“See, Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a heap of ruins. Her towns will be deserted forever.”
That’s a prophetic passage from the Biblical book of Isaiah, chapter 17, and now some fundamentalist Christian blogs are buzzing with the belief that the escalating violence in Syria means the ancient text may soon be fulfilled. ”The long prophesied end days are here,” one blog announces. “With the terrorist groups that operate out of Damascus building up arms caches on the border of Israel in anticipation of another war in the near future, it may not be long before this prophecy from Isaiah 17 becomes history,” another group awaiting Jesus Christ’s return predicts.
Nearly all Biblical scholars, however, argue that such a literalist interpretation of the text is highly problematic. The passage was written more than 2,500 years ago, and it condemns Jerusalem’s enemies around the time of the Assyrian invasion. The prophetic oracles, as that section of Isaiah is called, name not just Syria but numerous ancient nations, including Moab, Babylon, Egypt, and Tyre, that threatened the Jewish people at the time.
Walter Brueggemann, professor emeritus of Columbia Theological Seminary and an expert on the book of Isaiah, tells TIME the interpretation of Isaiah 17 as a reference to the current conflict is absurd. “You cannot read the Bible that way. It is an ancient poem about an ancient context,” he said. “If we are going to contemporize it with such an easy connection then we have to learn to read the text against the United States as well because the United States now plays the role of Babylon and all those ancient superpowers. We have to tread very gently about making such silly connections.”
A better interpretation of the passage, Bruggemann explains, would be that all nations are answerable to the God of justice, even nations like Syria and Babylon. “No nation has high moral ground,” he says. “That is a bite against every exceptionalism, including American exceptionalism.”
Isaiah 17 is not the only time Syria is mentioned in the Bible. Jesus himself probably never travelled to modern-day Syria, but the Apostle Paul, Christianity’s second-most famous leader, was converted to Christianity just outside the Damascus. According to the New Testament book of Acts, a bright light from heaven blinded Paul on the road approaching the city: “He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, […] ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.’” Ananias, a Christian disciple in Damascus, then laid hands on him, and his sight was restored. Paul was then baptized, and his preaching in Damascus became so popular that leaders plotted to kill him. As the story in Acts goes, disciples helped Paul to escape by lowering him down the city wall in a basket.
The Syrian region was also second only to Jerusalem in importance for Christianity’s initial growth. The church in Antioch of Syria—a city 60 miles west of Aleppo, just past today’s Syrian border into modern-day Turkey—became a refuge for early Christians fleeing persecution in Jerusalem after Stephen, the first martyr of Christianity, was stoned to death. Paul made Antioch his headquarters for his famous missionary journeys when he founded churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Corinth and Ephesus. Some scholars believe that Antioch was where the Gospel of Matthew was written, and the book of Acts notes that Antioch was the first place where the disciples were called ‘Christians.’
The region also birthed some of Christianity’s earliest theologians, including Saint Ignatius, bishop of Antioch; John of Chrysostom, a contemporary of Augustine; and John of Damascus, foundational for eastern orthodox theology.