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Stuart Robbins recently posted Part 2 of my interview on his Exposing PseudoAstronomy podcast. I had posted Part 1 earlier. For convenience, here are both podcast interviews:

Episode 97: Interview with Michael Heiser on Ancient Aliens and Zecharia Sitchin,Part 1

Episode 98: Interview with Michael Heiser on Ancient Aliens and Zecharia Sitchin, Part 2

 

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Jason Colavito has once again directed the attention of his readers to how people in Christian churches have begun to tout the ancient astronaut paradigm as a tool for understanding the Bible. His post draws on the thoughts of a Lutheran pastor over at the well-known Christian periodical First Things.

As I’ve noted before, this is ill-advised, misguided, and even dangerous. The Bible is not about alien visitation. While certain biblical passages (like Gen 6:1-4) can be read that way (e.g., as abduction narratives, since some of the elements are shared with such “accounts”), just because a reading of the biblical text happens (even if well-intentioned) does not make that reading coherent and does not serve as proof (or even evidence) that ancient astronaut ideas conform to reality. Put another way, using the Bible to prop up ancient astronaut myth does not result in the myth becoming respectable just because the Bible is respectable. That assertion is not a denial of the content or character of the Bible, since the biblical material, taken in its own ancient context, is not an obtuse mystery. There is no need for projecting modern myths on the Bible to make it understandable. It’s coherent on its own (ancient) terms. That people (even or especially Christians) are ignorant of the original languages of the Bible or the mountain of scholarly research from archaeology, linguistics, literary study, and ancient Near Eastern background material for the Bible is no excuse to opt for interpretive nonsense.

Why do Christians opt for this nonsense? A couple reasons come to mind right away. I’ve seen or heard the cycle of Bible boredom hundreds of times. It’s just that the victims don’t all end up resorting to ancient alien bunk to get excited about the Bible. Many others just quit church altogether. But the cycle is the same.

What am I talking about?

Watching Ancient Aliens is easier than doing serious research and engaging in careful thinking. Pastors have spent decades, through shallow (“relevant”) preaching that basically every passage is about Jesus, or tithing, or getting along with others, or healthy marriages, or raising kids, etc. When you’re trained to think that basically every passage you read in the Bible conveys the same messages, there’s no reason to read it closely or seriously analyze it. The Bible loses its mystery and fascination. Preachers do this because they are either lazy, are inadequately taught, think poorly, or go with the flow of their content-intolerant audience. People who want more than self-help therapy sessions facilitated by the Holy Spirit on Sunday morning go elsewhere — physically or out into cyberspace. They come across the fascinating worldview put forth by Ancient Aliens and get excited about the Bible, since some “researcher” (= nimrod) on the Fantasy Channel tells them that’s what their Bible is really describing. If they ever bother to ask the pastor about all of it, they’ll suspect they’re onto something as soon as they get derision or a chuckle as a rebuttal. They just need to love Jesus and forget about all that silly stuff. As if that answers their questions. Then they encounter Christian researchers — people who share their Christian theology — saying the same thing as Giorgio, but in ways that aren’t theologically offensive. Now they’re convinced they’ve found the truth.

This is all painfully predictable. It’s easy to pity the laity. Granted, they share responsibility for thinking so poorly, but I lay most of the blame at the feet of pastors whose sermons range from drivel to self-help pablum on any given Sunday. They underestimate what their people can absorb and their interest level. But the coffee and the worship band are good.

We reap what we sow.

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[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 for evaluation of such things, as I am not qualified to decipher scientific tests.]

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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.1 The Bible itself makes that clear if we just take it for what it says in its original context. 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.

  1. I’d also argue that the actual truth propositions of the Bible don’t conflict with science.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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I wasn’t sure where to post this piece of wackiness – here or at Paleobabble. This audience won (or lost) since the subject matter is so often associated with UFOs.

Something interesting popped in my blog reader this week from the Cryptomundo blog – a post by Craig Woolheater relaying a question from a Dr. Matthew Johnson. Dr. Johnson (uncertain of his field) wrote the following:

There are many theories circulating around in the Kingdom of Bigfootdom. The predominant theory is that the Bigfoot are descendants of “Gigantopithecus” which they have a fossil record for in China (i.e., Essentially, a partial jawbone and one tooth).

Another theory circulating around in the Kingdom of Bigfootdom is the idea that the Bigfoot are actually the “Nephilim” mentioned in the Old Testament. Allegedly, the “Nephilim” are supposed to be the offspring of Fallen Angels who mated with Female Humans. However, I might add that there are many other Biblical interpretations pertaining to who might be the parents of the “Nephilim” mentioned in the Old Testament.

HERE’S MY QUESTION AND I WOULD REALLY LOVE TO HEAR YOUR ANSWERS:

If the Bigfoot are really the “Nephilim” mentioned in the Old Testament (i.e., Children of Fallen Angels and Female Humans), wouldn’t that actually mean that all of God’s Angels are really Apes with wings in order to create a sentient-being who appears to be half-man and half-ape?

I’d like to answer Dr. Johnson’s question.

Yes, according to Gen 6:1-4, celestial beings (“sons of God” following the Hebrew phrasing) cohabited with human women before the flood. At least that is one reading of the passage (the most straightforward one). There are others, but we’ll stay here to answer your question.

Biblical Nephilim are certainly described as unusually tall (cp. Numbers 13:30-33; Deut 2:10-11) but they are never described as hairy or ape-like. The Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) has a word for “apes” or “monkeys” (qoph; plural = qophim; see 1 Kings 10:22; 2 Chron 9:21). Semitic scholars consider it a loanword from Egyptian. No passage in the Old Testament uses this word to label any of the giant (Nephilim) clans, of which there were several.

More succinctly, Nephilim were not Bigfoot (or is it Bigfeet?).

Ordinarily I’d consider this sort of topic too absurd even for this blog, but I know that this idea is out there. It’s totally bogus and void of any biblical support. Not only is this clear from the above, but members of the giant clans are also described as “people” (Hebrew, ʿam) in the Old Testament (Emim, Anakim – see Deut 2:10-11; Deut 9:2) and as “men” (Hebrew, ‘adam; see Arba in Josh 14:15). Since these verses collectively tell is that Arba was a man, and Arba was one of the Anakim, and the Anakim descended from the Nephilim, the Nephilim were not Bigfoot/Bigfeet. Both of these Hebrew terms are used hundreds of times in the Old Testament of human beings.

Let me add a brief word to the Christian UFO community, some of whom say things like the above, thereby giving Dr. Johnson pause:

Can we stop the madness now? This isn’t rocket science. Though I have one, you don’t need a PhD in Hebrew Bible to discover any of this. A Strong’s Concordance will do it for you.

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I was tempted just to leave the page of this post blank, but some might miss the joke and think there was a malfunction.

Those of you who don’t think biblical illiteracy is a problem will want to read this essay by Micah Hanks: “The Torah’s Teachings on Alien Life.” That title understandably caught my eye, since I have a PhD in Hebrew Bible.

Those of you who know what the Torah is (which wouldn’t include the essay’s author) will no doubt wonder why no passage in the Torah is quoted in the piece. Instead, we get citations from the medieval kabbalistic Zohar1 and the Sefer Habris (a presumed 12th century text). Those books aren’t in the Torah. The Torah is made up of the first five books of the Old Testament (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy). The Torah was composed and put into its final form long before the medieval period.

The closest the article gets to ANY portion of the Bible is Judg 5:23 (also not in the Torah), part of which reads: “Cursed is Meroz … cursed are its inhabitants.” Meroz, we are told by Mr. Hanks and his source, a rabbi Aryeh Kaplan, is the name of a star, and so this verse is proof of ET life (the star had inhabitants).

Where does this idea come from? Let’s put our thinking caps on, folks.

For a little context (hey, there’s an idea — look at a verse in its context!) here’s Judges 5:19-23 in the Jewish Publication Society Tanakh translation:

19 Then the kings came, they fought:
The kings of Canaan fought
At Taanach, by Megiddo’s waters—
They got no spoil of silver.
20 The stars fought from heaven,
From their courses they fought against Sisera.
21 The torrent Kishon swept theml away,
The raging torrent, the torrent Kishon.
March on, my soul, with courage!
22 Then the horses’ hoofs pounded
As headlong galloped the steeds
23 “Curse Meroz!” said the angel of the Lord.
Bitterly curse its inhabitants,
Because they came not to the aid of the Lord,
To the aid of the Lord among the warriors.”

In the story, Israel (the Lord’s people) are fighting against Sisera, their enemy). And so, the “stars” helped Israel but Meroz did not.

Here’s a short note from Wikipedia on Meroz in kabbalistic thought (borrowed in this instance from the Talmud):

According to the Talmud (Moed Katan 16a), Meroz is a certain planet in the stellar sphere, and because the mention of it in Judges 5:23 is preceded by the phrase, “the stars in their course fought against Sisera” (v.20), it thus follows that Meroz must be defined as a celestial body.

So, because of the word’s position in the verse - that it is mentioned next to the word “stars” - it must be a celestial body. That’s hardly sound thinking. And look at the verse. The “stars” did in fact fight for Israel and so they weren’t cursed – and so, neither would their “home planet” be getting cursed, if Meroz was their planet. Meroz is thus distinguished from these “stars.” That is, Meroz has nothing to do with these “stars” (which is why it’s cursed – the stars were favorable toward Israel; Meroz was not). The passage actually means the opposite of what Micah Hanks and Rabbi Kaplan are saying. The fact that two words appear near each other does not produce meaning — you actually have to read the text. In this case, Hanks and Rabbi Kaplan have very obviously misread it.

Meroz is a sight for which there have been a number of archaeological proposals, but which has not received a definitive identification. That’s not a mystery that lends to it being a celestial body, either, because of the preceding paragraph — Meroz is distinguished from the stars.

So what are the stars? Many scholars (and I’d be in this group) think the plainest reading of this text — which mentions the stars “in their courses” — is a reference to astrology or astrological reasoning. That is, the text reflects the belief that, to borrow a modern expression, “the stars were aligned” in the favor of Israel in this battle. That is, something in the heavens — some portent or sign — was perceived as foretelling victory or assisting in victory. Since Israel, like its neighbors, believed that her God (Yahweh) was the force behind the signs in the heavens (having created them; cf. Gen 1:14-16) and could telegraph his intentions through them.

Support for this view comes — guess where — the same chapter from which Meroz is proof-texted. Judges 5:21 tells us that a flood (and scholars believe it to be a flash flood because of regional geography) was what won the day for Israel. And so, the idea in context would be that signs in the sky (rightly or wrongly – 2nd millennium BC people didn’t know meteorology like we do) led to a weather / climate event that produced a flood that wiped out Sisera’s army. Israel won because of that event — but the slackers from Meroz never showed up, so the angel of the Lord (Yahweh in anthropomorphized form) curses them.

It’s not complicated.

Honestly, why must we force aliens into the Bible? If you like the idea (and I think it would be cool if there was ever any proof), just like the idea. Don’t distort the biblical text.

 

  1. While some of its ideas are Talmudic – also a post-biblical era – the scholarly consensus is that the Zohar is medieval or later.

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