Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

Neil Godfrey

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Truly Amazing

From Babylonia to Moses and Enoch to Paul: Questions

I conclude the series on From Adapa to Enoch with this post.

Ancient scribes were taught to see the world through the eyes of mythical heroes like Adapa and Enoch. They were taught to write in the voices of the likes of Adapa and Enoch. Through ritual mortals could even become the presence of those mythical figures. Even the early Christian writings declare the ability of human worshipers to bear the shining glory of God and sit with him in heavenly places. “Shining glory”, in that Mesopotamian-Persian-Hellenistic thought world was a corporeal entity that could be taken off and put on like clothing. We need to set aside our idea of dualism that posits an unbridgeable divide between the natural and supernatural realms. Dualism in the time we are discussing happened entirely within the realm of the single cosmos: the physical bore signs of the spiritual; a mortal could ascend into heaven and share in the divine glory and yet remain mortal. The entire universe was a system of signs. To be able to read the stars was to learn the language of the gods and to understand the secrets of the universe. A word had power to change the events in the physical world. The world was even created by words in the Judean myth.

Categories that are problematic for us to understand, like how a scribe could experience supernatural revelation or think that his words were of similar essence to preexisting revealed text, assume a radical distinction between the natural and the supernatural. But our Judean scribes, like Babylonian scribes, had no separate category for the merely material world as opposed to their culturally determined speech or God’s purely supernatural miracles. They had a semiotic ontology in which the universe was shaped by God in language-like ways. The … “reckoning, calculation” of speech can be implanted in the mind of the speaker of the [Thanksgiving Hymns], or God can cause him to perceive the [measurements] that govern the movement of sun and year. God organized essential pieces of human language in precisely the same way as he organized other mysteries and calculations of the universe.

(Sanders, 235. Highlighting and [] substitutions of technical expressions mine.)

If this kind of knowledge had its origins in Mesopotamia, according to the thesis argued by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, it found its way throughout the Near East, including Judea, in the “Parchment Period”, when new writing media (script, language, container) superseded clay and cuneiform. (We are talking fifth century B.C.E.)

Judean scribes made consistent changes to the Babylonian forms of knowledge that came their way:

[I]n its adaption of Babylonian knowledge, Judea shows a pattern of narrativization. All known cases of Babylonian into Jewish literature involve a genre change into narratives of the ancient past. Whether ritual (the treaty-oaths of Esarhaddon), legal collection (the laws of Hammurapi), or astronomical and mathematical tables (Mul.Apin, Enüma Arm Enlil 14, the standard cuneiform fraction sequences), all were transformed into stories about ancestors, from Moses to Enoch to Levi. This reflects a dominant and widely recognized Judean literary value by which scribes conducted other major acts of text-building such as the Pentateuch (cf. Baden 2012, Sanders 2015, Schmid 2010).

(Sanders, 232 f. My highlighting)

To sidetrack for a moment into the Sanders 2015 citation above, Sanders sees the sources of the biblical narratives as being very the classical Mesopotamian literature. For example, the Genesis story of the Noah Flood appears to be based at least in part on a source like the Epic of Gilgamesh. Where the Genesis narrative differs from any Mesopotomanian narrative model is in its doublets (everything is narrated twice) and even in the fact that many of those doublets are inconsistent or contradictory. The possibility of a Greek influence never arises. A question in my mind relates to Greek historical narratives that do contain doublets with contradictions and other inconsistencies (see, e.g. Explaining (?) the Contradictory Genesis Accounts of the Creation of Adam and Eve). Other Greek literature even sets out a narrative structure that seems to foreshadow what we read in the larger story of the Flood and return to civilization through “Babel” (see, e.g. Plato and the Bible on the Origins of Civilization). Of course the narrator keeps himself in the background in the Primary History (Genesis to 2 Kings) so there is no personal intrusion to alert readers before introducing a second (and contradictory) version of events as we find in Herodotus. Questions remain.

Question 1: How does the above Mesopotamian/Near Eastern view of the conceptual unity of the material-cultural-supernatural worlds compare with Classical Greek and Hellenistic concepts? (Do we encounter evolution of ideas?)

Question 2: If the answer to Q1 points to differences then do we see these differences surface in the canonical and extra-canonical literature up through the Hellenistic and early Roman eras?

Question 3: Can we look more closely at the claimed extension of the above ideas to their early Christian analogs (e.g. Christians now sitting on thrones in heaven and reflecting more and more of the glory of God)?


New Pages

In the right hand column I have added links to three new blog pages. They are under the Archives by Topic (Annotated) heading.

Becoming Like God: A History

The title is “a” history because it is an interpretation built on detailed argument that is presented for consideration by Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch, a book sent to me for blog discussion by the publisher Mohr Siebeck.

I’m drawing to a close my reading this book and now come to chapter 6 with “Who is Like Me Among the Angels?” as the first part of its heading. A primary concern of the chapter is that we set aside Western ideas of dualism and explore a quite different thought-world behind ancient texts, including those we know “too well” in both the Old and New Testaments.

The chapter title is taken from the Self-Glorification Hymn from Qumran and later in the post I will outline the arguments for interpreting that hymn as intended for recitation by mere mortals like us, though ones instructed thoroughly in divine wisdom.


But first, the history. We begin with the Ugaritic (Canaanite) myth of Baal dating centuries before Judean times. An opportune moment came for would-be usurpers when Baal left his throne to journey to the underworld. The first contender failed because he was too weak: he could not run as fast as Baal or wield Baal’s lance. The second contender did not “measure up” to Baal, literally: sitting on Baal’s throne his feet did not reach the footstool and his head did not reach the top of the throne. (Measurement was an important signifier: note the details of measurements set out in Ezekiel, Enoch, Revelation.) This is a myth narrated in the third person: Baal did this, Athtar did that, etc.

Thereupon Athtar the Terrible
ascends the heights of Zaphon,
sits on Mighty Baal’s seat.
(But) his feet do not reach the footstool,
his head does not reach the top (of the seat).
(To this) Athtar the Terrible responds:
“I will not reign on the heights of Zaphon!”
Athtar the Terrible descends,
he descends from the seat of Mighty Baal,
and reigns over the earth, god of it all.

(Adapted from Sanders, p. 215)

The Light-Bringer (Isaiah)

Next, compare Isaiah’s myth of Lucifer, a myth generally thought to have derived from the sort of myth we read of in the Baal epics.

How you have fallen from heaven,
morning star, son of the dawn!
You have been cast down to the earth,
you who once laid low the nations!
ou said in your heart,

I will ascend to the heavens;
I will raise my throne
above the stars of God;
I will sit enthroned on the mount of assembly,
on the utmost heights of Mount Zaphon
will ascend above the tops of the clouds;

I will make myself like the Most High.”

(Isaiah 14:12-14)

The idea of becoming like the supreme god means ascending to the throne of god but results in being brought down to earth. (Here we have a myth narrated in the second person, addressing “you”.) In Isaiah the myth appears to express a wish for God to punish the arrogance of the power (presumably Babylon, some would argue Assyria) that would exalt itself in such a way.

The Light-Bringer (Ezekiel – a myth of wisdom)

Ezekiel sees an interesting development of this myth:

“‘Therefore this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘Because you think you are wise, as wise as a god,
I am going to bring foreigners against you, the most ruthless of nations;
they will draw their swords against your beauty and wisdom
and pierce your shining splendor.
They will bring you down to the pit,
and you will die a violent death in the heart of the seas.
Will you then say, “I am a god,” in the presence of those who kill you?
You will be but a mortal, not a god, in the hands of those who slay you.

(Ezekiel 28:6-9)

Here again the “light-bringer”, Lucifer, exalts himself to the status of God and is once again mercilessly punished for his arrogance. But the significant development here is that it is not size or power that the light-bringer boasts is what makes him as god, but his wisdom, his learning.


Let’s backtrack now to Moses who in the story in Exodus did indeed become “like God” after time spent in the presence of God:

When Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tablets of the covenant law in his hands, he was not aware that the skin of his face was radiant (qaran) because he had spoken with the Lord.

(Exodus 34:29)

The word for radiant can also be understood as “horns” so it is interesting to note a Babylonian astronomy text with the same ambiguity:

If the sun’s hom (si) fades and the moon is dark, there will be deaths, (explanation:) in the evening watch, the moon is having an eclipse (and in this context,) si means “hom,” si means “shine.”

As was discussed in the earliest posts of this series such a shining or glory is something that can be added to, placed upon, taken or stolen from, a person like a garment, clothing, a crown, a sword. It was bestowed upon a Mesopotamian king when he ascended the throne.

* The Akkadian word is qarnu, cognate with the Hebrew qrn root we read in Exodus 34.

It explains that what he sees is an eclipse and that when he reads the Sumerian word si in the base text, “si means ‘horn,’* and si also means ‘shining.’” After reading the commentary, the person who sees the thin shining rim of the sun should interpret both visual and written signs as simultaneously horn and light. A second commentary adds that the lemma means “‘to daze,’ si means ‘to mask,’ si means ‘shining,’ si means ‘radiance,’ si means Tight.’”

And Mummu, the counsellor, was breathless with agitation.
He split (Apsû’s) sinews, ripped off his crown,
Carried away his aura and put it on himself.From Enuma Elish I:66-68

Here the range of associations with “horn” is extended to the affective – the word translated “be dazed” can also mean “be numb with terror” – and the physical: light can mask, cover over, and block things like a fog. The phenomenon unifies astronomy, myth, and politics. This spectrum of associations is embodied in the Mesopotamian mythological object called the melammu, a blinding mask of light. The melammu is the property of gods, monsters, and the sun, and one is conferred by the gods on the king at his coronation. This mask of light is thus cosmic, physical, and political at once, a somatic mark of divine rulership, and it is external to the body, even alienable, as the theft of Mummu’s melammu in Enūma Elish (I 68) shows. A melammu can be stolen, but it can also be newly conferred on someone.

This mythic pattern provides the most straightforward model for understanding what happened to Moses’ face: it is not the face itself but its surface, the skin, that radiated. Moses’ physical proximity to the source of revelation added a new layer to his appearance, a physical mark of inhumanity. The Israelites feared contact with him because of his divine persona.

(Sanders, 209-210)

Moses was deemed unique for acquiring some of the glory, the radiance, of God as a consequence of being in his presence for a prolonged period.

  • “You have made my face to shine” (1 QHa 11:4).
  • “You have made my face to shine by Your covenant” (1QHa 12:6).
  • “by me You have illumined the face of the Many ( רבים ) and have strengthened them uncountable times, for You have given me understanding of the mysteries” (1QHa 12:28).
  • “You have exalted my horn ( קרני ) on high. I shine forth in sevenfold light ( אור ), in l[ight which] You have [established for Your glory ( בבודכה ).” (1QHa 15 26-27)
  • “by your glory ( כבוז־כה ), my light (אורי) shone forth.” (1QHa 17:26)

But the concept was established. We find a strong interest in the light-transformation of those learned in God’s wisdom in the Qumran (Dead Sea Scrolls) literature. Could not others come to reflect the light that had shone from Moses? Certainly, Moses’ light was pale compared to God’s, and the scribe’s light would be less still, presumably, but still possible.

In Mesopotamian versions of this mythic pattern, the divinized being is not unique; he is merely the incumbent of a role.

Qumran liturgy manifests a fascination with adopting this illuminated role. Here sectarians who recited the standard set of Hodayot [Thanksgiving] prayers meditated regularly on the possibility of acquiring a shining face, and even of God raising the hom/radiance of the speaker. . . . .

If the language allows the speaker to invoke the transformed state of Moses, it also evokes more broadly a state of enlightenment characteristic of the ideal sage.

(Sanders, 210)

Daniel Transforms Isaiah’s Servant into a Role for All Enlightened Ones

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Roger Ailes and that German Lance Corporal

After having bought the book five and a half years ago I finally got around to reading last week The Loudest Voice in the Room: How the Brilliant, Bombastic Roger Ailes Built Fox News – and Divided a Country by Gabriel Sherman. Hopefully, now, I’m a little better informed about the role of the media in the United States. Not only the media, but I kept reflecting on the entire capitalist system, virtually unbridled. Courts appear to be sporting arenas where the rich can have their final showdowns against one another. But it was encouraging to be reminded that journalism is a profession and that journalistic ideals are still treasured by many trained in that area, though they may too often be frustrated by their corporate bosses.

If Sherman’s book is a true indicator then I was surprised to learn that Fox News has had a far more powerful effect on both politics and the entire media landscape than I had realized. Simply ignoring and laughing at it did nothing to stop its growing influence in society and the political arena. Ailes so often reminded me of Donald Trump, too, and this book was written before Trump emerged on the political scene.

I don’t know who is directly in charge of Fox News now but I do learn from Trump that Fox occasionally broadcasts a story that is not favourable to him. I cannot imagine that happening under Ailes, but Rupert Murdoch does have a reputation (certainly in Australia and UK) of being something of a kingmaker through his media arms.

It’s an ugly scenario. News transformed into entertainment, more about making people “feel empowered/informed” than truly informing them.

But two days ago a new book arrived, one originally published in the late 1930s, that put a different perspective on it all. Theodore Abel’s Why Hitler Came to Power, is a presentation of the words of Germans who lived through the Germany at the end of the First World War and who were influenced by Hitler. Their description of Germany in 1918 and 1919, the breakdown of society, the traumas of the population and of the armed forces, — one can see at a glance how WW2 was pretty much inevitable. There were moments when it did look like peace would emerge, but it only took a few more economic setbacks to put the whole thing back into a tailspin. Also interesting was the amount of loathing of the Nazis in Germany. Those who blame “the Germans” for WW2 do not do justice to the many.

Another “little” analogy that came to mind: We cannot abide futility, of losing all, our dearest ones, our honour, everything, for nothing. It has to have meaning; it cannot have been all in vain. So grieving parents of a suicide bomber would be caught on TV saying that they were proud of their child, — and returning soldiers cannot agree that all they experienced was for nothing but loss of identity, loss of everything they held dear. The fight has to continue.

What sticks out through my early years as a lover of history in high school is the power and responsibility of a single person. I was taught to believe that “historical forces” created history: learn both (1) the background causes and then (2) the immediate causes of this or that historic moment. Really, though, it’s not so predictable. Sure, there are “forces” there, but unless a certain person with a certain makeup happens to exploit them for either personal or ideological motives, there is no telling which forces will simply wash themselves out which ones will continue to grow and consume others and change a nation’s direction.

And some readers thought I only read books about the bible!

Questions re the Mesopotamian Influence in the Hebrew Bible

Let’s look a little more closely at the parallels between the Judean literature (canonical and pseudepigraphical) and that of Mesopotamia to see what might have been going between them. It’s one thing to say that we can see signs of Mesopotamian written records in Judean writings but a critical question to ask is by what means, how, the one came in contact with and influenced the other. That is the particular question Seth Sanders explores in chapter 5 of From Adapa to Enoch. I will highlight a few of the points he raises.

Esarhaddon Inspires Yahweh

Here is an adaptation of the chart from pages 171-172:

Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon

Deuteronomy 13

You shall not hear or conceal any, … word which is not seemly nor good to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria, your lord, either from the mouth of his enemy or from the mouth of his ally, or from the mouth of his brothers, his uncles, his cousins, his family, members of his father’s line,  
Prophets or diviners

(2) If there should arise in your midst a prophet or oneiromancer who provides a sign or portent, (3) and should the sign or portent – concerning which he had spoken to you, saying, “Let us go after other gods (whom you have not known) so that we may worship them” – come true: (4) Do not heed the oracles of that prophet or that oneiromancer … (6) And that prophet or that oneiromancer shall be put to death, for he fomented conspiracy against Yahweh …

Family members

or from the mouth of your brothers, your sons, your daughters,
Family members

(7) If your brother, the son of your mother, or your son, or your daughter, or the wife of your bosom, or your friend who is as your own self,
Prophets or diviners

or from the mouth of a prophet, an ecstatic, a diviner, or from the mouth of any human being who exists; you shall come and report (it) to Ashurbanipal, the great crown prince designate, son of Esarhaddon, king of Assyria … VTE § 10

Incitement to rebellion punished by instant death

If anyone speaks rebellion and insurrection to you, to kill … Ashurbanipal the [great prince] designate, son of Esarhaddon, …
If you are able to seize them and kill them, then you shall seize them and kill them! VTE § 12

Incitement to apostasy punished by instant death

entices you secretly, saying, “Let us go and worship other gods” – whom neither you nor your fathers have known … –
(9) Do not assent to him or give heed to him! Let your eye not pity him nor shall you show compassion nor condone him
(10) – but you shall surely kill him! (Deut 13:2-10)

Did the author of the Deuteronomy passage have a copy of the vassal treaty before him? It is unlikely. It does not appear so. Deuteronomy is evidently not a translation at any rate.

Were these simply ancient Near Eastern clichés? Furthermore, while the Hebrew-Assyrian parallels have long been assumed to derive from historical contact, questions remain about the social and physical locations of contact, especially if the thesis of literary translation is unsustainable. A convincing account requires a plausible, well-documented mode of transmission.

Examining whole parallel passages side by side in light of known patterns of textual transmission in the ancient Near East suggests that rather than cuneiform and papyrus, the relationship between the two texts can most plausibly be explained by memory transmission, based on the oral performance of the curses in a ceremony of the sort required in VTE. (p. 173)

From pages 174-175: read more »

More Thoughts on Origins of Biblical and Pseudepigraphical Literature

We have two models for the origin of the biblical and its ancillary literature.

According to Seth Sanders in From Adapa to Enoch we have a progression from the late Iron Age to the Seleucid era.

  • The early period (during the time of the kingdom of Judah before its exile) we have “public genres of power” that appear to draw upon the primarily cuneiform law codes and vassal treaties of Mesopotamia. In “Judea” these genres acquired a narrative framework.
  • Later, in the postexilic period, we find instead secret genres of knowledge that drew upon the scribal traditions of omens, astronomy, etc. The primary facilitator for this development was the spread of the Aramaic script as a common scholarly language.


Russell Gmirkin’s view is that the above texts of Deuteronomy and Exodus are rather products of the Hellenistic era. The elements of the political and legal documents of Mesopotamia are relatively few and subsumed within the sort of literature that Plato was promoting in Laws. The narrative framing of such laws was also enjoined by Plato.

Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible does not cover the noncanonical literature so the following diagram is my own, not Gmirkin’s. Throw the stones at me for what follows. I have, however, drawn upon other scholars who also set out reasons for their suspicions that the canonical texts were the product of the Persian and/or Hellenistic eras. (Philip Davies whom I mentioned in the previous post looks largely at the Persian era.)

I imagine that with this latter scenario there are different schools, some of them possibly opposed to each other. The diagram below makes it appear that they are contemporaneous but I do not think that should not be seen as strictly the case.

The diagram also only mentions the same texts as above (law codes and public curses) but that is only for comparison purposes. In fact just about everything from Genesis to Daniel is included here. (Philippe Wajdenbaum in Argonauts of the Desert extends the Greek influence from the legal codes to details of the narrative framework of those laws.) The pseudepigraphical texts are another story.


I am only running through a mind-game here. If there were in fact opposing scribal schools, and if the Greek literature was an influential factor in the formation of what became the canonical texts, do we find a glimpse of the origin of that division in the following passage of Plato’s Laws, Book 7. We know the Pentateuch condemned the study of the stars, but why?

ATHENIAN: Next let us see whether we are or are not willing that the study of astronomy shall be proposed for our youth.

CLEINIAS: Proceed.

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I Like It Dumbed Down

So this is why the earth does not need lots of turtles to hold it up — it’s in a weightless state

This next one explains an awful lot! . . . . it turns out we are ultimately made up of vibrating nothingness . . .

Who Influenced Biblical and Second Temple Jewish Literature?

I have been posting on points of interest in Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon and have reached a point where I cannot help but bring in certain contrary and additional perspectives from another work I posted on earlier, Russell Gmirkin’s Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible.

In chapter 5 Sanders sets out the view that Judean scribes in the Late Iron Age (the era of the Assyrian and Chaldean empires) took from the Mesopotamian scribal heritage “public genres of power”. Specifically:

  1. The author(s) of Deuteronomy 13 and 28 imitated the appearance of Assyrian Treaty-Oaths such as the Vassal Treaty of Esarhaddon;
  2. The author(s) of Exodus 21-24 took the Laws of Hammurabi as their model.

In the Second Temple era the interest of Judean scribes turned to genres of secret, esoteric knowledge. Specifically:

  1. The Enoch Book of Astronomy and Qumran literature on the calendar and the “watches” embraced Babylonian astronomical knowledge;
  2. The Qumran Testament of Levi incorporated Babylonian metrology (sequences of fractions and proportions in the sexagesimal system), and apparently metrology was also a part of other texts, Visions of Aram, Testament of Qahat, pseudo-Daniel although these are primarily examples of the importance of secrecy and guarding the knowledge through proper lineages.

Seth Sanders is interested in explaining the transition from the Late Iron Age Judean scribal culture to that of the Second Temple period, from genres of public power to genres of secrecy and esoteric wisdom.

As we saw in the previous post one of the most significant innovations the Judean scribes brought to the Mesopotamian material was the addition of a narrative context for the revealed laws, rituals and knowledge of the cosmos.

One question that arises and that I have not found explored in Sanders’ book is why the Judean scribes applied a significant narrative frame to their Babylonian sources. (As far as I have been able to determine Sanders addresses the function of the narrative framing but not the source-inspiration or model for the narrative framing concept.)

For example, the Laws of Hammurabi are bluntly introduced as being given by the sun god to the king. Contrast the laws of Exodus 21-24. Yes, they are delivered by the chief god but what a build-up: the Red Sea crossing, the Mount Sinai quaking, the tension between rebellious and obedient chosen people, the struggles of Moses to lead them, and so on!

But there are a few other details worth keeping in mind, too.

One: the amount of material supposedly borrowed from the vassal treaties is in fact arguably quite limited. Certainly there are clear similarities between the curses in both Deuteronomy and the treaties. But not much else that points to clear indications of direct borrowing. (Sanders also addresses the vagueness of some of the associations but I’ll discuss his answer in more detail in a future post.) Ditto for the borrowing from Mesopotamian Law Codes. Yes, there are clear links to the law of the goring ox in Exodus. But again, we soon run dry of comparable examples.

What of the prophetic literature of the Second Temple era? Mesopotamian prophecies, like the book of Daniel, “foretold” the historical events of successive kings rising up and doing good or bad things, but again there are notable differences, especially once again with the colourful narrative context of the Judean work. Sanders refers to the explanation of Matthew Neujahr in Predicting the Past in the Ancient Near East to point to similar historical circumstances in very different time periods leading to a blending of mantic/omen literature with chronicles or “historical” records.

I think an excellent explanation for the application of narrative framing of laws and other revealed knowledge is offered by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. The same thesis further explains why so little detail from Hammurabi’s code or the vassal treaties are actually found in the Pentateuch, and further yet, points out many similarities in Exodus and Deuteronomy to Plato’s discussion in Laws. Of particular importance, Plato wrote, was that law codes be presented with divine and antique authority and not as precepts newly hatched by a recent fallible generation. Myths or stories of origins were important for their presentation.

If we accept Gmirkin’s view then what we find is not a progression from “public genres of power” in the Late Iron Age to “secret and esoteric wisdom” in the Second Temple period, but rather we have different scribal schools — compare Philip R. Davies’  thesis in Scribes and Schools. To what extent these schools were contemporary I would not like to speculate, though it seems we would have to confine ourselves to the Hellenistic period unless there was more cultural overlap between Greeks and Persian dominated lands prior to Alexander’s conquests than I am aware of. At this point we are on the edge of too many questions and pathways to explore to be covered in a few short posts.

But with this interlude now done I feel I can resume posts on Sanders’ book.


See also

  1. How Does One Date the Old Testament Writings?
  2. Gmirkin: Plato and Creation of Hebrew Bible
  3. Sanders: From Adapa to Enoch

“Revealed Science” : Emergence of Jewish Science and Apocalyptic Genres

Continuing to share my reading of Seth Sanders’ From Adapa to Enoch, Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. All posts are archived here.
“Science” will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world.
Sanders, From Adapa to Enoch

Recall from the previous post (How Science Began) that we are talking about a world that conceptualized no clear distinction between the natural and the supernatural, or between nature and culture.

Seth Sanders identifies three core areas of exact description of the physical world documented by the Priestly scholars as the earliest form of Judean “scientific knowledge” known to us:

  • Time and the Universe (Genesis 1:1 to 2:4a)
  • The Temple (Exodus 25-31)
  • The Human Body (Leviticus 12-15)

The Origins of the Universe

Genesis opens with a taxonomy of each major entity in the world and concludes with God’s word creating the sabbath day as part of the cosmos. Later in ritual texts we find that this creation has included the categories of clean and unclean animals (Leviticus 11, Deuteronomy 14), their different physical attributes being recognized since antediluvian times. (Notice that the sabbath and forbidden foods are not deemed to originate in culture but as an integral part or category of the created world itself. Creation was activated by God’s word.

The Temple

Here we are in the realm of ritual requirements. We therefore find a quite different account of the temple and its system. Here we read not the words of an anonymous narrator but the words of God himself. God is quoted as setting out the details of the materials, measurements, layout and rituals of the tabernacle. Moses is a passive visionary because God points out that He, God, caused Moses to see it all. God has to show or reveal the heavenly model that the earthly structure and rituals are to copy. But it needs to be set out in the words of God for the reader who is not privileged to see the heavenly structure.

The Human Body

Similarly we are in the realm of ritual. The rules for bodily discharges and blemishes are likewise made known by divine commands, revelation.

Astronomical data and new information about the body introduced into Judea (using Judea throughout though in pre-Roman times Jehud may be more strictly correct) survive in such intertestamental literature as the Astronomical Book of Enoch and certain of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

It is interesting to see how this new scientific information made its entrance into the Judean world, building on the genres of existing “scientific” knowledge that we have seen in the three priestly statements above. We start with the introduction of astronomical knowledge that originated in Babylonia.

Revelation and Science are the One Genre

The Astronomical Book of Enoch begins:

The book of the courses of the luminaries of the heaven, the relations of each, according to their classes, their dominion and their seasons, according to their names and places of origin, and according to their months, which Uriel, the holy angel, who was with me, who is their guide, showed me; and he showed me all their laws exactly as they are . . . .

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On (Dying and Rising Gods and) IDEAL TYPES

Max Weber

It’s long overdue for me to type something serious in response to this sort of comment that one sees all too frequently:

Litwa writes, “The fact is, few Mediterranean gods actually die; even fewer die and rise. . . . To be sure, a few gods die; and of these, some of them return, in some fashion, to life. Yet they do so for all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways. Mythicists such as Carrier fixate on abstract similarities. As a result, they often ignore or paste over important differences in the stories.” — from a comment on this blog.

I only touched on the fallacy expressed here a couple of months ago in Death and Resurrection of Baal.

The first indication that there is something wrong with Litwa’s argument is the use of “some” and “all sorts of reasons and in all sorts of ways”. Already Litwa is acknowledging that these gods can indeed all be classified as a group even though there are “all sorts of differences” among them. We know their respective stories are very different indeed but that does not prevent us from grouping them as, let’s say, a particular “type”. So the question that arises is, On what grounds do we omit Jesus from among “the few” and “the some” in his statement?

Robert M. Price has explained that comparisons among ancient “dying and rising” gods are based on the famous sociologist Max Weber’s explanation of “ideal types”. (Ideal here does not mean perfect but belonging to a common idea.) Price rightly identifies the fault in a milestone critic of such comparisons, Jonathan Z. Smith, as failing to grasp Weber’s discussion of how sociologists, historians and others justify making comparisons in the first place.

So here is a little background reading. I will quote liberally from a translation of ““Objectivity” in Social Science and Social Policy”, an essay in Max Weber’s On the Methodology of the Social Sciences.

To begin, note that Weber points out that the notion of an ideal type is not a fanciful extra, some ad hoc plaything, but is an absolute necessity for any historian who is making comparisons of different cultural groups:

If the historian (in the widest sense of the word) rejects an attempt to construct such ideal types as a “theoretical construction,” i.e., as useless or dispensable for his concrete heuristic purposes, the inevitable consequence is either that he consciously or unconsciously uses other similar concepts without formulating them verbally and elaborating them logically or that he remains stuck in the realm of the vaguely “felt.” (94)

Imagine we want to make comparisons between a church and a sect. How do we go about defining our terms: what is it (to take an example Weber uses) that makes a church a church and a sect a sect? To answer that question we look at the vast array of groups we classify as churches and sects. And when we do we soon find we are in trouble because there are simply so many different sorts of churches and sects. I know from first hand: when I belonged to the Worldwide Church of God cult I and fellow members frequently noted criticisms of cults and we saw core reasons why our church was not any of the cults listed and critics were making an ignorant mistake to classify us with them. If we pin down the attributes that define one sect as a sect we will almost inevitably encounter another instance that defies some of those determinants. If we want to compare different democratic governments, or specific social classes, or economic systems, or family structures, or religions, we will face the same problem.

Keep in mind that the word “ideal” in ideal type refers to the idea of something, not a “perfect” representation. So let the authority on ideal types speak. All italics are original, bolding and paragraph breaks are mine: read more »

When an Atheist Gets EVERYTHING Wrong

An A for learning what your teacher said in history class???!!! Adapted from

There is an atheist out there on the internet who should hang his head in shame and disgrace. In 26 minutes of presentation in a debate with an apologist the video record shows he took up 3 whole minutes (667 words) repeating what he had read in books at school and had heard from science writers not realizing he was repeating a popular misconception, a misconception he had almost certainly been taught in school as fact. He dared to say that people in the Middle Ages thought the world was flat. That’s as good as getting EVERYTHING about history wrong, we learn from the author of History for Atheists (“ARON RA” GETS EVERYTHING WRONG), earning nothing less than a blistering 6,280-word response which included the following excoriation of both mind and character:

his profound ignorance of history

burst of pseudo historical gibberish

smug self-assurance

virtually everything he said was wrong.

When he turns to history, however, the results are truly woeful,

I make no apologies for coming down hard on crappy pseudo history like this. Nelson may be a well-meaning fool, but he is a fool nonetheless.

no excuse for peddling the lazy nonsense he spouts about history

doing it with such blithe pomposity

is terrible at history and believes many stupid and erroneous things.

someone with little to no grasp of the relevant material

he swaggers and bloviates

boneheaded fanaticism

We all have our bad days when we get a bit cranky.

Oh yes, here are some choice criticisms of our atheist’s presumed sources:

relying on bungled online rehashing of nineteenth century myths and confused nonsense by fellow polemicists.

has read some stuff that he likes from fellow historically illiterate polemicists and decides to present it as fact.

One thing I learned in my educational psychology classes was that the best way to correct facts and gaps in knowledge is to do exactly what the chair of the debate said at the beginning:

And we just ask that you be respectful.

I like that approach.

Yes, Aaron Ra or Nelson, you were guilty of repeating a popular misconception, not only among atheists but even among many Christians. Gosh, I believed what you said for years when I was a God-fearing Protestant. And I am sure I was even taught the same erroneous information in school at some point.

So let’s take a step back and see what has gone wrong. How did this piece of fiction come to be so widely accepted as a fact of history? This will be a slice of History for Atheists and Theists.

Jeffrey Burton Russell (Wikipedia)

The rest of this post consists of notes from Russell’s book, Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Russell does nothing to hide his view that faith and science are not really incompatible but we can live with that (up to a point).

You Are Not Alone

To begin, let’s try to reassure any of you who have believed this little datum that you are not alone. A 1991 book by Jeffrey Burton Russell contains the following

This Flat Error remains popular. It is still found in many textbooks and encyclopedias. . . .

By the 1980s, a large number of textbooks and encyclopedias had corrected the story, but the Flat Error was restated in a widely read book by the former Librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, The Discoverers (1983). Boorstin wrote :

A Europe-wide phenomenon of scholarly amnesia . . . afflicted the continent from A.D. 300 to at least 1300. During those centuries Christian faith and dogma suppressed the useful image of the world that had been so slowly, so painfully, and so scrupulously drawn by ancient geographers.

He called this alleged hiatus the “Great Interruption.” His fourteenth chapter, “A Flat Earth Returns,” derided the “legion of Christian geographers” who followed the geographical path marked out by a sixth-century eccentric. In fact the eccentric Cosmas Indicopleustes had no followers whatever: his works were ignored or dismissed with derision throughout the Middle Ages.

Daniel J. Boorstin (Wikipedia)

How could Boorstin disseminate the Flat Error and the public accept it uncritically?

Those damned librarians! (But he was also a historian.)

So what went wrong? Russell takes us on a journey through the literature that led us astray. It had much to do with the evolution debate of the nineteenth century inflaming passions over reason, and with the centuries-old Protestant distrust of Catholics.

An early culprit was Andrew Dickson White who wrote in 1896 . . .

Many a bold navigator, who was quite ready to brave pirates and tempests, trembled at the thought of tumbling with his ship into one of the openings into hell which a widespread belief placed in the Atlantic at some unknown distance from Europe. This terror among sailors was one of the main obstacles in the great voyage of Columbus.

But the voyage towards wholesale acceptance of error was not a smooth one: read more »

How Science Began

I initially titled this post “Revealed Science”. In our world “revealed science” is an oxymoron. Science is a matter of active investigation, not passively receiving a revelation.

The Book of Enoch is an apocalypse (the word means “a revelation”) which contains a section describing the hero being taken up into the heavens by an angel to be shown the secrets of the universe. Bizarre as it first sounds, it is arguable that here we have a fascinating development in the history of science. But before we explain, let’s address what we mean by science. This post continues discussing From Adapa to Enoch by Seth Sanders, and on pages 136-37 he writes:

The new types of knowledge that emerged in Hellenistic Jewish culture . . . included

astronomical calculations of the movements of the heavenly bodies and length of the days,

sexagesimal (base-60) mathematics,

and physiognomic interpretation of the body.

On the one hand, all of these modes of knowledge have at some point in modern European history been understood as natural science: astronomy and mathematics are of course still understood this way. But as late as the mid-nineteenth-century a form of physiognomy known as “phrenology” was still taken seriously by scholars across Europe. It seems intuitively correct to us to define mathematics and astronomy as exact science, but is it science to observe someone’s hair to predict their character and destiny, as the Qumran physiognomic text 4Q186 does? What is surprising is how clear the verdict of the history and philosophy of science is on this point: there is no objective, ahistorical way to define something as science or not.

The problem is not that no useful criteria for science are possible, but that historically, there have been so many of them. These criteria concern something immensely important to the people who proposed them — the nature of reliable knowledge of the world. . . . Rather than trying to place our texts into an anachronistic modem category, we must first find out how biblical and early Jewish writers themselves depicted systematic knowledge of this world. “Science,” then, will be used here as a system of exact knowledge of the physical world. This will let us investigate what counted as reliable knowledge of the physical world for the ancient Jewish writers of Enoch.

In Genesis it is written that God made the continents and the oceans, plant and animal life, and the sabbath day. He made them all the exact same way: by the power of his speech.

For the Jewish people immersed in such literature the weekly sabbath day was therefore as much a fact of the created universe as the sun and moon above and the grass and soil below. There was no fundamental distinction between the world of nature and the world of ritual. Similarly, there were two types of animals, clean and unclean, from creation, as was clear from the story of Noah. The distinction was not cultural; animals were created according to two kinds by “nature”; they were as innately, by creation, clean and unclean as plants were either healthy or poisonous, edible or inedible.

What caused it all to come into existence was the voice of God.

In such a world there could be no distinction between the natural and the supernatural.

The Rochberg reference is online but the Lloyd one is not; however, an earlier article by Lloyd on the same topic is available at

As in Mesopotamia, [in China] cosmos and state were intimately, even indissolubly, linked. Indeed in China, as Sivin has shown, state, cosmos and body all exhibit the same interacting processes. What we might take to be microcosm-macrocosm analogies were no mere analogies: heaven and earth, the state and the human body all exhibit the same reciprocal processes and form part of a single whole, where the ruler has a crucial role as responsible for mediating between heaven and earth and ensuring the harmony between them.

(Lloyd, 2008, p.84)

And if it is divine command that set an undivided ritual-material world in order, then “supernatural” may not be a coherent category for describing God in Priestly literature either. The notion of the physical world implied here is orderly yet without a discrete realm of nature separate from either culture or from the supernatural. This concept has been shown to exist in several ancient scientific cultures, from Mesopotamia (Rochberg 2014) to China (Lloyd 2012).

 When I originally titled this post “Revealed Science” I also subtitled it “When Enoch Introduced Babylonian Astronomy to Moses)”. That post will be next.

James McGrath’s “particular” difficulty with “mythicism”

Where to begin?!

One of the things that makes mythicism seem particularly implausible to me is precisely the claim that Christians just think there was a historical Jesus because they are biased in favor of his existence. The historical Jesus, a figure who (among other things) was mistaken about the imminent arrival of the kingdom of God that he predicted, who fostered hopes that he would restore the dynasty of David to the throne but was executed by the Romans, is not much of a comfort to the majority of Christians. Mythicists imagine Christians saying “Well, he was mistaken and a first-century figure that we can scarcely relate to, but I take great comfort in the fact that he existed.” That just doesn’t strike me as plausible.

McGrath, Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. 2019. “When Jesus and Mythicists Are Wrong.” Religion Prof: The Blog of James F. McGrath (blog). August 26, 2019.

It’s Trumpian.