Monthly Archives: January 2018

Four Atheist Responses to a Theist’s “Three Easy Questions”

Since we’ve entered James Bishop’s territory with So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun let’s respond to one more of his blog posts before moving on. This time James relays a post that originally appeared on Shadow to Light: How to Defeat Modern Day Atheism With Three Easy Questions. (James points out that he does not agree with all of the views expressed so I will focus entirely on the core argument itself and ignore the character slurs.)

No doubt some readers are more practised at this sort of discussion and can provide better responses than mine.

Question 1: What would you count as “actual, credible, real world evidence for God?” If the atheist refuses to answer, he/she will be exposed as Hiding the Goalpost, demonstrating the inherent intellectual dishonesty in such a demand. If the atheist finally answers, there is a very, very high likelihood he/she will cite some dramatic, miraculous, sensational demonstration of God’s power. And that leads to the second question.

Response 1: First define what you mean by “God”. Without a clear definition we can hardly proceed with a meaningful investigation.

Response 2: What I would count as evidence for X (whether a particular God or law or event or person or anything) is the setting up of tests or predictions of what we would expect to find in the evidence given that X is true. That is, I would accept any evidence that was derived from the scientific method.

So if our God is one who is defined as the source of all ethical or moral awareness or consciences, then what would we expect to find in the universe that is evidence of this particular type of God?

We would then look for those sorts of things we expect to find if God was the creator of the universe. The scientific method also requires us to test our findings against alternative explanations so we would need to see in each case if there are simpler explanations for the sorts of evidence we find. The same method requires us to look for evidence that contradicts our thesis, too.

Whatever passes these tests would be evidence that God as a source of morality exists.

Question 2: Why would that dramatic, miraculous, sensational event count as evidence for God? At this point, the atheist will likely try to change the topic. But persist with the question. What you will find is that the reason why the atheist would count such an event as evidence for God is because it could not possibly be explained by natural causes and science. In other words, because it was a Gap. Modern day atheism is built on God of the Gaps logic.

Response 3: A hypothesis becomes acceptable when it accounts for the observed data more simply or more comprehensively than any other hypothesis. If our hypothesis of a particular defined God explains data that no other hypothesis can explain, then yes, that God hypothesis is a great advance in our knowledge. But if other hypotheses can explain the data, and a greater range of the data, than the God hypothesis, then other hypotheses “fill the gaps”.

Question 3: Is the God of the Gaps reasoning a valid way of determining the existence of God? If the atheist has not bailed on you yet, he/she will likely run now. For if he/she answers NO, then it will become clear that nothing can count as evidence for the existence of God. Why? Because if the only “evidence” the atheist “Judge/Jury” will allow in his/her kangaroo court is a Gap (something that cannot be explained by science/natural law), and God-of-the-Gaps reasoning is also not allowed by the atheist, then it is clear the atheist demand for evidence is a sneaky, dishonest game of “heads I win, tails you lose.

Response 4: All scientific is provisional and subject to revision in the light of new findings. That’s the nature of human knowledge. Evolution and gravity are laws that are arrived at by “gaps logic” insofar as they derive from the hypotheses that best explain the evidence to date. In other words, those hypotheses can be said to have filled the “gap” left by the failure of other hypotheses to explain the observed data.

I am reminded of Arthur Koestler’s biography of Johannes Kepler’s search to explain the orbits of the planets. Kepler was bugged by some minute discrepancy in the observations and struggled for a very long time trying to make all sorts of geometric shapes explain the movement of the planets in a way that removed this discrepancy. He worked with orbs, circles, cubes, — all kinds of mixings and matchings of “perfect shapes” that surely had to define the heavenly spheres. Eventually, exhaustingly eventually, he conceded that no “perfect” shape or movement would work. The gap could only be explained by positing an elliptical orbit! And it worked. The gap was filled by the hypothesis of elliptical orbits of the planets and by no other hypothesis.

Now if that elliptical orbit can best be explained by angels who like to move the planets in less than a perfectly circular motion…..

 

A Scholar’s Gift of Discernment Between Truth and Fiction

When he was twelve years old . . . . they found him in the temple courts, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers. (Luke 2:42, 46f)

How might a historian determine if there was any historicity to Luke’s story of Jesus at twelve years old sitting in the temple impressing the teachers with his understanding?

Moses I. Finley, a historian of ancient times, confessed to not knowing of any way a historian today could establish the happenings we read about in the works of ancient historians unless we have some independent corroborating evidence from the time contemporaneous to the event. Ancient historians, he said, were faced with huge gaps in their knowledge of the past and very often they simply could not resist the urge to fabricate stories to fill in those gaps. Consequently,

For the great bulk of the narrative we are faced with the ‘kernel of truth’ possibility, and I am unaware of any stigmata that automatically distinguish fiction from fact. . . . .

However, there are biblical scholars who do have the gift of discernment that Finley lacked and who are able to apply it ably to the gospels:

If I may quote my former article (see note 3), I still hold the view there expressed (p. 362) : Jesus shows, in the story in Lk. 2, 42-50, ‘just such self-reliance and intelligent interest in the religion of his country as might be expected in a boy of genius and deep natural feeling. . . . The hero of a folktale would have found his way by some mysterious guidance to the Temple. … A wonder-child in a popular story would have confuted the doctors of the Law, or at least made it clear that he knew all they did and more. … To my mind, the tale cries aloud that it is a perfectly authentic happening.

(Page 131 of Rose, H. J. (1938). Herakles and the Gospels. The Harvard Theological Review, 31(2), 113–142. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1508025)

That was in 1938, I admit. Surely scholarship has advanced since then and we would not expect to find such naivety tolerated today, would we?

So far, but no farther… or maybe the journey has just begun

I recently read something I liked on a blog run by someone (James Bishop) I would think of as a fundamentalist or certainly very conservative Christian. The article is Why I No Longer Hold to Inerrancy & The Need For A New Model of Inspiration. I was reminded so vividly of my own days of doubt and struggles with faith and attempting to be as honest as I believed I could be with myself.

James was faced with conflicts and at some point had the honesty to acknowledge that they were real:

As a Christian student in New & Old Testament Studies approaching the end of his time at university, I have discovered a number conflicts between conservative, fundamentalist Christian views of biblical inspiration (of which we will refer to as “classical inerrancy” or “inerrancy”) and what I have come to deem, more often than not, sound biblical scholarship.

He acknowledged that

these arguments require serious consideration especially if one wishes to take the Bible seriously and authoritatively.

Honesty. But the commitment remains. Faith is strong.

But here’s the part I particularly liked — with my emphasis:

Prior, however, I used to hold to inerrancy. I also once believed that every single challenge to the Bible was easily answered and refuted, and, for a time, thought that conflicts an inerrant view had with scholarship was a result of some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity. That was until I actually examined the alleged errors themselves, and soon realized that the answers provided on conservative apologetic websites were often grounded on little more than revisionist historical theories, fringe scholarly interpretations, fringe science, and contrived explanations attempting to explain away biblical inconsistencies.

What a welcome acknowledgement! The implication is that James Bishop no longer presumes that every challenge to the Bible is motivated by hate or an attempt to destroy Christianity.

It is a welcome acknowledgement because too frequently I read scholars and others accusing those who question the very foundations of the history of Christian origins of surely being driven, as “atheists”, by a hatred for Christianity and with a dedication to attempt to undermine all that is good about it. I refer in particular to those who entertain the possibility that Jesus was not a historical figure, of course.

Later in the post James explains why he parts ways with Bart Ehrman:

Long story short, as result of his discoveries that were in conflict with a conservative, inerrant view of biblical scripture, he [Bart Ehrman] is now one of Christianity’s biggest critics. He has sowed doubt in the lives of many Christians who have too come to realize the falsity of inerrancy. Inerrancy is spiritually dangerous in this way (see my argument in point 4e in this article). I have witnessed instances of Christians falling away from faith as a result of buying into the false dichotomy that one either embraces full blown inerrancy or rejects the Bible (a strawman caricature often embraced by both critics of the Bible/Christianity and inerrantists). Christian scholar Michael Bird captures this well explaining that this “means that if some young Christian comes across a passage of Scripture that is historically or ethically challenging, then they are faced with the choice between belief and unbelief,” and there lies the problem.

The point I want to make is that unlike Ehrman I wish to build up fellow believers in the faith. Unlike Ehrman, I also haven’t thrown in the towel, so to speak. I haven’t rejected Christianity or the inspiration and authority of the Bible.

I was not aware that Ehrman is one of Christianity’s biggest critics. In his recent Christmas posts he came across as still in love with the “fullness of meaning” of the Christmas story as found in the Bible. See Finding “unbelievable fullness of meaning” in the Christmas stories?

The problem, in James Bishop’s view, is that Christians who begin to see flaws in the Bible might toss it out completely. A fair reading of Ehrman’s views shows that even an agnostic or atheist can still express appreciation for the “unbelievable fullness of meaning” found in the Bible. Same for various Christ Myth theorists who have also expressed strong admiration for Christianity (e.g. Couchoud) and who even remain Christians (e.g. Brodie).

Reading James Bishop’s post is a déjà vu experience for me. It stirs old memories of my own past conflicts and strivings for both honesty and faith.

Many people struggle with the same conflicts. I think some of us find a solution to one particular conflict and rest satisfied with their resolution of it. Thus finding a new definition or understanding of what divine inspiration means is one way to reconcile certain facts about the Bible with one’s faith.

Others of us continue to question and don’t just stop when one conflict is resolved. They do not deny other conflicts as they arise. They confront them, and perhaps find new ways of reconciling opposites. Hence a few Christ mythicists, for example, find a way to maintain their belief in God and remain deeply devoted to the Christian message.

Some even go so far as to question why they believe in God at all. Is it true that morality cannot be justified or explained without God?

Some question the Bible and stop there when they find an answer. Some go further and question their faith and some might find a new set of definitions they are comfortable with there, too. Others go further still.

But at no point do any of us need to presume that those who go further with their questioning are necessarily driven by “some anti-Christian “agenda” or “hate” towards Christianity.” Or does that charge arise as a defence among those who cannot, for whatever reason, take their questioning any further? I can imagine believers having a very real fear of atheism and of atheism being a logical consequence of ongoing questioning. All I can say to those believers is, There is no need to fear. I can understand why someone only takes their questioning so far and no farther. We each stop where we feel most comfortable and it’s not for me to tell others they are wrong in choosing to find some solace in a level of religious belief in the short time they are on this planet.

I’d just like to reassure believers that being an atheist, and even having strong views about Christianity itself, does not mean we atheists all condemn individual believers for their choices or that our beliefs are driven by a “some anti-Christian agenda”.

 

Luke Makes Jesus More Patient with the Fig Tree

Just after posting Why Did Luke Replace the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the Sinner Woman Washing His Feet? I came across a similar explanation for why Luke removed Mark’s episode of Jesus cursing the fig tree and replaced it with a far more merciful one.

By sandwiching his story on either side of the Cleansing account, Mark indicates that he wishes the fate of the unfruitful tree to be seen as a proleptic sign prefiguring the destruction of the Temple cultus. The Markan import of the story, therefore, is both eschatological and symbolic.

The harsh import of Mark’s story was recognized by Luke who decided to omit it. The third evangelist replaced the pericope with a characteristic lament for Jerusalem and earlier has Jesus recount a parable of a barren fig-tree to which a period of grace was granted. The Lukan parable intimates that in Jesus’ ministry a time for repentance was offered to Israel and its Holy City. An allegorical tendency is hence discerned in Luke, in keeping with his view of salvation history.

(Telford, W. R. (1980). Barren Temple and the Withered Tree : A Redaction-Critical Analysis of the Cursing of the Fig-Tree Pericope in Mark’s Gospel and Its Relation to the Cleansing of the Temple tradition. Sheffield: JSOT Press. pp. 238f)

Once again, “Luke” evidently did not think he was reading historical memories or traditions about Jesus worthy of preservation and felt at liberty to create a quite different story to teach what he believed to be a more appropriate lesson.

Mark 11:12-14, 20 Luke 13:6-9
12 On the following day, when they came from Bethany, he was hungry. 13 And seeing in the distance a fig tree in leaf, he went to see if he could find anything on it. When he came to it, he found nothing but leaves, for it was not the season for figs. 14 And he said to it, May no one ever eat fruit from you again. And his disciples heard it. . . .
20 As they passed by in the morning, they saw the fig tree withered away to its roots.
And he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, ‘Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?’ And he answered him, ‘Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’”

As Tim concludes in the previous post,

As you will recall, many scholars think of Luke as a historian and a biographer. The preamble to his gospel, they insist, shows how much he cared about his many sources. Well, perhaps. But we see here that he was quite comfortable with inventing stories, freely repurposing and reusing his sources for his own needs.

How the Author of Acts Rewrote Stories from Luke

As we discussed several months ago, Michael Licona wrote a book about the differences in the gospels in which he tries to explain them away by comparing the evangelists to Plutarch. However, his attempt was stillborn, since his methodology contains a deadly flaw. He proposes that by examining how Plutarch changed stories as he recounted them in different Lives, we can gain some insight as to how the author of Luke, for example, edited Marcan stories.

In the latter case, of course, we can see only how Luke dealt with one of his sources. In the former, we discover how Plutarch rewrote himself. These are two different things. But before we toss Licona’s book aside, let’s consider how we might apply his methodology correctly. Is there any place in the New Testament in which an author created a second work and plainly rewrote one or more stories in a way that might resemble Plutarch’s process?

Resuscitation Redux

Peter: “Tabitha, arise!”

Yes. In the Acts of the Apostles, the author (whom most scholars believe is the same person as the author of Luke) recycled stories told about Jesus and applied them to Peter. You probably already noticed long ago that Jesus raised a young girl (Mark provides the Aramaic talitha) in Luke 8:40-56, while Peter raised a female disciple named Tabitha (Aramaic for antelope or gazelle) in Acts 9:36-42. And no doubt you thought to yourself, “That sounds familiar.”

The author (we’ll call him Luke for the sake of convenience) has left other clues that we’re reading the same story, albeit with different characters set in a different locale. By examining the Greek text, we can discover textual affinities between the two stories.

Acts 9:36  Now there was in Joppa a disciple named Tabitha, which, translated, means Dorcas. She was full of good works and acts of charity. (NASB)

Acts places several important events in Joppa, because historically this town acted as the port city for Jerusalem. Legend has it that the cedars of Lebanon floated via the sea to Joppa, and then were shipped overland to Jerusalem. Joppa is the physical and metaphorical gateway from Judea to the Greco-Roman world.

Luke tells us Peter learned all animals are now clean while visiting Simon the Tanner in Joppa. This fable seeks to explain the change from a faction based in Judaism, with its understanding of what is ritually unclean to God (pork, blood, foreskins, etc.), to something new — a splinter cult on the path to a separate religion that fell back on the so-called Noahide Covenantread more »

Daniel Gullotta’s Review of Richard Carrier’s “On the Historicity of Jesus”: that “born of a woman” passage (again)

Just in case anyone missed it. . . .  Tim Widowfield of Vridar posted a rather insightful and well-researched article addressing a slight weakness in Daniel Gullotta’s review of Richard Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus.

The Function of the Term: “Born of a Woman”

 

The TW post incidentally addresses a very common deficiency in biblical scholarship that has long been noticed by a few lay readers but that has yet to be addressed by the mainstream scholarly elites who have a vested interest in correcting “misperceptions” about their arguments as they appear on the world wide web.

I will be adding this post in due course to our archive on related articles @ The “Born of a Woman” / Galatians 4:4 INDEX

 

Why Did Luke Replace the Anointing of Jesus at Bethany with the Sinner Woman Washing His Feet?

The first two gospels portray Jesus being anointed by an unnamed woman in Bethany in order to “prepare him for burial.” In the third gospel that scene has been removed and replaced with another, set earlier, of an unnamed woman anointing Jesus’ feet.

How do we know the Gospel of Luke was rewriting the Bethany anointing scene and not adding a totally different episode? The answer lies in the clues the third evangelist left us. Both scenes share the following:

  • Jesus in the house of Simon
  • Jesus is reclining at table
  • An unnamed woman
  • An alabaster jar of ointment
  • Others are indignant at what Jesus allows the woman to do
  • Jesus and the woman are the only ones who understand the meaning of the event until Jesus explains

And then there are the syzygies, the paired opposites:

  • leper and pharisee
  • anointing head and anointing feet
  • one anointing is of the kind done by a priest to anoint a king; the other by a lowliest servant to welcome a guest
  • the monetary value of the ointment is the focus of the offence in one story; the analogous monetary value of “forgiving and loving much” is the lesson presented in the other
  • one woman is offered worldly “fame” (though unnamed!); the other woman is given salvation

We have enough DNA to identify Luke’s story as derivative of the one found in Mark and Matthew. (Thomas Brodie further identified 2 Kings 4:1-37 as an additional source.) Clearly the author of the third gospel did not believe he was reading a “historical memory” in the earlier gospel(s) or that he was composing a version of history. The author recognized the earlier narrative as composition with a certain message that could be erased and rewritten in the interests of preaching another message deemed more appropriate.

So what was the alternative message? Why was the theme of the first account “repealed and replaced”? read more »

The Function of the Term: “Born of a Woman”

Job: “Man, who is born of woman, is short-lived and full of turmoil.”

Have we, after all, been making too much of Galatians 4:4? That’s the question I keep asking myself. After much reflection, I believe yes, we have, but perhaps not for the reason you would expect.

In Daniel Gullotta’s “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts,” he writes:

Furthermore, while Paul does use the word γενόμενον [genómenon] (to be made/to become)  [see: γίνομαι (ginomai)] instead of the typical γεννάω [gennáō] (to be born), γενόμενον does appear in relation to human births in other pieces of ancient literature, such as Plato’s Republic and Josephus’ Antiquities [of the Jews].61 It is also noteworthy that the similarly worded phrase ‘born of a woman’ is also found within the Book of Job, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Gospel of Matthew, and the Gospel of Thomas, as well as in other early Christian texts, each time indicating a human birth.62 With this convention in mind then, Paul’s expression, ‘born of a woman’, is fitting and certainly not exceptional. Thus, when Paul writes of Jesus’ coming into the world (Gal 4.4-6; cf. Phil 2.5-8; 2 Cor 8.9; Rom 8.3-4), it is apparent that it should be taken at face value to indicate Jesus being born like any other ordinary Jewish human being, that is, ‘born of a woman, born under the law.’ (Gullotta 2016, p. 329)

61 Josephus Ant., 1.303; 7.154; Plato, Rep., 8.553.

62 Cf. Job 14.1; 15.14; 25.4; 1 qs 11.20-21; 1 qh 13.14; 18.12-13; Matt 11.11; GThom 15; Origen, Against Celsus 1.70; Ps.-Clem., Homily 3.52.

I have preserved Gullotta’s footnotes above, because we’re going to take a look at all of his references to see if his assertions hold up. We’ll see whether the phrase “born of a woman” is (1) fitting and (2) certainly not exceptional. Ultimately, we’ll try to determine the function of the phrase in its context in Galatians.

Citations in Ancient Greek Literature

Before we examine the citations in ancient literature, I must praise Gullotta for scouring the thousands of occurrences of genómenon to find three instances in which the word appears (he claims) “in relation to human births.” Let’s begin.  read more »

Jihad Closer to Marx than the Koran?

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts.

I recently posted a few thoughts of Olivier Roy in his Jihad and Death and here I post something he said in an earlier book, Globalised Islam. In his Introduction chapter he has a section headed Is jihad closer to Marx than to the Koran?

His opening paragraph makes it clear that the terrorists are introducing innovations to Islamic views on the notion of jihad. In traditional Islam jihad is a collective duty contingent upon circumstances. It is only with modern radical innovators like Sayyid Qutb that jihad has been reinterpreted to mean a “permanent and individual duty”. Here is Roy’s opening paragraph (with my own bolding and paragraph formatting):

Where does the violence of Al Qaeda come from? Islamic radicals as well as many Western observers and experts try to root this violence in an Islamic tradition, or even in the Koran. As we have stated, the debate on what the Koran says is sterile and helps only to support prejudice. The reverse attitude (to explain that the Koran does not define jihad as an armed struggle, and so on) is equally sterile.

That the terrorists claim their violence is religiously motivated and legitimate is in itself important, but does not preclude what Islam really says on violence or from where the terrorists are really coming. We speak about people, acts and motivations, not theology.

Interestingly, however, the terrorists in their endeavour to root their wrath in the Koran are introducing some obvious religious innovations. The most important is the status of jihad. Whatever the complexity of the debate among scholars since the time of the Prophet, two points are clear: jihad is not one the five pillars of Islam (profession of faith, prayer, fasting, alms-giving and pilgrimage) and it is therefore a collective duty (fard kifaya), under given circumstances.

But the radicals, since Sayyid Qutb and Mohammed Farrag, explicitly consider jihad a permanent and individual duty (fard ‘ayn).30 This is probably the best criterion with which to draw a line between conservative neofundamentalists and radical ones: the latter are rightly called ‘jihadist’ by the Pakistani press. Among the few writings of Osama Bin Laden, the definition of jihad as a permanent and personal duty holds a central place.31 His concept of suicide attack is not found in Islam.32

31. See Bin Ladens fatwa (published by the London newspaper Al-Quds al-Atabi on 23 February 1998) stating that ‘to kill Americans is a personal duty for all Muslims’. The text can be found at (‘Text of Fatwah Urging Jihad against Americans’).

32. Many sheikhs have condemned the World Trade Centre attacks, while often supporting the Palestinian suicide bombers. See, for example. Sheikh Al Al-bani’s fatwa ‘Suicide Bombing in the Scales of Islamic Law’, which condemns any suicide attacks (‘These suicide missions are not Islamic – period!’; <http:// www.mushmtents.com/aminahsworld/Suicide_bombing2.html>); and the fatwa of Sheikh al-Qaradawi, which forbade attacks on civilians, except in Palestine (Doha, Qatar, 13 September 2001; <http://www.islam-onhne.net/ English/News/2001-09/13/article25.shtml>. See also the fatwa of Qaradawi and others at <http://www.unc.edu/~kurzman/Qaradawi_et_al.htm>.

(Globalised Islam, pp. 41f)

It is clear that jihad is traditionally a concept that is justified only as a collective Muslim community response to enemies. It is not, traditionally, “an individual and personal decision”.

The terrorists are evidently in something of a contradiction when on the one hand they claim to be following the pathways of their ancestors, and declare anyone who strays from their path an infidel, yet themselves justify their political activism on an “obvious innovation.”

[M]ost radical militants are engaged in action as individuals, cutting links with their ‘natural’ community (family, ethnic group and nation) to fight beyond the sphere of any real collective identity. This overemphasis on personal jihad complements the lonely situation of the militants, who do not follow their natural community, but join an imagined one.

There has almost never been an example in Muslim history to parallel today’s terrorist acts. . . . . (p. 42)

Some historical context

Some have suggested that most present-day conflicts involve Muslims. Maybe so, maybe not. (One should probably elaborate: most conflicts that are of interest to the West involve Muslims.)

read more »

Comparing Ancient Historical Biographies with the Gospels

Matthew Ferguson assess the claim that the gospels are comparable in reliability to Suetonius’s biographies of Roman emperors. The title pretty well sums it all up:

Numismatic Evidence that Corroborates Suetonius’ Life of Otho and Contradicts the Gospels

I’ve addressed some of Craig Keener’s use of evidence in occasional comments before but have not yet got around to more systematic reviews as Matthew has done. He begins

To follow up on my previous review of Christian scholar Craig Keener’s “Otho: A Targeted Comparison” in Biographies and Jesus, I’d like to briefly discuss the relevance of numismatic evidence in evaluating Suetonius’ Life of Otho in comparison to the NT Gospels.

A detail of Suetonius’s description is confirmed by the numismatic evidence. (Otho really did wear a wig as Suetonius claims.)

But the archaeological evidence is against a Roman silver denarius being a coin that a Jerusalem crowd could pull out on request when Jesus asked them to note Caesar’s inscription on the currency to be paid in taxes to the Romans.

Matthew further concludes with a telling footnote about Paul’s teaching in comparison with Jesus on taxes and Roman authorities.

 

Why the Sun, Moon, Stars Were Created So Late in the Week

One of the oddities for us moderns of the Genesis creation account is that the sun, moon and stars are not created until the fourth day of the week even though light was created on the first day and vegetation on the third.

How can light exist without the sun? That’s our first thought. (If you are like me you long ago trained yourself to read that God did not actually create the sun and moon and stars on the fourth day but only moved the clouds and mist aside so that they appeared to a non-existent observer on earth for the first time. But that’s not what the story says.)

So what was going through the mind of the author of Genesis 1 when he set out the following detailed sequence:

. . . Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was on the face of the deep. . . .

Then . . . there was light. . . . and God divided the light from the darkness.

Then . . . God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament . . . And God called the firmament Heaven. . . .

Then God said, “Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear” . . . . And God called the dry land Earth, and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas. . . .

And the earth brought forth grass, the herb, and the tree  . . .

Then God made two great lights: the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night. He made the stars also. God set them in the firmament of the heavens to give light on the earth, and to rule over the day and over the night, and to divide the light from the darkness. . . .

  • Darkness, then light,
  • then the vault or sky to separate the waters above from those below,
  • then the separation of the land and seas, with the land being covered with greenery,
  • then the sun, moon and stars to separate the seasons and years, periods of time generally, and mark significant events.

Our first instinct is to compare the Babylonian creation epic, the Enuma elish, in which the solar deity, Marduk, cuts in two the sea monster, Tiamat, so he can put one half of her body above to become the heaven and the other half below, the earth. But despite similarities it’s not quite the fit for Genesis. In the Babylonian myth the sun, moon and stars are created before there is any sign of the earth and its vegetation.

But if we move west to the Greeks we do find creation accounts that more closely match Genesis 1.

For example, Hesiod’s Theogony, lines 116-132

At the first Chaos came to be, but next wide bosomed Earth. . . . From Chaos came forth . . . black Night; but of Night were born . . . Day . . . . And Earth first bare starry Heaven, equal to herself, to cover her on every side, and to be an ever-sure abiding-place for the blessed gods. And she brought forth long Hills, graceful haunts of the goddess-Nymphs who dwell amongst the glens of the hills. She bare also the fruitless deep with his raging swell . . . .

Out of chaos we have night followed by day, and the earth appears to simultaneously give birth to the starry heaven and the wooded hills and valleys separated from the sea.

Relief representing Anaximander (Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano). Probably Roman copy of an earlier Greek original. (Wikimedia)

But then we come to the philosophers attempting to arrive at a more “scientific” or “natural” explanation. Here what we know of the cosmogony of Anaximander of Miletus is of particular interest.

We begin with all the elements — fire (hot), air (cold), earth (dry), water (wet) — in chaotic confusion. An infinite power that encompassed all set in motion the chaos and began the process of separating each of the elements, the hot from the cold, the earth from the water, followed by a more orderly combination and arrangement of these elements.

As the chaos turned the lighter elements increasingly flew to the outer limits while the heavier ones move to the centre. Hence the fiery elements were on the circumference with the earth in the centre.

Picture a sphere or shell of a fiery element surrounding the air around the earth, “like bark on a tree”.

So hot is separated from the cold. And heavier still, towards the centre of this great turning mass of elements coming to find their “natural places” we have the earth and oceans.

The Hot moves out to the circumference and becomes incandescent, forming a spherical sheath of visible fire, enclosing the cold moist core of the nucleus. In place of ‘the Cold’ we now hear of ‘the air (mist) encompassing the earth’. Presumably the core is still humid throughout — a dark cold mist enveloping a somewhat denser watery mass at the centre.

The process then goes on as follows: as the cold core differentiates further, the second pair of primary opposites, Wet and Dry, become distinct. The watery mass of earth is partly dried by the heavenly fire. Dry land becomes distinct from water, and the seas shrink into their beds. At this point the Hot, already differentiated into fire, acts as cause, evaporating some of the moisture and drying the earth. So, finally, the four popular elements have come to fill their appointed regions. The next stage is the formation of the heavenly bodies. (Cornford, pp. 163f)

That “spherical sheath of fire” replaces the firmament in Anaximander’s system. The fiery shell around the air and earth itself began to break up into separated hoops.

When this (sphere of flame) was tom off and enclosed in certain rings, the sun, moon, and stars came into existence.

The heavenly bodies came into being as (each) a ring of fire, separated off from the fire in the world and enclosed by mist (‘air’). There are breathing-holes, like the holes in a flute, at which the heavenly bodies are seen. Hence eclipses occur when these breathing-holes are blocked; and the moon appears now to wax and now to wane according as the passages are open or blocked.

The separation of Dry Land from Ocean is followed by the formation of the sun, moon and stars — just like the Bible says!

What we are seeing in Genesis (as in Greek ideas) is the increasing separation of the elements followed by their more orderly relationship with one another as they find their natural places and settle into the proper mixes or blending of their respective forms.

Subsequent Greek philosophers restored the firmament that Anaximander had displaced. Is one meant to imagine, biblically, the firmament providing holes to let the waters above fall down as rain from time to time and also peak holes to see portions of the fiery hoops in the form of the sun, moon and stars?

Scholars back in the 1950s who published the above view that the author of Genesis 1 was influenced by Greek views of origins justified their proposal by pointing out that the “priestly account” of the Genesis creation was composed after the Babylonian captivity and more likely in the Persian era. This chronology removed any difficulty in Genesis being influenced by Greek ideas.

–o–

I am wondering if I first read of the above explanation in more recently published either by Russell Gmirkin or Philippe Wajdenbaum or another and have momentarily forgotten the references. If so I do apologize for not acknowledging them in this post. As far as I am presently aware I learned of the above explanations by reading an article and related references by C. F. Whitley (see below).

(There are a number of other interesting connections between the Greek ideas and details in Genesis 1 but they will have to wait till I find more time to get on top of some of the slightly difficult readings first.)

 


Burnet, J. (1920). Early Greek philosophy (3rd ed.). London, A. and C. Black. Retrieved from http://archive.org/details/burnetgreek00burnrich

Cornford, F. M. (1952). Principium Sapientiae. The origins of Greek philosophical thought. Cambridge University Press.

Whitley, C. F. (1958). “The Pattern of Creation in Genesis, Chapter 1.” Journal of Near Eastern Studies, 17(1), 32–40. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/542501


Theologians Myth-Busting the Jesus Story

A Jesuit priest has used the “infant Jesus went down to Egypt” myth to argue a moral criticism of a policy relating to immigrants or children of immigrants into the U.S.

Baby Jesus was a Dreamer in Egypt

I have no problem with that. That’s what myths are for and how they have always functioned in societies. In the late 60s when students were demonstrating over the Vietnam war a friend of mine was inspired by the myth of Jesus the pacifist and spoke proudly of his non-violent response to being roughly dragged off by police to a paddy wagon.

“Social memory” is the buzz word today and these examples are forms of our social or cultural “memories”. They are framed and deployed to meet current needs and values.

So yes, technically and academically Dr Jim West has the right to say that historically Jesus was never in Egypt. He’s applying sound historical (and myth-busting) method when he does so.

This Is Why Journalists Should Leave Biblical Interpretation Alone…

Yes, it is good sound method to first understand the nature of the source we are using. In this case, our theologian has understood that the story of Jesus being taken into Egypt was created to make use of a particular passage in Hosea. He does his position as a public intellectual no favours when he insults those he sees as less well informed outsiders. Nor does he impress with his own ability to do basic research when he faults the author of the article for writing as a “journalist” when in fact the author is a Jesuit priest with a Master of Divinity from a School of Theology. So one might expect that the author, Thomas Reese, is not so ignorant after all and knows exactly what he is doing in his use of the myth to make a political argument.

Or maybe he does believe Jesus was historically in Egypt. It really doesn’t matter. The question of historicity of events behind myths is quite irrelevant to the place and purpose of myths in society. Their “historicity” is only of interest to historians and anyone who is personally interested in historical research and myth-busting.

Or perhaps Dr West wants to undermine the myth because he disapproves of the moral argument it is being used to buttress.

So no doubt our academic critic will be consistent and cast all details in the epistles of Paul and the gospels that are constructed in order to make use of “Old Testament” passages and tropes to the outer darkness of ahistoricity, including ….. the John the Baptist Elijah / voice in the wilderness role, the baptism and wilderness experience of Jesus, the healings and other miracles of Jesus, the confrontations of Jesus with the authorities of his day, the Passion and resurrection of Jesus, early persecutions and the apostles going out from Judea to the world to preach …… 🙂

 

Socrates as Anti-Hero according to Biblical Law

Continuing directly on from my previous post I address here the two most well-known Athenian trials that mirror the Pentateuchal laws against private and innovative religious practices and deities.

We saw that biblical law condemned all worship that was not centred on the official public shrine or temple. Any form of insult towards the gods or violation of formally ordained rituals regarding offerings, sacrifices, etc was also condemned, often with the death penalty.

Interestingly we find records of the actual carrying out of these kinds of laws in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens.

Herms

415 BCE, mutilation of herms and the profaning of the Mysteries

In a single night all the stone herms standing in Athenian doorways and temples were mutilated. The perpetrators were unknown.

Tension was doubly high because Athens was about to send a naval expedition to Sicily in an attempt to turn the tide of their war with Sparta and the desecration was, so the historian Thucydides tells us, both an ill-omen and part of a political conspiracy against the state.

Pleas went out for anyone with any information at all to come forward. The only respondents were resident aliens and slaves who testified about some earlier desecrations

and also about the performance of the Mysteries in private houses . . . .

The scandal of sacrilege was avalanching on the eve of a vital military campaign and fears of anti-democratic traitors seeking to subvert the government.

Accusations flew and informers (true or false) came forward when promised immunity. Many were denounced for the mutilation of the herms and imprisoned. Thucydides again,

as for the accused, they held trials, and they executed all those who had been arrested and sentenced to death those who had fled, publicly offering money to anyone who killed them.

Enemies of a key political and military figure leading the Sicilian expedition, Alcibiades, sought to bring his career to an end by putting him on trial for performing private ceremonies of the Mysteries. Recall the requirement that honest worship be held in public according to set rituals at designated temples. Alcibiades was convicted though absent from the court and sentenced to death.

The term for his being charged for such a crime was eisangelia that is translated as “impeached”. Gmirkin discusses such “religious crimes” as tied up with legislation relating to treason against the state. And that’s how such deviations from socially sanctioned worship were treated in Athens — as threats to the welfare and survival of the political order of the state.

Specifically, Alcibiades was guilty of

  • imitating the Mysteries and showing them to his companions in his own house,
  • wearing a robe of the sort that the hierophant wears when he shows the sacred things,
  • and by naming himself hierophant
  • and by calling his other companions initiates

in violation of the lawful practices and rules established by . . . the priests of Eleusis. (Plutarch, Alcibiades, 22.4-5)

For those not aware of the story Alcibiades escaped from the Athenians to avoid execution.

One person who was arrested for both the mutilation of the herms and violation of the Mysteries but avoiding the death penalty when he turned informer was Andocides. He spent twelve years in exile but on his return was again accused and facing the death penalty because he “had illegally placed a suppliant-branch in the … temple of Demeter and Persephone in Athens.” In one account,

he has come into our city, sacrificed at the altars where he was not permitted, attended the sacred rites concerning which he had committed impiety [êsebêsen], entered the Eleusinion, and washed his hands with the holy water.

Andocides conducted his own defence and was acquitted.

When we read in the Bible of priests being struck dead for presuming to offer the wrong sort of fire in the temple, or of kings being condemned and cursed for offering sacrifices only certain priests were entitled to make, we can imagine the ancient Athenians thinking such legislation as quite appropriate for another god.

A better way?

Does anyone else see shades of political show trials in modern times? We can well imagine the atmosphere of fear, of informers, — and perhaps we need to pinch ourselves to realize that this was a demonstration of what the reality of the laws of Exodus, Leviticus and Deuteronomy would have meant.

Plato, however, after witnessing the execution of his teacher Socrates in this religious-political atmosphere, wrote what he considered would be a fairer refinement (or more just application) of such laws. We will look at his description of more “ideal legislation” and its similarities with the Pentateuch in another post.

Which brings us to the most famous of all victims of a law forbidding the introduction of a new god…… read more »

The Law of Moses, a Reflection of the Law that Condemned Socrates and Other Greek Philosophers

Posts in this series are archived at Gmirkin: Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible

–o0o–

Details of Greeks condemned for impiety in this post are taken from Phillips, one of several works cited in Gmirkin’s book.

Popular culture presents us with an image of ancient classical Athens, the days of Pericles, of Socrates, the mocking playwrights and the democratic assemblies, as a time of free-thinking, exploratory enlightenment. It is difficult to imagine some of its laws being as benighted as those of the Taliban or Moses with summary executions for anyone deemed an apostate.

Imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being applied in fifth and fourth century BCE Athens. Or rather, try to imagine the following law of Deuteronomy being inspired by the Greek law. That means shifting time-line gears to imagine the biblical law being composed not in the archaic Bronze Age but in Hellenistic times, say around the third century BCE, and drawing upon Greek literature for its ideals and narrative contexts.

Deuteronomy 13:6-13

If your very own brother, or your son or daughter, or the wife you love, or your closest friend secretly entices you, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods that neither you nor your ancestors have known, gods of the peoples around you, whether near or far, from one end of the land to the other), do not yield to them or listen to them. Show them no pity. Do not spare them or shield them. You must certainly put them to death. Your hand must be the first in putting them to death, and then the hands of all the people. Stone them to death . . . .

If you hear it said about one of the towns the Lord your God is giving you to live in that troublemakers have arisen among you and have led the people of their town astray, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” (gods you have not known) . . . .

Could such a law that can be seen as an epitome of all that is barbaric about the Mosaic covenant have anything in common with democratic Athens?

The above law addresses not only the introduction of new gods but places some stress on this being done “secretly”. Compare Deuteronomy 12 where private worship and sacrifice is forbidden. All worship and sacrifice must be public, centred around the public shrine or temple.

Notice also that the law relies upon people listening to rumours and reporting these to an assembly who would arrange for an inquiry.

What about these laws?

I have inserted the Greek word translated sorceress (pharmakous) and sorcery (pharmakos) for old time’s sake. It reminds me of many years ago when we interpreted that injunction as a command against modern pharmaceutical products — and pharmacy itself, of course! — But the cruel insanity continues. I see today on a Christian blog the lesson that Christians according to Paul have the right to execute certain sinners today, but (fortunately) the civil power is all that stops them from the obligation to do so. 

Exodus 22:18

You shall not allow a sorceress (φαρμακοὺς) to live.

Leviticus 20:27

Now a man or a woman who is a medium or a spiritist shall surely be put to death.

Deuteronomy 18:10ff

Let no one be found among you who … practices divination or sorcery (φαρμακός), interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. . . .

I presume there is no need for me to remind us all of laws against blasphemy and insulting the deity.

Has there ever been a society where these laws were applied in reality? Or were they a literary fiction? A philosophical or theological ideal of certain factions of priests? (One of the details I find myself mildly critical of Gmirkin’s thesis is that he discusses both literary or theoretical legislation along with known official law-codes. Perhaps he is meaning to suggest that those responsible for the Pentateuchal laws drew upon both forms of law as recorded in the Alexandrian library without distinction. See previous posts in the archive for background discussion.)

Let’s see how it was in democratic Athens. We have already noted several of the “democratic” features of the Biblical code with its emphasis on investigations and decisions being made by local assemblies.

Aeschylus was rescued from stoning by the intercession of his brother

Stoned for impiety

Aeschylus, the tragedian, around early/mid fifth century BCE, was according to a late historical record tried by the Athenian assembly for impiety. He was apparently accused of revealing certain secret religious rites in one of his plays. The assembly was about to stone him for his crime, we are informed. He was only saved by the intercession of his brother who showed that he had been the first to win an award for valour for an action in which he lost his and in the recent war against Persia.

Death for denying, mocking or contradicting the gods

The philosopher Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, around 437/6 BCE, denied that the sun was a god and said it was, instead, merely a red-hot mass of stone. The Athenian assembly came within a few votes of sentencing him to death for this blasphemy after a prolonged trial. His student, Pericles, pleaded for his life. One account indicates that the stress took its toll on Anaxoragas to the extent that he committed suicide.

Speaking against or failing to respect the worship of the gods

Diagoras of Melos around 410 BCE was living in Athens where he was accused of disparaging the Mysteries and causing many to turn away from following the rituals, or according to another version, “he described the Mysteries in detail to everyone, making them common and insignificant, and dissuading those who wished to be initiated”. The Athenian assembly imposed the penalty of death upon him. He was not present at his trial but the assembly offered a reward of a talent of silver to anyone who killed him and two talents of silver to anyone who brought him back alive to face the Athenian assembly.

Death to Agnostics

According to an account by Sextus Empiricus of the later second century CE Protagoras of Abdera, like Diagoras of Melos also around the 410s BCE, wrote

Concerning gods, I am able to say neither whether they exist nor of what sort they are, since the obstacles hindering me are many.

Another, Diogenes Laertius a little later, concurred. Protagoras, he said, wrote

Concerning gods, I cannot know either that they exist or that they do not exist, since the obstacles to knowing are many: the uncertainty, and the fact that a man’s life is short.

The Athenian assembly accordingly voted to condemn him to death. One account informs us that luckily he escaped by ship, but unluckily his ship was wrecked and he drowned. Don’t mess with the gods.

Death for privately introducing new gods, and “sorcery (pharmacy?)

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