazur’s work and offered counter arguments. However, he concluded that the structure “might almost certainly … be taken, without any protest, to be probably a synagogue” (2: 74). So much for archaeological dogmatism!
Hershel Shanks concluded that the structure was actually a temple to Zeus (1979: 43-45). There have been other studies by L. Michael White (1987) and A. T. Kraabel that reaffirm the synagogue interpretation. For the purpose of this paper, the synagogue interpretation will be accepted and followed.
THE SETTING OF THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
It is not the intent of this article to imply or suggest that the epistle of James reached the island of Delos, or that James had this synagogue in mind. This synagogue is used only as an example of a First Century AD Diaspora synagogue to illustrate two passages in the epistle. Nothing more is implied. James was writing to Jewish believers in the Lord Jesus in the Diaspora (James 1:1).
The setting of the epistle of James is a synagogue in the Diaspora. The Diaspora is a technical Jewish term, in Greek, for the Jewish people living outside of the Land of Israel. James 2:2-4 says, “For if there should come into your synagogue a man with gold rings, in fine apparel, and there should also come in a poor man in filthy clothes, and you pay attention to the one wearing fine clothes and say to him, ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and say to the poor man, ‘You stand there,’ or, “Sit here at my footstool,’ have you not shown partiality among yourselves, and become judges with evil thoughts?” 
The early church met in synagogues before there was the split between the Church and the Synagogue (Acts 26:11). The Delos synagogue can illustrate James 2. On the west wall of the assembly hall was a kathedra (throne) of white marble that has been identified as a “seat of Moses.” This was the most prominent seat in the synagogue where the rabbi would teach the congregation the Torah. Below his feet was a footstool. When the rich man came in, he was given a “good place”, probably the seat next to the “seat of Moses” on the bench reserved for the elders. On the other hand, the poor man was relegated to stand in the corner or sit at the footstool of the rabbi.
The kathedra, or seat of Moses, illustrates the second passage. James 3:1 says, “My brethren, let not many of you become teachers, knowing that we shall receive a stricter judgment.” The teacher of the Word of God, like the rabbis, scribes and Pharisees, would sit in the “seat of Moses” and expound the Scriptures. James warns the teacher about living a life that is contrary to what he is teaching. James still has the words of the Lord Jesus that he heard only a short while before ringing in his mind. “The scribes and Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat, therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works, for they say, and do not do” (Matt. 23:2,3).
Most English Bibles translate the Greek word “synagogue” as either “assembly,” “congregation,” “meeting,” “place of worship,” or even “church”! If we see the epistle of James in its Jewish Diaspora context it should be translated, as the New Jerusalem Bible translates it, “synagogue.” For a full discussion and debate of the word “synagogue,” see Kee 1990; Oster 1993; Kee 1994.
THE WORD PICTURES FROM THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
Permit me to use my “sanctified imagination” for a moment. Let’s assume that the epistle of James did reach the island of Delos and believers in the Lord Jesus read it. How would they understand the word pictures used by James in the book? They, like us, read the Bible in the context of the world in which the reader lives. The believers on Delos would understand the epistle from the surroundings of their world.
Perhaps the believers were meeting on the Lord’s Day in the synagogue of Delos when somebody came from the harbor carrying a copy of the epistle of James. With great anticipation they began to read it. “James, a servant ( doulos) of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1a). Delos had an earlier reputation as a great slave market. Strabo describes the slave market of Delos in these terms: “… Delos, which could both admit and send away ten thousand slaves on the same day; whence arose the proverb, ‘Merchants, sail in, unload your ship, everything has been sold.’ The cause of this was the fact that the Romans, having become rich after the destruction of Carthage and Corinth, used many slaves” ( Geography 14.5.2; LCL 6:329).
James goes on to say, “To the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad” (1:1b). The Jews who had come to faith were descendents of the tribe of Judah. Also living on the island of Delos were Samaritans, those of the northern tribes, Ephraim and Manasseh.
They continued to read, “My brethren, count it all joy when you fall into various trials.” James wrote this epistle to encourage the people as they go through trials and testings in their walk with the Lord. He recounts the words he heard the Lord Jesus say on the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:11,12). He then writes about testings from without (1:2-12) and temptation from within (1:12-18).
The believer who doubts the wisdom of God in testings is described as “a wave of the sea driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6). James had in mind the eastern windstorms that he had experienced while fishing on the Sea of Galilee (Matt. 8:23-27 // Mark 4:35-41 // Luke 8:22-25 and Matt. 14:22-33 // Mark 6:45-52 // John 6:15-21). The reader on Delos knew from experience the description of “holy Delos” given by Callimanchus. “Surely all the Cyclades, most holy of the isles that lie in the sea. …Wind-swept and stern is she set in the sea, and, wave-beaten as she is, is fitter haunt for gulls than course for horses. The sea, rolling greatly round her, casts off on her much spindrift of the Icarian water” ( Hymn to Delos 4; LCL 85). One can experience the winds and the waves today on the ferry from Mykonos to Delos.
When he describes temptation he uses a word from fishing terminology, “enticed” (1:14; Kent 1986:51). James the son of Zebedee used this word from his own fishing profession. The readers on Delos would understand this word picture from their personal experience as well. Callimachus continues in his Hymn to Delos, describing Delos as a place where “sea-roaming fishermen have made her their home” ( To Delos 4; LCL 85). In the excavations of Delos, a number of fish hooks and implements used for mending nets (cf. Mark 1:19) were discovered. The term “entice” depicts a live bait, either a worm or fish on a hook to prompt the fish to bit it. The fish is deceived and caught. The temptation to sin is the same way. It looks alluring (Heb. 11:25), but when partaken of, it leads to death (James 1:15).
James gives an outline for the rest of the book in verse 19 (Hodges 1994: 15,16). “Therefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.” James expands on the theme, “be swift to hear” in James 1:21-2:26. The believer is not just to hear the Word of God, but is also to do it (1:22). The second section, “be slow to speak” is expanded on in chapter 3. The third section, “be slow to wrath” is expanded on in James 4:1-5:6. The final section of the book gives the key for going through trials and temptation. James says the believer is to have patience (waiting for the Lord’s return) and pray (5:7-20).
The first section, “be swift to hear” is set in the synagogue, with its “seat of Moses” and footstool. James admonishes the believers to be swift to hear the Word of God and apply it to ones life. The setting of the synagogue has already been discussed. However, within the context of the synagogue in James 2, James quotes the Hebrew Scriptures in verse 8 (cf. Lev. 19:18) and verse 11 (Ex. 19:13,14). Passages that would be found in the Torah scrolls of the synagogue. In his discourse on “faith and works” he says, “You believe that there is one God, you do well” (2:19). The statement “one God” comes from the Shema (Deut. 6:4) that was recited in the synagogue as well as the Scriptures contained within the tefillin (Ex. 13:1-10; Deut. 6:4-9; Ex. 13:11-16). Tefillin were used in the First Century as attested to by the ones discovered at Qumran (Yadin 1969:13). James then gives two examples of people who expressed their faith before their fellow human beings by their works, Abraham and Rahab (2:21-25; cf. Matt. 5:16; Tit. 3:5,8). He concludes this section with verse 26, “For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also.” The Delians had an interesting custom concerning the dead. Strabo describes Rheneia, the island opposite Delos, in these terms. “Rheneia is a desert isle within four stadia from Delos, and there the Delians bury their dead; for it is unlawful to bury, or even burn, a corpse on Delos itself” ( Geography 10.5.5; LCL 5: 167). Since Delos was a “holy” island, nobody could be born on the island for fear of infant mortality, nor die there.
The theme of “slow to speak” is addressed in James 3. James admonishes the teacher who would sit in the “seat of Moses” and expound the Scriptures. James uses seven illustrations from the Sea of Galilee to describe the effect the tongue has on other people. At least six of these would be clearly understood on Delos.
The first illustration is the bit in the horses’ mouth that turns his body (3:2b,3). On the walls of one of the houses was found a painting of a man riding a horse with the bit in the horses mouth. The Delians would understand this because of the hippodrome on the island. As previously mentioned, Callimachus mentions the course for horses. Few archaeological remains of a hippodrome were discovered to the east of the sacred lake.
The second illustration is that of a small rudder on a large ship (3:4). James the son of Zebedee, being a fisherman, knew the power of the rudder to turn a ship in the wind. The Delians understood the workings of the rudder from watching the ships maneuver as they came and went from this maritime trading center in the midst of the Aegean Sea.
The third illustration is that of a forest fire (3:5,6). James the son of Zebedee painted this word picture from the summer fires that were in the forests of Galilee and the Golan (cf. Amos 7:4; Joel 1:19,20; 2:3).
The fourth illustration is of the animals (3:7). The “creatures of the sea” would be understood by James as the fish in the Sea of Galilee. The Delians would understand it as the sea creatures in the Aegean Sea.
The fifth illustration is that of a spring (3:11,12). James would have understood the contrast between the fresh water and bitter water from the time he spent at Tabgha, the fishing grounds for Capernaum. There were seven springs there; some were bitter and some very sweet. The island of Delos had only one source of fresh water, a spring on the side of Mt. Cynthos creating the Inopos River that flowed down to the salt water of the sea.
The sixth illustration James uses is of fruit trees, figs, olives and grapes. These trees were local to the Sea of Galilee as well as most of the Land of Israel. Today, if one visits Delos, it appears to be devoid of fertile land. The reason for that is twofold. First, during the nineteenth century, the island was used a pastureland for the sheep from Mykonos. Second, today it is an archaeological park under the auspices of the World Heritage Federation and farming in not permitted (Reger 1994:95). There are a few fig trees scattered here and there, but in antiquity there were farms that engaged in agricultural activity (1994:127-145). One can see vines on funerary monuments from Rhenea that would have reflected the earthly activities of the dead. Callimachus also mentions olive trees on the island ( Hymn to Delos 4; LCL 105).
In the final word-picture, James describes the “wisdom that is from above” as being “without hypocrisy” (3:17). The word “hypocrisy” is a Greek theatric term for an actor that performs for the applause of the audience. James was well aware of at least three theaters in the area of the Sea of Galilee. From the northern shore of the Lake, one could see the Tiberias, Hippos and Gadara theaters. The recipients of the letter on Delos knew the theatric term “hypocrisy” because of the theater on the island. Also, a common motif of the period is painted masks on the walls and mosaics on the floors. In a private house called the House of the Masks one can see such examples.
The third section, “be slow to wrath,” begins in chapter 4. James asks, “Where do wars and fights come from among you?” The implication of that verse is that the believers were fighting in the church meeting. Whenever I speak on this passage in a church I ask, tongue in cheek, “Christians don’t fight, do we?” I usually hear snickering from the audience. Of course we always justify our fighting and bickering by saying, “We fight in Christian love!” James also states that some believers murder and covet (4:2). A sword found in the excavations reminds us of potential weapons that could be used to carry out this gross and sinful deed. A wall painting of two boxers fighting each other from one of the houses would illustrate the fighting.
In this context as well, James says that some believers are adulterers and adulteresses (4:4). Most commentaries say this is spiritual adultery, but in the context of the Greco-Roman world, it could be both physical as well as spiritual. On the island of Delos, there were temples to a host of deities that would try to lure the believer away from the Lord Jesus Christ. Some cults even used sexual immorality to attract people to it. The most notable one on Delos would be the cult of Dionysos, the god of wine and merrymaking. His shrine, called the Stoibadeion, was “a rectangular exedra which at both ends has a pillar which supported an oversize phallus, the symbol of Dionysos” (Zaphiropoulou 1993:32). Dionysos was also discovered on mosaics in private houses on the island (1993:34-37).
In the section on “slow to wrath”, James addresses the source of the problem, which is pride (4:6,10). James goes on to describe the arrogant merchants as saying, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to such and such a city, spend a year there, buy and sell, and make a profit'” (4:13). James reminds them that they don’t even know what tomorrow brings because life it like a vapor. Most of the Jewish community on the island of Delos probably engaged in trade and commerce. For the self-sufficient believer, this would strike home.
After the tragedy of September 11, 2001, I was watching an interview with several New York firefighters. One of them recalled the words of the chief chaplain of New York’s bravest, Mychal Judge, who died in the collapse of the World Trade Center. He said, “If you want to make God laugh, tell Him what you are going to do tomorrow!” This caught the essence of James 4:13-17. In this passage, James describes the arrogant merchants who plan their buying and selling activities and anticipate a profit, yet they do not realize that life is like a vapor. James admonishes them to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall do this or that” (4:15). It is a humbling thought to realize Someone else holds our future!
James goes on to address the rich in James 5:1-6. During the Hellenistic period, Delos was a very wealthy island. Several residential quarters of the city had very luxurious two and three story houses with beautiful mosaics and frescos on the walls. There were farms on Delos that grew wheat and barley (Reger 1994:95-101). James reflects the farmer / reaper who is being taken advantage of by the wealthy farm owner (5:4)
In the final section of the book, James returns to the opening theme, trials and suffering (5:7-20). He encourages the believers to have patience and look for the Lord’s return (5:7-12) and to be persistent in prayer (5:13-20). In each of these sections, the believer on Delos has a decision to make, either to follow the Lord Jesus Christ or one of the deities on the island.
In the first section, James encourages them to look for the Lord’s return and follow the example of the prophets. Delos was famous as the birthplace of Apollo, the god of prophecy, poetry and music. His temples stood in the center of the island. An individual could go to his oracles to consult the future, but the believe in the Lord Jesus has a “more sure word of prophecy,” the Bible (II Pet. 1:19). The prophetic Scriptures were given to encourage the believers to godly living, comfort in times of sorrow, and patience as the believer preservers through trials (I John 3:2,3; I Thess. 4:13-18; Rom. 8:18-30; Blackstone 1989: 181-183).
James asks the question, “Is anyone among you sick?” (5:14). Most of the people on the island would go to the Asclepion at the headlands of the Fourni Bay for healing (Zaphiropoulou 1993: 52). James instructs the believers to “call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up” (5:14,15a). The response of the believer would be different than the society around.
THE IMPLICATIONS FOR THE DATING OF THE EPISTLE OF JAMES
The epistle of James was written by James the son of Zebedee (Bassett 1876), and not the half-brother of the Lord as most commentators suggest (Davids 1982: 2-7; Hiebert 1992: 24-32). The view that James the son of Zebedee wrote the book is based on the internal content of the book and well as the word pictures. Many of the statements in the epistle are based on the teachings of the Lord Jesus, primarily the Sermon on the Mount and parables given in Galilee. James the son of Zebedee was an “ear witness” to these sayings. Many of the word pictures that are used in the epistle are from the Sea of Galilee. The authorship and date of the epistle will be discussed in greater length in another article.
It is also believed that the epistle was written soon (one or two years) after Pentecost ( Shavuot) of AD 30 to encourage those believers in their new found faith in the Lord Jesus as they return to their family and friends in the Diaspora (Acts 2:8-11,41; James 1:1). These early Hebrew-Christians (or Messianic Jews) met in the synagogue buildings until the break with their Jewish brethren (Acts 26:11).
Archaeology and geography can add a third dimension to Biblical studies. The black and white (and sometimes red!) letters on the pages of Scripture can be placed in a historical and geographical context that can be visualized. The reader can say, “Now I see what the inspired writer is talking about.” Just as the readers on Delos could “see” the word pictures used by James when they read the epistle, so we can as well. Might we not just see the word pictures, but also apply them to our lives. As James admonishes us, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only” (1:22).
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1 This article is dedicated to my fellow travelers: Richard, Donna, Zion and Judy (June 4, 2002), Alan, Heather, John, Karin and Stephen (Oct. 26, 2002) who tromped all over the island of Delos with me and listened to my “crazy idea” on the epistle of James.
 All Scripture quotes are from the NKJV.