by Gordon Franz

    At the beginning of this Christmas season (2010), I was going into New York City to do some research at the New York Public Library. As usual, I took public transportation into the city (it’s less stressful than driving and you don’t have to worry about parking). As we were approaching the Palisades in the bus lane to the Lincoln Tunnel, I saw out the left-hand side of the bus a billboard that caught my attention. It had what looked like a scene from a Christmas card. I thought to myself: “That’s nice; somebody is wishing us a joyous Christmas.” As the bus got closer, I saw the three wise men riding their camels in the starlit night toward an open-sided shelter with a gabled thatched roof next to a couple of palm trees; a donkey was tied to the stall, a bight star overhead, and Mary and Joseph watching over the new-born Baby Jesus. Then I saw the words: “You KNOW it’s a Myth. This Season, Celebrate REASON!” It was signed by the American Atheists and said they were “Reasonable since 1963.” Their web address was also given.

    The Unbiblical Christmas Myth

    I had mixed emotions when I saw the sign. Should I laugh or cry? I would laugh because the Lord will have the last laugh with this sign. His Word says: “The fool has said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’ They are corrupt, they have done abominable works, there is none who does good” (Psalm 14:1). The psalmist’s description perfectly fits the atheists and their sign! They have been foolish, not reasonable, since 1963! I would cry because they were mocking the precious truth of the incarnation of the Lord Jesus.

    But when I looked at the picture and read the words again, I started chuckling. I said to myself: “They are absolutely correct; the picture on the billboard depicts a myth! The American Atheists are the unreasonable ones. They are ignorant of the Scriptures because there are at least three things Biblically wrong with that picture. The foolish atheists were propagating an unbiblical Christmas myth!”

    The Mistakes of the American Atheists Myth

    I wondered to myself: “If somebody had recounted the events of the birth of the Lord Jesus as the Bible actually presented it, would they have become atheists?” It is sad to consider that what is depicted on this billboard is also presented yearly in most Sunday Schools Christmas pageants in America!

    The first mistake the atheists made was to put three wise men on the billboard. The Bible does not say how many wise men there were! We assume that there were three because there were three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. We also sing “We Three Kings of Orient Are” every Christmas and there is a church tradition that says there were three wise men and even gives their names, but the Bible never records how many wise men there were.

    The second mistake they made was to put the birth of the Lord Jesus in a shelter outside under the starlit sky. Dr. Luke says the Lord Jesus was born in a stable that was in a cave under a house because the guest chamber of that house was already taken by other relatives (2:7, 12; see Bailey 2008: 25-37 for a proper understanding of the cultural background to this passage).


    The final, and most glaring, mistake they made was having the wise men come to Jesus at His birth. The Gospel of Matthew says that the wise men appeared “after Jesus was born” and they inquired: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?” (2:1-2). When they find Jesus in Bethlehem, He is a “young child,” not a “babe wrapped in swaddling cloth” (Matt. 2: 8-14; cf. Luke 2:12, 16). Dr. Luke recounts the birth of the Lord Jesus and Matthew records the event of the wise men’s visit a year to a year and a half after the birth of the Lord Jesus. Unfortunately, the American Atheists billboard (and the Sunday School Christmas play), fuses the two events together. That is unbiblical.

    “Come now, and let us REASON together,” says the LORD

    The atheists want us to celebrate REASON this season. The prophet Isaiah set forth God’s challenge to His wayward people Israel when he proclaimed: “’Come now, and let us REASON together,’ says the LORD, ‘Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall be as wool’” (1:18). Just as God wanted to reason with His wayward people in the 8th century BC, so today, God welcomes the opportunity to reason with foolish atheists in the 21st century AD. The Lord has not changed and He is still long-suffering and is “not willing that any should perish but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). That includes every member of the American Atheists!

    One of the ways God reasoned with His people was by predictive prophecy. Over 70 times the prophet Ezekiel, at the beginning of the 6th century BC, says that God gave predictive prophecy so that when the prophecies were fulfilled, the people, both Jews and Gentiles, may “know that I am the LORD.” Predictive prophecy was given because it demonstrates that the Lord Jesus is God who knows and reveals the future and is sovereignly acting in history. This might deflate the atheist’s ego because there is Someone greater than the human centered atheist. It would also show that they would have to be accountable to Someone greater than themselves. Humbling thought!

    The events surrounding the birth of the Lord Jesus were foretold by the holy Hebrew prophets as they were borne along by the Holy Spirit hundreds of years before the Lord Jesus was born (2 Peter 1:19-21). The prophet Isaiah, who recorded that God wanted to reason with His people, gave some of the most powerful and profound prophecies about the Person and work of the Lord Jesus.

    King David was also a prophet and the Spirit of God took him beyond himself and his own experience when he composed Psalm 40 (Cf. Acts 2:29, 30; cf. Matt. 22:41-46). In verses 6-8, David sang: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire; My ears You have opened. Burnt offering and sin offering You did not require. Then I said, ‘Behold, I come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me. I delight to do Your will, O my God, and Your law is within my heart’.” The Divine commentary on this passage, written a thousand years later, is found in Hebrews 10:1-18. The Spirit of God changed the 6th verse of the psalm and said: “But a body You have prepared for Me” (Heb. 10:5). Thus the Son, not David, is speaking to God the Father and said He would do the Father’s will. The Father prepared a body for His Son in the womb of Mary. Her conception was by the Holy Spirit.

    During the reign of King Ahaz, the prophet Isaiah challenged the king to test the Lord by asking for a sign. The king, with false piety, refused. Isaiah then turned to those in the royal court, including Prince Hezekiah, and announced a profound sign to the House of David: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and you shall call His name Immanuel. Curds and honey He shall eat [=  His humanity], that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good [= His divinity]” (7:14). Matthew records the fulfillment of this sign when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph and told him that Mary will conceive the Lord Jesus by the Holy Spirit while she was a virgin. When he quotes Isaiah 7:14 from the Septuagint, he uses the Greek word parthenos which can only mean a virgin (1:20-23).

    There are actually three aspects to the nature of this Child in these verses. First, He would be virgin born. Second, He would have a humble beginning. And third, He would have a sinless nature, thus divine. The first part of verse 15 states: “Curds and honey He shall eat.” These are the foods of the poor, not a symbol of a royal diet (contra Young 1992:I:291). The sign to shepherds was that He would be born in poor circumstances (Luke 2:10-12), not royal surroundings. When Mary dedicated her first-born in the Temple, she offered two turtle doves, the offering of the poor (Luke 2:22-24; cf. Lev. 12:8). The wise men did not arrive until a year, to a year and a half after the birth of the Lord Jesus, before they presented Jesus with gold, frankincense and myrrh.

    Verse 15 goes on to say, “that He may know to refuse the evil and choose the good.” In this passage Isaiah is pointing out the sinless nature of the Child. Unlike us (and Hezekiah and Isaiah’s children), who by nature are sinful human beings that choose evil and refuse the good (Rom. 1-3), this Child will have a sinless nature as demonstrated by the fact that He chooses good and refuses evil.

    Later, Isaiah would prophesy the dual nature of the Lord Jesus and His names. He would be fully God and fully Man. “For unto us a Child is born [= His humanity], Unto us a Son is given [= His divinity]; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).

    J. A. Alexander so eloquently summarizes this verse: “These words are strikingly appropriate to Jesus Christ, as the promised child, emphatically born for us and given to us, as the Son of God and the Son of Man, as being wonderful in His person, work and sufferings; a counselor, prophet, authoritative teacher of the truth, a wise administrator of the church, and confidential adviser of the individual believer – a real man, and yet the Mighty God; eternal in His own existence, and the giver of eternal life to others; the great peace-maker between God and man, between Jew and gentile, the umpire between nations, the abolisher of war, and the giver of internal peace to all who being justified by faith have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1)” (1981:134).

    A contemporary of Isaiah, the prophet Micah, would predict the place of the birth of the eternal Messiah: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting” (5:2 [5:1 Heb.]). There were three Bethlehems in the Land of Israel during the time of the prophet Micah. One was in the tribal territory of Zebulun (Josh. 19:15); another one was in Benjamin (Neh. 7:26); and the last in Judah (Josh. 15: 60 LXX). Micah singled out the tribal territory of Judah as the place where Messiah was to be born.

    When the wise men visited Jerusalem after the birth of the Lord Jesus they inquired “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2). The paranoid schizophrenic King Herod heard this and was afraid, so inquired of the chief priests and scribes where the Messiah was to be born (2:3-4). They gave Herod the correct answer, Bethlehem of Judah, and even quoted the prophecy of Micah 5:2, yet they were oblivious to the Messiah because they did not act on their knowledge of Micah’s prediction in the Word of God!

    The reason the Messiah, the everlasting Ruler in Israel, was to be born in Bethlehem was because He was to be from the House and lineage of King David (Luke 2:4).

    The Attack on the Davidic Covenant

    Ironically, in this year’s December issue of National Geographic there is an article about King David. It is a very subtle, and probably deliberately timed for the Christmas season, attack on the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is entitled “Kings of Controversy,” and casts doubts on the historicity of King David and his son Solomon. It begins by asking the question: “Was the Kingdom of David and Solomon a glorious empire – or just a little cow town?” The answer that is given is: “that despite decades of searching, archaeologists had found no solid evidence that David or Solomon ever built anything” (Draper 2010: 73). In other words, they did not have a glorious empire or magnificent buildings. They did not exist!

    The article depicts those who take the Bible seriously and believe the historicity of King David as having an agenda or being politically motivated; they are engaged in an unscientific case of circular reasoning, and naïve. The story of David and Goliath is a metaphor made up around a campfire (2010: 75), and the accounts of David and Solomon were “probably written at least 300 years after the fact, by not-so-objective authors” (2010: 79). David and Solomon are “fictitious characters” (2010: 79), and Solomon’s existence “remains wholly unverified” (2010: 83).

    If King David was a fictitious character and not a historical person, then God did not give the Davidic Covenant to a real person. In fact, the Davidic Covenant would be null and void. This covenant, however, promised a real King David that one of his descendents would sit upon a real throne of David forever and ever (2 Sam. 7:12-16). In fact, this covenant is the basis for the angel Gabriel’s promise to Mary: “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

    If King David was a fictitious character, then the covenant was also. The angel Gabriel, if he existed, would have lied to Mary. There would have been no virgin birth and Jesus would have been a mere sinful man, just like the rest of us. He would have had no divine purpose in life and no throne or a kingdom to rule.

    The Son said, “Behold, I have come … to do Your will, O God”

    The Holy Spirit gives a divine commentary on Psalm 40 in the Book of Hebrews and explains the purpose that the Lord Jesus came to earth (10:1-18). He was to do the will of the Father and replace the sacrificial system instituted by Moses, which could only atone for (or cover) sins, but could never take away sins or make the sinner perfect.

    The Lord Jesus was a High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, thus His death on the cross was an infinitely perfect sacrifice that paid for all the sins of all humanity, once and for all and it was never to be repeated. There was no more need for any sacrifices after that. After His bodily resurrection from the dead, He sat down at the right hand of the Father and is waiting till His enemies are made His footstool (10:9-13; cf. Ps. 110).

    The prophet Isaiah, looking down the corridors of time, saw the cross work of the Lord Jesus as well (Isa. 52:13-53:12). What this work would accomplish was the salvation of any or all who would put their trust in the Lord Jesus as their Savior. Isaiah writes: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way; and the LORD has laid on Him the iniquity of us all” (53:6). Isaiah elsewhere tells us that all our righteousness, all the best we can do, is as filthy rags in God’s sight (64:6).

    After David’s sin with Bathsheba, he confessed his sins before the Lord (Ps. 51), and trusted Him to forgive his sins. When David realizes that God had forgiven him, he rejoiced by singing: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered. Blessed is the man to whom the LORD does not impute iniquity, and in whose spirit there is no deceit” (Ps. 32:1-2).

    The way of salvation, a home in Heaven, the forgiveness of sins, and peace with God is open to all who put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior. This invitation is as broad as “whosoever will may come” (even the American Atheists can come to Jesus), but narrow as Jesus’ statement: “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). Have you believed on the Lord Jesus Christ as your Savior? (Acts 4:12; 16:30).

    Jesus is the REASON for the Season!

    On the New York City side of the Lincoln Tunnel there was another billboard. This time it had a picture of Joseph and Mary looking at the Baby Jesus and the sign said: “You Know it’s Real. This Season, Celebrate Jesus.”

    That was a good response, but I think a more powerful and pointed response should have been: “You KNOW He’s the Truth. This Season Celebrate the REASON for the Season – the LORD JESUS CHRIST!”


    Alexander, Joseph
    1981    Isaiah. Translated and Explained.  Vol. 1.  Minneapolis, MN: Klock and Klock.  Reprint of 1861 edition.

    Bailey, Kenneth
    2008    Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels. Downers Grove, IL: Inter Varsity.

    Draper, Robert
    2010    Kings of Controversy. National Geographic 218/6: 66-91.

    Young, Edward
    1965    The Book of Isaiah.  Vol. 1.  Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans.  Reprinted 1992.

  • Paul's Shipwreck on Malta Comments Off on WHY WERE THE SAILORS AFRAID OF THE SYRTIS SANDS (Acts 27:17)?

    by Gordon Franz

    On the Apostle Paul’s ill-fated journey to Rome, the ship he traveled on was blown off course soon after leaving the Cretan anchorage of Fair Haven (Acts 27:8-12). Dr. Luke, who accompanied the Apostle Paul on this voyage, records the details of the storm that hit during their voyage.

    “But not long after, a tempestuous head wind arose, called Euroclydon.  So when the ship was caught, and could not head into the wind, we let her drive.  And running under the shelter of an island called Claudia, we secured the skiff with difficulty.  When they had taken it on board, they used cables to undergird the ship; and fearing lest they should run aground on the Syrtis Sands, they struck sail and so were driven” (Acts 27:14-17, NKJV).

    Luke makes it clear that they are afraid of being run aground on the Syrtis Sands. But why would they be afraid of being run aground? In order to answer that question, this essay will ask the questions: Where and what are the Syrtis Sands? The ancient sources will show that the Syrtis was not a dry desert but two bodies of water, the “name of two dangerous, shallow gulfs off the coast of North Africa” (Olson 1992:4: 286).

    The Ancient Sources
    There is a long history of ancient accounts that give descriptions of the Syrtis Sands. One description of the sands is from Apollonius of Rhodes (mid-3rd century BC). In his legendary book, the Argonautica, also known as Jason and the Golden Fleece, he describes a ship that was near the land of Pelops [present day Peloponnesus] that was hit with a “deadly blast of the north wind [that] seized them in mid-course and carried them toward the Libyan sea for nine whole nights and as many days, until they came far into Syrtis [The legendary shoals and desert coast of Libya where ships become stranded], where there is no getting out again for ships, once they are forced to enter that gulf. For everywhere are shallows, everywhere thickets of seaweed from the depths, and over them silently washes the foam of the water” (4.1231-1235; LCL 429, the footnotes are in brackets. For a full discussion of the Syrtis episode, see: Clare 2002: 150-160, 222-224; Williams 1991: 163-173).

    Strabo, an ancient Greek geographer from Pontus who lived at the end of the First Century BC and beginning of the First Century AD, describes the location and dimensions of the Greater and Lesser Syrtis in his Geography (2:5:20; LCL 1: 473, 475).  Olson observed that “he Greater Syrtis covered an area approximately 450-570 miles in circumference, and 170-180 miles in breadth” (1992:4:286). The Lesser Syrtis is the western of the two bodies of water and he writes: “Of the Syrtes, the lesser is about 1,600 stadia in circumference; and the islands Meninx [also known as Girba] and Cercina lie at either side of its mouth.”  Today, it is called the Gulf of Gabes, located off the south eastern coast of Tunisia.

    Elsewhere he describes these two bodies of water in these terms: “The difficulty with both [the Greater] Syrtis and the Little Syrtis is that in many places their deep waters contain shallows, and the result is, at the ebb and the flow of the tides, that sailors sometimes fall into the shallows and stick there, and that the safe escape of a boat is rare.  On this account sailors keep at a distance when voyaging along the coast, taking precautions not to be caught off their guard and driven by winds into these gulfs” (Geography 17:3:20; LCL 8: 197).

    Dio Chrysostom, a rhetorician and traveler who lived from about AD 40 to about AD 120, described the Syrtis in these terms: “The Syrtis is an arm of the Mediterranean extending far inland, a three days’ voyage, they say, for a boat unhindered in its course.  But for those who have once sailed into it find egress impossible; for shoals, cross-currents, and long sand-bars extending a great distance out make the sea utterly impassable or troublesome.  For the bed of the sea in these parts is not clean, but as the bottom is porous and sandy it lets the sea seep in, there being no solidity to it.  This, I presume, explains the existence there of the great sand-bars and dunes, which remind one of the similar condition created inland by the winds, though here, of course, it is due to the surf” (Discourse 5:8-10; LCL I: 239). Is it any wonder the sailors on the ship the Apostle Paul was on were in fear of the Syrtis because there was no escape (Acts 27:17)?

    Strabo and Dio Chrysostom were both near contemporaries with Dr. Luke and the Book of Acts.  Luke was chronologically sandwiched between these two writers and his understanding of the Syrtis would have been the same as their understanding.  Today, the Greater Syrtis is the Gulf of Sirte off the coast of Libya.  The Lesser Syrtis is the Gulf of Gabes off the coast of Tunisia (Talbert 2000: I: 552-557, maps 1, 35, 37).

    Later, around AD 560, Procopius gives a possible meaning of the name Syrtis when he wrote in his book Buildings: “When a ship driven by wind or wave gets inside the opening [of the Gulf] … it is then impossible for it to return, but from that moment it seems ‘to be drawn’ (suresthai) and appears distinctly to be dragged steadily forward.  From this fact, I suppose, the men of ancient times named the place Syrtis, because of the fate of the ships.  On the other hand, it is not possible for the ships to make their way to shore, for submerged rocks scattered over the greater part of the gulf do not permit sailing there, since they destroy the ships in the shoals.  Only in small boats are the sailors of such ships able to save themselves, with good luck, by picking their way amid perils through the outlets” (Buildings 6.2. 3-8; LCL 7:371-373; see also 6.4.14-23; LCL 7:377-379).

    The Conclusion of the Matter
    Why were the sailors afraid of the Syrtis Sands? The Syrtis is two bodies of water in the Mediterranean Sea off the coast of North Africa. Even with “good luck” (Procopius’ words), the sailors on the Alexandrian grain ship carrying the Apostle Paul and Dr. Luke were terrified because they knew they were doomed if they hit the Syrtis Sands. The grain ships were the largest ships plying the Mediterranean Sea at that time, with a deep draft, and they would easily have gotten grounded on a sandbar in the middle of no-where and many miles from any shoreline! The old sailor’s axiom would hold true: “Water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink!” They would have had plenty of grain to eat on the ship, but not a drop of water to go with it. They were afraid of a slow and painful death by dehydration.


    Apollonius Rhodius
    2008    Argonautica.  Trans. William Race.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 1.

    Clare, R. J.
    2002    The Path of the Argo. Language, Imagery and Narrative in the Argonautica of Apollomius Rhodius. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University.

    Dio Chrysostom
    1971    Discourses I – IX.  Vol. 1.  Translated by J. W. Cohoon.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 257.

    Olson, Mark
    1992    Syrtis.  P. 286 in Anchor Bible Dictionary.  Vol. 6.  Edited by D. Freedman.  New York: Doubleday.

    Procopius of Caesarea
    1996    Buildings.  Trans. by H. B. Dewing.  Vol. 7.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 343.

    1989    The Geography of Strabo.  Vol. 1.  Translated by H. L. Jones.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 49.

    1982    The Geography of Strabo.  Vol. 8.  Translated by H. L. Jones.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University.  Loeb Classical Library 267.

    Talbert, Richard, ed.
    1999    Barrington Atlas of the Greek and Roman World.  2 volumes and atlas.  Princeton, NJ: Princeton University.

    Williams, Mary
    1991    Landscape in the Argonautica of Apollonius Rhodius. Frankfurt: Peter Lang.


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