I’m nearly home from being away for two weeks at the annual meetings of the Evangelical Theological Society, Society of Biblical Literature, and the American Academy of Religion. AAR had an entire afternoon session on “astro-theology” (how would ET life impact religion – specifically, Christianity). I’ll be saying a few things about that session and more soon. It was fascinating to run into other folks who read this blog or just like chatting (and chuckling) about the PaleoBabble that’s out there.
Sorry, folks. Turns out the Egyptian statue that mysteriously rotates in its case isn’t possessed. Nor does it contain mystical alien energy.
Try and contain your surprise.
Jason Colavito has an informative post on the “big-business-factual-data-be-damned” approach of Ancient Aliens. The early section of his post notes connections between ancient astronaut theory and pop-culture, specifically with respect to Marvel comics.
The connections between ancient astronaut worldview and the sort of science fiction of comic books are deep. The comic book worlds pre-date the work of Sitchin and von Daniken. As Jason notes, there are secure roots in the writings of Lovecraft and others, but the more “vulgar” genre of the comic book also plays a significant role in where ancient astronaut theory really gets its “data”.
I recommend to readers two works in this regard. The first is a popular work of non-fiction. The second is a scholarly work (Univ of Chicago Press). Both are fascinating. The second, naturally, is dense and a harder read.
Christopher Knowles, Our Gods Wear Spandex: The Secret History of Comic Book Heroes
The Live Science blog reported recently that Jiang Li, an engineer at the University of Science and Technology Beijing, has successfully translated an ancient Chinese document that reveals how stones in excess of 300 tons were moved over 70 miles without the wheel to build the famous Forbidden City.
Better sit down: the ancient document doesn’t credit aliens. Nor does it credit nephilim or talk about levitation.
From the article:
Vast numbers of huge stones were mined and transported there for its construction in the 15th and 16th centuries. The heaviest of these giant boulders, aptly named the Large Stone Carving, now weighs more than 220 tons (200 metric tons) but once weighed more than 330 tons (300 metric tons).
The ancient document Li translated revealed that workers dug wells every 1,600 feet (500 meters) or so to get water to pour on the ice to lubricate it. This made the ice even more slippery and, therefore, easier upon which to slide rocks.
The researchers calculated that a workforce of fewer than 50 men could haul a 123-ton stone on a sledge over lubricated ice from the quarry to the Forbidden City. In contrast, pulling the same load over bare ground would have required more than 1,500 men.
I’ll bet this won’t be part of the Ancient Aliens series. Just a guess. You just can’t make money telling people the truth.
This sort of thing bugs me. I find it macabre and more than a little ghoulish.
The Vatican announced a couple days ago that it would be putting the bones of St. Peter on display for the first time in history.
Big deal. I’d ask if the bones could actually be verified with respect to the identity, but I don’t care.
What does this sort of thing prove? How is it faith-enhancing? Does anyone doubt Peter existed? It’s ironic that the apostle who, when people bowed to him, said “Arise, I myself am also a man” (Acts 10:26) is now being put on display as a fetish. Something tells me Peter would tell people to go do something really faith-based instead. Honestly, it reminds me of the bizarre behavior of people who gathered to watch Simeon the Stylite sit on his fifty-foot pole for forty years to worship the worms that dropped from his body. What a work for God.
Jason Colavito just posted a review of the Ancient Aliens episode “Alien Operations.” As usual, the review is informed and insightful, while the episode was disturbingly dumb –another ode to incoherence. My favorite paragraph:
Tsoukalos adopts Thomas Aquinas’s argument from first cause to argue that human medical knowledge could not have developed spontaneously because every surgeon alive today learns from previous surgeons who learned from previous surgeons; therefore, invention is impossible and only aliens could have been the first cause. The idea of gradual evolution is for him inconceivable; a discipline must exist as an unchanging, complete whole or it cannot exist at all. This is the cultural version of the creationist staple about what good half an eye is. How then does he explain the fact that treatments exist today that did not exist ten years ago, like, say the 3D printing that the show discussed only minutes earlier?
As is my custom, every once in a while I have to post something that veers away from exposing paleobabble toward real research. I’ve posted in the past about the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute and its posting of various volumes related to Assyriology. Here are some other goodies (courtesy of the Ancient World Online blog):
The Claremont Colleges Digital Library offers several open access resources relating to antiquity:
The Bulletin of the Institute for Antiquity and Christianity is published periodically under the auspices of the Society for Antiquity and Christianity for the general information of persons interested in the research programs of the Institute.The Claremont Coptic Encyclopedia (CCE) will initially include approximately 2800 articles published in The Coptic Encyclopedia (Aziz S. Atiya, ed. NY: Macmillan, 1991).The Nag Hammadi codices, thirteen ancient manuscripts containing over fifty religious and philosophical texts written in Coptic and hidden in an earthenware jar for 1,600 years, were accidentally discovered in upper Egypt in the year 1945.AttalusThis site contains over 25,000 links to Greek and Latin authors online. The links include detailed lists of events and sources for the history of the Hellenistic world and the Roman republic. It includes links to online translations of many of the sources, as well as new translations of some works which have not previously been easily available in English.
What sifts the chaff of paleobabble from the wheat of coherent writing on the ancient world more readily than anything else? That would be peer review.
I’ve blogged before here about the importance of peer review. Tom Verenna (yes, he’s published under peer review) recently wrote a piece related to that very subject entitled, “On Scholars and Kooks: A Few Simple Guidelines for Journalists in Popular Media.” It’s well worth the time. Here’s a taste:
. . . [A] layperson who self-publishes a book on something isn’t an ‘expert’. They may be considered an enthusiast, an amateur, a hobbyist, a thrill-seeker. These are polite titles. More often than not, however, people who only self-publish do so because they do not want to have their ideas vetted by pesky things like editors, peers, or actual experts. . . .
. . . The purpose of peer review, of academic vetting, is to determine how well an argument or hypothesis can withstand criticism. If the author of this book does not bother to go through this process, even unofficially, by having his book examined by experts prior to publication, then s/he does not have any grounds to claim that it is anything spectacular. That isn’t to say that an uncredentialed person cannot produce a solid book on a subject. It may actually be ground-breaking, it may be earth-shattering, but if it hasn’t been vetted by other people with credentials then there is no means by which one can claim that it is.
I’ve blogged this subject over at my Naked Bible blog, but it also belongs here at Paleobabble. What follows is borrowed from that post and appended with reviews and updates.
Joseph Atwill, self-proclaimed (and credential-less) biblical scholar has recently busied himself with a new PR campaign to promote a rehashing of his 2006 book, Caesar’s Messiah. It was supposedly a bestseller — but have you ever heard of it? Well, he’ll make sure you do this time around.
The basic thesis is, from the Amazon description, that:
“Was Jesus the invention of a Roman emperor? The author of this ground-breaking book believes he was. ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ reveals the key to a new and revolutionary understanding of Christian origins. . . . The clues leading to its startling conclusions are found in the writings of the first-century historian Flavius Josephus, whose ‘War of the Jews’ is one of the only historical chronicles of this period. Closely comparing the work of Josephus with the New Testament Gospels, ‘Caesar’s Messiah’ demonstrates that the Romans directed the writing of both. . . . Atwill noticed a series of parallels occurring in sequence between the military campaign of the Roman Caesar Titus Flavius and the ministry of Jesus. His findings led him to a startling new conclusion about the origins of Christianity – that a Roman imperial family, the Flavians, had created Christianity to pacify the Jews’ rebellion against Rome, and even more incredibly, they had placed a literary satire within the Gospels and ‘Wars of the Jews’ to inform posterity of this fact.”
Basically, Atwill is doing something of a Dan Brown, giving us The Josephus Code. For sure that would have been a sexier title. No doubt the media would have pumped it more the first time around had the word ‘code’ been in it.
So what do we have here? Instead of the Zeitgeist conspiracy we get the notion that the NT gospels were written by Romans. And boy, were those Romans ever clever. They decided to mimic Josephus’ accounts of Titus Flavius in their presentation of Jesus. . . . Now wait a minute. . . . So, the Jews were influenced to pacificism by a guy who didn’t really exist . . . but who were they following around? Not really . . . the gospels were written later, after the fact . . . Gullible people (and of course subsequent early Christians) just read about him and accepted what they read about the guy’s existence . . . in accounts that were patterned after the chronology of a Roman emperor’s life . . . who lived in the past a little later than the guy didn’t exist. . . . as clever propaganda. So the Jewish or Christian readers of the later gospels wouldn’t really have known Jesus didn’t exist. They just took it on faith because the Roman-generated gospels told them that guy existed. . . . And so no later Christian or Jew who believed in, or didn’t like, Jesus would ever have known Jesus wasn’t actually real . . . because they’d never see the parallels between what Josephus wrote and the gospels that Atwill did . . . because . . . well . . . they didn’t read Josephus . . . no, they did that. . . . It has to be because Atwill is so much smarter. . . . Yeah, that’s it . . . because the early Christians and any of their opponents could have read Josephus. They just didn’t see the coded messaging that would have made the case that Atwill sees. Even Josephus experts haven’t seen that. . . . Or experts in the gospels. . . . Gosh, Atwill is smart.
Many real scholars of the New Testament, the gospels, and the historical Jesus (from varied theological persuasions) have weighed in on Atwill’s thesis:
- Larry Hurtado has offered his thoughts on Atwill in a post entitled, “FlimFlam of the Month.”
- Joel Watts asked, “Was Jesus a Roman Invention?” over at the Huff Post
- Robert Price (who doesn’t think Jesus existed) debunks the book (This review alone, coming as it does from someone sympathetic to at least the idea that Jesus never existed, should tell you how poor Atwill’s work is)
- Historian Tom Verenna writes, “No, Joe Atwill: Rome Did Not Invent Jesus“
- James McGrath echoes my own sentiment with his title, “As Bad as Mythicism: Jesus as Caesar“
[Addendum: 10/22/2013 - I have been in correspondence with one of the researchers mentioned in Jason Colavito's post. That individual tells me that research is underway in regard to some of the claims Jason criticized, and that I will receive a copy of the results of that research when ready. I will keep readers informed. As per the below, I will insist on those standards of evaluation. "Lab work" is not a synonym for peer review; it's what peer review evaluates. I will in turn submit what I receive to experts in relevant fields whose own work has undergone peer review, experts to whom I turn to for evaluation of such things, as I am not qualified to decipher scientific tests.]
Jason Colavito posted a telling essay today. For someone like me, a Christian and biblical studies scholar, it was disturbing. Frankly, it provoked me to enter the discussion. I have the training and am well known in both the “Christian weirdness” community and by scholars (Christian or otherwise) all over the globe (it’s a blessing of my job). I feel responsible to say something — to put people on notice in some sense. I wouldn’t want people to be deceived because I remained silent. It’s a consistency issue for me. I want to be on the record.
So what’s my beef?
I’m guessing Jason and I wouldn’t see eye-to-eye on some things. That’s fine. For one, I believe in a creator, though I’m not predisposed toward the young earth position, mostly for the way it distorts points of science, caricatures evolutionary theory, and imposes a modern context on the ancient text (something that atheistic evolutionists do with great frequency and equal ignorance). Put another way, the reason I’m not in that camp is not because I don’t think God capable of recent creation. I just don’t think the Bible was ever intended to teach us science. The Bible itself makes that clear if we just take it for what it says in its original context.1 Logically, then, I’m not a philosophical materialist. I accept the possibility of what is loosely (and in some cases, inaccurately) called the “supernatural.” That goes with the turf of theism and, by extension, Christianity. These positions have stood up to the best of academic philosophical debate for centuries, so I know I’m on good footing, despite atheist crowing to the contrary. These ideas are also not antithetical to the scientific or logical mind. I personally know too many PhDs in the hard sciences and philosophy to know that lame criticisms of theism from such trajectories have failed to impress many scientists and scholars, Christian or not. Most of what passes for critique of theism and Christianity is actually criticism of caricatures or flawed thinking that circulates among the laity.
I don’t know where Jason is at on any of that and I don’t care. I value his research; I’m thankful for it. So let’s be clear. What disturbed me wasn’t Jason’s comments about creationists. That’s yesterday’s news. I can think he’s wrong about that idea (again, I really don’t know what he thinks) without thinking he lacks integrity as a researcher. What disturbed me about the content of his post was the appalling, absurd ideas that some Christian researchers are apparently peddling as truth — even calling it biblical truth.
I can sum up my thoughts on the sort of research Jason highlights: it’s baptized pablum that lacks any prayer of being correct biblical teaching or coherent thinking. Jason’s post gives specific examples of the way Christian researchers have uncritically adopted the same insane, data-starved ideas as offered by Zecharia Sitchin and Giorgio Tsoukalos.2 All that’s missing is the fawning sycophantia and the hair. Why do they do it? I don’t know. Popularity? Gullibility? Money? Ego? Again, I don’t know. But I do know how to address it. It’s simple — the same strategies that show the non-Christian ancient astronaut twaddle to be vacuous will work on the Christian variety. This is evident since the same unsound thought processes are shared: intellectual laziness and abuse of data.
Here are my tried and true approaches:
1. Insist that any evidence put forth by an ancient astronaut researcher about what an ancient text says comes with specific primary source citation — in biblical parlance, “chapter and verse, please.” I do this consistently, and it usually kills the discussion before it even gets started. If I hear a claim without a reference or some other generality (“it’s in the Babylonian creation story”) my first response is “show me the text.”3 I won’t take their word for anything. Most of the time such citations are merely parroted from something they read in a secondary source (itself of abysmal quality if it’s an ancient astronaut title) or saw in a YouTube video, or heard on a radio show, or just picked up in conversation. Not good enough. Show me the tablet, line, chapter, verse, etc. If you’ve been too lazy or ignorant to look up the material yourself, you’ve forfeited the right to be heard. Parroting ideas isn’t research.
2. When it comes to textual material, translations and interpretations must derive from careful study of the original languages. That is, texts don’t just mean anything and ought not be raped and pillaged so they can be pressed into the service of nonsense. Languages have their own rules of grammar and usage. Their vocabulary is to be understood in the context of the people who produced the texts and their own time and culture — not our modern, foreign culture. You might think this is too high a standard. “Not many people can work in these languages, Mike.” Oh, well. Actually, there are more of those nerds out there than you’d think. If you’re going to pass yourself off as a researcher, teacher, or expert and can’t do this sort of work, you’re deceiving your audience with a false claim of authority. Don’t bellyache about not knowing the languages. Learn them. It isn’t rocket science. And it matters. (I didn’t waste fifteen years of graduate school to function at the same level as an English Bible reader or someone bound to English translation of other ancient texts). Besides, there are many good resources, in print and online, that can provide deep access to primary source material. But that would mean you need to tie yourself to (or get toasted by) the next item.
3. Assertions and conclusions offered must be based on sound research that has been subjected to peer review. Peer review is the practice utilized in scholarly publishing whereby a writer submits his or her ideas and research to a small panel of experts fields germane to the submission. The goal is not uniformity of ideas, but rather to check methodology and content relevant to the argument so that important data are not overlooked (or avoided) and earlier research is taken into consideration. In short, it’s a coverage and coherence filter. Without it, anyone could publish anything anywhere (especially the internet), making it impossible for non-specialists to know whether the material is sound or not. (Or, making it easier to dupe people). Passing the muster of peer review means that your work has stood up under scrutiny. The issue is not “right or wrong,” as peer reviewed publications publish varying viewpoints on any given issue. Passing peer review means that the essay or article deserves a hearing in the opinion of leaders in the field. I insist that the ideas put forth by researchers meet that standard. Every year thousands of articles and books are published under some kind of review. Researchers who avoid that material or refuse to address that material in their own work are either lazy or dishonest.
Frankly, there’s a name for people who refuse to submit their own research to the review of bona fide experts in the relevant disciplines: coward. For sure, peer review isn’t perfect. Flawed ideas get through from time to time. Scholarly journals don’t use angels for reviewers, either, so sometimes something gets denied because of politics. But the *fact* is that there are hundreds of peer-reviewed journals in the humanities and hard sciences to which work can be submitted. The sheer number is a corrective to the occasional mistake or abuse. Rejection is common, because a given journal can only print so many pages – so try another. If your work gets rejected over and over again, that’s a clear sign it’s deeply flawed. But if you never submit it, that’s a clear sign you’d rather pass yourself off as an expert to the unlearned you want to gather as your fan base and audience. On that level, there’s an ethics problem here.
These approaches — these safeguards — have served me well over the years. They are simple, reasonable standards that I strive to follow myself. Sloppy, self-serving research and personal speculations are no substitute. That a researcher has an idea or viewpoint doesn’t mean it is coherent. That there’s a mystery to be solved or a knotty problem in the historical, archaeological record doesn’t mean that we can now throw reason to the wind and declare the thought rattling around in our head to be truth. That the Bible is a book for all humankind doesn’t mean every interpretation of it is equally valid. You can claim the Holy Spirit led you to say XYZ, and I won’t care — because the Spirit is honest. He wouldn’t lead you into bunk (least of all ancient astronaut bunk) or to do careless work. He wouldn’t lead you to be lazy or ignorant. Appealing to the Spirit for your own lack of effort and courage in the above areas is reprehensible. Laying your own lethargy and ineptitude at the door of the Spirit hardly honors God.
For the Christian out there, willfully following flawed research that fails to meet these minimal qualifications common to serious academics is a spiritual issue. Yes, you read that correctly. In fact, it’s an issue of magnitude. It goes to using the intellectual faculties with which we’ve been blessed. It goes to honesty when you claim to be seeking the truth. It goes to having confidence in the God you claim to follow — that all truth will conform to his character and revelation because there can be no such thing as contradictory competing truths (at least in a coherent world). It goes to being an honorable testimony to those who don’t believe in the gospel so that Christ is not shamed by the way you do your work. It goes to fostering relationships of integrity with other researchers who don’t share your beliefs. None of us are perfect, but that isn’t the standard. Honesty and perfection aren’t synonyms. The former is a standard that can be reached and maintained even though the latter cannot. Exempting yourself from the former and making the latter your excuse for doing so is just wrong.
- I’d also argue that the actual truth propositions of the Bible are not incompatible with science. ↩
- I hope that at least some of Jason’s ancient alien examples aren’t true, but he tries very hard to fact-check. That’s his track record. I will assume what he describes in his post is accurate until that is demonstrated not to be the case. ↩
- This is why I made the video showing people where to find all occurrences of “anunnaki” in the cuneiform tablets — to show the ancient astronaut ideas about them are simply made up. ↩