From Archaeology to Apes

Question from Kristi:
What is R. Dawkins’ view on Biblical archaeology? Scientists use fossils as artifacts, dinosaur bones, etc., yet when archaeologists find relief carvings of the Hebrews being taken into captivity by the Assyrians? Manfred Bietak has uncovered Semitic people’s remains dating back to time of the Famine around 1880 B.C, which would align with the information in the Jewish records and with the Biblical records of Genesis. Should not any artifact be considered scientific?

If we evolved from a complex organism such as the egg first then later to simpler organism such as the chicken, why are we not evolving anymore unless we are evolving into robots? Do you foresee the human race as fading out and becoming intelligent machines? We were once apes so would it be too much to believe we will re-evolve to something else?

Answer by SmartLX:
Richard Dawkins doesn’t seem to have made a public statement about Biblical archaeology as a whole, except to say there is no good evidence for any of the supernatural claims in the Bible, archaeological or otherwise. Evidence for non-supernatural elements of the Biblical narrative are another matter. There is plenty of evidence for the Assyrian captivity as you say. There were Israeli tribes about, no doubt, and they did leave their mark, but nothing in the archaeological record points to direct intervention by a deity with the interests of the Hebrews specifically at heart. Just because not everything in the Bible is untrue doesn’t mean the important bits for today’s believers are true.

Present-day human evolution is much like evolution at any other stage: so slow that any given generation doesn’t notice any major differences. We may be in the process of evolving into a very different form of organic life, but the process would take millions of years at least and research into the changes over the last few decades won’t give us much insight into that far future. Any transition to a machine or part-machine race is likely to be the result of deliberate self-alteration as a species, not Darwinian evolution.

Incidentally we are still apes. Leaving evolution and genetics aside completely, we meet the physical criteria to be classified as a “great ape”. Here’s a museum article.

You Down With O.T.G?

Question from Joseph:
Hey, I’m an undergrad at a Christian college and my major is Biblical studies. I was raised an evangelical Christian but have been an agnostic for about a year now.

I have a lot of respect for the Bible and think it is under-studied and under-appreciated by atheists.

Anyways, here is one question I’ve thought about. If the OT prophets were misinformed and delivered messages from a figment of their imagination, then why were their messages so self-critical of their people and generally doom-and-gloom messages? You would think if someone wanted to imagine a God, they would make him a lot more compassionate and less vengeful and jealous. Also, where the heck did they actually get their oracles from? Most people don’t discourse with their imaginations to the point of writing out lengthy books about them. The prophets also performed object lessons to demonstrate God’s messages. For example, Ezekiel laid on his side for over a year!

The prophets also predicted a lot of events (usually vague, but still…) that came true. I wonder if this is the same type of trick that fortune tellers use, where they give a vague answer that will inevitably be manifested at some point in time, while those with a confirmation bias will end up being convinced of divine foreknowledge. But some of the prophecies were quite specific…where did the prophets come up with these?

Answer by SmartLX:
To address a couple of things very quickly:
– The Bible is classical literature, certainly. Like all classical literature it’s underappreciated as such in today’s world, and not just by atheists. That said, given that atheists reject the central claims of the Bible, they’re not usually motivated to delve into the nitty-gritty. See my piece on theology.
– Someone advocating the fulfilment of a prophecy wants you to consider only two possibilities: that it was pure coincidence and an impossibly lucky guess, or it was genuine divinely bestowed foreknowledge. There are many other possibilities, some of which I’ve named and numbered in my earlier piece on prophecies.

Now as for the character of God in the Old Testament, let’s continue to assume that the stories were made up, as you posit, for the sake of argument. God does not have a likeable personality because the purpose of the stories is clearly not to make people feel good. (There’d be a lot less genocide in it if that were the case, for one thing.) The purpose of the stories is to inspire awe and fear of God, to influence people’s behaviour as per the Commandments (not just the Ten, either) and to drive people to spread the Word. Like in any narrative, the characters need to be what they are for the author to deliver his or her message, not just for their own sake.

You do get the impression that people did some extraordinary things to receive their messages from God and to get the books written, but that doesn’t really speak for their veracity. Some of their actions, like Ezekiel’s marathon reclining session, could be exaggerated accounts themselves – or even if they’re genuine they could have degraded these people’s mental states to the point where they heard from the God of their day without any real divine communication at all.

We’ll never really know what happened to people like Ezekiel, but an extraordinary story hardly warrants jumping straight to a specific supernatural explanation.

All Those People Can’t Be Wrong

Question from J:

I have a question I can’t seem to be able to answer:

The old testament says (I’m paraphrasing) 300000 people were present when the book/tablets was given to them. It goes on about other events that happened to that group of people.

My question is: how would you convince an entire population of something (that didn’t happen to said population)?

e.g If I was one of those 300000, and these events didn’t happen to me, why would I believe that they did; just because Moses said so?

P.S I hope I managed to get my question across and that you can understand what I’m trying to ask.

Answer by SmartLX:
It was closer to three million people with Moses in total, according to Exodus, but who’s counting? The real problem is that you’re making (or allowing an apologist to make) the enormous assumption that there really were hundreds of thousands of people in the desert with Moses.

The story as a whole hasn’t got a leg to stand on; there is no evidence that the Sinai peninsula ever hosted anything like that many nomads, manna or no manna. They could probably have spanned the peninsula lengthwise if they’d all walked ten abreast in a straight line.

Moses himself hardly serves as an anchor for the historicity of the story. I argue with people about Jesus a lot, but at least there’s a certain amount of material to argue about; Moses doesn’t even have that level of support. The idea that Exodus was written by Moses himself or any of his contemporaries has long been abandoned by most scholars, which means it’s anything but a first-hand account, and that leaves a lot of room for exaggeration. That exaggeration can include not only the events themselves but the number of people who witnessed them.

There’s a line in 1 Corinthians that says 500 “brethren” saw the risen Jesus at once, and a similar point can be made regarding both that and this: an account of witnesses is not the same as accounts by those witnesses. Making the number larger, even arbitrarily, is an easy way to make the story sound authoritative, which means everyone who relayed the story to its eventual chronicler was sorely tempted to do just that. We’re lucky because in the case of the Exodus, the number was made so large it outgrew the land that supposedly contained it.

P.S. Considering my title out of context, any number of people can be wrong. There are two billion Christians and 1.5 billion Muslims and both groups can’t be right, so at least 1,500,000,000 people are agreed on something which is dead wrong.

The Old Testament – Ancient Chinese Edition

Question from Heather:
Awhile back (probably 2 years ago) I saw this site that said the Chinese language documented the events of the Old Testament. I forgot the exact words they used but basically certain things translated directly to “woman and serpent” or “boat with many mouths.” Things like that. How do you explain a language “documenting the events of the Old Testament”?

Answer by SmartLX:
This argument for Christianity is put forth in full by the book The Discovery of Genesis: How The Truths of Genesis Were Found In The Chinese Language. Three examples of the supposed links are shown here.

Shortly after the book was published, it was pointed out to the authors that the analyses were based on the modern forms of the Chinese characters, most of which came about long after the time of Christ and hardly counted as “ancient” in comparison to the Bible. The book Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve followed very quickly, which threw out much of the earlier material and started over. (Confucius, of course, had nothing to do with any of this.)

Some specific criticisms of the books and their underlying argument can be found in the customer reviews of each book on Amazon, particularly the 1-star reviews. To address the issue very broadly, however, these claims rely on single interpretations of just the few most applicable of the thousands of Chinese characters, most of which already have plausible secular etymology. If a symbol literally means “woman and serpent”, for example, to how many different legends (or real-life snake stories akin to Cleopatra’s) could this be referring besides Genesis? Why is it more likely that the symbol was magically transmitted from a foreign story than simply adapted from some part of the great wealth of Asian mythology?

The real issue, similar to that of “God’s Pharmacy”, is confirmation bias. People notice the few coincidental links in a sea of possible combinations of Chinese symbols and Judeo-Christian icons, and ignore the fact that because there are so many of both we would expect a few matches even if there’s no real connection.

Mosaic Law

“Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus.”

Question from Anonymous:

I’m an atheist. I recently told a gay-hater about this and his response was that “It came from the Mosaic Law which is no longer in effect.”

What’s the right response to this?

Keep up the good work!

Mosaic Law, taken in this case to mean a large set of Old Testament laws including the one in the link, is widely regarded by Christians who care about this sort of thing to have been contradicted many times and therefore superseded by the teachings of Jesus. A good example is the substitution of “turn the other cheek” for “an eye for an eye”. This rationale is often given for not following the really destructive laws in Leviticus.

Of course, easily the most direct orders against homosexual sex are in the same part of Leviticus. Some apologists give quite complex reasons why certain parts of Mosaic Law should continue to be upheld, while others just drop the whole thing and rely on other parts of the Bible, such as Romans 1 in the New Testament, when condemning homosexuality.

The most straightforward response to your “gay-hater” is to move out of the Old Testament altogether and quote some apparent silliness from the New Testament instead. This article, though not very carefully written (see the typo in its title), has some good examples. This will maintain your original point while avoiding his grounds for dismissal.

Keep us posted via comments, if you like.