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Happy Birthday, Thomas Thompson!

Posted by NT Wrong on January 7, 2009

thomas-thompsonCongratulations to Thomas L. Thompson, who turns 70 today (Jan 7, 2009). Since his landmark work on the non-historicity of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis — except for a short stint as a house-painter — Professor Thompson has been at the forefront of work on myth and (lack of) history in biblical narratives. His major works include The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (1974), The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel (1987), The Early History of the Israelite People (1992), The Bible in History: How Writers Create a Past (London, 1999) = The Myth of Ancient Israel (New York, 1999), and The Messiah Myth: The Near Eastern Roots of Jesus and David‎ (2005).

Just to note a curious synchronicity: Thomas Thompson’s 70th birthday coincides with the 91st anniversary of the death of Julius Wellhausen.

Congratulations on reaching threescore and ten — and best wishes for the day!

“not only has ‘archaeology’ not proven a single event of the patriarchal traditions to be historical, it has not shown any of the traditions to be likely. On the basis of what we know of Palestinian history of the Second Millenium B. C., and of what we understand about the formation of the literary traditions of Genesis, it must be concluded that any such historicity as is commonly spoken of in both scholarly and popular works about the patriarchs of Genesis is hardly possible and totally improbable.”
– Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives: The Quest for the Historical Abraham. Berlin & New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1974: 328.

Posted in Academia, Historiography | Comments Off on Happy Birthday, Thomas Thompson!

Ben Witherington Makes Up Stuff about Historicity of Jesus

Posted by NT Wrong on January 4, 2009

witheringtonLeo takes apart Ben Witherington’s comments from an Australian Radio Show, ‘G’Day World’ (recorded in September 2008).

“During this very interview, he says a few things that are so untrue that it saddens me. It saddens me to hear them coming out of the mouth of someone who is seen as a respectable expert in his field by the many students under his tutelage, who naturally assume he is being honest… what bugs me is the outright falsehoods that he let slip out in his passionate rhetoric during this interview. Moreover, not only are they egregious falsehoods; they are stated so haughtily, so smugly author[it]atively that it makes them doubly shameful to my eyes.”

Leo provides a good discussion of unsupportable overstatements and assertions made by Ben Witherington, namely:

  • Witherington misquotes Greco-Roman authors as “claiming” to rely on Roman records, when they do not make such a claim (whether or not good arguments can be raised that they did rely on official records);
  • Witherington claims that Origen ‘certainly’ quoted from Josephus’ ‘Flavium Testamonium’ in the former’s commentary on John, without being able to provide support when challenged by the interviewer;
  • Witherington makes the old apologetic argument for the truth of the resurrection from the alleged behaviour of Jesus’ earliest disciples in preaching the Gospel — despite the absence of contemporary evidence, [and with recourse to the ‘the disciples must either be Liars or Truth-tellers’ false dichotomy, which depends on the omission of some far more probable further options].

While these half-truths and misrepresentations are common in popular apologetical works, Leo is correct to lament that it is a great shame a biblical scholar – widely known in conservative circles – would recite such unsupported claims to less discerning acolytes. Witherington’s comments were either misleading or plain false (although, I wouldn’t dispute his ‘honesty’, as Leo does) — and this in a field in which there is already a plethora of disinformation fed to the public.

Make sure you read Leo’s very good post, which contains transcriptions of Ben Witherington’s comments, together with Leo’s responses.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 14 Comments »

Eilat Mazar Uses Fundamentalist Christian Cult to Link Archaeological Finds to ‘King David’

Posted by NT Wrong on January 2, 2009

herbert_w_mazarI noticed this disturbing archaeological News on Otagosh, the biblioblog of Gavin Rumney, a one-man encyclopedia of all things to do with Herbert W. Armstrong and the Worldwide Church of God.

As a bit of background: Biblical Archaeologist Eilat Mazar announced in October 2008 that the excavation of a tunnel she is supervising in Jerusalem is the tsinnor in the story of King David’s conquest of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5.6-8; 1 Chronicles 11.4-6). Earlier apologists had identified the tsinnor with a shaft near the Gihon Spring, in the attempt to make simplistic correlations between the Bible and archaeology. But when recent excavations showed that the Gihon Spring site wasn’t used in the tenth century BC (when David is alleged to have lived), the Biblical Archaeologists switched to Mazar’s tunnel, in a further desperate attempt to ‘prove’ the truth of the Bible. After all, Biblical Archaeologists such as Eilat Mazar actually boast that their ‘method’ comprises having a spade in one hand and a Bible in the other. Archaeology then becomes a childish game of joining the dots between the two, rather than a professional attempt to assess the context of the archaeological sites in their own right. No doubt, when problems arise with the correlation between this tunnel and the Bible, Mazar will pick up the Bible again (with her right hand) and use her left hand to dig for some new tunnel.

What Gavin Rumney draws attention to is that Mazar has handed over most of the archaeological dig to uber-fundamentalist Christians from the Church of God cult! That’s like handing over an archaeological dig for the original golden Book of Mormon to the Latter Day Saints, and then announcing that Joseph Smith was telling the truth!!

“A few days after the tunnel entrance was discovered, Mazar set out to excavate the tunnel, assigning Armstrong College students to the task. AC junior John Rambo, 22, from Oklahoma, and graduate Victor Vejil, 24, from Texas, spent nearly two months inside the tunnel, digging using small tools [a Bible?] under artificial light…”
– The Philadelphia Church of God, ‘AC students dig up 10th century B.C. tunnel in Israel’, December 15, 2008

Note: ‘Armstrong College’ is an unaccredited college. Well, it’s more of a fundie training-camp than a ‘college’.

“The tunnel was lost from world view after the Babylonians laid siege to the city in 585 B.C., until AC students stumbled upon it. While describing the student’s contribution, Mazar called the excavation an almost entirely “Armstrong College enterprise.” All the positions related to the tunnel were filled by the student volunteers, except for that of the artist who was responsible for mapping out the tunnel.”
– The Philadelphia Church of God, ‘AC students dig up 10th century B.C. tunnel in Israel’, December 15, 2008

Let’s see… the archaeology is being undertaken by Zionist extremists, the City of David Foundation and Christian Zionist students at an unaccredited college of the Church of God, under the leadership of Eilat Mazar, who holds a Bible in one hand while she digs with the other.

Is it any wonder that the excavation comes up with the oddball proclamations they do, when they involve such one-eyed zealots? Unfortunately, their utterly unfounded proclamations are then uncritically accepted by an ignorant and profit-driven mainstream media, a gullible Christian public, and an equally gullible and also nationalistic Israeli public.

Given such a widespread dissemination of misinformation, it is well worth pointing out the highly suspect groups behind the dig, the routine failure to apply accepted archaeological method, and the completely fanciful and wishful nature of their identifications of archaeological sites with biblical stories.

Posted in Archaeology, Historiography | 15 Comments »

La Bible: Le vrai et la légende – Finkelstein Interview

Posted by NT Wrong on December 26, 2008

Finkelstein Interview in Sciences et Avenir, December 2008. Extracts here.

Pourquoi alors ce mythe de la monarchie unifiée ?

Israël Finkelstein. Pour le royaume de Juda, la récupération des terres qui avaient été occupées par les Assyriens est fondamentale. Jérusalem considère que les terres du nord, c’est-à-dire les ex-territoires de l’ancien royaume d’Israël, lui appartiennent. C’est à ce moment-là qu’émerge l’idée du pan israélisme territorial et cette volonté farouche de vouloir créer un grand royaume unifié, en particulier après le retrait assyrien. Afin de donner à ces aspirations territoriales une légitimité, il fallait les lier idéologiquement aux grands rois David et Salomon… C’est alors que s’est faite la collecte des traditions orales, des histoires populaires, des prophéties, des chants épiques et des textes de propagande royale et que les traditions des deux royaumes du sud et du nord ont été combinées en une seule source écrite.

En quelques années à peine, les fouilles archéologiques nous montrent que la surface de Jérusalem passe de six à plus de soixante hectares ! Que les villages du royaume de Juda multiplient leur superficie par cinq ou six et que leur nombre s’accroît fortement. C’est très spectaculaire. Seule l’archéologie pouvait montrer l’ampleur de cette soudaine expansion! Confirmant une fois de plus que c’est seulement à partir de la fin du VIIIe siècle avant J.-C. que la Jérusalem prospère a existé, et pas dans des temps mythiques antérieurs.

Posted in Archaeology, Historiography | Comments Off on La Bible: Le vrai et la légende – Finkelstein Interview

Evidence of The Flood – The Land of Israel bears witness to a Great Flood

Posted by NT Wrong on December 7, 2008

Dr Rochelle Altman recently emailed me some very interesting photographs from Wadi Tavya, which is at the intersection of the Southern Judean Hills and the Negev Highlands. These photographs provide geological evidence of a widespread flood in the region, from approximately 6,500+ years ago.

The main geological evidence consists of terraces which have been cut into the banks of the Wadi. The head of the Tavya is 690 meters above sea level. Rochelle explains the significance of such terraces:

“Water erosion on the sides of mountains appears in two forms: vertical striations and circular cuts. Vertical striations are caused by rain. Circular cuts are caused by circulating water. As the water evaporates, these circular cuts leave a stepped series of what are called [“terraces”.] The Great Salt Lake in Utah is surrounded by these [terraces, there referred to as “benches”], which have been cut by the circulating water.

The exceedingly dry climate at both the Great Salt Lake and the Dead Sea preserves this ancient evidence of high flood waters.”
– Rochelle Altman

Also, the banks of the Wadi are so steep that they have not been affected by human settlement. In this photograph (“Figure 1”) the terraces are clearly visible:

Terraces on the north side of Wadi

Figure 1: Terraces on the north side of Wadi

“Figure 1 is part of the North side of the Wadi. In this photo we can see five different levels of arced benches cut into the side of the wadi wall by circulating water. In what bears a resemblance to raised eyebrows above the first level of benches, we can see where waves, probably caused by a violent storm, surged from side to side of the wadi. This “eyebrow” area above the series of benches and below the houses has never been “improved” by mankind. For one thing, the mountain side is far too steep. To climb over this portion of the hillside would require climbing equipment.”
– Rochelle Altman

There is also a debris layer above the terraces at Wadi Tavya, dated to ca. 6,500 years ago, which provides further evidence of this ancient shore-line. Rochelle Altman suspects that the head of the Wadi Tavya may have been a hanging lake before ca. 6,500 years ago, which became flooded and then ‘burst its banks’ before carving out a path down the Wadi. The terraces cease some 3-4 kms further down the Wadi, indicating what would be the end of the one-time hanging lake of ca. 6,500 years ago.

The flooding was a devastating event that Rochelle Altman believes “would have been carried down the centuries by the ‘memory men’ of each peoples.” The impact of the destruction resulted in stories such as the Sumerian flood story, Mesopotamian Gilgamesh, the biblical story of Noah’s Ark, and the Greek Deucalion – written between 5,000 and 2,000 years ago. And these are just the ones which have survived.

That the terraces were caused by flood waters is shown by the fact that the terraces are at the same levels on both sides of the Wadi. See Figure 2:


Figure 2: Terraces on both sides of Wadi

The terraces plausibly provide some of the present-day remains of one of the material factors involved in the production of the memory of flood stories, in the ancient Near East and Judea. An ancient age of flooding, some 6,500 to 10,000 years ago made such an impact on people that they told stories about it for thousands of years. And we still have the remains of recorded stories dating from 2,000 to 5,000 years ago. Thus, the ‘memory’ of the biblical flood story evolved from a combination of natural phenomenon (flooding during the first pluvial age) and oral/literary narrativity (the stories of the “memory men”).

Posted in Archaeology, Historiography, Pentateuch | Comments Off on Evidence of The Flood – The Land of Israel bears witness to a Great Flood

New Gerd Lüdemann Interview

Posted by NT Wrong on December 3, 2008

ludemannThere’s gems everywhere in Luís Rodrigues’ interview with Gerd Lüdemann, December 2008.

On the Pope’s book about Jesus:

“I think that [Pope Benedict VXI’s] main flaw [in his biography of Jesus] is that he does not think it necessary to take into account the basic research of the last 200 years. So, if I may compare with the scientists, he’s a scientist who still presupposes that the Earth is in the middle of the Universe.”

On the attempt to marry faith and modern historical research:

“historical research is the death of faith. Whoever does historical research – that’s my experience – will have to say: “I no longer believe”… I think that historical research and modern studies destroy religion. If I may say one more thing, liberals are deceiving themselves to a degree that they seem not to realize… [H]istorical scholarship is destroying religion. Having read the bible historically and critically, you can no longer read it piously, because you know if you do, you deceive yourself.”

On the categorization of Jesus as a militant, rather than a preacher of peace:

“[Jesus] was radical. He himself said – and that’s an authentic saying – “I’m not here to bring the peace; I bring the sword.” He was, I almost say, hallucinating about his role at the end of world when the twelve tribes of Israel would be there and his twelve disciples would sit on the thrones and then judge the twelve tribes of Israel—and he probably had a special role in there. So somebody who’s predicting the end of the world is not peaceful knows that peace is brought through power. I cannot disagree more with you when you say that Jesus was peaceful. He was not peaceful. That’s wishful thinking.”

Read the whole interview here. (Spotted at Jim West’s place.)

Posted in Historiography, Jesus & Christ | 5 Comments »

The Absurdity of Genesis 1 – Just-So Stories – Literal Meaning; Non-Literal Apologetic Interpretation

Posted by NT Wrong on November 28, 2008


A Cartoon from Answers in Genesis, an organization whose members believe, like me, that Genesis 1 refers to a literal 6-day creation. Unlike me, however, they think the biblical authors described the universe in much the same way as modern science (as opposed to their literal belief in a 3-tiered 'universe').

Chris Heard at Higgaion has got wound up
about Steven Pinker’s ridicule of the account of creation in Genesis 1. Steven Pinker, seeing things from a solely scientific point of view, criticises Genesis 1 for saying the world was created in six days and light was created before the sun. For Pinker, Genesis 1 contains “absurdities” in light of modern scientific knowledge. But for Chris Heard, these very absurdities show that Genesis 1 was not intended to be read as literal fact but as “non-literal” or “metaphorical” accounts.

It’s a common enough debate. And both sides are wrong.

Pinker and modern scientific critics are wrong when they do not take account of the fact that Genesis 1 is not only making mundane “how” statements, but also answering cosmological and divine “how” and “why” statements. That is, when scientists write off the whole text on scientific grounds, they can sometimes falsely reduce the biblical text to something that only deals with mundane “how” questions. This is obviously not the case with Genesis 1. Yet this is a comparatively minor mistake compared to the apologetic interpreters.

The metaphorical apologists will also be wrong if they simply choose to interpret Genesis 1 as “non-literal” or “metaphorical” — whenever a literal reading would demonstrate a biblical passage to be incorrect in light of modern science. If science shows that the “days” of Genesis 1 cannot literally be correct, the apologists will be wrong if they choose a non-literal interpretation merely as an apologetic ploy to save the text. There must be better grounds for interpreting either metaphorically or literally. But in the case of Genesis 1, the difficulty with a literal interpretation so often forces apologetic interpreters into choosing the metaphorical alternative, rather than considering the meaning of the text. The apologetic intepretation is motivated by the perceived need to “save” the biblical text.

Now, Chris Heard claims he has good grounds for a non-literal interpretation. His reasoning is that the absurdities we moderns see in Genesis 1 are so obviously absurd, that even ancient Judean authors and their audiences would have known they were absurd. Thus, we must conclude that Genesis 1 was always intended metaphorically:

“I seriously doubt that any ancient Judean of any period could fail to notice that, “absurdly,” the Genesis 1 story operates on a cycle of evening and morning for three days in the absence of sun and moon, which allow humans to measure days. In fact, the narrator even calls attention to this “absurdity” by specifying that sun and moon function as timekeepers … The ancient believers who created, edited, preserved, and transmitted knew very well that you can’t measure days without reference to the sun. They knew very well that Genesis 1 presented a schematic account of creation rather than an historical (much less scientific) one.”
– Chris Heard, ‘Absurdities as Genre Markers’

(I note in passing that a similar apologetic argument from “absurdity” is offered by certain New Testament scholars, who argue, for example, that Matthew’s account of zombie saints rising from the dead and wandering around Jerusalem is just so “absurd” that it must be true.)

The thing is, while these things are certainly absurd for me, for Chris Heard, and for quite a few other modern, academically minded folk, there was no such “absurdity” 2000+ years ago. The apologetic explanation is nothing more than a “just-so story” about perceived absurdity, lacking any serious attempt to study the ancient reception of Genesis 1. And when we do look at its ancient reception, we see that — far from being viewed as “absurd” and “metaphorical” — it was usually viewed as an oddity that had a miraculous but quite literal explanation. Sure, it wasn’t “history” or “science” in a modern, empirical understanding of those fields. But the apologetic alternatives which are offered (‘metaphor’ or ‘modern scientific textbook’) provide nothing more than a simplistic false dichotomy. In reality, the authors of Genesis 1 were just as interested in “how” questions as modern scientists, although they were also quite interested in questions about the “how” and “why” of cosmological and divine matters compared with their modern counterparts.

James Barr — who was much more knowledgeable than Steven Pinker concerning the Old Testament, and much less apologetic than the metaphor-apologists — comments:

“About the actual processes of the origin of the world as we know them, [the author of Genesis 1] knew, of course, nothing, and set against our knowledge of these processes his account is certainly ‘wrong’. Since, on the other hand, the processes and sequences which are known to us through modern science were certainly totally unknown to him, this ‘wrongness’ is quite irrelevant in our understanding the story.”
– James Barr, Fundamentalism. Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1977: 41

Quite contrary to Chris Heard’s arguments, the ancient reception of Genesis 1 demonstrates that they usually took the first chapter of the Bible quite literally in its statement concerning the time of the creation of light — out of ignorance of any necessary causal connection between the sun and light on earth. Light, in the understanding of the ancient authors of Genesis 1, could just as easily be literally created before the sun as after it:

– A common interpretation of Genesis 1 was that God created “light” on Day 1 without revealing it yet. It was only revealed on Day 4. So Jubilees 2.2 explains that on Day 1 God prepared the light “in the knowledge of his heart”. The light was literally created in the divine realm, but was not literally set in place in the firmament. Likewise, 11QPsa (11Q Hymn to the Creator) explains that God literally divided light from darkness on Day 1, but that this was prepared “in the knowledge of his heart”.

– Utilising Psalm 104.2, others explained that the “light” of Day 1 literally came from God’s own glory or shekinah, literally distinguished from the light which came literally from the sun and moon on Day 4. So Genesis Rabba 3.4.

– b. Ḥagigah 12a makes the claim that the “light” of Day 1 was a miraculous light which would have allowed people to see from one end of the earth to another. After Adam’s fall, that light has been kept for the messianic age.

The preference for a “non-literal”, “metaphoric” interpretation of Genesis 1 is nothing more than a modernist attempt — in the light of modern science — to save the meaning of Genesis 1. This is still the case when the apologetic interpretation is misleadingly contrasted with the interpretation of Genesis 1 as “a scientific textbook”, as though that were the only alternative.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Historiography, Metaphor, Pentateuch | 10 Comments »

The Bible’s Buried Secrets – and God’s Wife

Posted by NT Wrong on November 19, 2008

Jim West summarises the contents of PBS’s The Bible’s Buried Secrets (first screened Nov 18, 2008), composed during a ‘live blog’.

The program is available to watch in its entirety on the PBS website.

It sounds as though the program by-and-large followed the Bible’s own story of a opposition between “our” monotheism and “pagan”, “foreign” polytheism, painting polytheism as a corruption of the “serve Yahweh only” ideology of “early Israel”. That is, the program simply repeats the Bible’s own ideology. Whereas, historically, worship of only one God came relatively late in the Levant, after Yahwistic polytheism (ca. the fifth century BC). Polytheism is not a corruption of monolatry in Judea, but its antecedent. Polytheism is not “foreign”, let alone (the ridiculously inappropriate term) “pagan”, but polytheism is authentic ‘Israelite’ and Judahite religion. And monotheizing tendencies are in evidence everywhere amongst Judea’s neighbours, when it finally does happen. The “foreign corruption” may have been “corruption” towards worshipping Yahweh alone.

Here’s a segment about God’s wife, Asherah, which displays this same (biblical) bias:

Posted in Historiography, Yahweh | 2 Comments »

Treating Bible as ‘History’ is ‘Irresponsible’: Y. Zakovitch

Posted by NT Wrong on November 18, 2008

“The learning of actual history from biblical narrative except in the most general and vague terms is an unachievable task, even irresponsible. The ideological history of the nation of Israel is the task worthy of effort.”
– Yair Zakovitch, ‘Story Versus History’, Proceedings of the Eighth World Congress of Jewish Studies: Panel Sessions: Bible Studies and Hebrew Language (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1983): 47-60, 60.

Posted in Historiography | 2 Comments »

Why BAR sells in America

Posted by NT Wrong on November 7, 2008


Spotted on Gideon Addington’s Groundofbeing.net, an interesting blog exploring various religious ideas in a ‘liberal’ fashion (if you’re ok with employing such a label).

And on a related note, David Ker, who ceased blogging a week ago, comes back from the dead with a new post asking Why [White] American Christians look so stupid and what you can do about it.

Posted in Fundamentalism, Historiography, Science | 2 Comments »