Hi, everyone. I just wanted our readers to know that we’re going to make the transition to a different WordPress theme today. You may see some odd behavior from time to time as we adjust the new theme to have a similar look and feel to the old theme.
If all goes well, you will finally see a much better, more readable mobile version of Vridar. (Our old version was not mobile-friendly at all, and we apologize for that.)
Thanks for your patience, and thank you for reading Vridar.
[Note: I’m offering the following as a diversion to get our minds off this terrible timeline. –taw]
A few years back, I published a post concerning the date of Jesus’ birth (Why Is Christmas on the 25th of December?), in which we briefly touched on the idea of symmetry between Jesus’ birth and death. I quoted Augustine, who noted the belief, current at the time, that Christ’s conception occurred on March 25.
For He is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also He suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which He was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which He was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before nor since. But He was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Book IV, Chapter 5)
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We tend to forget that before the First World War broke out, pundits of all stripes debated as to whether workers in European nations would actually fight. That is, would they align themselves to their nations or to their class? In the end, the socialists decisively lost that argument, with the overwhelming majority of workers marching to the frontlines, dying in unheard-of numbers in a futile struggle.
Culture, language, religion, and the land itself bound workers to the nation-state, whether or not the existing governments protected their interests. The common bond of labor meant little in comparison to the granfalloon of the state.
Still, one can hardly blame the intelligentsia, the ruling classes, the capitalists, the bankers, and others for doubting whether the lower classes would fight. After all, the upper classes of Europe and America had enjoyed a long tradition of camaraderie and mutual understanding. The Tsar of Russia had much more in common — culturally, economically, and politically — with a factory owner in Paris than with some faceless peasant breaking his back in Ukraine.
One can easily understand the French workers’ response in 1914 since the very survival of France was at stake. But what of the British? Would they fight for “the integrity of Belgium”? In short order it became clear: They would fight and die in the trenches alongside the French.
From the start, the fighting was furious and deadly, with casualty rates unknown in previous wars, including the American Civil War, which had hinted at the coming horrors of mechanized, industrialized warfare. So when the nations in the Western Front agreed to a Christmas truce, the combatants on the ground appreciated the time figuratively to lick their wounds.
The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.
–Harry S. Truman
You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.
Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.
Learning and unlearning
Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.
Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.
I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.
Reading and rereading
Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.
Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)
Note: I wrote this post a few years back and left it lying in the draft pile, unable to come up with a satisfactory conclusion until earlier this year. Our forecast calls for snow tomorrow (something those of us who live in RVs would rather not see), so a post about precipitation and weather prediction might be apt. –TAW
[This post begins our hard look at Chapter 6, “The Hard Stuff” in Carrier’s Proving History. — specifically, the section entitled “Bayesianism as Epistemic Frequentism.”]
In the 1980s, the history department building on the University of Maryland’s College Park campus had famous quotations painted on its hallway walls. Perhaps they still do.
The only quote I can actually still remember is this one:
“The American people never carry an umbrella. They prepare to walk in eternal sunshine.” — Alfred E. Smith
I used to enjoy lying to myself and say, “That’s me!” But the real reason I never carry an umbrella is not that I’m a naive Yankee optimist, but rather because I know if I do, I will leave it somewhere. In this universe, there are umbrella receivers and umbrella donors. I am a donor.
So to be honest, the reason I check the weather report is to see if I should take a jacket. I’ve donated far fewer jackets to the universe than umbrellas. But then the question becomes, what does it actually mean when a weather forecaster says we have a 20% chance of rain in our area this afternoon? And what are we supposed to think or do when we hear that?
Ideally, when an expert shares his or her evaluation of the evidence, we ought to be able to apply it to the situation at hand without much effort. But what about here? What is our risk of getting rained on? In Proving History, Richard Carrier writes:
When weathermen tell us there is a 20% chance of rain during the coming daylight hours, they mean either that it will rain over one-fifth of the region for which the prediction was made (i.e., if that region contains a thousand acres, rain will fall on a total of two hundred of those acres before nightfall) or that when comparing all past days for which the same meteorological indicators were present as are present for this current day we would find that rain occurred on one out of five of those days (i.e., if we find one hundred such days in the record books, twenty of them were days on which it rained). (Carrier 2012, p. 197)
These sound like two plausible explanations. The first sounds pretty “sciency,” while the second reminds us of the frequentist definition of probability, namely “the number of desired outcomes over the total number of events.” They’re certainly plausible, but do they have anything to do with what real weather forecasters do?
Longtime readers of Vridar may recall my “Bad Five-Line Poems.” As you know, a true limerick is not simply a poem that follows the form AABBA; it must also be dirty. Since a “clean limerick” is an oxymoron, we must call them something else.
I’ve been writing politically charged bad five-line poems on Facebook for a few years now, using the term “#Dimmerick.” (My wife often calls me “Dim,” and not without reason. Several old friends from my enlisted days still sometimes call me Dimmy or Dimmer.)
At any rate, for various reasons, I now believe that Facebook is a terrible place to post original content. I’m going to try them out here. And if I can find the inspiration, I’ll try to make them a regular feature.
Hardly a day goes by without somebody on social media sternly reminding me that we desperately need nuclear power in order to fight climate change. I’m always tempted to respond that I agree, but only if they happen to have a time machine — because, if you really wanted to fight climate change and stop runaway global warming with nukes you should have started building 20 years ago. We’re too late.
Of course, I don’t actually bother responding, since one cannot dissuade a true believer. And one can only stomach so many lectures about the incredible safety record of nuclear power. The safety argument comes to the fore, because so many people think atomic energy isn’t safe. They’re wrong, but the underlying argument is only so much theater.
Large numbers of people would like to stop fracking, and they have plenty of good reasons for it. Fracking causes earthquakes and contaminates groundwater. It wastes huge amounts of fresh water. Its continued use makes petroleum less expensive, which encourages the use of carbon-generating gasoline and diesel fuel.
It’s dangerous. Yet, despite all of the protests and no matter how many videos we see with people setting their tap water on fire, fracking continues.
The same goes for coal-fired power plants. Ditto for pipelines. Nobody wants coal burning in their backyards. So, naturally, we build them in poor areas. We run the pipelines through Native American burial grounds so as not to disturb nice, clean white people in the suburbs.
The myth that nuclear power’s decline in the US came about because of the fears of an irrational public continues to persist. However, if the “bewildered herd” had any real influence, fracking would certainly cease. And truth be told, the only reason coal is finally dying has everything to do with economics.
A few weeks ago, I was dealing with a mold issue in our RV’s bathroom. (Note: If you see mushrooms growing out of a crack in the wall, it’s usually a bad sign.) Having resigned myself to working with gloves, wearing a mask, sitting uncomfortably on the floor for at least an hour, I resolved to find a long audio program on YouTube and let it play while I worked. I happened upon a presentation by Dr. Lewis Sorley, based mainly on his book, Westmoreland: The General Who Lost Vietnam. (You can find the video at the end of this post.)
I had studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate history major back in the 1980s, so much of what Sorley had to say covered old ground for me. Back in those days, of course, we could still refer to it as America’s Longest War without worrying whether some other disastrous Asian war might overtake it. After all, we had “learned the lessons of Vietnam,” right?
Later, as a student at Squadron Officer School, I certainly thought we had learned those lessons. From a policy perspective, the first lesson had to be clarity of purpose. On the military side, we would never again fight a limited war of attrition; instead, we would use overwhelming force to achieve clear objectives. In a nutshell, this is the “Get-In-and-Get-Out” Doctrine: Know your objectives. Achieve them in minimum time with minimal loss of life.
We would absolutely avoid any future quagmires. Or so we thought.
I should mention that several other lessons — both spoken and unspoken — arose out of the Vietnam experience. The practice of embedding journalists within fighting units came out of the beliefs that the press should not have been permitted to work as independent observers and that allowing them to move freely in South Vietnam had been a mistake.
An expanding set of myths about why we lost the war blossomed quickly into an alternate history in which unreliable draftees, fickle politicians in Washington, pinko journalists, and the hippy peace movement conspired to keep us from winning.
[Author’s note: I wrote this back in 2014, but decided to put in on the back burner for a bit, setting the publication clock five years ahead. The post below, which auto-published yesterday, is not actually finished. I will soon submit a third part to this series, with a summation and conclusions. taw]
As we discussed in part 1, Gary Rendsburg believes that we shouldn’t try to divide the Genesis flood story based on supposed source documents, namely the Yahwist (J) and the Priestly (P) sources. He writes:
If one reads the two stories as separate entities, one will find that elements of a whole story are missing from either the J or the P version. Only when read as a whole does Genesis 6-8 read as a complete story, and — here is the most important point I wish to make — not only as a complete story, but as a narrative paralleling perfectly the Babylonian flood story tradition recorded in Gilgameš Tablet XI, point by point, and in the same order.Perfectly, that is, after taking into account elements found in the biblical narrative but lacking in the Babylonian story, indicated by a minus sign in the right hand column of the accompanying chart — given the distinctively Israelite theological position inherent to Genesis 6-8 . . . (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 115-116)
We’ll save Rendsburg’s chart for the end. For now, let’s examine his argument closely and see if it holds up under close scrutiny.
Essentially, Rendsburg is offering a counter-argument to the consensus view that the redactor of Genesis pulled together two sources (J and P), which most likely both came from the earlier Babylonian and Sumerian myths. Instead, he maintains that the author of Genesis appropriated the flood story directly from the Gilgamesh epic, adding only those theological elements peculiar to the Israelite religion. His argument depends on proving the coherence and unity of the Genesis story, combined with the “perfect” correspondence between the order of events in Genesis and in Tablet XI of the Gilgamesh epic.
In his audio course on the book of Genesis, Rendsburg says:
Materials, dimensions, and decks
Now note that not only are all these [story] elements present, one by one, as we work through the two stories that we are comparing here, but that they are also in the same order. Now, in certain cases, of course, there is no opportunity for a variation in the order. That is to say, you have to build the ark before the flood comes, and the flood has to come before it lands on a mountain top, and so on. But even where there is room for variation, the two stories proceed, element by element, in the same order.
Let me give you an example of that. In the Gilgamesh story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order; in the biblical story the materials, the dimensions, and the decks are given in that order. And of course, you may say, “Well, that’s perfectly logical — how else would you else would you instruct somebody to build a vessel?” But nevertheless, it’s still noteworthy. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 7:38, emphasis mine)
I have to confess that even if Rendsburg is correct, I don’t find his argument persuasive. Consider the possibility that the J and P source material both (independently) borrowed from the story of Utnapishtim or, for that matter, from the earlier story of Atrahasis. We could reasonably assume that each story would generally follow the same sequence, and that the redactor would have little reason to deviate from that sequence.
We should note here that with his presentation of the evidence Rendsburg is in fact trying to prove two points: first, that the flood story in Genesis is secondary to the older flood myths of Mesopotamia, and second, that the order of events in Noah’s flood tale “perfectly” parallel the events as told by Untapishtim in the Gilgamesh epic. Moreover, he argues, that perfect correspondence falls by the wayside if we try to split the Genesis story into its source components.
With all of that in mind, let’s examine his first claim, viz. that the two stories relate “materials, dimensions, and decks” in that order. Sure enough, in Genesis here’s the order:
Materials 6:14 Make for yourself an ark of gopher wood; you shall make the ark with rooms, and shall cover it inside and out with pitch.
Dimensions 6:15 This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, its breadth fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits.
Decks 6:16 You shall make a window for the ark, and finish it to a cubit from the top; and set the door of the ark in the side of it; you shall make it with lower, second, and third decks. (NASB)
Now let’s take a look at the story as told by Utnapishtim. Ea does not directly tell our hero that a flood is coming. Rather, he talks to a reed hut, which just happens to be Utnapishtim’s dwelling. That is to say, he whispers through the wall of the hut in order to pass on his instructions. Ea says:
24. Tear down (thy) house, build a ship! 25. Abandon (thy) possessions, seek (to save) life! 26. Disregard (thy) goods, and save (thy) life!
27. [Cause to] go up into the ship the seed of all living creatures.
(Heidel, 1949, p. 81)
We already see significant differences between the two stories. God tells Noah to collect materials to build an ark, literally a box (similar to the “chest” built by Deucalion). On the other hand, Ea indirectly tells Utnapishtim to dismantle his house and build a ship.
In what order does Ea provide his ship-building instructions?
28. The ship which thou shalt build, 29. Its measurements shall be (accurately) measured; 30. Its width and its length shall be equal. 31. Cover it [li]ke the subterranean waters.’
(Heidel, 1949, p. 81, emphasis mine)
Ea is already discussing the dimensions and characteristics of the boat, but he hasn’t yet mentioned anything about materials. (We would remind Dr. Rendsburg that width and length are what we call “dimensions.”) In line 31 we have a clue that the boat will differ from ordinary in that it needs to be covered, presumably to keep out the coming torrential rains. Of course, since his job will be to save all life, Untapishtim’s boat will naturally need to be rather large.
We might theorize that if Utnapishtim will be using materials from his torn-down dwelling, reeds will be involved. Far from forests, the people of ancient Mesopotamia built their houses and boats out of reeds. In cases where they did use wood (e.g., for seagoing vessels), it was probably only for the keel, spars, oars, and punting poles. (See Mäkelä, 2002, for details on ancient shipbuilding in Mesopotamia.) That said, some scholars have suggested that the “water-stoppers” mentioned in line 63 refer to wedge-shaped chunks of wood driven into the seams to prevent leaking.
In fact, we have no explicit evidence of wood as a building material in the Gilgamesh epic, but we do have clues in the earlier Babylonian flood story from which it is derived. On tablet III, lines 48-51 we find:
The carpenter [carried his axe], The reed-worker [carried his stone], [The rich man? carried] the pitch, The poor man [brought the materials needed].
(Foster, 1995, p. 72) [Note: Some reconstructed texts of the Gilgamesh epic insert the lines concerning the carpenter and reed-worker above line 54. However, it is not actually part of the received text.]
Ea provides no more specifics on building the ship, although lines 50 through 53 are usually considered too fragmentary to translate. We do find out that pitch plays a role from line 54:
54. The child [brou]ght pitch, 55. (While) the strong brought [whatever else] was needful.
(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)
Utnapishtim then describes the measurements in greater detail:
56. On the fifth day [I] laid its framework. 57. One ikû [about an acre] was its floor space, one hundred and twenty cubits each was the height of its walls; 58. One hundred and twenty cubits measured each side of its decks.
(Heidel, 1949, p. 82)
So, what of Rendsburg’s claim that the two stories match perfectly when compare side by side? His first test case fails on the evidence. Ea does not follow the same pattern as God in Genesis. Indeed, we do not see references to “materials, dimensions, and decks . . . in that order.” Ea starts with a command to build a ship, and immediately starts talking about its dimensions (again, see lines 29 and 30).
As far as we can tell from the text, the god never talks about materials, presumably because Utnapishtim is building a known structure: a boat (albeit of unusual size). We do finally get references to “decks,” but not until line 58.
Wood, reeds, and pitch
Rendsburg desperately wants to find perfect correspondence — so much so that he insists on a rather unusual translation of Genesis 6:14. He writes in the course guide:
Note that all translations agree on two of the building materials for the ark: wood and pitch. The third item is the subject of some discussion, however. The consonants in the biblical text, namely, QNYM, can be read as either qinnim, “rooms, compartments” (thus the traditional rendering), or qanim, “reeds” (thus some recent translations). We favor the latter understanding, especially because reeds constitute the third building material in the Gilgamesh Epic flood narrative. (Rendsburg, 2006b, p. 16)
I won’t try to argue Hebrew with Rendsburg. I will only mention the following two points:
The translation of the word in the text as “reeds” rather than “rooms” is exceedingly rare. No major translation in English uses it. In fact, other than the Everett Fox translation and commentary that Rendsburg cites, I know of no other translation that uses it.
If we go with “compartments” (as the vast majority of translators do), we still have a viable parallel in the Gilgamesh epic, namely:
59. I ‘laid the shape’ of the outside (and) fashioned it [the ship]. 60. Six (lower) decks I built into it, 61. (Thus) dividing (it) into seven (stories). 62. Its ground plan I divided into nine (sections).
(Heidel, 1949, p. 82, emphasis mine)
Hence, we have good reason to believe that the author of the P source inherited the tradition that the ship (or in his case, the ark) that saved all animal life had various sections or compartments.
Mountain landing, then birds
Where else might we find the perfect correspondence that Rendsburg craves? He continues (in his lecture):
Perhaps at the end is where we can see the room for some variation. That is to say, it might have been to send out the birds first, and then have the ark to land on a mountaintop. But no, in both stories the mountaintop landing occurs first, and then the birds are sent forth. (Rendsburg, 2006, 8:27)
In print, Rendsburg concedes the alternative order is improbable.
I agree that such an order of events is far less likely than the order which appears in the biblical narrative. but it is possible nonetheless. It is therefore pertinent to point out that Genesis 8 parallels the Babylonian flood story, with the mountain top landing preceding the sending forth of the birds. (Rendsburg, 2007, p. 117)
I would argue that it simply makes more narrative sense for the flood hero to realize they’ve come to a stop, wonder about where they might be and whether it’s safe to leave, and only then hit upon the idea of using the birds. In other words, the mountain landing causes Noah and Utnapishtim to send out the birds. Hermann Gunkel comments:
The following, lovingly presented scene (6b- 12, 13b) has the goal of portraying the exceedingly great wisdom of Noah. No one in the Ark knows where they are and how things look outside. No one dares open the door—great streams of water could surge in—or take off the roof—the rain could begin again. One can look out the window, but through it one sees only the heavens above. What shall one do? How shall one learn whether the earth is dry? In this difficult situation the clever Noah knows a means. If one cannot exit oneself, one can send the birds to reconnoiter. “It was an old nautical practice, indispensable in a time which did not know the compass, to bring birds along to be released on the high seas so that the direction to land could be determined by their flight” [quoting Hermann Usener in Die Sintfluthsagen] . . . (Gunkel, 1997, p. 64, emphasis mine)
Liberation, then sacrifice
We have saved for last what Rendsburg considers his strongest argument. Again, from his audio course:
And most importantly, I think the place for . . . the best possibility of variation is the very, very end of the story where it’s very possible that the flood hero — Noah or Utnapishtim — could have done the sacrifices before letting everybody go free. But no, in both stories all are set free, and then the sacrifices occur. So I repeat the statement here: Element by element the two stories — the Gilgamesh Epic, Tablet XI (the Babylonian flood tradition), and the biblical story with Noah as its hero in Genesis 6 through 8 — tell the tale one by one, element by element in the same order. (Rendsburg, 2006a, 8:45)
He really does think it’s his strongest argument. In his 2004 article he wrote:
I refer especially to the end of the story, where both Noah and Utnapishtim could have performed the sacrifices first. While all were still on the ark, and only later everyone free. But in both cases the order is first to set everyone free and then to perform the sacrifices. In Noah’s case, in fact, the order is counterintuitive. If he first set all the animals free and then performed the sacrifices, as the story now reads, one might ask. What happened? Did he call the pure animals back in order to sacrifice them? (Rendsburg, 2004, p. 117)
Obviously, the implication is clear: Noah set all the animals free, except for the handful which he intended to sacrifice. But my point is this: if the redactor had before him two stories, the supposed J account and the supposed P account, the former including the sacrifices and the latter including the hero’s setting everyone free, I would imagine that the redactor would have woven his story with these two elements in that order the sacrifices first, while the animals were still present, and then the setting of everyone free. But such is not the case. At the end of Genesis 8. Noah first sets the animals free and then performs the sacrifices.
[What follows is the text an email, with some emendations, that I wrote over a year ago.]
As you may already know, I have problems with the NIV [New International Version]. The translation of 2 Timothy 3:16 is particularly irksome. Since the time of the Latin Vulgate through the Authorized Version (KJV) and beyond, the word θεόπνευστος (theópneustos) was understood to mean “divinely inspired.”
Herophilus [says] that dreams which are caused by divine instinct (θεοπνεύστους) have a necessary cause . . .
The KJV translates 2 Timothy 3:16 as follows:
All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness:
Nearly all its descendants (NASB, NET, ASV, etc.) follow suit. For centuries, it simply meant that the men who wrote the scriptures worked under the influence of divine inspiration. The living, continuing Church (its clergy and theologians) would interpret those scriptures as needed, because although under the influence of the spirit, men are still imperfect.
I cannot find the unusual translation, God-breathed, before 1849. At first, we see it used only as a hyper-literal rendering to argue that scripture is divine revelation. There’s really nothing extraordinary or new about that claim. But by the turn of the century, we start to see the argument blossom into the notion that scripture itself is a divine creation, reminiscent of the scenes in Genesis wherein God’s spirit moves across the face of the waters or when God breathes life into Adam’s nostrils. [Note: In its most extreme form, the Bible seems to become a kind of divine emanation, or at least a holy conduit through which God speaks to us.]
While looking over my notes from the past few years, I came across something I wrote to Valerie Tarico. She had asked Neil and me to take a look at an extended version of her article, “Why Is the Bible So Poorly Written” (which is, unfortunately, behind a paywall).
In the draft we received, she quoted Ken Jacobsen, a graduate of Princeton Seminary, from a comment he made at Quora. Here’s what he said.
Koine Greek is pidgin Greek… developed by Alexander’s armies to communicate, not to impress. It’s a step down from Classical Greek.