Civil War Denialism: A Further Response to "The Jewish Prophecy of Exile"

I didn't notice until recently that Narabelad, the apologist for Judaism whose claims I addressed in "The Jewish Prophecy of Exile", has written a further reply to me. In this post, I'll address it briefly.

First, let me note that my correspondent has evidently conceded that his list of things that would make him an atheist was impossible to satisfy and was offered in bad faith, because in his latest response, there's not a word about it. Clearly, he'd rather avoid the difficult question of how to falsify his own beliefs and instead focus on apologetic claims for the historical accuracy of the Torah. Most of this simply reiterates his previous letter without adding anything new, so I won't repeat myself responding to it - but there's a few points worth marveling at just for their sheer audacity, and for the level of historical distortion he's willing to resort to.

So Mr. Atheist contents that someone wrote predictions about an exile of the Israelite people based on the experience they had in the Babylonian Captivity. If that be the case then how do those same verses explain the Roman Exile, which started more than 400 years after the Babylonian Exile?

The obvious answer to this question is that history runs in patterns. Living at a crossroads of the ancient world, the Israelites were constantly under threat from powerful empires. And exiling a defeated enemy was a common tactic of war in that era, as is shown by the fact that it happened to them no fewer than three times. Most of the verses which my correspondent thinks are specific predictions of the Roman exile are really just generic prophecies of disaster which could apply to any major defeat. They say nothing specific about the identity of the enemy; they just predict that the Israelites' life would be arduous and painful living in exile under a conqueror. Obviously, this isn't a great leap of imagination.

Know that the Babylonian Captivity did not involve this kind of merciless cruelty against the cities that involved slaughter of the inhabitants, not to the extent that Rome inflicted. The Babylonians held Jerusalem in siege for 2 years but after the Israelites surrendered they were handled fairly amicably after that as the conquerors wanted them for their benefit.

Yes, those Babylonians were forgiving, merciful folk, all right. They were so merciful that they besieged Jerusalem until the food ran out and the inhabitants were starving to death [2 Kings 25:3; compare Deuteronomy 28:52-53]. Then, after they conquered Jerusalem and took King Zedekiah captive, they killed his sons in front of him, gouged his eyes out, sacked the temple, and burned the city to the ground [2 Kings 25:7-9]. The Bible specifically says that when Nebuchadnezzar conquered the city, he "slew their young men with the sword... and had no compassion upon young man or maiden, old man or him that stooped for age" [2 Chronicles 36:17]. The Israelites hated the Babylonians so much that they wrote revengeful psalms fantasizing about smashing the Babylonians' children against rocks, claiming that this would be a just retribution for the way they had treated them [Psalms 137:8-9]. This is what my correspondent labels "amicable" treatment.

Obviously, this gross absurdity is serving apologetic ends. Because my correspondent wants us to believe that the biblical prophecies of slavery and disaster applied only to the Roman conquest and not the earlier Babylonian conquest, he tries to rewrite history to make the Babylonians into kind and merciful rulers. That sort of tactic isn't new; but what is new, and incredible to boot, is that a religious Jew would try to vindicate his holy book by praising the most despised historical enemy of his people.

He next has some things to say about the Sinai event, when the Israelites supposedly saw and heard God manifest himself while they were camped at Mt. Sinai on the way out of Egypt. As I pointed out in my previous reply, there's no archaeological evidence for the Egyptian captivity, the Exodus, the wandering in the desert, or Joshua's conquest of Palestine. These events are pious mythology, most likely invented by the Israelite elite to give their people an origin story that would fill them with national pride and justify their plans for military expansionism. My correspondent apparently doesn't dispute the absence of archaeological evidence, but tries to argue for the myth in another way:

Are any of you going to disbelieve the American Civil War? Oh, there are a few books about it that were written at the time but it's possible that could have been mere campfire stories, folklore.... The thing that makes the US Civil War credible was not simply because of the books and surviving documents. Those documents are credible to us 140 years later because people that experienced it also passed down personal stories and vignettes of the Civil War event to their descendants....

If there were only documents and books about the Civil War, without family stories passed down the Civil War could be easily doubted as "folklore" or "myth".

You know, I wasn't even going to bother writing a further reply to this fellow - but then I saw this, something so magnificently ridiculous that I just had to get it down so I could marvel at the sheer idiocy of it. Yes, you read right: the reason we know that the Civil War happened isn't because of the vast amounts of archaeological evidence, soldiers' graves, letters written by soldiers, photographs, contemporary books and newspapers, Confederate legal documents, telegrams, presidential speeches and proclamations, and congressional laws and resolutions... but because some living people heard about it from oral folklore passed down through the generations.

This black-is-white, up-is-down inversion of reasoning is typical of religious apologists tying themselves in knots trying to defend the indefensible. No evidence? No problem! Just say that the actual physical remnants of history aren't as trustworthy as supernatural folktales invented by anonymous authors for patriotic purposes thousands of years ago. It just goes to show that when you start with an absurd conclusion and reason backwards to support it, you inevitably have to invent new absurdities to prop up the original absurd premise.

For example, you can go to Bullfinch’s Mythology and look through it and see if there’s even one myth that had an entire nation was said to have eye- or ear- witnessed a god or goddess perform some act and lived to tell about it. But I’ll save you the trouble, because I know someone who has already done that – gone through all 700+ pages – and found nothing done en masse with any god.

Oh, really? Nothing besides the Exodus account fits that description? Well, I don't claim to have read 700+ pages of Bulfinch, but I think I can offer a counterexample: the 1917 miracle of Fatima, where tens of thousands of Catholic faithful allegedly saw the sun change color and dance across the sky. It was even reported in newspapers. If en masse revelations are my correspondent's criterion for belief, then he should be Roman Catholic, not Jewish. It wouldn't even require him to give up belief in the Exodus miracle!

This reply, short as it is, more than adequately showcases the fallacious tactics that this person relies on and that are common to all apologetic traditions: vague, general statements passed off as amazing prophecies; apologetic rewriting of history; elevation of myths and tall tales over physical evidence; and the misplaced certainty that our miracles are unique among all religious traditions. There's nothing in it that should give even a moment's pause to an atheist who's familiar with mthods of critical thinking or comparative religion.

September 24, 2010, 5:38 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink16 comments

The Jewish Prophecy of Exile

In a previous post, "An Unserious Response to the Theist's Guide", I poked fun at a religious apologist - apparently a Jewish rabbi - who made a set of obviously insincere demands for what evidence he would require to become an atheist. So much for that. But our friend the rabbi also thinks that he has convincing evidence for the existence of God. In this post, I'll consider his claims and see how they hold up.

The following quotes were given before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel and promised them that they'd settle into their homeland and get comfortable, but in time they'd pursue other gods and be kicked out of the Promised Land as a result:

(Deut 4:25-26 GW) "Even when you have children and grandchildren and have grown old in that land, don't become corrupt and make carved idols or statues that represent anything. I call heaven and earth as witnesses against you today: If you do this thing that the LORD your God considers evil, making him furious, you will quickly disappear from the land you're possess on the other side of the Jordan River. You won't live very long there. You'll be completely wiped out."

...In this case we have a prophesy of Moses predicting that the Israelites would enter the Promised Land and be well situated and in time they'll be expelled from their homes and land. What seer would dare predict doom and disaster and get away with it?

The obvious answer to this question is: a "seer" who was writing after the events he claims to foretell and knew that they had already happened. And that's almost certainly what happened here.

Our apologist friend assumes something not in evidence: that this prophecy was given "before the Israelites entered the Land of Israel". He goes so far as to uncritically attribute the authorship of Deuteronomy to Moses, something that no reputable textual scholar has believed for decades. He presents no evidence for either of these claims. As critical scholars have long recognized, the biblical books collectively known as the Deuteronomic history were only completed sometime after the destruction of the First Temple in 587 BCE. This was a catastrophe where the Babylonian Empire swept down on the Israelite kingdom of Judah, destroyed Jerusalem, and sent much of the population into exile. To account for why an omnipotent God had permitted such a disaster to visit his chosen people, the Deuteronomic historians wrote new verses - such as the one my correspondent quotes above - which explained the destruction and exile as God's punishment for idol worship and other sins the Israelites had not ceased to commit. (See, for example, Richard Elliott Friedman's Who Wrote the Bible?)

But my correspondent tries something audacious. After establishing that the above verse was in existence by Roman times (which I don't doubt), he argues that these verses were actually a prediction of the later Roman destruction of Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 CE, not the earlier Babylonian invasion.

Deut 28:49 "The LORD will bring against you a nation from far away, from the ends of the earth. The nation will swoop (literally: "descend") down on you like an eagle. It will be a nation whose language you won't understand."

The Roman army did this very thing in the first century, and the symbol of the Imperial Rome was the eagle. In contrast to the Babylonians who spoke Aramaic which is closely related to Hebrew, the Latin is in a different language family and was unintelligible even to those Jews who spoke Greek as a second language.

This is the same sort of exegetical wordplay that religious apologists and Nostradamus devotees alike have used for centuries, trying to turn a vague prediction into a specific one by identifying "hidden" correspondences in the text. There's nothing to indicate that "like an eagle" is anything more than a metaphor for the strength and fierceness of the enemy. But there are several other things my correspondent has overlooked.

First: The official language of the Neo-Babylonian Empire was not Aramaic but Akkadian, a rather different tongue which was derived in part from ancient Sumerian, a language isolate unrelated to Hebrew. Akkadian could easily stand in for the "language [the Jews] won't understand".

Second: Even if we do interpret the "eagle" reference as meaning something about the identity of the conquerors, it's still an ambiguous clue. Of particular relevance is that the Bible specifically compares Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar to an eagle [Ezekiel 17], as well as comparing Babylon's horsemen to eagles [Habbakkuk 1:8].

Third: The facts of the biblical prophecy fit Nebuchadnezzar's invasion much more closely. The chapter my correspondent quotes goes on to say that the Israelites will be punished by being returned to Egypt [Deut. 28:68], and that's just what happens in the aftermath of the Babylonian invasion [2 Kings 25:26].

In sum, my correspondent has no clear evidence that this or any other passage is meant to refer to Rome, and that fatally weakens his argument. Imagine that I find an ancient document which reads, "A great American president will be assassinated by a lone gunman." If I want to prove that the author had miraculous foresight, it's not enough to prove that the document was written before the assassination of John F. Kennedy. After all, it could also have been written after the death of Abraham Lincoln as a false "prediction" of that event. To disprove this, I'd either have to show that the document was specifically intended to refer to Kennedy, or that it also predates the death of Lincoln. My correspondent has done neither.

Finally, my correspondent makes one last attempt to argue for the veracity of a biblical miracle:

What I call the Sinai event was where the Israelites were at Mt Sinai and the entire nation was recorded to be ear-witnesses to God having spoken to them from the top of the mountain, and where God gave the Ten Commandments to the entire Israelite nation... Now one may argue that the Children of Israel experienced a mass hallucination. Well, if everyone had a hallucination there was nothing to make certain that 2+ million people had the exact same hallucination. How could something like an identical mass hallucination occur?

Have you ever noticed that religious apologists only ever consider the most improbable natural explanations for their myths, even when much more probable ones are available?

I have a much simpler explanation: no identical mass hallucination is needed because the Sinai event never happened. There is no archaeological evidence of either an Egyptian captivity of the Israelites or an Israelite conquest of the Promised Land - and Moses' supposed conversation with God falls right in between those two events. The overwhelming likelihood is that it's part of the myth, a pious fiction invented by later authors and editors as the Hebrew Bible took the shape it has now. The written account may be based on oral folklore, but regardless, there is no evidence for it or for any of the surrounding events in the story it's part of.

...if the miraculous history of the Sinai experience and the Exodus from Egypt were contrived by story tellers who spun the tale around a campfire, or an act of deliberate myth-making then asking the elders for confirmation would be fatal to the contrivance. If it didn't happen then grandpa would say "My grandparents said that they never heard of such a thing. It's bogus."

The problem with this apologetic is that it explains too much. You could use a similar argument in favor of every miraculous event recorded in the annals of every people, from the Roman rain miracle of Marcus Aurelius to Native American stories about invulnerable shamans. How did any of these stories get started?

My correspondent's confident claim that the Jews wouldn't accept a newly-invented law or story, because they had no historical traditions of such a thing, is disproven by an example from the Bible itself: King Josiah's "discovery" of the "book of the law" (probably Deuteronomy) hidden in the temple [2 Kings 22:8]. According to the text, Josiah's discovery made him rend his clothes in grief, because it contained so many laws that had been forgotten. Did the Jews reject this book because they had never heard of it before? On the contrary, it's now part of their canon. All this goes to show is that when those in power find it convenient to wage a propaganda campaign to convince the people to believe certain things, they very often succeed.

May 10, 2010, 5:51 am • Posted in: The LibraryPermalink16 comments

Weekly Link Roundup

A couple of noteworthy articles from this week that I didn't have time to write more about:

• To begin with, there's this excellent and in-depth profile of the FFRF's Dan Barker and Annie Laurie Gaylor, from a local alternative paper in Madison.

• Archaeologists have discovered a genuine burial shroud from the first century CE. Unlike the Shroud of Turin, its radiocarbon date fixes it to the correct time period; it also has a very different weave than the more famous Turin hoax.

Churches in Malaysia are being attacked by Muslims, who are angry over a court ruling that struck down a government ban on the use of the word "Allah" by Christians. Perhaps we should get Nancy Graham Holm over there to explain to the Christians that it's their own fault they're getting firebombed, because they rudely persist in using a word of which Muslims are the rightful owners.

• A muckraking blogger named Failed Messiah exposes the scandals of the Orthodox Jewish world. (HT: New York Times).

• The Telegraph tells us that heroic behavior among animals is more common than previously thought. Who was it that said only human beings have a sense of morality?

• And finally, a story I may return to later: New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg has invited atheists to the city's annual interfaith breakfast for the first time ever. Bravo, sir! It feels good to be taken seriously by politicians for once.

January 9, 2010, 9:29 pm • Posted in: The FoyerPermalink1 comment

The Rise and Fall of the James Ossuary

In October 2002, a dramatic find exploded onto the scene in the field of Biblical archaeology. At a Washington press conference, Hershel Shanks, editor and publisher of the Biblical Archaeology Review, presented a large audience with what he called "the first ever archaeological discovery to corroborate Biblical references to Jesus." The find was an ossuary - a stone box used in the ancient world to bury the bones of a deceased person - with an Aramaic inscription reading, "Yaakov bar Yoseph, Achui de Yeshua", which in English is, "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus."

The announcement caused a media sensation. In the following days, reports appeared on NBC, CBS, ABC, PBS, CNN, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, Time, Newsweek, and elsewhere. Experts and would-be experts of every stripe pronounced the ossuary completely genuine, and completely fraudulent. Complex mathematical calculations were invoked regarding the probability of finding three such names together by chance. Long arguments were waged about the authenticity of the ossuary script. The implications for the mythicist view of the origins of Christianity were profound.

And yet, by the summer of 2003, the whole story had come apart at the seams. The James Ossuary stood revealed as a modern forgery, and the prestigious scholars who had supported it were publicly embarrassed. The media lost interest, the story sank from view, and the Israeli antiquities dealer who first brought it to light was facing indictment. What brought about the dramatic fall of the James Ossuary?

Despite the James Ossuary's lacking any known provenance or history, the defenders of authenticity seemed to hold sway for the first few months. The ossuary was displayed to much fanfare at the Royal Ontario Museum, and Semitic epigrapher Andre Lemaire of the Sorbonne pronounced it undeniably genuine. Together with Hershel Shanks and Oded Golan, the 51-year-old Israeli engineer and antiquities trader who had owned the ossuary, Lemaire strongly defended the ossuary against early critics, questioning the qualifications and experience of those who, unlike him, suspected a modern fraud. Other experts in Semitic epigraphy, including Frank Moore Cross of Harvard, Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins, and Joseph Fitzmyer of the Catholic University, also pronounced it genuine. Amnon Rosenfeld and Shimon Ilani of the Geological Survey of Israel carried out microscopic tests that confirmed the ossuary was a genuine ancient artifact, its stone covered by a patina of the type known to form over centuries in rock-cut burial chambers.

The next chapter of the story came in January 2003, when there was another amazing find: the so-called Jehoash Inscription, rumored to have been discovered during building activity on Jerusalem's Temple Mount. The stone slab had an inscription supposedly written by King Jehoash of Judah, detailing some repairs he undertook to the First Temple (as echoed in 2 Kings 12). Even more sensational, the stone was found to be covered with microscopic gold globules - evidence, some claimed, of the intense fire that destroyed the Temple during the Babylonian sack of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

This find, too, had an explosive impact. Right-wing Israeli groups promptly claimed the Jehoash Inscription was a sign from God that it was time to rebuild the Temple, while Muslims warned that any attempt to damage the Al-Aqsa Mosque (which now stands on the site) would provoke a holy war.

But this time, the skeptical voices were louder. The world-renowned Semitic epigrapher Frank Moore Cross pronounced the inscription a crude forgery, combining letter forms from several different historic periods. And though the tablet's owner tried to remain anonymous, the Israeli media soon discovered that it was none other than Oded Golan. What were the odds of a single, amateur antiquities collector just happening to own two unique and priceless artifacts dramatically confirming different parts of the Bible?

Soon, more news surfaced. The Israeli Antiquities Authority had been investigating a rumored plot to defraud a wealthy collector by selling him forged artifacts, and their investigation had led them to the Jehoash Inscription and from there to Oded Golan. In March, the police raided a storehouse owned by Golan and discovered damning evidence: engraving tools, labeled bags of soil from across Israel, and numerous forged artifacts in various stages of production. A clear consensus soon arose that the Jehoash Inscription was a forgery, containing numerous grammatical mistakes and crudely combining letter forms from different historical periods. More, the tablet itself was made of a metamorphic stone common in Cyprus and points west, not in the local region.

The stage was now set for a detailed reappraisal of the James Ossuary. This time, several clues were discovered that had previously been overlooked.

The rock surface of the ossuary was covered in two coatings: a thin veneer of rock varnish - clay and minerals cemented to the stone, deposited by algae and bacteria over long time periods - and a crusty layer of patina formed by natural chemical reactions. Three weathered rosettes carved into one side of the ossuary lay underneath both of these layers. But the inscription naming James was cut through these layers.

There was more. A chalky composite material, nicknamed the "James Bond", was bonded into the carvings that formed the letters of the inscription, but nowhere else on the ossuary's surface. In a damp cave, calcite precipitates and crystallizes on the surface of ancient stone, forming a chalky coating of patina. But the James Bond, under microscopic investigation, was found to contain marine microfossils called coccoliths. This chalk did not originate in a cave, but in the sea. More, an oxygen isotope analysis showed that the calcite had precipitated out of heated water - about 120 degrees Fahrenheit - not the cool temperatures one would expect in a subterranean environment.

The conclusion was obvious. The forger had taken an authentic ancient ossuary, carved with rosettes on one side and blank on the other. He had carved the James inscription through the varnish and patina, probably copying the letter forms from an archaeological catalog. Then he had dissolved powdered chalk in hot water and painted it onto the carvings, trying to recreate the natural patina.

In June 2003, the Geological Survey of Israel and the Israeli Antiquities Authority officially concluded that both the James Ossuary and the Jehoash Inscription were frauds. Frank Moore Cross also changed his mind, pronouncing the ossuary a forgery. The ossuary's initial defenders, Shanks and Lemaire, reacted angrily, maintaining their belief in authenticity and claiming that the IAA and their other adversaries were motivated by personal bias, but much of their support had evaporated. Today, a few apologist holdouts continue to insist on authenticity, but most experts in the field seem ready to forget the whole embarrassing affair.

In a coda to this story, the Israeli authorities in December 2004 indicted Oded Golan, along with three other men, on charges of running a forgery ring. (Another item said to be forged and attributed to Golan in the indictment is an ivory pomegranate that was claimed to be the only surviving relic of Solomon's Temple.) As far as I'm aware, no motive has been alleged other than monetary gain. Golan's trial has not yet concluded.

If there's any lesson to be learned from the rise and fall of the James Ossuary, it's that we can no longer trust artifacts of unknown provenance. It's become too easy to put together a convincing forgery, and there are too many motives for someone to do so. From now on, we must be skeptical of the authenticity of any artifact that surfaces out of nowhere in the hands of a private collector - especially artifacts that seem to bear some important corroboration of the Bible or any other story that anyone has a vested interest in proving true. The only artifacts we should accept as genuine are those that turn up in situ in the course of legitimate archaeological investigation. Neil Asher Silberman and Yuval Goren say it best in their article "Faking Biblical History" in the September 2003 issue of Archaeology:

The very serious question of the historicity of the Bible - with all its powerful implications for religious belief and identity - is not the sort of thing to be decided by staged public presentations of isolated artifacts from dubious sources. It is only by adopting a strict and uncompromising standard of evidence and rejecting temptation to simplistically trumpet a headline-grabbing relic or promote a high-visibility museum exhibition that our understanding of the Bible - and indeed all of the human past - will be advanced.

December 3, 2007, 8:23 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink15 comments

Do You Really Believe That? (III)

The Ten Plagues

The third installment of "Do You Really Believe That?" will examine another famous story of the Old Testament, the ten plagues of Egypt. As the Book of Exodus tells it, the Israelite prophet Moses was chosen by God to set his people free from their long slavery in Egypt. But when the hard-hearted Pharaoh refused to release them, God sent ten plagues upon the land, each more terrible than the last, until the Egyptians' resistance finally crumbled.

These are the famous ten:

First plague: Water to blood.
"And the fish that was in the river died; and the river stank, and the Egyptians could not drink of the water of the river; and there was blood throughout all the land of Egypt." (7:21)

Second plague: Frogs.
"And the river shall bring forth frogs abundantly, which shall go up and come into thine house, and into thy bedchamber, and upon thy bed, and into the house of thy servants, and upon thy people, and into thine ovens, and into thy kneadingtroughs." (8:3)

Third plague: Lice.
"And they did so; for Aaron stretched out his hand with his rod, and smote the dust of the earth, and it became lice in man, and in beast; all the dust of the land became lice throughout all the land of Egypt." (8:17)

Fourth plague: Flies.
"And there came a grievous swarm of flies into the house of Pharaoh, and into his servants' houses, and into all the land of Egypt: the land was corrupted by reason of the swarm of flies." (8:24)

Fifth plague: Murrain (death of cattle).
"And all the cattle of Egypt died: but of the cattle of the children of Israel died not one." (9:6)

Sixth plague: Boils.
"And it shall become small dust in all the land of Egypt, and shall be a boil breaking forth with blains upon man, and upon beast, throughout all the land of Egypt." (9:9)

Seventh plague: Hail.
"And the hail smote throughout all the land of Egypt all that was in the field, both man and beast; and the hail smote every herb of the field, and brake every tree of the field." (9:25)

Eighth plague: Locusts.
"For they covered the face of the whole earth, so that the land was darkened; and they did eat every herb of the land, and all the fruit of the trees which the hail had left: and there remained not any green thing in the trees, or in the herbs of the field, through all the land of Egypt." (10:15)

Ninth plague: Darkness.
"And Moses stretched forth his hand toward heaven; and there was a thick darkness in all the land of Egypt three days." (10:22)

Tenth plague: Death of the firstborn.
"And Pharaoh rose up in the night, he, and all his servants, and all the Egyptians; and there was a great cry in Egypt; for there was not a house where there was not one dead." (12:30)

The story of the ten plagues has been retold numerous times, including several successful cinematic dramatizations. Some skeptics have even accepted that they happened literally as written and have sought to provide non-miraculous explanations. However, there's a problem that the text and all its retellings never address: What happened to Egypt after the Israelites left?

The kingdom must have been in a disastrous state. Between the hail and the locusts, all the trees had been smashed and all the crops eaten. The rivers turning to blood had not only left the water undrinkable, but all the fish and other marine life dead. The cattle and livestock were likewise dead of the murrain. Whatever food had been stored must have been corrupted and made inedible by the swarms of flies and frogs. The people were suffering from lice infestations and boils, and on top of that, an entire generation of children was dead, every house in Egypt mourning.

And on top of all this, the Israelites also plundered their former masters when they left, taking much clothing, silver and gold (12:35). The Pharaoh himself was dead, along with most of his army, drowned in the closing of the sea when they gave chase (14:28). And the slave labor that the Egyptian economy had depended on for centuries was suddenly gone, with nothing to replace them.

When all was said and done, the Egyptians had no ruler, no army, no money, no food, and no labor, and every family in the nation had been shattered by tragedy. What would have happened? What could have happened? There would have been looting, violence, societal breakdown. The kingdom should have dissolved into chaos and anarchy and either become a no-man's-land or been swallowed up by its neighbors. Egyptian civilization should have taken centuries to reconstitute itself, if it ever did. Such a collapse would be readily visible in the archaeological and historical record, and if such a thing had been found, it would have provided dramatic corroboration for the stories of the Bible.

But the record reveals nothing like this. No such discontinuity is visible in ancient Egyptian history. Worse, some Christian apologists have placed the exodus during the New Kingdom period - the historical height of Egypt's power and glory - without postulating any kind of societal impact. It's as if they believe the shattered, ruined kingdom simply picked itself up and rebuilt within a few years, completely forgetting that any of this had ever happened.

To anyone who knows anything about human society, this is completely implausible. After a catastrophe of this magnitude, no civilization could recover within such a short period, and especially not without leaving abundant evidence of its decline. (Compare Hurricane Katrina today - the images of overwhelming crowds, of desperation to escape, of chaos among those who were trapped in the city, and a rebuilding that is still going on with painful slowness and unevenness.) If the ten plagues had really happened, they should be an established, unquestionable historical fact. But we have evidence of no such thing, and so I ask: Do you really believe that?

Other posts in this series:

September 26, 2007, 7:36 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink40 comments

The Tomb of Jesus?

The media has been abuzz lately over a Discovery Channel special about a tomb in Israel that, according to the show's producers, may once have contained the bones of Jesus Christ.

The tomb was discovered in 1980 during an archaeological excavation in Jerusalem. Inside, researchers found ten ossuaries - carved stone boxes used in many ancient cultures to inter human bones. Six of the ten ossuaries bore inscriptions of the names of their occupants, including, allegedly, "Jesus, son of Joseph", "Mary Magdalene", and most explosive, "Judah, son of Jesus". Although the ossuaries no longer contain any human remains, the documentary's producers claim that there was enough remnant genetic material to perform a DNA test which showed that the inhabitants of the first two ossuaries were not related. From this they conclude that they must have been married, since otherwise they would not have been interred together.

Obviously, if these ossuaries are what the filmmakers say they are, this would be a deadly blow to Christianity. According to the Bible, Jesus was resurrected from the dead after three days and then ascended bodily to Heaven. If this is indeed the tomb that once held his remains, that story must be a pious fiction. An ossuary is not used to store an intact body, but a disarticulated skeleton. If Jesus' remains were ever stored in such a container, then clearly he did not resurrect nor ascend to Heaven, but rather his body remained on earth long enough to decay to mere bones. (Interestingly, Islam also claims that Jesus ascended, rather than being crucified; so if this story is true, this would also be a conclusive disproof of Qur'anic infallibility.)

However, I have my doubts, and not just because I believe the evidence more strongly indicates that Jesus was an entirely mythical figure. This story reminds me of the notorious James Ossuary, another archaeological find that was claimed to be directly relevant to verifying the stories of the Bible, only to collapse when the artifact was revealed to be an almost certain hoax. (In fact, the filmmakers, apparently unaware that the James ossuary was debunked, claim that that very ossuary might originally have belonged to this same tomb and that an empty space they found within it might be where it was once placed.) I see no reason to believe that this new find might also be a hoax, but there are some parts of this story that do not add up.

First of all, only a relatively wealthy family would have been able to afford a rock-cut tomb within the city of Jerusalem, whereas the Bible states clearly that Jesus' family was of modest means and Jesus himself lived as a penniless traveling preacher all his life. It is very unlikely that they could have afforded such a burial ground. Of course, if Jesus was a historical person who had gathered a substantial following during his lifetime, it's conceivable that his followers would have paid for a more expensive burial. But in that case we would expect the tomb to contain other carvings or inscriptions indicating its revered status, and by all accounts, no such thing was found at the site.

Second, there is the crucial issue of dating. How do the filmmakers know that this tomb is from the right time period, rather than being, say, a hundred years too early or too late? So far I have not seen any convincing evidence presented that establishes the tomb's chronology. The filmmakers cite Harvard professor Frank Moore Cross as saying that the inscription styles on the ossuaries date to the "Herodian Period", "from around 1 B.C. to 1 A.D.", but dating of such extreme precision based on nothing but a script style is clearly impossible. If the ossuaries contain enough genetic material to be sequenced, then they should be candidates for a sensitive radiometric dating technique such as accelerator mass spectrometry, which can be carried out with very small quantities of organic material. So far, if the filmmakers have performed any such test, they have not said anything about it. For that matter, they have come nowhere near explaining how they have ruled out the possibility of contamination by foreign DNA, considering how long these relics have existed in far from sterile conditions.

There are other unanswered questions regarding the DNA testing. For example, as Carl Zimmer points out, it is bizarre that the filmmakers conducted only one test, rather than going on to perform obvious follow-up tests such as whether the DNA in the "Judah, son of Jesus" ossuary shows a filial relationship to the other. Their seeming apathy when it comes to thoroughly checking out all the evidence casts some doubt on their scientific rigor.

Another point of contention is the filmmakers' translation of the ossuary which they say belonged to Mary Magdalene. The inscription on the box, the only one of the six written in Greek rather than Hebrew, literally reads "Mariamene e Mara", which they say can be translated as "Mary, known as the master". They speculate that "Mariamene" was the real name of Mary Magdalene, based on an apocryphal gospel called the Acts of Philip, but this entire chain of inference seems contentious to me and has only thin evidentiary support. Why would Mary Magdalene be known as "the master"? And this, vague as it is, is the only ossuary in the tomb that has any specific identifying information at all. All the others bore only single names like Jesus and Joseph, which all sides agree were very common in biblical times.

All facts considered, I believe the most likely scenario is that this is a genuine tomb from biblical times, containing several ordinary people with names common from the time, which has been hyped beyond what the evidence supports by overzealous filmmakers trying to create a sensation. It is not a magic bullet to destroy Christianity, and does not need to be; we atheists already have far more persuasive arguments on our side.

However, there is some amusement to be found in the contrasting responses to this find and to the previous James ossuary. With the James ossuary, Christian apologists trumpeted the unlikelihood of finding someone other than the biblical James who could be described as "James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus" - Andre Lemaire, for example, calculated that at most 20 people in Jerusalem in the two generations before 70 CE could fit that criterion (source). On the other hand, Christian theologians are now ridiculing the idea that this tomb contains the bodies of Jesus Christ and his family, since they say those names were "exceedingly common" in biblical times. This, despite the fact that a statistician featured in the documentary put the odds at 600 to 1 that so many names from the New Testament would be found in close proximity in the same tomb. It goes to show how, for most professional believers, preexisting faith is what drives their interpretation of the facts and not the other way around. Their primary criterion in selecting an argument is not its logical validity or evidentiary support, but whether it fits whatever position they are defending at the moment.

March 1, 2007, 8:08 am • Posted in: The ObservatoryPermalink10 comments

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