Monday, January 23, 2017

Response to atheist Jaclyn Glenn on Jesus being a copy of pagan gods

I created this machine-gun-style refutation of some mythicist claims a while back. If anyone throws these ideas at you, the video may be a good source to link to them.

Original video:

1] Yamauchi sent me his article “Easter—Myth Hallucination, or History” elaborating on this. It can be accessed in digital format here: The portions in this video are quoted from him in a more recent interview by Lee Strobel, The Case for the Real Jesus: A Journalist Investigates Current Attacks on the Identity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007), 168-169.
2] Leonard Patterson, Mithraism and Christianity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1921), 94, cited by Yamauchi in Strobel, 170. I was embarrassed after making this video, when I realized Patterson was writing in the 1920s. More recently, Bart Ehrman was asked about Freke and Gandy’s book which emphasizes Mithras worship and he responded: “This is an old argument, even though it shows up every 10 years or so. This current craze that Christianity was a mystery religion like these other mystery religions-the people who are saying this are almost always people who know nothing about the mystery religions; they've read a few popular books, but they're not scholars of mystery religions. The reality is, we know very little about mystery religions-the whole point of mystery religions is that they're secret! So I think it's crazy to build on ignorance in order to make a claim like this.” Bart Ehrman, interview with David V. Barrett, "The Gospel According to Bart," Fortean Times (2007), 221.
3] Gary Lease, “Mithraism and Christianity: Borrowings and Transformations,” in Aufstieg und Niedergang der Römischen Welt, vol. 2, ed. Wolfgang Haase (Berlin/New York: Walter de Gruyter, 1980), 1316. Cited by Yamauchi in Strobel, 170. “After almost one hundred years of unremitting labor, the conclusion appears inescapable that neither Mithraism nor Christianity proved to be an obvious and direct influence upon the other in the development and demise or survival of either religion.”
4] Strobel, The Case for Jesus, 169.
5] “Mithras” in Encyclopedia of Religion, 2nd Edition, vol. 9, Ed. Lindsay Jones (2005 Thompson Gale), 6091.
6] Manfred Clauss, Richard Gordon, The Roman Cult of Mithras: The God and his Mysteries, (New York: Routledge, 2000) 62-3. Quoted by Strobel 168.
7] Andrew McGowan, “How December 25th Became Christmas,” (Feb 12th, 2015). Accessed, May 26th, 2016. Available at:
8] Quoted in Strobel, The Case for Jesus, 172.
9] Richard Gordon, Image and Value in the Greco-Roman World (Aldershot: Variorum, 1996), 96.
10] Godfrey Higgins, Anacalypsis: An Attempt to Draw Aside the Veil of the Saitic Isis; or, an Inquiry into the Origin of Languages, Nations and Religions, vol. 1, (London: Longman, 1836), 1836, 781.
11] “Salon’s Ridiculously Stupid Historical Jesus Article,” Remythologized, (March 2, 2015),
12] Günter Wagner, Pauline Baptism and the Pagan Mysteries (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1967), 260ff. I should add that Jaclyn is at least correct that Mithraists had communal meals. Most religions do.
13] Benjamin Walker, The Hindu World: An Encyclopedic Survey of Hinduism, vol. 1 (New York: Praeger, 1983), 240-1. Cited by Michael Licona, “A Refutation of Acharya S’s book, The Christ Conspiracy,” (TruthQuest Publishers, 2001). Available at:
14] Thompson relates this in his critique of the Zeitgeist film “Zeitgeist Debunked Part 3,” (Uploaded 2008),
15] Personal correspondence reported by Michael Licona, “A Refutation of Acharya S’s book, The Christ Conspiracy,” (TruthQuest Publishers, 2001). Available at:
16] Link from Heiser’s website opens lecture PowerPoint: Cf. Slide 19.
17] Walter Burkert, Ancient Mystery Cults, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1987),101. The Burkert quote is referring to the water receptacles in temples of Isis.
18] Carrier, in a Tapee3i interview which has been preserved here: http://godsnotwheregodsnot.blogspot.c....
19] Quoted by Daniel Moynihan, “’Zeigeist’ Online Movie: Part One Refuted,” (Preventing Truth Decay, 2007).

Sunday, January 1, 2017

The Golden Sayings of Epictetus: A New Illustrated Translation

I recently published a new edition of The Golden Sayings of the Stoic philosopher Epictetus. It's by far the best edition of the Golden Sayings in existence. (Hey, the only competition is over a century old!)

Epictetus is likely the most blunt of the Roman Stoics, and The Golden Sayings have had a major impact on my life. For a long time I wanted to be able to share the book with others. I looked around everywhere for a good edition I could give to friends, but there was a huge problem: virtually all the editions of the text being circulated right now are so old they are major pain to read due to the archaisms. Also, I couldn’t find a single existing version of the book which includes the contextual footnotes which are often necessary to understand many of the texts.

Thanks to thinkers like Tim Ferris and Ryan Holiday, the internet has seen a revival of stoicism, and especially Epictetus, so this new edition is sorely needed and ideal for someone wishing to engage with Epictetus for the first time. It includes:

  •          12 of my ink illustrations
  •          A fresh translation designed for accessibility
  •          An introductory essay on Stoicism and Epictetus
  •          Explanatory footnotes interfacing with leading Epictetus scholars
  •         18 selected fragments attributed to Epictetus

The book can be found here on Amazon.

Some Sample Illustrations:

Thursday, July 21, 2016

No, Jeremiah 10 isn’t a Christmas Tree

I’ve been asked before to comment on the popular claim made by the Hebrew roots movement that Jeremiah 10:1-5 is about a Christmas tree.

I’ve translated the passage here:
1. Heed the word that the Lord speaks to you, house of Israel
2. The Lord says this about the way of the nations: Don’t learn them, and do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.
3. For the religion of the people is a crock! Since one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman חרש with chisel.
4. They (lit.) beautify it in silver and in gold, with nails and hammers they fasten it so it will not move.
5. They are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak. They have to be carried, because they cannot walk. Don’t be afraid of them, for they cannot harm, nor is it in them to help you.
Why this passage isn’t about a Christmas tree: 

First off, does it really make any sense to criticize a Christmas tree for not being able to speak, walk, harm you or bring good on you? Those are all criticisms which would make sense if what Jeremiah is describing here were an ancient Near Eastern idol. In the ancient Near East, idols were created by craftsmen and given certain rituals which would invite a deity to incarnate them so worshipers could barter with the god on earth. In short, the reason this passage can’t be referring to a Christmas tree is the word translated “craftsman” חרש in the third verse. We have 35 occurrences of this word in the Bible. Don’t take my word for it, read them all here. The word invokes a sense of skilled artistry, specifically things like jewelers, carpenters and blacksmiths. The real nail in the coffin is that this exact same word is used in other passages like Isaiah 40:19, 20 and Deut. 27:15 to also describe skilled idol makers. Compare:

Isaiah (ESV):
An idol! A craftsman חרש casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman חרש to set up an idol that will not move.

Deuteronomy (ESV):
“Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman חרש, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.”

For the religion of the people is a crock! Since one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman חרש with chisel.

A rant I’ve ranted many times before:

Does it really make sense to argue that Christians should not make use of symbols with pagan origins or associations when Christians are either: a) totally unaware of a symbol’s history, or b) using the symbol with no pagan (or completely different) intentions? My problem with the Hebrew roots movement is that the standard of purity it uses to beat up Christian holidays and symbols cannot even be applied to the Bible. I’ll give you some examples:

John uses a snake as a symbol for Jesus (John 3:14); it is well known that many of the Biblical proverbs have Egyptian origins and influences (If you don’t believe this you simply haven’t ever picked up an academic commentary on Proverbs.); psalm 104 is very reminiscent of an earlier hymn to Aten; psalm 29 seems to be modeled after Baal texts (for example); both Jesus and YHWH are given the Baal’s deity title “cloud-rider” in both testaments. (Here’s an M.A. thesis on this); or consider that the book of Revelation is crawling with Greco-Roman astrology. (Ever read Revelation 12?)

What examples like these show is that symbols are not magically evil. John uses a snake to represent Jesus and it’s totally kosher in his mind. We talk about Jesus “riding on the clouds” and it’s not an issue that this was a title that originally belonged to Baal. The history of a symbol or its uses in pagan contexts doesn’t make it evil or unusable by Christians, it’s the intention behind the symbol that makes it good or bad. I say this as someone who thinks the whole Santa thing is kinda dumb. Yes, little Billy, if you do good works a supernatural being dressed in the papal vestige is going to break into our house, drink a libation of milk and cookies, reward you with material possessions then fly back to Asgard on his magical flying chariot.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

How to Learn the Ugaritic Alphabet Ludicrously Fast

Learning memory techniques before starting a language is bound to save you hundreds of hours and buckets of needless sweat. I'm going to illustrate this by showing how you can learn the Ugaritic alphabet. Cuneiform is such a homogeneous script that remembering it feels like doing differential equations while watching c-span, but the key here is to jettison all that nonsense your 3rd grade schoolmarm told you about "focusing" and start daydreaming like an idiot. Light speed is too slow. You want to go ludicrous speed. The following mnemonics can be printed and added to flashcards, but the best way to get them in useful resolution is to login to the free flashcard website Memrise where I've uploaded them to this course.
After an hour or so playing around with the app, you should be reading the basic words in the course. You'd be surprised how much of the vocabulary you'll remember from Hebrew.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Geronimo’s Dragon: Dinosaur Fossils behind the Apache Creation Myth

Forget Chuck Norris. His ancestors
killed 20 foot dragons with bows.
It doesn’t look like anyone has written anything on this online or in any of the published material. One of my favorite audiobooks is the biography of the American Apache Indian Geronimo. The entire thing can be downloaded free on LibriVox.

After the Chiricahua finally conceded to the US government, Geronimo agreed to meet with a translator to publish his life biography. The biography opens with the Apache origins myth. He then tells stories of growing up as a Native American, fighting bears, mountain lions, and his countless battles with Mexican troops and the US Army.

The Dragon Legend

Relating the Apache origins myth, Geronimo tells about an evil dragon that would eat all the children of the first woman. For this reason, humanity could never flourish. The woman becomes so distraught that she hides one of her boys and has him raised in secret. When the boy became old enough to hunt he challenged the great dragon to a duel:
Then the dragon took his bow, which was made of a large pine tree. He took four arrows from his quiver; they were made of young pine tree saplings, and each arrow was twenty feet in length. He took deliberate aim, but just as the arrow left the bow the boy made a peculiar sound and leaped into the air. Immediately the arrow was shivered into a thousand splinters, and the boy was seen standing on the top of a bright rainbow over the spot where the dragon’s aim had been directed. Soon the rainbow was gone and the boy was standing on the ground again. Four times this was repeated, then the boy said, “Dragon, stand here; it is my time to shoot.” The dragon said, “All right; your little arrows cannot pierce my first coat of horn, and I have three other coats—shoot away.” The boy shot an arrow, striking the dragon just over the heart, and one coat of the great horny scales fell to the ground. The next shot another coat, and then another, and the dragon’s heart was exposed. Then the dragon trembled, but could not move…[The boy] sped the fourth arrow with true aim, and it pierced the dragon’s heart. With a tremendous roar the dragon rolled down the mountain side—down four precipices into a canyon below…[F]ar down in the canyon below, they could see fragments of the huge body of the dragon lying among the rocks, and the bones of this dragon may still be found there. This boy’s name was Apache.
There it is, more evidence that dragon and giant legends around the world are actually based in ancient people interpreting fossilized remains. This is a subject Adrienne Mayor (Stanford University) has written a really cool book on.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

That 666 Video is Stupid: 666 doesn’t spell out Allah

Have you seen this video which has been shared over 80,000 times on Facebook?  It features the starbucks cup guy yelling at us like an unfair caricature of an evangelical pastor in an NCIS episode about an apocalyptic cult. (Can I even blame non-Christians for thinking we evangelicals are a bunch of mouth-breathing dupes? They’re largely right.)  I have formal training in several Semitic languages and Biblical Greek, and it’s obvious to me that Josh can’t read a word of Arabic or Greek.  He’s parroting Walid Shoebat’s old spiel without having a clue what he’s talking about.  (But it’s for Jesus, so I guess that’s ok.)

Why this theory stinks (scroll down beneath the explosion picture if you want the short version):

1) Josh’s symbols were made up and monkeyed with to make them appear similar:
In the video, Josh tells us the upper image says, “in the name of Allah” and that this "matches up--parallels perfectly" with the Greek for 666.
The first line of the Quran begins with the phrase “in the name of Allah.”  This is what it actually looks like in Arabic, as taken from's digital text of Al Fatiha:

Creepy how much it "matches up" and "parallels perfectly," huh? As you can see, the preposition (that long line on the right) has been fudged around with and retained parallel. (Or is it a whip tied to a levitating sword cutting an apple, I'm not sure.)  The name Allah Josh shows has been flipped sideways and then inverted to look like the Greek letter Xi.  When I showed the image to my missionary friend who is fluent in Arabic he responded that it was “completely moronic.”

the insect anti-Christ
Josh seems to think Arabic is logographic like ancient Chinese or ancient Egyptian—that the sword icon actually says something.  Nein!  Arabic is a consonantal alphabet like Hebrew.  In other words, those crossed swords were just thrown in randomly to make this look sexy. But Ben, that middle character looks SOOOO similar.  Really? Since Arabic is stylistic cursive, you could turn all sorts of words sideways and invert them to make them look like the Greek letter Xi. That's just how Arabic do.  I spent three minutes randomly typing words into google translate and here's the word for 'bug' to the right.  It probably looks closer to a Greek Xi in some of the other manuscripts I'm about to show you...ooooohhhh spooky.

2) Did anyone bother to read Revelation?

The second problem for Josh’s theory is the text of Revelation itself. Revelation is concerned with the actual number here, not the shapes of the letters.  The author tells us point-blank that the meaning of the symbol is to be "calculated" ψηφισάτω within gematria, not the shape of the handwriting.

The final nail in the coffin

3) Josh's manuscript is from the 15th century, and the original Greek script of Revelation looked different than the script Josh shows us:

Let’s flog this dead horse further. The Greek letters he shows are taken from Codex Vaticanus, a book composed in 350 AD.  Its venerable ancientness is meant to impress you, as if Shoebat was led by Gandalf into the Minis Tirith library by flickering candle light and decoded the symbols on the back of a dollar bill to open a secret room.  From the dust of forgotten centuries he exhumed this esoteric volume of early Christianity.  Peering over his glasses he sagely eyes the symbols which whisper of a forgotten prophecy which is about to plunge him and Nicholas Cage in a high-speed car chase.  Truth is Vaticanus didn’t originally contain Revelation.  This text Josh is showing us was tacked on by a scribe in the 15th century. It is written in miniscule.  A font that didn’t exist in the first century. It’s in a different paleographic style than the original autograph of Revelation could have contained or any other early manuscript does.  That squiggly letter Xi would have been more angular.

Here it in the same verse in Codex Sinaiticus (Sinaiticus writes out the number rather than abbreviating it).  Sinaiticus was composed around the same time as Vaticanus. Notice the Greek letter Xi doesn’t look much like what Josh needs it to.

The third letter sigma especially took a different form that looks identical to a ‘C’ (you can see it in the manuscript above); it looks nothing like what Josh needs it to. (If one of you suggest that maybe this is a crescent moon, I’m gunna bean you.)  Here is the same abbreviation in Papyrus 47:

Here is our oldest text of Revelation 13:18 (Papyrus 115).  It actually says the number of the beast is 616, but I don’t want to get into all that right now.  The point is that last letter sigma in this older manuscript also does not look like the idiomatic Vaticanus sigma but takes the form of a 'C.' (That straight line above the number is a marker of abbreviation in Greek, by the way.)

If you want a bird’s eye view, here’s a paleography chart to show Josh’s entire theory is dependent on a single idiomatic manuscript he pulled out of the 15th century for no reason:

I’m sorry my ranting about crusty things like manuscripts and first century paleography makes me sound like old man Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn and probably isn’t as thrilling as Josh’s youtube video with a graphic of flaming 6’s. (‘Merca!)  Please love me.  I can make textual criticism cool.  I can be cool. Here’s a picture of an explosion if it will hold over your attention span for one more paragraph, America:

For the TLDR crowd:

The author of Revelation tells us point-blank that the number “calculates” the meaning, not one shape in the middle of the number. 2) The Arabic image Feuerstein found on the internet was totally made up, flipped and inverted arbitrarily with some random swords thrown in for the express purpose of looking good—it could qualify for a circus contortionist act. 3) It’s easy to make things in Arabic look like a sideways Greek letter Xi because it’s a cursive script. And 4) the Greek only looks sorta like this made-up Arabic image if you are raping a 15th century text written in a different style than the autograph of Revelation.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why the Christian Head Covering Movement is Wrong

I’ve been coming more and more across videos like this.

They advocate restoring the New Testament cultural practice of head covering. The fact that this whole discussion is even necessary is probably evidence that most theologians and pastors don’t really take their lip service to interpret the Bible in its context seriously or have even been trained by their seminary to know what that would look like. I don’t care what Wayne Grudem’s Systematic says or what interpretation some sage pastor thinks God laid on his heart. You actually need to consult linguistic databases and first century literature to know what's going on here.

Frankly, we know why women were expected to cover their hair in the first century. Hair was scientifically considered an erotic organ. We have medical texts which explicitly explain the mechanics of this. The language of these texts highly corresponds with Paul’s language. The throwaway, “because of the angels” line fits like a glove with Second Temple literature on this interpretation (the New Testament authors took supernatural traditions like Enoch a lot more seriously than we do), and it perfectly explains why Paul thought nature dictated women ought to have long hair and men short hair. Troy Martin’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature is a good place to get acquainted with the context I’m talking about. “Paul’s Argument from the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering.” JBL 123/1, (2004), 75-84. (Thanks to Michael Heiser for making it available online.)

But why would God allow Paul to defend bad science?

Imagine you are an ancient Corinthian. You and all your pagan neighbors in the Las Vegas of the ancient world think that female hair is literally an extension of genitalia (thanks Aristotle)—that there is a one-to-one correspondence with hair length and feminine fecundity in your culture’s science.   Because of this belief, your educated culture has wisely instituted head coverings for women as an expression of sexual modesty.

Imagine then, some guy Paul comes to your hyper-sexualized culture and some new God you’ve never heard of called the Holy Spirit gives him a divine science lesson. Paul then runs around telling his church not to care about covering the genitalia on their head because it’s bad science. Now you have a church exposing what all their neighbors think are genitalia in the name of the Holy Spirit.

I’m sorry if those “serious exegetical studies” people read by 18th century pastors haven't equipped them to incorporate scientific condescension in their understanding of inspiration, but God didn’t care to give David a divine physiology lecture in Psalm 16:7 when he praised God for instructing his kidneys (If that reference is confusing, here's another journal article), and he doesn’t seem to care to do so here. If your cool theology, Reformed or whatever, forces you to take these things as mere metaphor then your theology prevents you from interpreting the Bible correctly in its context. Your theology disables you from understanding the Bible and that's a problem.

What’s the take-away?

In the English world, giving someone a thumbs-up is a good thing.  In some Arabic countries it is a vulgar symbol—the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.  It would be morally ok for me to go around flaunting the symbol in one culture and not ok in the other.  Our culture attaches nothing like sexual promiscuity to displaying hair because we don’t have the complex 1st century scientific apparatus that supplied that connotation in the ancient world.  This verse can be taken then as a warning against appearing or being sexually immodest.  All this applies to hair length on the interpretation I’ve offered too.  The form may not translate to our culture but the meaning does.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Eth-Cepher: A Wacky New “Translation”

A friend of mine who just got back from an archaeological dig in Israel and is studying Semitic languages at Rutgers sent me a link to this errr…“translation” as a joke. It's by a guy named Pidgeon.
From Pidgeon's website

The Hebrew word ETH means 'divine'?

The front page of Pidgeon’s website asserts that his is the only English translation in the universe that renders the Hebrew word את. We read:

“The Hebrew word את (eth in English) means divine, and the Hebrew word ספר (cepher in English) means book; hence, the את Eth-CEPHER is the ‘Divine Book.’”

Sorry boys and girls, the Hebrew word את doesn’t get translated because it’s the Hebrew accusative marker.  It’s the most common independent word in the Hebrew language. To translate it as ‘divine’ is goofy.  Want proof?  Here ya go:

Ezekiel 4:15:
"Then he said to me, ‘See, I assign to you את cow's dung instead of human dung, on which you may prepare your bread’

If eth means ‘divine’ then cow excrement is divine in Ezekiel 4:15. In Leviticus 11:7 the את is placed before swine, and in Leviticus 15:3 Pidgeon’s claim would render a plague on the skin being inspected for leprosy divine:

“and the priest shall examine the את diseased area on the skin of his body.”

Pictographic Silliness:

Skin diseases, swine and cow droppings! Most objects in the Bible that function in the accusative can thus be translated with the adjective ‘divine’ if Pidgeon is serious about this claim.  But on what basis does he assert it?  He horoscopes the idea outta the original pictographs on which paleo-Hebrew was derived.  This method (which is so popular on the internet) is so subjective that you can literally create any new meaning you want for a Hebrew word.  You might as well break out the tarot cards and ouija board if you are going to be using this chart to interpret the “real” meanings of words in your Bible. Sorry everyone, Semitic philology is a much less sexy process.

Let me be emphatic.  You CANNOT derive meanings from the pictographic origins of Biblical Hebrew anymore than you can with words in modern English.  The Hebrew language developed independent of the Phoenician alphabet system and merely adopted it to represent the sounds of their already existing language.  The Israelites attached no significance to the ancient derivatives of their alphabet anymore than we or the Greeks did. To misunderstand this is to demonstrate a profound ignorance of how Israelite chronology and language-in-general works.

In the words of Michael Brown, who has a PhD in Semitic languages from New York University: “…we have no business attaching pictographic meanings to ancient Hebrew [anymore] than we have attaching those same pictographic meanings to the Greek alphabet or to our English alphabet.” 

Revelation was written in Hebrew?

Totally off-topic, but apparently this stands in the Holy city. My
Southern theology professor comments, "I didn't know the
temple still stood in Jerusalem."
Pidgeon also translates eth as ‘divine’ as an elaboration of the claim that Revelation was originally written in Hebrew.  What evidence does he give that Revelation was composed in Hebrew?  Well, John does give the Hebrew names of some places in the book.

I don’t know of a single New Testament scholar on earth holding a university chair who defends the idea. (Revelation is highly dependent on the Greek Septuagint.)  By the same logic, we could say that Josephus must have originally written his Antiquities in Hebrew since he transliterates it on occasion. (He was commissioned by Greek speaking gentiles.)  This argument is a hopeless mess of a non-sequitur.

All that Sacred Name stuff:

At 4-4:45 in his video he tells us when Jesus said, “I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me” that he was referring to the inability of the Jews to pronounce a set of vowels and consonants.  Anyone who turns to John 5 will quickly see that Jesus was not referring in that passage to the morphological reconstruction of the Hebrew name for God.  He was referring, rather, to the fact that the Jews wanted to kill him because he was claiming the authority of God.

I don’t know how far Pigeon takes this name theology.  Some messianic types can go so far that they court a different gospel with it. (I.e. they literally teach that you have to be vocalizing a certain set of sounds to really be worshiping God.) But, I want to impress on the reader that it is almost totally unimportant.  I’ve spent years taking formal college courses in Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic.  I’m not saying the languages aren’t important.

What I am saying is the New Testament authors didn’t even feel the need to ostentatiously transliterate the Hebrew names for God.  They simply use the word theos—the same word used to refer to the members of the Greek pantheon. When it came to Jesus, they didn’t obnoxiously spell out YAHUSHUA or anything of the sort.  They just threw down a common Hesus and called it a day.  When Jesus prayed he called God Elah in Aramaic. *gasp* sounds Islamic!

Moral of the story: don’t run around trying to be holier than the Bible, transliterating everything needlessly into Hebrew.  It can get annoying.  God cares about whether we are receiving the content the language conveys, not the arbitrary set of sounds we vocalize it in.  If you constantly interchange common Biblical names with Hebrew where English would function just as well, you aren't communicating. You're self-advertising how smart you think you are, and you're trying to be more Biblical than the Bible.

Issues of Canon:

Someone might complain if I don't mention the canon. There are serious problems, but I’m honestly not that initially concerned with people reading extra-Biblical literature.  I don’t think Enoch or Maccabees should be canonized, but I’m also annoyed that Protestants are scared of them.


Hopefully that’s enough to show anyone passing along that the Et Cepher isn’t real scholarship.  If you want a really good translation of a book like Genesis, I highly recommend Robert Alter. (He’s professor of Hebrew at Berkeley.)  It’s by far the best I have ever seen in the English language, and the clever nuances he is able to bring out of the text are a joy to read.


Saturday, October 24, 2015

Isaiah's 'circle of the earth'- A bad creationist argument

Isaiah 40:22
"It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers..."

I think it would be really cool if the above verse was a supernatural scientific revelation that set Israel apart from the rest of the ancient word with respect to cosmology. My whole life I've grown up hearing evangelicals repeat it as proof that the Bible is inspired, and a few years ago my PhD theology professor cited it to our class as a proof for the Bible's divine origin.

The physicist Jason Lisle at Answers in Genesis propagates the idea

In reality, this is lazy folk apologetics and needs a spanking. There is nothing scientifically special about this passage, because we have plenty of pagan ancient Near Eastern depictions which describe the earth as a circle. I'm sorry if that kills people's apologetics joyride, but God doesn't need us making up stupid arguments from unchecked, sloppy assumptions to defend him.

Answers in Marduk:

The Babylonian map of the world depicts the earth as a round, flat disc encircled by the sea, from mythological sources far predating Isaiah. I guess Marduk appeared to the Babylonian priesthood and informed them the earth is a circle too?

I’ll plunder Paul H. Seely’s Westminster Theological Journal article (1997) for a few more examples: 
“Diodorus Siculus (II:31:7) tells us that the Babylonians told him the earth is ‘shaped like a boat and hollow.’ The boat is undoubtedly a coracle, used into modern times by natives on the Euphrates. The coracle is circular, rounded at the edges like the yolk of an egg, but, of course, hollow.”
Kramer and Lambert believe the Babylonians inherited this idea from Sumer

Egyptologist, John Wilson says the Egyptians believed the
“earth was conceived of as a flat platter with a corrugated rim. The inside bottom of the platter was the flat alluvial plain of Egypt, and the corrugated rim was the rim of mountains which were the foreign lands."
Othmar Keel, “noting that the ocean around the earth was long conceived of by the Egyptians as circular, concluded…:
'This fact suggests that in Egypt, visualization of the earth as a circular disc was from very ancient times at least an option.’ This conclusion is supported by evidence, as early as the fourteenth century BC, of circular representations of the figure of Osiris or Geb [the earth god].'”
In “the time of Rameses III (1195-1164 BC) in an inscription…reads ‘...they laid their hands upon the land as far as the Circle of the Earth.’”

In addition to these types of examples, in ancient Greece we have Homer and over half-a-dozen philosophers arguing the earth is a flat disc down until 400 BC.  “Herodotus (c. 400 BC) uniformly rendered the earth just as Homer had described it, as a disc.” He writes (4:36),
…all the map-makers—there are plenty of them--who show Ocean running like a river round a perfectly circular earth, with Asia and Europe of the same size. 


You can easily go all over the world finding these examples.  Because of the curvature of the horizon, it is very natural (if not most natural) for pre-scientific people groups to assume the earth is a disc. If the Bible contains scientific revelations beyond the culture around it, this verse can't be used as an example.  

Sunday, October 18, 2015

No, Isaiah 45:7 doesn't say God creates evil

This will be short.

Adam Lee, an atheist at pathos thinks Isaiah 45:7 shows point-blank that the Biblical God creates evil. I’m going to explain why I and professional translators can't give Adam’s pitch the light of day.

I form light and create darkness
I make peace, and I create ra'

יֹוצֵר אֹור וּבֹורֵא חֹשֶׁךְ
עֹשֶׂה שָׁלֹום וּבֹורֵא רָע

Usually, that last word ra' is the common word for evil in Hebrew.  Adam cites a bunch of other uses to prove this—no problem there.  The problem is the word ra' is one of the most frequent words in the Bible and can be elastic in meaning in something of the same way the English word ‘bad’ can be.

The primary reason translators don’t buy Adam’s argument is that it destroys the structure of opposites in the poem:

Line one: I create light/I create darkness
Line two: I create shalom/I create ______.

Transport yourself back to 3rd grade context clue worksheets.  What English word should go in the blank for the poetic structure of the unit to be retained?  Think about it before reading further

If you put anything like ‘wickedness’ in the blank you fail 3rd grade.  No sticker for you!  Hit yourself with a newspaper; Bad!

The meaning of ra' here is 'anti-shalom'. Whatever shalom is, ra' here is the opposite in the same since light is the opposite of darkness.

We have good words for anti-peace in English: “calamity,” “strife”…you know, those words most translators put here.  

Actually, and this is probably the only time I will ever say this in my life, the Message translation of “I create harmonies and discords” is somewhat of a clever and borderline perceptive assertion about the nature of shalom.

The idea in this passage is that God is comprehensive in his power. He has the power to create peace and the power to dish out righteous judgement on the nations (what most of Isaiah is about--rocket science, huh).  These judgments are definitely the opposite of peace.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

How Biblical Worship is like Hearing a Good Ghost Story - Part 2

Part 1 here

Line drawings depicting various ancient Near Eastern divine beings.

A Strange Encounter

A woman approached him sheepishly after he delivered his talk in a church in Seattle. She asked if she could speak with him in private about something bizarre she had seen during the talk. Hesitantly, she reported that for half an hour she had clearly seen three angels surrounding him as he spoke--one to his left, one at his right and one of larger stature behind him.

J. P. Moreland, the professional philosopher who happened to be involved with my Biola program, reports this experience occurring to him in October of 2004.  He had flown in to speak for a weekend retreat at a noncharismatic traditional church:
"When she left, I asked four or five people, including the pastor, to tell me about the woman, and to a person they said she was probably the most spiritually mature woman in the congregation.  Still, I was skeptical of her claim, but I retained her testimony in my heart."[1]
Moreland returned the next few days back to his home in southern California and says he never mentioned this event to anyone. Fast-forward eleven months later in 2005. While praying on his bed one night over burdens in his life, Moreland asked God if He would send the three angels back, requesting that he might be shown them in order to be comforted.  It was the first time he had ever prayed such a thing.  He told no one about this prayer request, but within a few days he received the shock of his life:
"I received an e-mail (which I kept) from a philosophy graduate student named Mark who was taking a metaphysics class with me that semester.  Mark began saying that he had wanted to share something with me for a few days, but he wanted to process it with two or three other graduate students before he did. 
It turns out that a few days earlier during one of my lectures, he had seen three angels standing in the room (one on each side, a taller one behind me) for five to ten minutes before they disappeared!  I asked Mark to come to my office, and a few days later we talked further...[H]e began by saying that he would never want to say anything to me that he wasn't sure of, and he knew that the angels were next to me in the room and not in his head.  In fact, he gave me a sketch he had drawn from his angle of perception in the class, a sketch of me and the angels (which I kept)."[2]
When he was asked if Mark could have known about his previous angel encounter, Moreland responded that "there was no way this guy [Mark] could have known anything about that."[3]

Numinous Fear

If the spiritual visitors in this story managed to get any sort of emotional rise out of you, it was likely a sort of goosebumps awe.  In part 1, we saw that human beings possess a strange, dreadful awe of the Numinous.

For example, If you saw a ghost, you would feel fear and dread.  Like C. S. Lewis observed, that fear would not be grounded in natural, physical danger, since no one is primarily scared of what a ghost is going to do to him, but of the mere fact that it is a ghost!  We also saw that this creeping flesh or Numinous fear feeling can be found in heightened expression in all religions since religion involves the worship of great spirits.

Why the Mere Existence of Numinous Fear is an Argument For the Supernatural

C. S. Lewis, himself a huge fan of Rudolf Otto, explained why this emotion is so special:
This Numinous [fear] is [not] already contained in the idea of the dangerous…[and no] perception of danger or any dislike of the wounds and death which it may entail could give the slightest conception of ghostly dread or numinous awe to an intelligence which did not already understand them.  When man passes from physical fear to dread and awe, he makes a sheer jump, and apprehends something which could never be given, as danger is, by the physical facts and logical deductions from them.[4]
Because the feeling of creeping-flesh fear does not arise from an aversion to physical danger, it’s inexplicable within a purely mechanistic scheme how man should have ever come to possess it—that is, how we should have ever come to be capable of a fear, the object of which, cannot be an elaboration of physical reality or physical preservation.

Most materialistic accounts of numinous dread thoughtlessly attempt to smuggle awe into the idea of physical danger; they presuppose what they are claiming to explain.  Scientists presuppose that fear of gods, angels and the dead is grounded in physical preservation, but if you consult your experience you know that physical attention to your body would not be your primary concern if you had encountered such a being. In that way, it's in a totally other dimension from an encounter with a lion, your boss or a rise in prices.
Navajo god Nayenezgani

Unless we are to conclude Numinous dread is a freak emotional capacity in man which has managed to develop despite having no correspondence with the facts of reality, it seems inescapable that the religious mind of man has veins drawing life from something lurking beyond the natural, and it is the very fact that you are even capable of feeling this emotion which whispers of at least one thing engraved in us that metaphysical materialism can never satisfy by definition.

I'm taking a lighthearted jab here at philosophers like Alain de Botton.  It seems their attempts to create a "religious atheism," as clever as they may be, will always fail to satisfy at least one universal and powerful dimension of human expression.

The "Man-Creates-God-in-his-Image" Objection:

If what I have observed so far lands in the ballpark of truth then we can infer from it that there is a very common belief held about the nature and origin of religion which seems false.  Xenophanes is famous for saying that if oxen could paint, they would depict their gods as oxen.  


Surely, it is true that man is often compelled to depict his gods with human characteristics simply because human beings are the highest expression of personality that we may look to as a reference in nature. But, in the sense that the statement implies humans created the gods, and later God, merely from a desire to project what was familiar to us, Xenophanes’s claim seems false. The gods do not emerge from the familiar but the Strange.

Probably the majority of gods in history are described as intentionally uncanny (strange or mysterious in an unsettling way) to express this. I named examples in the last post, but it is worth considering more. In Hinduism this uncanniness is conveyed through the multiplying of heads, arms, strange colors, fascinating eyes, tongues and grafted animal parts.  Again, look at Arjuna’s encounter with the transfigured Krishna. The flavor may remind you of John's vision of Jesus in Revelation 1:14-17:

"Your great form of many mouths and eyes, oh great-armed one, of many arms, thighs and feet, of many bellies, terrible with many tusks—seeing it the worlds are shaken, and I too…seeing you my inner self is shaken, and I find no steadiness or peace…Oh Visnu,...of awful form, homage to you.” (source)

Some early explorers mistook the Meso-American gods as Indian in origin. They abound in ghastly skeletal chthonic deities, fantastically spliced animals with shadowy human visages.  The fascinating gaze of the serpent enchants heavily here and it is curiously difficult to find a culture in the world where serpents are not referenced in expressing the uncanny. 
Israelite seraph seals:  Benjamin Sommer points
out that number 273, shown with two serpents
 flanking the symbol for God, states it belonged to
Ashna in King Ahaz's court.  "It is inconceivable
that Isaiah and Ashna did not know each other."

In Egyptian religion our torch light flickers again on fantastic animal-headed deities cloaked in esoteric hieroglyphs; in Israelite religion we see the snake-bodied Seraphim and the four-headed Cherubim.  The Biblical authors usually appeal to anthropomorphic theophanies when describing visions of their God, but we are assured no man may behold His true glory and live.

Credit: מוזיאון ישראל ירושלים these 9,000 year old masks discovered in
Israel are the oldest in the world.  It is speculated they represent
spirits of the dead.
In the Ancient Near East we encounter the fish-man Dagan, the world's oldest masks--ten eerie faces exhumed from the Judean desert, the winged bull-men of Babylon and multiform deities star-sprayed in eyes.

I have read within Lafcadio Hearn’s accounts of old Japan that the Far East is no exception, but excels in pervasiveness of strangeness with its ancient gods, goblins and ghosts.

Though many citations in Greek literature would support a numinous experience, if the Greek, Norse or Roman gods were, for the most part, merely familiar projections of man, then they seem exceptions in the history of religions; but even this seems unlikely.  Otto argued that whenever the Greek gods became all too human in their familiarity belief in them waned, creating a vacuum quickly filled by the exotic deities of the East and Egypt in which Numinous strangeness was more palpable.[5]

Perhaps the domestication of the Greek pantheon was not the height of religious achievement it is classically interpreted to be, but the very indication of Greece’s waning religious vitality.

Conclusion: The Numinous and us

It appears to me this Numinous dread I have been describing is hidden from (or by) American Evangelicalism.  Gene Veith at Pathos agrees, and I strongly suspect this is obvious to others.  We have comparably little art or music, worship or interpretation which expresses it. I can even remember one of my first theology professors marking down one of my papers once for stating that the fear of God is something one ought to continue feeling post-justification.

Do you think, like the Greek pantheon, our angels are too Victorian, our demons too vestigial, our seraphim and the seventy בני האלהים (i.e. sons of God) too obscured from their Israelite origins? Do you suppose we demythologized our God too much when we were domesticating Him?


[1] This story is recounted by Moreland in his co-authored book In Search of a Confident Faith: Overcoming Barriers to Trusting in God (USA: InterVarsity, 2008), 155-6.
[2] Ibid., 156.
[3] Taken from this interview with Moreland:
[4] Lewis, The Problem of Pain: How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems (New York: Macmillan, 1962), 20.
[5] Quoted by Todd A. Gooch, The Numinous and Modernity: An Interpretation of Rudolf Otto’s Philosophy of Religion (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 2000), 116.