Bible Code Debate with Yours Truly This Weekend

Some of you may be interested to know that my 2001 debate with Grant Jeffrey on Coast to Coast AM (then with Art Bell — the old Art Bell Show) will be replayed this weekend (Saturday night). Wow. 2001 – my grad school days.

The link has the show set for 6-10 PT. I can’t actually recall if I was on the full four hours or just three.  It may have been four since the show was five hours when Art did it (the first hour was usually for news or whatever else Art wanted to talk about). The only thing I do recall about the show and debate was that Grant Jeffrey really had no idea what I was talking about.  He basically has no background or knowledge of Hebrew, textual criticism, or how the Old Testament was transmitted.  But if you have a friend that believes this nonsense, please invite them to listen, as well as going to this web page – pretty much the page I had up for the show, visually demonstrating (from the Dead Sea Scrolls) how the idea of an every-letter equidistant letter sequence (ELS; the backbone idea of the Bible code) is demonstrably false.

Thanks to Shirley in Michigan for alerting me to this!

Todd Bolen on Problems with the Early Christian Lead Books Discovery

Todd Bolen has a sweet post over at his Bible Places blog.  I highly recommend it. Here’s one paragraph:

In a nutshell, the problems with this discovery include the facts that (1) we don’t know who owns the artifacts; (2) we don’t know where they were found; (3) the artifacts were not excavated by archaeologists but stolen by thieves; (4) nearly all information about the discovery so far has come from a single source of dubious reliability; (5) claims have been made that this find is more significant than the Dead Sea Scrolls; (6) the source of information appears to be positioning himself for fame and fortune.

Lead Tablet Discovery: Let the Archaeology Presstitution Begin

Well, you know it’s going to happen. This sort of discovery, if valid, will introduce a new wave of archaeo-porn for archaeo-media presstitutes everywhere — and of course their mystic “researchers” across cyberspace who are just waiting for the next piece of antiquity news to twist into yet more revisionist mytho-history about Jesus and the early Christians. What fun!

Here’s a very nice posting (“Lead Codices Silliness“) that sketches the already-encroaching silliness factor. Now Robert Feather has weighed in — the guy who believes the Copper Scroll from Qumran is related to Akhenaten and his Aten-worship. Feather thinks the lead codices have Kabbalah written all over them. No kidding. All that from some pictures on the web. Now that’s scholarship. Is his last name an abbreviation of “feather-brain”? No doubt it will get even wackier (and yes, it can).

I wonder when the likes of Michael Baigent, Christopher Knight, Robert Lomas, and Lynn Picknett will get involved. Then we’ll have a non-sequitur Battle Royal on our hands.

First Century Jewish-Christian Texts Found in Jordan?

[UPDATE: Here is a new link on this story; posted 3/30/2011.  It contained the pictures below that I have now added to the original post.]

[UPDATE #2: Here is a paper on the “Mount Zion Cup” alluded to in some of the discussions of these new tablets as having an analogous cryptic script by epigrapher Stephen Pfann.]

This link leads to a press release entitled, “Secret Hoard of Ancient Sealed Books Found in Jordan.”  It’s worth a read for sure. Kudos to Kim West and James McGrath.

I’d heard this report about a week ago, and my advice is still the same:  let’s wait and see. The press release notes that the texts (which on on lead plates) were found in Jordan and the context is Jewish-messianic. As a result, speculation abounds that these texts (if authentic) might be the earliest Christian texts ever found, as preliminary indications point to a first century AD/CE date.Unless it’s Paleobabble. That is a legitimate fear in the wake of the archaeological forgery trials of recent times in Israel. Hopefully the material is real and can solve some mysteries about early Jewish-Christian thinking (at least for some sect).

Note as you read that there are a number of references to some of the texts being written in “code.” This refers to what is known as “cryptic script.” Some Dead Sea Scrolls were written in this script (and yes, they’ve been published — sorry, no conspiracies). I have a friend who lives in Israel who is an expert in these sorts of texts, so I’m hoping he will at some point be involved in the find.  His opinion would be thoughtful and trustworthy. Stay tuned!

Building the Pyramids – It’s Not a Mystery

Well, it’s that time of year again. The Ancient Egypt class that I teach at the local university is set to begin on Wednesday.  I devote a full week to pyramids.  The articles below are part of the readings.  Two of these have appeared on this blog before, but the ones by Isler and Lally are new.  I have students read these because I don’t want anyone leaving my classroom thinking aliens were needed for pyramid construction. Absolute paleobabble.

Fitchen, “Building Cheops’ Pyramid” – Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, Vol. 37, No. 1 (Mar., 1978), pp. 3-12

Isler, “On Pyramid Building” (Part 1) – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 22 (1985), pp. 129-142

Isler, “On Pyramid Building” (Part 2) – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 24 (1987), pp. 95-112

Lally, “Engineering a Pyramid” – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 26 (1989), pp. 207-218

Isler, “Egyptian Methods of Raising Weights” – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 13 (1976), pp. 31-42

Isler, “An Ancient Method of Finding and Extending Direction” – Journal of the American Research Center in Egypt, Vol. 26 (1989), pp. 191-206

And when someone asks, “well, how come those guys on NOVA couldn’t build a small one – huh?” the answer is simple: “that’s because they were inept.” These articles are written by people who actually understand ancient engineering, not NOVA scientists who want to be on TV.

Yahweh and Asherah: More Archaeo-Porn for the Masses

[ADDENDUM: March 23, 2011

I just wanted to direct readers to three items I have written, two of which are free. I offer them since the issue below gets into the issue of monotheism in Israel. First, there is a pre-publication version of an article that was published by the Bulletin for Biblical Research (“Monotheism, Polytheism, Monolatry, or Henotheism? Toward an Assessment of Divine Plurality in the Hebrew Bible“). Second, there is the paper I read last year at an academic conference entitled “What is/are (an) elohim?” It’s initial material was the result of a paper given at the international meeting of the SBL in Edinburgh a few years ago. Most scholars mis-define the term due to not taking the time to think about how it is that an Israelite writer could call a half dozen things elohim — things that no Israelite would view as “ontologically identical.” That means elohim cannot be rightly understood as a being with one set of particular attributes, and so plural elohim does not undermine the idea (doubtless held by the biblical writers) that Yahweh was unique among other elohim, and having more than one elohim does not neatly equate to polytheism. Third, there is my dissertation, entitled “The Divine Council in Late Canonical and Non-Canonical Second Temple Jewish Literature.” That one isn’t free.]

Several people have sent me this link on whether Yahweh, the God of Israel (and the Old Testament) had a wife — the goddess Asherah. I guess it comes when your specialty is the divine council in Israelite religion. So let’s look at it briefly.

This is an old subject for specialists (as in decades old), but for the non-specialist, this will sound shocking. So, is this just another example of the archaeo-babbling religion media shoving one side of an issue down the throats of the masses just to gain readership, or do we have an attention-seeking scholar to credit for this one (Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou)?

For now, my money is on the media. It’s usually a safe bet, but I can’t let Dr. Stavrakopoulou be devoid of responsibility here. Lest my comments below be misunderstood, let me say up front that Stavrakopoulou is a genuine scholar with the right credentials. But that isn’t the problem. Her credentials are not the paleobabble. No one who earns a PhD in any field is dumb. But sometimes degree smarts or agendas get in the way of clear thinking.

Exhibit A is the breathless questioning accompanying the news item on various fronts:

Dr. Francesca Stavrakopoulou asks whether the ancient Israelites believed in one God as the Bible claims.

She puts the Bible text under the microscope, examining what the original Hebrew said, and explores archaeological sites in Syria and the Sinai which are shedding new light on the beliefs of the people of the Bible.

Was the God of Abraham unique? Were the ancient Israelites polytheists? And is it all possible that God had another half?

Let me add another important question of my own:  Can we think clearly, please? Just for a few minutes?

What these questions suggest is that all Israelites would at one time have embraced a divine wife for Yahweh. Really?  On what basis? So, because we have some inscriptions that *might* point to the goddess Asherah (see below) we can then conclude that, at some point, all Yahweh worshippers believed in a divine couple? Did we just become omniscient? Why is that demonstrably true over against the view held by basically all scholars of Israelite religion — that the textual and material record in Canaan shows us religious diversity?  By analogy, we have hundreds of thousands of words from the first two centuries AD telling us things about Jesus of Nazareth and we wouldn’t dare conclude that all Jesus followers in that time period believed the same things about Jesus!  But a couple of inscriptions gives us not only a unified point of Israelite theology, but evidence for the evolution of monotheism from polytheism. Say what?

I’ve said before that all scholars in biblical studies should be forced to take a course in logic, and this matter is a real case in point.

Religious diversity is a far more coherent model. Diversity, of course, means that some would have believed Yahweh had a wife, while others would not. What a surprise. The Hebrew Bible itself tells us (on nearly every page of the Deuteronomistic History1, so to speak) that many Israelites rejected the “orthodox Yahwism” of the prophets, opting for alternative worship fo Yahweh. Finds like those at Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom point to such diversity — but apparently Dr. Stavrakopoulou (more likely, the popular media) wants them to argue for “orthodox polytheism” in Israel which evolved toward “orthodox monotheism.” These objects do not make such a narrow case. All they can actually tell us is that, at some point during the biblical period in Israel, someone believed Yahweh had a wife. That would make sense to me, as I can’t think of a time when everyone in any religion belived lock-step with everyone else.

But there are actually other alternative understandings of the pieces. It’s hardly so neat a picture as the media storyline leads readers to believe.  I’ll try to summarize succinctly.

Yahweh and Asherah

In a nutshell, the hub-bub is about certain archaeological finds (most notably Kuntillet Ajrud and Khirbet el-Qom) bearing inscriptions that mention Yahweh by name and “his asherah” (or, more accurately, “asheratah”). The conclusion is drawn that Yahweh had a wife. But matters are far more complicated than that. Here are the options.

1. Yahweh and “his asherah” = Yahweh had a wife. In this view, the term “asheratah” is taken by many to be a proper name (Asherah) plus a third person masculine suffix (translated “his”). The problem with that view is that, as a rule, proper personal (or deity) names in Hebrew and other ancient Canaanite texts, do not take such pronouns suffixes. This basically rules out that the “asherah” as the goddess herself accompanying Yahweh right from the start. Some have argued in the academic literature for exceptions, but the examples offered have not met with consensus acceptance. At any rate, if we presume that this rule can be broken so that we have “his [Yahweh’s] Asherah,” what do we learn?  That at least one scribe at one place in Canaan apparently believed the divine couple was married. But other options that don’t break the rules of normative Hebrew and Semitic morphology make better sense.

2. “His asherah” refers generically to a goddess wife, not specifically “the” goddess Asherah. This is sort of “Plan B” for some who want a goddess wife but know that #1 above violates Hebrew morphology.

3. “His asherah” refers to a shrine, not a deity. This view makes good sense since it is well known by scholars (but not nearly as sexy) that “asherah” in the Hebrew Bible refers to a shrine, or pole (sacred tree) that was the symbol of Asherah (e.g., Deut 16:21). This would mean that “Yahweh and his asherah” = “Yahweh and his sacred tree cult object.” Again, this would point to one of many forms of Yahweh worship in Canaan (think of how many forms of Christianity there are today and you get the idea of diversity within one theological tradition).

4. “His asherah” could point to a tree object associated with Yahweh himself, not asherah at all. This has some coherence because Yahweh was associated with a “tree of life” (the garden of Eden story). Biblical scholars know that Yahwism tended to absorb the attributions of other deities — including goddesses — into Yahweh. In other words, one of the theological (polemic) tactics used by biblical writers was to take the attributes or epithets of a foreign deity (like Baal) and conceptually apply them to Yahweh, thereby asserting that Yahweh was the true god of XYZ, not this other deity that bears that title. When it came to goddesses, this was also the case, and so Yahweh could be identified with a goddess symbol. If this option is the right choice, then we’d have more of an orthodox Yahwistic statement with no association with a goddess at at all – we’d have a usurpation of another deity’s symbol.2

So where does this all lead us? To clearer thinking. To some honesty with the material. The claims that are being made about Yahweh and Asherah in this report are fallacious, as they absolutely over-extend the data, not to mention neglecting decades of prior scholarship on the issue.

Suggested reading on the spectrum of views of these archaeological finds and “asheratah”:

For an excellent, accessible survey, see Richard Hess, Israelite Religions (Baker, 2007), 283-289.

Other sources:

J. Day, Asherah in the Hebrew Bible and Northwest Semitic Literature, JBL 105 (1986) 385–408

J. Day, Asherah, Anchor Bible Dictionary I (1992) 483–487

Wiggins, A Reassessment of ‘Asherah’. A Study According to the Textual Sources of the First Two Millennia B.C.E. (AOAT 235; Kevelaer/Neukirchen-Vluyn 1993)

W. A. Maier, Asherah: Extrabiblical Evidence (HSM 37; Atlanta 1986)

B. Margalit, The meaning and significance of Asherah, VT 40 (1990) 264–297

S. M. Olyan, Asherah and the cult of Yahweh in Israel (SBLMS 34; Atlanta 1988)

Hadley, Yahweh and “His Asherah”: Archaeological and Textual Evidence for the Cult of the Goddess, Ein Gott Allein (eds. W. Dietrich & M. A. Klopfenstein; Fribourg/Göttingen 1994) 235–268

William Dever, Did God Have a Wife?: Archaeology and Folk Religion in Ancient Israel (Eerdmans, 2008)

  1. Deuteronomy through 2 Kings. See for example, Judges 2:13; Judges 3:7; and also Jer 44:17-25.
  2. This perhaps helps explain why the biblical writers do not use the feminine form of the word “god(dess)” in the Hebrew Bible; they use the masculine term even when referring to a goddess (see 1 Kings 11:33 where “Ashtoreth” is referred to as elohim – the masculine plural ending of the word for deity).

Spanish Atlantis: An Update

Here’s a brief description by Archaeoblog of the National Geographic show on the latest theory on Atlantis that I blogged a couple days ago.  From the post:

It was interesting and not really all that out there but not terribly convincing. You could say “just excavate” but it’s apparently mostly waterlogged not very far down so just sinking some test pits is probably out of the question, unless you have gobs of money to throw around.

Atlantis Found?

This report on recent research by a real archaeologist and academic team (i.e., not Edgar Cayce disciples) is interesting. It appears worth following the results. There will apparently be a National Geographic Special on this tonight. Here’s an excerpt:

A research team searching for the fabled Lost City of Atlantis says it may have been found, just off the coast of southern Spain.

Leading a team of international geologists and archeologists, University of Hartford professor Richard Freund used the detailed accountings [sic] of Greek philosopher Plato as a map, narrowing down the location to the Mediterranian and Atlantic.

Then, a satellite photo of a suspected submerged city was used to find the site just north of Cadiz, Spain. There, buried in the vast marshlands of the Dona Ana Park, the team believes they have pinpointed the ancient, multi-ringed dominion known as Atlantis.

Since the exact spot of the alleged submerged city was not indicated, I couldn’t find anything worth showing you on Google Earth. Perhaps after the National Geographic special more details will be on the web.

Dinosaur Petroglyphs and a Lesson in Intellectual Dishonesty

I was alerted to a new scholarly article today on the issue of so-called dinosaur petroglyphs. Here is the citation (the article is free):

Senter and Cole. 2011. “Dinosaur” petroglyphs at Kachina Bridge site, Natural Bridges National Monument, southeastern Utah: not dinosaurs after all. Palaeontologia Electronica 14(1);2A:5p.

The picture of the glyph is pretty poor, but visible (see the other one below). The lines drawings in the article are what I want to draw attention to. It’s very obvious that, *when viewed in context*, the blotches that make up the alleged dinosaur are nothing of the sort. And yet this image is touted by young earth creationists as proof that humans and dinosaurs lived together (the image below is marked by one such site). This is pure intellectual dishonesty. It’s the kind of thing that gives Christianity a bad name. I know many Christians think that the Bible requires simultaneous habitation, due to their view of Genesis and “Leviathan” and “behemoth” in the wisdom literature, but that simply is not the case. There is no such biblical requirement.