March 26, 2014
"In his book Broken Words: The Abuse of Science and Faith in American Politics, Jonathan Dudley notes that most evangelicals held far more liberal views [on abortion in the 1960’s]. “God does not regard the fetus as a soul no matter how far gestation has progressed,” wrote professor Bruce Waltke of Dallas Theological Seminary in a 1968 issue of Christianity Today on contraception and abortion, edited by Harold Lindsell, a then-famous champion of biblical “inerrancy.” His argument rested on the Hebrew Bible, “[A]ccording to Exodus 21:22–24, the destruction of the fetus is not a capital offense. … Clearly, then, in contrast to the mother, the fetus is not reckoned as a soul.”"

Jamelle Bouie

See Also: Shmuley Boteach - Is Abortion In Christianity Based On A Mistranslation Of The Bible?

February 8, 2014
Camel Bones and Jerusalem: Archeology Shows Bible Written Late, Full of Errors: Juan Cole

Apropos of the Nye v. Ham Creationism debate, we have more bad news for Biblical Literalism:

A new paper by Israeli archeologists Lidar Sapir-Hen and Erez Ben-Yosef, [pdf] posted at the University of Tel Aviv web site, is bad news for biblical literalists and far right wing Israeli nationalists who use the Bible for support.

The Hebrew Bible’s oldest chapters– Genesis, Exodus, and even Judges purport to discuss events thousands of years ago. The custom in Western biblical scholarship is to date Abraham to e.g. 2000 B.C. This dating is based on nothing more than counting generations (“begats”) backward and assigning an arbitrary number of years to each generation. In fact, Genesis is replete with myths and assertions of people living hundreds of years, and was only historicized in this way by 19th century positivists.

But here is proof that the Bible was written late and projects later developments into the distant past: it alleges that people had domesticated camels four millennia ago in what is now Israel. And that assertion, folks, is simply not true. That is the finding of Sapir-Hen and Ben-Yosef.

E.g. Genesis 24: 64 says, “Rebekah lifted up her eyes, and when she saw Isaac she dismounted from the camel.” If this encounter happened circa 2026 BC, it was happening a thousand years before anyone was riding camels.

The archeologists’ digs near the Jordanian border find evidence of domesticated camels sort of 930-900 BC. But they don’t find that evidence in any settlements older than 930 BC. There is a pretty clear dividing line between the pre-domestic camel and post- domestic camel settlements.

Although it was likely based on previous oral tales, the Bible probably wasn’t written down in something like its present form until the Babylonian exile, 586-539 B.C. When those scribes reworked the folk tales of the Canaanites, they projected sixth-century BC realities back into the past. Thus, they had characters riding camels before they were domesticated. Riding a camel was taken for granted in 580 BC.

You might think this point is a minor one. But it demonstrates how the scribes worked. They projected recent things into the distant past.

Basically, the authors of the Bible assumed a lot of things that weren’t actually true.  They were projecting their present-day realities into the distant past (like domesticated camels), because they had little working knowledge of the period they were writing about.

Disproving the Bible-as-written doesn’t disprove the existence of God, of course.  But for my own part, it’s hard to take a book seriously as a source of moral authority when it’s riddled with these kinds of errors.  I’m sure your mileage will vary, as the old saying goes.

10:42am  |   URL:
Filed under: religion bible 
February 2, 2014
On Faith in a Fucked Up World


When surrounded by intellectuals, it’s hard to get too far into a discussion of faith without somebody bringing up the theodicy question. Specifically, if God is all powerful and all loving, why does he put up with all the crap in the world? (The question is usually phrased differenty, depending on the formality of the situation and the smugness of the asker.)

Over the past couple millenia, a variety of answers has been posed. (My answer in high school involved the possibility of suffering being a necessary condition for free will.) More recently, I’m finding the most accurate and most satisfying answer to be, “I don’t know.” Perhaps I could use some fast-talking lawyer-skills to persuade you I knew a thing or three. But it’s a sham. I like snooze buttons and frozen pizza. Guys like me aren’t privy to the grand secrets of the cosmos. I don’t know why things are the way they are.

But I do know that things are wrong with the world. Or, rather, I’m constitutionally incapable of believing that the way things are is the way things are supposed to be. If I could believe that there was nothing to the universe beyond an arrangement of atoms, I could probably accept that one arrangement is as good as the next. But I can’t. Maybe faith arises, in part, from the belief that the world is a broken thing and that something greater is possible.

LTMC: You’re talking about the Problem of Evil, which is, of course, an ancient question that theologists and philosophers have debated for centuries.  

I used to buy in to the “Greater Goods” argument.  But my evolution on this question occurred after I read St. Augustine’s Confessions (which everyone should read regardless of their belief in God).  Augustine notes that Time and Logic are rules of the universe, and that the Creator of the universe, if he/she/it exists, must necessarily have existed prior to Time and Logic.  A Creator that exists under these circumstances is not bound by any “rules,” because they can literally make them up as they go.  God in this state is literally nothing short of raw, limitless potential.  

It becomes trivial under these circumstances to conceive of a world in which a Timeless, Pre-Logic, Limitless God could create a universe in which suffering was not necessary to achieve greater goods.  If human beings can conceive of ways to make the world a better place under the limits of Time and Logic, surely a Timeless, Pre-Logic God of limitless potential knew how to make it so before the problem even arose.

Furthermore, assuming a benevolent God does exist, that God would be both motivated and empowered to design a world where it was not necessary to experience suffering to achieve those greater goods.  Even the question of Free Will suffers from this flaw: we can all think of forms of suffering in the world which don’t seem necessary to achieve free will, e.g. children born with a latent genetic defect that causes a formerly healthy person to suddenly succumb to a terrifying mental illness.  I’m not sure how thousands of Schizophrenia sufferers are a necessary pre-condition for me to be a free agent in the universe.

The Problem of Evil is, for me, an unsolvable problem for anyone who believes in a Tri-omni God in the classical sense (Omnipotent, Omniscient, Omnibenevolent).  Either one needs to deny one of the attributes, or deny the existence of God altogether.  The former is possible, because the Problem of Evil is not a proof against a Prime Mover or a Deist Clock-maker.  It’s entirely possible that a Celestial Being created the universe without really caring whether human beings did well in it, or whether they even existed at all.  Indeed, given the impossibly vast stretches of the cosmos, and the fact that we know that the earth is doomed and that humanity will probably not even outlast it, that seems far more likely.

1:58pm  |   URL:
Filed under: religion god philosophy 
January 21, 2014
The Bible and Capital Punishment


SDS asked a while ago whether I agreed the Bible laid a groundwork for capital punishment—in principle if not in practice. I do not.

Pretty much every example of capital punishment in the New Testament is negative. Jesus is crucified. John the Baptist is beheaded. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.”1

Then there’s the Old Testament—where things are a bit more … violent. In most of the specific cases, capital punishment is still viewed in a negative light. Cain kills Abel but is not killed himself. The books of Daniel and Ester include threats of capital punishment—but the protagonists avoid it. (David’s killing of Uriah is more about murder than punishment, so I’m not sure that counts.) Capital punishment is described as the punishment for a variety of offenses—but it’s unclear whether this is proscriptive or descriptive. There’s also the “thou shalt not kill” thing.

It’s even less clear whether those verses would be applicable in the same manner today. Did the New Testament announce new rules? Or should we apply the same rules differently when we have things like a functioning prison system. If you’re quasi-nomadic, maybe sentencing somebody to 20 years in prison isn’t really a possibility.

Without going through things verse by verse, I think it’s safe to say the following:

  1. The totality of the New Testament should make us extremely uneasy with capital punishment.
  2. Although capital punishment is described in the Old Testament, we should be mindful that there are significant distinctions betweeen ancient Israel and the contemporary United States.
  3. One of the important distinctions is that the contemporary United States is not a theocracy and claims no divine mandate.
  4. When in doubt, it’s appropriate to err on the side of not killing people.

I don’t think the argument that the Bible categorically forbids capital punishment is water tight. But I think it’s far stronger than the inverse.

  1. Except, of course, this story may be interpolation

LTMC: Then there’s that whole Matthew 7:1 nonsense…and that Exodus 23:7 business about not killing the innocent or righteous…

December 14, 2013
"The scholarly consensus is actually that Jesus was, like most first-century Jews, probably a dark-skinned man. If he were taking the red-eye flight from San Francisco to New York today, Jesus might be profiled for additional security screening by TSA."

Jonathan Merritt

December 12, 2013
"There is a reason why Christians were persecuted the first three centuries[.] The Gospels are radical – it’s a radical text – that’s a basically radical pacifism with its preferential option for the poor."

Noam Chomsky

It is unfortunate that the sting of oppression did not translate well into history, what with the take-over of Europe, the Crusades, the Inquisition, heresy laws, the Blood Libel…really just centuries and centuries of terrible things done in the name of Christ.  

Which is a shame.  It probably wasn’t his fault.   He really seems like a nice guy.

November 27, 2013
"When presidential primary candidates compete to see who can be harsher on undocumented immigrants and the TV pundits say they’re doing so to win the “evangelical vote” in the Iowa Caucus, the undocumented within our churches notice. When the church’s parking lot is marked with bumper stickers for a candidate who proposes—to wild applause—the construction of an electrified fence that would kill those who attempt to unlawfully enter the United States, the unintentional message is: “I’d rather you’d be dead than sitting next to me at church.”"

AZspot: Crossing Borders in the Church: On Embracing Undocumented Immigrants  

November 23, 2013
Where Do Unicorns Come From?

Apparently, it was a mistranslation of the Bible:

[T]he original Hebrew text of the Old Testament mentions an animal called a “reem.” When scholars tried to translate this word into Greek, they were flummoxed. They had no idea what this “reem” was. They knew it was big, and it had horns, and that it obviously wasn’t a goat. (Goats are mentioned elsewhere in the Bible.) So they translated it as “monoceros,” meaning “one-horn.” Then, when the Greek Bible was translated into Latin, the word became “unicornus.” And that word, translated into English, is unicorn.

Turns out, “unicornus” is just an ox:

Early in the 20th century, when scholars cracked the code on ancient cuneiform script, they finally learned what that mysterious reem really was. In these ancient texts, written around the time when the Hebrew Bible was being penned, there are many references to an animal called a rimu. Like the biblical reem, the rimu was enormous, strong, and had horns. That animal was an ox. So all of those references to unicorns in the Bible? Those are actually to an ox. Which, if you read the actual sections of the Bible, makes a lot more sense.

Well then.  Consider your childhood dreams shattered.  Unless you’re way into oxes.  Which, you know, is it’s own thing.

October 19, 2013
"I am the healing herb! I am the ghee, The Mantra, and the flame, and that which burns! I am - of all this boundless Universe The Father, Mother, Ancestor, and Guard! The end of Learning! That which purifies In lustral water! I am Om! I am Rig-Veda, Sama-Veda, Yajur-Ved; The Way, the Fosterer, the Lord, the Judge, The Witness; the Abode, the Refuge-House, The Friend, the Fountain and the Sea of Life Which sends, and swallows up; Treasure of Worlds And Treasure-Chamber! Seed and Seed-Sower, Whence endless harvest spring! Sun’s heat is mine; Heaven’s rain is mine to grant or to withhold; Death am I, and Immortal Life I am. Arjuna!, Sat and Asat, Visible Life, And Life Invisible!"

Krishna, Baghavad-Gita, Ch. 9

I always thought “The End of Learning” was an interesting way to describe the concept of God.  In the Western world, the best attempt I’ve seen to describe the God concept is “limitless potential.”  The Baghavad-Gita seems to combine this concept with not simply limitless power, but a search for complete knowledge.

Also, this paragraph is pretty epic.

October 7, 2013
"God probably should’ve joined a credit union."

Alex Hanton, discussing the shenanigans surrounding Banco Ambrosiano, a banking institution run by the Catholic Church which collapsed in the 80’s after being used to “launder the Mafia’s drug money, bribe Italian and American politicians, and sell weapons to both sides of the Nicaraguan Civil War.”

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