Stephen Smith on Spiritual Israel: A Response

A reader interested in preterism asked us to have a look at the word of one Stephen Smith, and in particular two articles; one of these is titled "The Fulfillment of the New Covenant: Identifying Spiritual Israel." This article contains a peculiar twist on the identification of "spiritual Israel" the likes of which is unknown in scholarship and thus it is no surprise that Smith's material is practically devoid of documentation.

The unique premise is based in an interpretation most would not dispute: that Jer. 31:31-33 predicts a new covenant, that of Christianity. Where Smith breaks the mold is in his claim that:

....the references to the lost sheep of the House of Israel in the New Covenant scriptures (Matthew 10:6 and Matthew 15:24, for example) refer to the Assyrian captivity, and are an illustration of what Jesus the Messiah came to perform: the joining together of the two Houses into one. Since the House of Israel had been completely annihilated and never reformed again, they required a special messenger, one who would give them the faith to believe that God could love them, once again.

In short, it amounts to this: Smith will argue that those who converted in the Roman Empire who we think of as Gentiles with no Jewish blood at all, were (amazingly!) restricted to those who, by some means of descent, connected to the ten "lost tribes" of Israel that were taken captive by Assyria. Not one "non-Jew" then was actually converted.

The brilliance of this thesis is of course it's inability to be falsified. Genetic tests on converts from ages past are far from possible. Sociologists and anthropologists might have as much patience with it as with Anglo-Israelism or with Mormon claims that denizens of Native America were descended from Jews. And we may well imagine Smith producing similar replies to what these folks do when the DNA and the other evidence (linguistics, archaeology, etc.) doesn't seem to want to cooperate.

But Smith doesn't trouble himself at all with these issues; rather, he tries (wisely!) to restrict his proofs for this thesis to what he can cull from the Bible.

Thus it is that Smith identifies "Greeks" in the NT as "the mixed-lineage descendants of those who had been integrated into other societies and abandoned their heritage as sons of Jacob." Mark's Syrophoencian woman, called "Greek," is so identified; likewise the Samaritan woman of John 4, though in that case Smith does have the scholarship on his side, as indeed the Samaritans were regarded as "mongrels" from the mix of Jews and Gentiles; no such identification has ever been made for any other party Smith names, because quite frankly there is no history or data to support it. Based on non-data, Smith then proceeds with a tour de force of eisegesis in which:

When the New Covenant scriptures mention the ETHNOS (translation: gentile) I believe that they are not speaking about the general population of the world. There is sufficient correspondence to the Hellenists that I believe every case of ETHNOS (gentile) being used in place of HELLEN (Greek) is a synonym.

That Smith "believes" this is of course fine, but this conclusion is based entirely on his presupposition and not in the least on ethnic, linguistic, or other data. To believe this we must suppose that ethnos used in non-NT works like Josephus somehow acquired this new and unusual meaning on no other basis than that which Smith presupposes. The thesis is so broad as to be non-falsifiable, and depends on inaccessible data (the line of descent of all converts), which makes it epistemologically worthless.

Acts 3 and "Spiritual Israel"

To the end of verification without actual data, however, Smith appeals to Peter's speech in Acts 3:

"The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God of our fathers, (emphasis added) has glorified His servant Jesus, {the one} whom you delivered and disowned in the presence of Pilate, when he had decided to release Him (Acts 3:13).
"It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, (emphasis added) saying to Abraham, 'and in your seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed' (Acts 3:25).
The word, earth is the Greek word, GE and can just as easily be translated, land. As a matter of fact, one of the ways preterists answer the futurist interpretation of the Book of Revelation rests on GE being translated, land. Revelation 1:7 is the reference I'm thinking of.

Convenient, perhaps, but grossly decontextualized. Acts 3:5 uses the word patria, and Gen. 26:4 from which it is derived uses gowy, a word clearly used to refer to non-Jews and to nations as a whole wherever they might be, as it would have to since it refers to people who existed before Jews even existed and who were contemporary with Abraham and not even related to him. This point alone shatters Smith's thesis completely, but let's pursue the matter further.

It is less objectionable for Smith to equate "Gentiles" and "Greeks". Expositors familiar with the culture of the time understand that the words became synonymous for Jews because the entire Roman Empire was "hellenized" by Greek culture, even the politically superior Romans. Witherington [Corinthians commentary, 113n] notes that Paul's use of "Greeks" where we might expect "Gentiles" is probably governed by the fact that "Gentiles" as a term would include barbarian peoples without a cultural basis in Hellenism. To his contemporaries, "Gentiles" would include persons outside the oikoumene or the civilized Empire, which is why we see a distinction made in Romans 1:14, "I am debtor both to the Greeks, and to the Barbarians."

Greeks are a subset of all Gentiles: They are the cultually Hellenized. And thus it is no surprise that Paul's mission statement is encapsulated in terms of "to the Jew first and then the Greek," especially since he had no means to speak the language of those who had not been Hellenized and thus his ministry was practically "restricted" to places where people spoke the lingua franca of the day.

Remaining Points

Thus is the core of Smith's thesis here destroyed. He goes on to discuss issues which relate to prior articles in his series; there are a few remaining points in topic worth addressing:

There are only two major groups of Elect: the Circumcision and the Uncircumcision. Why would Paul and others even bother describing the pagans as "Uncircumcision?" If you called a pagan "uncircumcised" in the Assembly of the Elders, for example, they would look at you and say, "Well duh!" It was redundant to call a pagan "uncircumcised."

Such "duh" would only occur, however, if BOTH "pagan" and "uncircumcision" were used for no good reason in consecutive order, and Smith offers no example of this happening. This provides no evidence for Smith's idea that the "uncircumcised" were physically descended from Abraham.

Nevertheless Smith makes his position clear: As an answer to the hypothetical question, "But do you really mean to say that the Athenians of Acts 17 and the Thessalonians who 'turned from idols to serve the living God' must have descended from Abraham?", his reply is a clear, "Yes, exactly." Maybe Smith can join the Mormons in hypothesizing reasons why ethnic, linguistic, social and other data may not cooperate.

A separate section of interest is Smith's contention that "Romans chapter 1 is not a universal indictment." His reasons for this assessment are as decontexualized as anything we might find in Skeptic magazine. These cites are offered:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the Land His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse (Romans 1:18-20).
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened (Romans 1:21).
And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God any longer, God gave them over to a depraved mind, to do those things which are not proper...(Romans 1:28)
...and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them (Romans 1:32).

And then it is said:

  1. The wrath of God came upon the unbelieving Judaizers. The wrath of God was not to punish the entire planet, only His hard-hearted, stubborn and disbelieving wife. This hardly squares with the words of the passage: "against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness..." It is also Smith reading his presupposed understanding into the text.
  2. They "suppress the truth." Which truth did they suppress? And how can one suppress that which is unknown to them? Suppression is an aggressive act implying foreknowledge of that which is to be suppressed. The truth suppressed is that which is laid out by Paul: that which is understood by natural theology (1:20).
  3. God "made the truth evident to them." Who did God reveal Himself to? Was it to the Norwegians? Obviously Paul means to say that the Jews were those who "possessed the oracles…" This isn't "obvious" in the least. Yes, the Norwegians, and all others, "being understood by the things that are made..."
  4. They "knew God" and decided not to acknowledge Him "any longer." This indicates that they had acknowledged Him at one time. Who were the only people to worship Jehovah? This is where Smith makes his largest error in this set, for nothing is said here of "Jehovah" but of theos, which despite our custom was not used here as a proper name ("God") but as a more abstract noun ("deity").
  5. And, finally and most significant, "they knew the ordinances of God!" They knew the Law. Only the Jews knew the Law. Only the Nation worshipped God. Smith abuses the word "ordinances" which is never used of the law. The word actually means "righteousness" and only a law or code by format. Here Smith could stand to recall the OT parallel, Ps. 97:6: "The heavens declare his righteousness, and all the people see his glory."
  6. Smith also adds, On top of the internal evidence for Romans 1, there's the fact that Claudius had commanded all the Hebrews to leave Rome. That means that the people to whom Paul was writing were not Hebrews, per se.

    Smith is wrong: Secular historians note that for all that is given, there is no indication that this command was given "teeth" and no record of how long it was enforced if at all; and the common date of 49 gives ample time for the situation to be reversed. Claudius also died in 54 AD and Romans conceivably was written after that date, as Smith even admits. [Morris, Romans commentary, 7, in fact dates it to 55 A.D.!]

    Witherington [Acts commentary, 545n] adds that indeed 54 would see the termination of a decree associated with a particular emperor, and that moreover, it may have been directed specifically at leaders of a particular controversy, so that "other Jews and Christians are likely to have remained in the city but kept a low profile, while still others left but returned quietly not long thereafter."

    It might be kept in mind that at this stage, Rome had yet to distinguish between Judaism and Christianity as separate faiths!

In all of this we do not deny that some if not many who were descended in some way from the ten tribes became converts. Indeed, we with Smith do see the 144,000 of Revelation as potentially inclusive in that package. But Smith has forgotten that following this 144,000 was also "a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues...." (Rev. 7:9) which clearly means that there is more to it, and Smith's scenario of Paul blindly preaching to everyone with only those who were physically descended from Abraham actually being saved is an insane mockery not supported by any linguistic, social, or ethnoloigcal data, and can only be found in the NT by assuming that it is true and then reading all texts in light of it.

(A questioner who made this point to Smith was waved off with the question, "Would you agree that the same group in Revelation 7 are the same as those in Acts 2:5-11?" -- which it decidedly is not; these in Acts 2 are "Jews" out of every nation while the people of Rev. 7:9 are of the nations.)

Further on Smith is confronted with a point similar to our own about Genesis 12 being a picture of worldwide blessing. As stated it does not appeal to the linguistic data, and Smith's response is clouded:

Doesn't Paul state that Abraham's Seed was the Messiah? And that those who were chosen were to be part of that Seed? Was Abraham ever promised the world? Or did God give him the Land - the Promised Land? The bondwoman was excluded…

Of course this view of Galatians merely begs the question of who "spiritual Israel" is and reads the text accordingly. The promise of land is an entirely separate issue that does not belong in this context. Smith then amazingly indicates that Genesis is not "a document that describes the creation of the Universe." Then it is said:

If those peoples were to be blessed with the Messiah, then it is passing strange that they were never evangelized. If the whole populated world was to be included in the blessing of Abraham, then it is remarkable that the Messiah didn't even send a disciple to seek the lost in Egypt! Why? Because the Tribes were never carried away to the West, but to the East. They never endured Captivity in Egypt after the Land of Goshen, so there were no exiled Israelites scattered in Egypt.

Of course, since Smith has conveniently redefined ethnos against all available data, the answer in Matt. 28:19 to evangelize "all nations" he would not count as evidence against this. One wonders then about patristic tradition that sent apostles to all corners, including Egypt, and the presence of a strong Coptic church at a very early date.

Paul said that "the whole world" had heard the message of deliverance. He said that he was innocent of the blood of all men, because he had thoroughly preached the gospel. Where does that leave a future (from Paul's day) Commission to bring in the lost? Are we to evangelize the world today in order to make them part of something that has already passed? It doesn't make sense.

Smith doesn't seem to recognize the language of hyperbole. It is not certain what passage he refers to, so no more can be said. Acts 20:26, the "innocent of blood" verse, says not a word about Paul being in that state "because he had thoroughly preached the gospel"; Smith is making a false connection because 20:25 mentions preaching to the Ephesians only, and Paul's statement is made because he has offered due warning of dire consequences ahead (rather than not warning, which would make him responsible for any who were hurt).

And so it is that we see an exemplary reason why the tenets of full preterism cannot be supported. To maintain this view requires redefining words in ways that are otherwise contextually unknown, and pounding square texts into round holes of understanding.

-JPH

A Comment from a Reader: "Insecure Prospector"

A story about where a glance to hyper-preterism lead me and how I got back to Christianity from there.

I had been interested in eschatology for a while and wanted to see what is this ´hyper-preterism´ about and went to look what a hyper-preterist internet site had to say. I started reading their arguments and I have to admit that at first they shocked me, to say at least. Superficially, they seemed to answer all my questions concerning eschatology, note, superficially.

Yet, they raised a lot of new questions and problems but I didn´t see them then, I only saw my own problems solved. I read articles which interested me most, or terrified me most, and ran across Steven Smith´s work. That was mainly because I saw that accepting hyper-preterism would really change my world view and I wanted to see what hyper-preterism would be in the worst case.

Smith´s work seemed to be the worst because he was one of those hyper preterists who don´t see any kind of resurrection for us living today. Smith´s articles seemed frightening, I was literally sweating and having stomach pains when reading them. At the same time they sounded somehow convincing. I couldn´t think clearly, I was just afraid he may be right and we don´t have any hope.

Smith´s reasoning was based on Bible alone. Some conclusions of him were that Jesus was saviour for Israelites only, the resurrection was figurative (nothing about the dead rising up from the graves), the Genesis creation account was describing the creation of Israelites only, etc.

I also went to see his web forum and saw that he didn´t consider himself a Christian anymore, though he had been a very conservative one before. He also said he would be happy if all the churches were bulldozed because they restricted people who should be free. Smith seemed to believe in some sort of divinity anyway.

I was afraid Smith got it right. Though, I didn´t agree on bulldozing the churches! I sent him an e-mail where I praised his work and told I was very scared of the death, so I´d like to hear his view of afterlife. I thought we might not have any hope and the church has been totally wrong for 2000 years.

I am not sure if I believed him, though. Rather, I was scared, what if he was right. I kind of `licked his butt´ and wanted to sound nice and polite. He posted my e-mail on his forum. At first it had all my personal details on it. It really shocked me to see them there. I sent him a new e-mail and asked if he could remove them but at the same time I told him it was a good idea to put my letter on the forum.

He didn´t seem to be sure on the afterlife issue. He never answer me directly but I followed his forum and he was going to do some research in the future. A that time I was convinced that some form of hyper-preterism was true and in worst case, Smith´s.

I wanted to know more and sent a new letter. This time to a host of a hyper-preterist site. I asked him some questions about hyper-preterism and about Smith, too. He answered me in a friendly way at first. He told he didn´t agree on all points with Smith and taught me some guidelines of hyper-preterism.

I had asked some tough questions but didn´t really get very convincing arguments. I inquired some more about Smith but he said he didn´t want to bad mouth Smith. I never got a reply from him again when I sent him a new question.

Hyper-preterism seemed to be the correct doctrine anyway, I just wanted to know if I had to accept it, how far should I go from my earlier Christian beliefs. But all the time I felt bad. I didn´t want to believe in hyper-preterism. It felt lonely and hopeless. I asked JP Holding, who had helped with numerous other problems earlier, if he could refute one of Smith´s articles. The one what was the basis for his teaching, I think.

JP was kind and helped me. He easily showed what grave errors did Smith´s work contain. It immediately helped me but it took long to fully accept that Smith is not correct. And it took me a full year or more to get rid of the burden of hyper-preterism. To be sure not to believe it. It required a lot of researching and studying. Basically it creates a lot more problems than it solves.

Then a year ago this issue started to worry me again. Not in a way that I would believe Smith´s work but I felt so bad I had posted him that e-mail where I praised his work. I visited his forum and saw that my e-mail had originated a discussion of hundreds of replys. The feeling was quite much the same than that when I first read his work, pure agony. I decided to write him a new e-mail. There I told I had come to conclusion that the original Christianity was correct and I did no longer believe in his work. I also gave him links to JP Holding´s site and to Glenn Miller´s to help him get back to Christianity.

Another year has passed since I wrote that letter. I went to see Smith´s forum again. I didn´t find my letter anymore. I´m not hundred percent sure it isn´t there but it´s likely because he has removed a great deal of previous posts. The reason is that he doesn´t believe in any god anymore. His forum is not about full preterism anymore at all. It´s all theosophy or something else. I´m glad I didn´t stay on his road. God knows what eventually all this leads Smith to.