The Bishop and the Butterfly: Murder, Politics, and the End of the Jazz Age
    Doctor Cleveland's picture

    Joseph's Pyramids and American Popular History

    Yes, Ben Carson, who is officially running for President, is happily telling people that the pyramids are not actually pharaohs' tombs, but grain storage built by Joseph from the Book of Genesis. Never mind that there are (for example) sarcophagi in the pyramids. And never mind that the Bible doesn't actually say anything about Joseph building pyramids or in fact building anything (Genesis Ch. 41). Ben Carson isn't worried about archaeology or facts. He sees the rival theory that, yes, aliens from outer space built the pyramids as the main intellectual threat to his position.  I'm not here to discuss how ridiculous Carson's position is. The real problem is that large numbers of Americans believe things almost as stupid as this. Carson is only one outlier in our country's deep and rich tradition of historical ignorance.

    We pay lots of attention to Biblical literalists' attacks on science, especially on the science of evolution and therefore on the disciplines of biology and geology. But we politely overlook the pervasive religious attacks on history. As a country, we shy away from public contradiction of the Bible's historical claims. If anything, secular American culture amplifies the historical misinformation found in the Bible.

    Let me say, before I go any further, that I am a believing and practicing Christian. I am not writing this because I am opposed to Christianity or to Judaism. I went to Bible study last night. But being honest in my faith means being honest about the things in my own tradition's sacred writings that are not credible as accounts of literal events, the things that I would never accept as reliable in someone else's religious scriptures. Faith is a way of making sense of the world around us, not a way to distort or deny the world. A belief system that has to defend itself against facts is not an expression of faith, but of fear.

    I am fortunate that I almost never run into the problem of religious pseudo-history in my classroom. But occasionally, when I teach a survey course on English literature before 1800, I run into a student who has picked up some misinformation from the modern neo-Pagan movement (although these students are not always self-identified pagans or Wiccans). These students will take for granted that in, say, 1400 AD there was a secret but organized and flourishing practice of Celtic paganism in Britain. This is not even close to the truth. Modern paganism was invented over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, over a thousand years after the pre-Christian Celtic religions died out. (Many odd, disjointed bits of pre-Christian culture and folklore did survive, but certainly nobody was worshiping Medb or Belinus for all that time.) While the students might have come by that misinformation from a religious source, deference to their religion does not (and really cannot) extend to allowing them to assert imaginary facts. A Wiccan student doesn't get a free pass to claim that there were Druids running around Chestershire during the period of the Crusades, because that didn't happen.

    It would be a different story if we uncovered physical evidence of pagan worship in late-medieval Chester. Fifteen hundred years of an ongoing religious practice across the British Isles would inevitably leave traces behind for archaeologists to uncover. But none of that stuff is there. And there would also be documented references, sooner or later. (The ancient Greeks had a whole bunch of secret, initiates-only religious practices, but they still documented that they had them. Even when a culture doesn't write all of its secrets down, it still writes things like "Never write down the secrets.") And when my studies lead to read myths or legends from extinct religions, I don't take those texts at their word if archaeological evidence contradicts them. Ancient Irish legend is full of warrior heroes driving chariots, but archaeology in Ireland never turns up any chariots. The obvious conclusion is that pre-Christian Irish warriors did not have chariots. (Maybe these legends have been influenced by cultural contact with Greek and Roman epic; I don't know enough to test that theory.) Likewise, the Romans have their beloved Aeneas story, in which their nation was founded by a courageous band of Trojan refugees who sailed to Italy, but the archaeological evidence tells a different story. The digs show Rome growing out of one small Latin tribe, ethnically similar to the other Latin tribes in its area. They weren't from somewhere else.

    This is all fine, because no one worships Jupiter or claims to be descended from Aeneas these days. But the Book of Exodus also tells a story of a tribe traveling from a foreign land to their destined home. And there is no archaeological evidence to back that story up. This is generally considered impolite to say, and you can go a long, long time in this country without hearing it mentioned in the mass media. But it is the truth. There is no factual evidence for the Bible's story about a the nation of Israel living as slaves in Egypt, or of an Israelite migration out of Egypt. (My best understanding of the current evidence, which is a long way from my field, is that archaeologists can see the early Jews emerging among settlements of ethnically-similar groups and gradually becoming a separate people. I'm told that part of how you can trace their emergence is that some settlements no longer have any pig bones.) If I am going to be truthful with myself, I need to read the Book of Exodus as symbolism rather than history, because there is no more historical evidence for my faith's story about Moses than there is for the Romans' story about Aeneas.

    Most Americans know pretty clearly that the description of the creation in the Book of Genesis and the story of Noah's flood are not backed by modern science. Relatively few Americans know that the description of the Israelites fleeing Egypt is not backed by modern history. I don't simply mean that the miracles in Exodus, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, are not literally true. I mean that there is no reason to believe that the Jews came from Egypt, or had been in Egypt at all. This certainly includes the patriarch Joseph from the Book of Genesis. But to mention that in the United States is to risk giving offense.

    In fact, you can routinely see Biblical accounts of history presented as fact on allegedly educational cable channels, This was true long before those channels sank to the levels of reality-show dreck where the free market has currently consigned them, and it certainly hasn't gotten better. I have watched self-described historical documentaries show the "informational" map showing the Jews' path out of Egypt. And certainly, no one even hinted that there were any serious historians or archaeologists who doubted the accuracy of the Exodus narrative, let alone that most or all serious scholars doubt it. There was no percentage in that. You could only offend viewers (of at least two major religions) who don't want to hear that the Biblical story isn't true.

    Let me suggest, in passing, that one of the greatest moral lessons in the Book of Exodus is that faith means heeding exactly the message that you least want to hear. If Moses didn't listen to things he did not want to hear, he would have just turned away from that burning bush and kept walking, because it Exodus makes it very clear that Moses does not want any of what the bush is selling. But the uncomfortable truths are the ones we most need to face. If I turned away from the unwelcome truth that the Book of Exodus is symbolic rather than historically accurate, I would be turning away from one of Exodus's most crucial moral lessons. Using Exodus as a guide to history but turning away from it as a guide to morals strikes me as the worst possible way to read that book.

    So here we are in an America where we teach very little history and, worse still, where we indulge our fellow Americans' inaccurate beliefs about history if they got their bad information from a religious text. All of this is done in the service of protecting believers from better knowledge of their own scriptures, of allowing them to read rich, complex religious texts naively and without reflection. And our secular, commercial, profit-driven media actively participates in those religious fictions, because you can make great profits changing money in the temple. The next time you hear complaints that Christians are persecuted by America's "secular culture," and those complaints are due as soon as someone puts up the first "Happy Holidays" sign, remember that America's secular culture promotes Christians' pseudo-history as fact on TV.

    It's not just that Ben Carson has an extra-scriptural fantasy about Joseph building the pyramids. It's that many educated, secular Americans don't realize that Joseph was never in Egypt at all. At the other extreme, there are self-described secularists who dismiss everything in the Bible as a fantasy and cannot distinguish historical figures like David or Ahab from legendary figures like Isaac or Joseph. (This is like treating Henry VIII and King Arthur, or Paul Revere and Paul Bunyan, as equally real.)

    And in our willful common ignorance, other forms of ignorance flourish: the unending fantasy archaeology of North America, seeking for lost white American ancestors, the pseudo-historical origin myths promoted by people like Elijah Muhammed or Joseph Smith, the inane quest for "ancient astronauts." It promotes sectarian fantasies, like the attempt to rewrite the Founders' religious positions to align them with Christian sects that had not yet been founded, and secular  fantasies: the conspiracy theories about Freemasons and the search for Sasquatch. Ben Carson is ridiculous, but our society has actively and consistently promoted bogus history for a very long time. Carson is just a quicker student than the rest of us.


    Carson is too nutty for the presidency.

    I have fun reading you all the time

    But I usually have little to add.

    But this post just kills me ahhhahahahahahahah

    I should, but I do not have five hours to get into this stuff! hahahhahaah

    THIS IS WONDERFUL! hahahahahahah

    This is the funniest blog I have read in years.

    I cannot stop laughing.

    Well done

    I will probably come back


    Thanks, Dick.

    It's a bit troubling to me to read your article excoriating a handful of Christians for ignoring science in favor of odd religious interpretations of history, while you claim to be a Christian yourself.  Of course, I acknowledge the importance of cultural aspects of Christianity, but it seems to me the difference between "the dinosaurs died 8000 years ago" and "Christ died for your sins and came back from the dead in three days" is merely one of degree.  If you read the Bible principally for its metaphorical power, why bother to continue calling yourself Christian? You can keep putting the Christmas tree up each November if you like.

    Well, you can read and feel more deism in the Bible than simply a metaphor of God.

    But however you squint your eyes, you can't make those dinosaurs waltz around Europe and Africa in 6000BC.

    It's not just a matter of degree - issues of faith can't for the most part be disproven - a catalog of historical and scientific facts frequently can.

    I doubt if Doc Cleveland is invested in aspects of whether the Trinity is some hard-coded embodiment of God, but likely the resurrection fulfills a more important criteria - if really God of some form, can he transgress death? Certainly Christianity is not the only religion to believe this can be done - a perusing of Moroccan and Sufi mysticism will reveal numerous powers we don't typically use bumming around Manhattan.

    Of course the Christmas tree is a pagan symbol (originally a tree hung upside down), not a requirement of Christian belief. Using various public events is not the same as confusing demonstrable reality with your own beliefs.

    But Gurdjieff had the approach that "if you've seen Christ, you're a Christian - all else is just talk". Certainly a different approach than a  historical-smattering of ancient archaelological-endowed belief. Apparently archaeologists have searched the Sinai for any clay remnants of the Exodus, however many thousands would have joined the crossing - nada. Think a real Christian has trouble not worrying about whether the Red Sea's a metaphor rather than focusing on better ways to approach God? This ain't tic-tac-toe or a game of gotcha to someone who actually believes - even though the non-serious evangelical set has made faith dependent on distorting reality rather than reality informing faith.

    Thanks, pp.

    Gee, thanks, random internet stranger. I was wondering if I am actually entitled to my religious identity, and hoping an anonymous low-information commenter would give me a ruling from on high. I guess that long, widespread Christian tradition I was raised in doesn't exist after all.

    Perhaps when you encounter a religious (or political, or philosophical) position that doesn't fit into your preconceived boxes, you might try asking a few NON-rhetorical questions. You might actually learn something.

    More seriously, try to remember that denying any difference between extremist positions and more moderate positions always ends up helping the extremists. When you say that there's no difference between the Episcopalian math professor down the street and a Young-Earth Creationist, you serve the Young-Earth Creationist's agenda. That creationist also thinks that the moderate, rational Christians aren't real believers. One of the biggest problems in American discussion of religion is that the moderate mainstream Christians, far and away the largest group, are treated as if they do not exist.


    This particular low-information commenter seems to interpret your comments as playing both sides of the coin.  If a specific interpretation of Christianity is inconsistent with generally accepted scientific belief, then we should ostensibly relegate that interpretation to history and poetry; yet, if a particular bit of faith is not specifically falsifiable, we should continue singing songs about it on Sunday, regardless of our current medical understanding of biological death... I personally see nothing moderate or rational about claiming the Resurrection is a historical fact.  Espousing science only to the extent which your religion permits you to, is not science at all. Christianity runs in the family, Doc, but it is treatable.

    Anyway, I've trolled you long enough.  I'm sure this topic won't come up when I see you in person again, my friend.

    If our personal belief contradicts public policy or accepted scientific opinion, we work with it as we wish in our own personal enlightened or fucked up way, whether it's falsifiable or not. I've had amazing experiences outside the realm of science, and still have trouble explaining what was real or not. But to give you an example of the limits of science, we know next to nothing about how gravity or strong or weak nuclear forces work, only electromagnetic. String theory is more faith-based and driven by unicorns than most religions. Combine this with a medical system flailing at random genetics with data crunching vs understanding and actually curing major diseases? We haven't done that in a while. So have some tolerance for the deists - aside from bad press given by mad political uneducated evangelicals, there's a lot in the universe still unresolved so we may hold on to our peculiar belief systems without hurting anyone - it's just a didlfferent form of architecture - some people like classical, cubist, functionalist, etc. Same with philosophies and religion.

    I see no claim in my blog post, or indeed in any of my blog posts, about the Resurrection as a historical fact.

    If you're claiming to be a skeptical rationalist here, but pointing to facts not in evidence. I never said a word about the Resurrection. That was all you. If you don't believe me, look back up the thread.

    And if you are actually my friend, you likely know that questions of mortality are very real to me right now.


    In the interests of accuracy, there's no such place as 'Chestershire', Chester is in the ceremonial county of Cheshire.

    Thanks, yes. I will have to confess that the error is largely intentional, because most of the Dagblog readership is American and I didn't want to distract anyone with details of British geography. (I wanted to get across that Chester is a county.) But I wanted Chester as the example because of the Gawain and the Green Knight connection. Should probably have just written Lincolnshire instead.

    Hmmm, Lincolnshire - that's where the Hobbit movies were filmed and where lanky Abe debated stubby Frodo with riddles for the ring?

    Exactly, pp.

    Well the theory is Imhotep built the pyramids. But they were really built by Joseph. Sound familiar? The truth is they weren't built by Joseph either. They were built by ....... Shakespeare, or who ever it is that really wrote Shakespeare's plays.

    It was Joseph's wife, just like Einstein's wife came up with his most clever theories. Note that all the toilets in the pyramids are sit-down. Coincidence? I think not. Okay, maybe female space aliens as well.

    Yeah. What you said, o-k.


    In other news, the Earl of Oxford built Stonehenge.

    — William Shakespeare (@Shakespeare) November 6, 2015


    Classic cognitive dissonance. People have trouble reconciling their belief that the Bible is authoritative, nay infallible, with the evidence that the biblical history is obviously wrong, so they indulge in great leaps of pseudo-logic to eliminate the psychic pressure.

    Of course. And they actually move outside what the Bible literally teaches looking to shore up their Biblical beliefs. So the pyramids get drafted as "evidence" for the Bible precisely because there is such a dearth of evidence for things in the Bible.

    But I would humbly suggest that accepting that the Bible is not always literal is a crucial step, not just for science and history, but for spiritual growth. If it is a book for moral and spiritual instruction, use it that way. Don't turn it into a history book or a primer on physics.

    But is the Bible really just about moral and spiritual instruction? For thousands of years, it has been so much more--history, scientific theory, legal code, and political charter. Reducing it to a spiritual guide is a relatively modern twist, and it strikes me as another way of trying to reconcile biblical authority with biblical fallibility, albeit healthier and less ridiculous than Carson's way.

    That opens up a whole bunch of questions, Michael. I will get to them this evening if that's okay.

    Okay. Here goes. First of all yes: my approach to the Bible is a modern one. How could it not be, considering when I was born? But my approach to the Bible is also continuous with thousands of years of earlier tradition. The Bible has always been read symbolically and allegorically, glossed and interpreted. We have records of those centuries of symbolic and metaphorical readings, both by Christian commenters and Talmudic scholars.

    It's the decision to STOP reading the Bible any other way than literally that's most radically modern.

    Second, the Bible has been history, legal code, political charter, ritual instruction manual, and scientific story as well as many other things. But it has not been all of those things in the same way at the same time. it has always served in different ways to different generations that had different needs. The Bible is, to borrow a phrase from jurisprudence, a living document.

    The biggest development in modern religion is the rise of critical Biblical scholarship in the 19th century. "Critical Biblical scholarship" means that scholars began using the toolkit they had developed for studying ancient Greek and Latin texts to analyze the Bible as well. (After all, the New Testament actually is a set of Greek texts from late antiquity.) That kind of analysis didn't take the Bible at its word about its origins, any more than it takes ancient Greek epic at its word, but analyzes what the text actually is and how it developed. Neither the Torah nor the Iliad turn out to have been written by a single author in the very distant past and then handed down. The Iliad and Odyssey turn out to be traditional oral poems. Torah turns out to have been written, redacted, and rewritten in several distinct historical stages over several centuries.

    In fact, the Hebrew Bible we have now, meaning both the Torah and the various other books that Christians include in the old Testament, are products of Second Temple Judaism, after the Babylonian captivity. There are many older elements in those texts, but they have been edited, amended, and rewritten to suit the political, historical, and ritual needs of that period. There are a lot of internal inconsistencies and contradictions left over, which sometimes inadvertently hint at some of the changes that have been made. And the Second Book of Kings itself underscores this revision, because King Josiah, in 2 Kings ch 22, "discovers" or "rediscovers" the authentic Torah, overlooked in a corner of the Temple. ("Oh, look, here's the actual Torah we were meant to be using all along!")

    The rise of modern Biblical scholarship produced a sharp divide within Christianity, even deeper in some ways than the violent Catholic-Protestant split hundreds of years earlier. Some Christian denominations, reluctantly or not, came to embrace the truth about their Scriptures and to make studying these textual and historical questions part of clergy's training. [I am sure a similar thing has happened in rabbinical schools, but cannot speak as knowledgeably about those practices or about the divisions within Judaism.]

    Another set of Christian groups doubled down and fought off the cognitive dissonance by insisting that the Bible was COMPLETELY literal in EVERY way, which is actually a new approach. This was the birth of that most modern of religious movements, fundamentalism. The insistence on the Bible's literal and inerrant truth is a response to the discovery that the Bible isn't even written by the nominal authors of most of the books, that Moses did not write the Torah and that the Torah itself is something like three thousand years newer than it claims to be.

    The sects that embraced modern Biblical scholarship could continue to draw on long, long scholarly traditions of interpretation, including poetic and symbolic interpretations. People did not always believe that the Israelites *literally* wandered for 40 years in the Sinai desert. That is obviously not possible, especially if you're going east. That obviously was meant as something more symbolic than accurate. Only with the rise of modern scholarship, and the cognitive dissonance it brought on, did large numbers of people start stubbornly insisting that it was really literally 40 years.

    So yes: my approach is modern, in that it drops out one of the time-honored approaches to Biblical interpretation (the most naive, face-value reading), while keeping all the others. But literalism is far, far more estranged from the past, in that it drops ALL of the old ways of reading the Bible in favor of keeping just one, the most troubled and problematic approach of all.

    Do you believe the Bible is the Word of God? A simple yes or no....?

    I'm pretty anti-christian as so many christians use their bible to promote hate. But when someone isn't promoting hate I don't think it's appropriate to challenge their faith. At that point I'm comfortable letting them share or keep private what they choose.

    Agree. However, a question that is challenging to answer does not challenge faith, it may aid in personally better defining one's faith.

    Many here can jawbone for paragraphs on topics, in this case Doc on the Bible, I thought the question was both fair for getting to a core issue of it's source, and relevant for someone who is expounding on Bible history and interpretation.

    Does the Bible say it's the Word of God? Where does it say that?

    My Bible tells me (John, chapter 1), that Jesus himself is the Word of God, the logos.

    Thank you for the thoughtful response, Doctor. I wasn't suggesting that the literalists' approach was more authentic than the spiritualists, just that both seek to resolve the same dissonance in different ways. I don't see classic literature as a fair comparison in that respect. There are certainly scholars who treat scripture as literature, but that's not really what we are talking about. The Illiad is not a living document or a spiritual guide. You can find universal truths in it, as you can find universal truths in any work of art, but Homer has no special claim to moral authority. Nor do we experience cognitive dissonance when reading Aristotle's claims that the world is composed from four elements or that women are half-rationale. We just say he was wrong.

    So when the Bible gets it wrong, when it says that Eve came from Adam's rib or that heretics must be stoned, do we treat these as meaningful parables that bear on our lives or as ancient myths and mores that belong to another era? And if the latter, in what sense does the Bible offer spiritual guidance?

    "Nor do we experience cognitive dissonance when reading Aristotle's claims that the world is composed from four elements... We just say he was wrong." - certainly we can learn more from him than that - fire, earth, air and water correlate pretty well to solid, liquid, gas and plasma - states of matter rather than elements.

    "So when the Bible gets it wrong, when it says that Eve came from Adam's rib..." - even that is useful analogy to examine despite disbelieving the historical truthiness - was it to describe an existing male-dominated role in relationships, or was it encoding & teaching a patriarchal system, or was it trying to give women something of a "derived but co-equal" status or a responsibility as the equivalent of our own skin & flesh or is all of this too modern of a view? Maybe it was just to confuse modern people into thinking men & women have different number of ribs even while driving our Teslas and playing with our smart devices.

    Well, Michael, we have to interpret the Bible, one way or another. So we're left right where I was taught God put us: endowed with the intelligence to comprehend God's creation, but also limited and fallible so that we are never capable of full understanding. We are required to approach the Bible with both thoughtfulness and humility.

    Where the moral lessons are depends on how you gloss it. Many readers will tell you that Adam's condemnation of Eve (she did give to me of the tree, and I ate) confirms the anti-feminist position of early Judaism. Certainly, medieval and Renaissance Christians trade heavily in the "Eve is the problem" rhetoric.

    But I was taught to read that moment (by a Catholic priest, in religion class) as a sign of Adam's sinfulness. Having fallen from grace, he becomes estranged from the natural world, he becomes estranged from himself (suddenly ashamed of his nakedness), and not only estranged from his wife but unable to take responsibility for his actions. Blaming his sin on Eve is, I was taught, a cardinal sign of Adam's fallen state.

    The Creation story in Genesis isn't science, and it isn't even consistent with itself. After the Creation story has gone on awhile, it actually starts over and gets retold differently. You can check on that for yourself.

    On the other hand, the Adam and Eve story is a pretty explanation of the human role in nature. We use language in ways animals do not. We have been given stewardship over the world (not, as some people hold dominion to do whatever we like with the world, but the authority to be careful stewards). Our species does, in fact, control the fate of the other species and of the Earth; we are unique on this planet. And we are different from the other animals in that we have moral judgment: the Knowledge of Good and Evil really is the deciding factor. We are flawed, in spite of our intelligence, capable of choosing poorly. And we are in some distinct way slightly estranged from nature: we are always in a state of friction with our natural environment. I think the Adam and Eve stories get these key truths across in important ways.

    The Bible is indeed full of beauty and meaning, and the expulsion from Eden is one of the powerful themes in it. I love your interpretation of it.

    And yet, the Bible is also full of ugliness and incoherence, especially the Old Testament. Heretics are stoned, or worse. Nations are slaughtered--what we now call genocide. God "hardens Pharaoh's heart" to make him refuse Moses and then punishes him for his refusal by massacring Egyptian civilians. Lot permits his daughters to be raped to protect his guests. Later, he sleeps with them (the daughters, not the guests). Noah condemns his son to generations of bondage for looking at his penis. Abraham pretends that Sarah is his sister to save his own skin, yet Pharaoh receives the punishment for unknowingly screwing Abraham's wife.

    Even the garden of Eden story, beautiful as it is, is perverse. God deceives Abraham, telling him that the fruit of the tree of knowledge will kill him. The supposedly duplicitous snake tells Eve the truth, that the fruit will give her knowledge of good and evil. Yet, the snake is a notorious "beguiler" so despised that he is often interpreted as Satan, while God is, well, God.

    I understand that one can interpret all these stories and commands in such a way as to make them beautiful and meaningful. Generations of Jewish scholars have devoted their lives to making sense of the all the weirdness in the Torah. This effort seems senseless to me. I value the beauty that I find in scripture but see no need to interpret the ugliness out of it--any more than I feel obliged to downplay the cruelty of Greek and Norse myths in order to keep them alive and relevant.

    Doc, I'm not sure whether you personally feel impelled to mitigate the ugliness, incoherence, and factual discrepancies in the Bible, but many people do. Some double down on literalism and adjust their worldviews to fit the Bible, as you have eloquently described. Others interpret the Bible in a way that reflects their worldviews. Usually, it's a bit of both. These two approaches are not equivalent, and I have far more respect for the latter, but I do see both efforts as driven by the need to square a millennia-old text with a modern world that it no longer fits very well.

    Thanks, Michael. Obviously, I tend toward the mitigation side of the spectrum. I am not interested in killing every last Amalekite, including the children, and I am not going to take a command to ethnically cleanse at face value. But neither do I want to license myself to ignore every passage that happens to be inconvenient to me.

    Taking a historical approach to the Bible provides two different tools to help with these difficult questions, putting those archaic passages in context without . First, it's important to think about the historical needs of the original audience. So, the Bible study group I recently joined is doing the Book of Revelations, which is not one of my favorite books in Scripture. But part of studying it, in my church, is asking what was happening to the early Christian communities in Asia Minor that Revelations is addressed to. It makes more sense that way.

    One of the best examples of Old-Testament historical context I've ever heard was from the late Reverend Peter Gomes, talking about the anti-gay passages in Torah. Gomes placed those verses in the context of a small nation that desperately needed to maximize population, because they were sounded by warring enemies. That is a society that desperately needed to replace the people it kept losing to armed conflict, and was in danger of hitting the tipping point where they became so small that they might be wiped out completely. In that context, the Torah's emphasis on procreation above any other kind of sex makes worlds of sense. I'd add out that the do-not-lay-with-a-man-as-with-a-woman rule is of a piece with the requirement, which now seems abhorrent to us, to marry your dead brother's widow and have children with her if he died childless. None of us are excited about that rule any more, but it was once a command (although other, later rules conflict with it, because eventually population became a less life-and-death question).

    The second tool is to view religion, both Christianity and Judaism, as evolving faiths rather than fixed and static. Yes, the Bible presents these faiths as fully formed from the get-go, but both the external evidence and the inconsistencies in the text suggest that Judaism (like Christianity) went through major changes even during the period described by the Bible.

    So, the story of the Sacrifice of Isaac seems strange and barbaric on its own terms, but looks very different when you understand early Judaism as still in the process of separating itself from neighboring religions that may have featured real childhood sacrifice.

    [Let me point out here that archeology occasionally confirms things that seem implausible in the Bible, just as it disproves or casts doubt on other things. If I were just reading the Old Testament and trying to sort out fact from fiction on my own, I would heavily discount the accusations that neighboring tribes sacrifice children. It sounds like crazy propaganda. But the archeological evidence, while hotly debated, suggests that child sacrifice may actually have happened the ancient Near East.]

    Now, in that context, God's command that Abraham kill his son, followed by God's command to stop the sacrifice and use a ram instead, is a myth designed to move a culture away from an abhorrent practice, and it suddenly rockets into my top five Most Important Stories from Genesis.

    Sorry, I haven't had any time to respond this week, but it's an interesting answer, and I'm thinking about.

    Very thoughtful commentary.  Thank you. The idea that you propose, that the stories and rules provide a practical solution to these groups' problems of survival; make me feel more certain than ever that the bible was written and edited by ordinary people.  If there truly was an all-knowing entity or God that was at least inspiring all this, it seems there might have been a fairer, less violent, more honest way of getting the message out.  Certainly there is no evidence of any knowledge of the future, or even of basic integrity.  A supposedly loving God playing deadly tricks on people, encouraging genocide, and having no problem with the concept of slavery, among other things, make it impossible for me to like, much less believe in that god  

    I know that all this is ancient history, and that people had a different way of processing the world around them, but shouldn't/couldn't the God they supposedly got their instructions from have been a little more enlightening?

    I hope my thoughts haven't given you offense. I have struggled with this since my early 20's and am now 67.  I do understand why no one wants to think that when they die that's it. But try as I might, I just can't fake faith.  (A minister I spoke with on one of my many efforts to be a believer, suggested that I do just that -- fake it --, to "hedge my bets."  I asked him if he didn't think God would know. I don't remember his response)

    Great blog, Doc, and fascinating discussion. I don't know why I was so surprised that you participate in bible study. You are certainly the man in full.

    The point about the more remote days of bible reading prior to the emergence of wall to wall literalism is interesting. I grew up in the Northern Baptist lot, we weren't so much into literalism. The Southern Baptists never had a break from literalism.

    I went to college on a pre-ministerial scholarship and the Freshman geology course was indeed a shocker and I had to face facts which were very uncomfortable. Half the final was an essay question on evolution and I must have straddled it pretty well, not giving up the religious defense completely but receiving my highest mark ever---putting me on the Dean's list, o.k., I have this made, like giving an alcoholic a bottle of scotch.

    I'm sure you're right on modern biblical scholarship spawning literalism. For a great swath of new converts, like my daughter, there were no halcyon bible days, no there there, just bail into literalism---a phenomenon I wish I understood better---something to do with the sixties, or just loose parenting.

    As for Celts in chariots, I'd love to see a blog on that. Being a stubborn bunch they must have given it a try on the Moors and rock ledge after returning from mercenary duty in Egypt and Greece.

    The chariot question has been driving me a little nuts.

    The Celts had chariots and were used, e.g., in warfare against Caesar, and before. Caesar wrote about them. In continental Europe as well as in Yorkshire and Edinburgh, grave sites circa 2nd century BC have been excavated in which chariot parts were buried underneath the subject elite. So about 3rd century BC is the first evidence.

    The ancient war chariots of Syria and Egypt of course far preceded those of the Celts. The Celtic chariot was more of an ox cart, chunky, as one might expect, but with spoke wheels. While the Egyptian chariots had spoke wheels, a bending and laminating---light and strong---system was used on the spokes.

    According to Caesar the Celtic method of warfare was to charge right at the enemy and hurl javelins, disrupt the lines and eventually one warrior would jump down for hand to hand combat​ while the chariot driver would withdraw and wait it out. As I understand the Egyptian method, the driver would charge the enemy front lines, pull a 90, run along the front as the archer picked off victims.

    Whether there was any chariot technology or concept transfer from the ancients in the mideast to the Iron age Celts in Europe and the isles is, as far as I can ascertain, not known. Celts used Greek iconography on their coins at the turn of the millenium and it included chariots---not sure what style.

    Suffice it to say the Celts weren't running around the Isles in chariots any time after the Roman conquest.



    Yes. The Celts had chariots. And they turn up in archeological digs on the Continent.

    But the Irish Celts did not. You can't find any in Ireland.

    Irish epic, like the Tain, insists that Cu Chulainn and the boys are tooling around Ulster in chariots. But there are no chariots to dig up in Ulster. Not even in the peat bogs which hold everything.

    Maybe the Gaelic insistence on heroes in chariots is a very old cultural memory from before these particular Celts' ancestors migrated from mainland Europe to Ireland. Or maybe it's cross-contamination from Greco-Roman epic. I don't know enough to say.

    Right. Great post. ​

    Another element that influenced religious thought in the 19th century was the discussion that came to a head regarding history and whether it had "laws" of progress and a telos. Hegel, for instance, embraced Spinoza's rejection of an anthropomorphic Divine Being who interfered with the unfolding of creation but insisted there was a designed format for human transformations. Some people have called Hegel's idea an eschatology without transcendence. Along side of this expression of humans becoming something over time, Darwin pops in with the brain melting realization that all natural beings became what they are now after many changes over time.

    The straight forward equation of God = Nature, put forward by Spinoza and Descartes, now becomes complicated by new forms of interpretation of what is secular and divine. The rise of the hyper literalist is not only a reaction against the new forms but the expression of a new kind of doubt. Too much understanding of the world may undermine faith. That is a far cry from St. Anselm saying he needed faith to understand the world.

    Science can be very devoted to 'stories' or theories, also, and hard to change. Like the theory the pyramids were made entirely by cutting huge limestone blocks with copper tools, and having slaves hauling them up ramps.

    The founder of the Geoploymer Institute in France, (Joseph - not THE Joseph) Davidovits, has produced a  theory only rarely backed by Egypt scholars, and made 12 ton + stacks of geopolymer limestone blocks, to prove his theory that that Imhotep developed a carefully guarded secret formula of minerals, limestone and wood ash to make a concrete like mixture which was poured into molds to create the near perfect joints of the largest pyramids.

    In addition to making blocks at his institute in France, he points out the ambiguity and new interpretations of writings like the Famine Stele, and notes that by the time of Herodotus, the formula and meaning of the ancient words still extant at that time (no longer available), have been misinterpreted or left as a quandary as to what they mean:

    Herodotus says that it was recorded on the pyramid that the onions, radish, and garlic which the labourers consumed, cost sixteen hundred talents of silver;

    Davidovits says that huge cost was for rarer expensive to acquire minerals and geoploymer components that smelled like these foods when prepared, comprising less than 3-5% of the geopolymer formula. The cost was not for garlic or onions as Herodotus was told, 2000 years after the age of the early dynasties that built the large pyramids.

    Geopolymer from the Institute.  Note the shells still intact, but no longer in sedimentary layers. Davidovits says the when disaggregated and then bonded back with binders, the stone is more resistant to weathering and acid than natural stone.

    I agree with your sentiments as an ordained officer of the church. It's hard for some to square their faith with empirical data. I have a faith that drives me, but I try not to allow my faith to close my mind to history or data. Thanks for an awesome post!

    Thank you very much, Danny.

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