Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Should Christians apologize for the Crusades?

Does Christianity have a past history of atrocities, with no moral right to denounce religious violence in the 21st century? Are Christians who are killed today getting what they deserve for past sins?

Were Christians violent Crusaders?
The news reports this week related the account of 21 Egyptian Christians in Libya whose heads were sawed off – all on video of course – with a masked man holding a knife and stating, “All crusaders: safety for you will be only wishes”. He went on to say, “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.” [1] President Obama at the National Prayer Breakfast on Feb. 5, 2015 also mentioned the Crusades: "Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” [2] Former President Bill Clinton, during a speech at Georgetown University shortly after 9/11/01, placed at least some blame of the increase in Islamic terrorism on Christian Crusades: “Those of us who come from various European lineages are not blameless,” he declared. “Indeed, in the First Crusade, when the Christian soldiers took Jerusalem, they first burned a synagogue with three hundred Jews in it, and proceeded to kill every woman and child who was Muslim on the Temple Mount. The contemporaneous descriptions of the event describe soldiers walking on the Temple Mount, a holy place to Christians, with blood running up to their knees. I can tell you that that story is still being told today in the Middle East, and we are still paying for it”. [3] Is that true that Christians are no better than religious terrorists of today and should apologize for past atrocities?

A very brief history leading to the Crusades
First, it is crucial to note that the Crusades were a defensive strategy designed to stop violent Muslim aggression. By 637 A.D., only five years after Muhammad’s death, Muslims had conquered Jerusalem, which had been the Jews’ holy city for more than a millennium and a half. By 732 A.D., conquering Muslim armies marched into Spain and had reached the city of Tours, France, where Charles Martel (Charles “the Hammer”) saved Europe by repelling them. [4]

When many people today hear of the Crusades, they simply accept the narrative on face value without understanding the background. It is important to understand that the Middle East of the medieval period was primarily Christian, with some Zoroastrians in Persia and Jews in Palestine. Christianity had spread – through evangelism, not threat of force – to regions now known as Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, and throughout much of the former Roman Empire.

Beginning in the early 7th century, Muhammad and his growing army made razzias (raids) in Palestine and Arabia until the time of his death in A.D. 632. Within two years of his death, Abu Bakr, the first caliph, launched the Great Jihad. In the next three decades, “Muslim armies subdued the entire Arabian Peninsula, and conquered territories that had been in Greco-roman possession since the reign of Alexander the Great. [5]

Jihad campaigns occurred in the following locations after the death of Muhammad:
• Iraq (A.D. 633-643)
• Egypt, Palestine, Libya (A.D. 640-646)
• Armenia (642)
• Tunisia (647)
• Cyprus, Greek islands, and Anatolia (649-654)
• Cicilia and Cesarea of Cappadocia (650)
• Southern Egypt/northern Sudan (652)
• Sicily pillaged by Muslims (652 and 668)
• Rhodes attacked by Muslims (654)
• Balkans, Constantinople attacked (669 and 674-680)
• Morocco and Algeria (682-683 and 699-705)
• Spain (711-718)
• France (717,720,725,732,734,743,759)
• Persia (748-749)
• Afghanistan (749)
• Balkans (782)
• Spain again (796,822,852,886)
• Armenia (847-861)
• Thessaloniki (904)
• Mesopotamia invasions by the Turks (11th Century)
• Georgia, Armenia, and Anatolia (11th and 12th Centuries)
• Syria and Palestine (11th Century) [6]

The above list is a small sample of some of the Muslim invasions into regions which were primarily Christian (or other non-Muslim) that preceded the Crusades. From about 630 A.D. until 1095 when Pope Urban II decreed the first Crusade, Muslim aggression had spread throughout the Middle East, into Asia Minor, northern Africa and southern Europe. Medieval Historian Barry Collet, Melbourne University, commented on the notion that Christian crusaders were terrorists as “historically inaccurate” and “grossly misleading”. He stated the terrorism had already begun under the Muslim regime and “the Crusaders felt they were intervening to stop the bloodshed that was already going on.” [7]

The first Crusade
By the end of the 11th Century, Eastern Europe (Byzantine Empire) was threatened by advancing Muslims from the Turkish region. In 1095, General Alexius in the east made a request of Pope Urban II to supply troops from the west to confront this threat. In November 1095, the pope called for Western Christians to assist the Byzantines and recapture the Holy land from Muslim control. In 1096, four armies of Crusaders were assembled and began traveling east. By June of 1099, they had worked their way to Jerusalem. Muslims had no intention of giving up land they had previously conquered, so for the next two centuries, six crusades were launched. The last Crusade occurred after Muslims captured Tripoli in 1289. A fleet of warships from Venice and Aragon arrived to defend what remained of the Crusader states in 1290. [8]

Were the Crusades wars of unprovoked aggression against peaceful Muslims?
This is the exact opposite of the truth. From the time of Muhammad, Muslims sought to conquer the Christian world. By the end of the 11th century, Islamic armies had conquered two-thirds of the Christian world and taken most of Spain. [9] They were advancing through Europe and, it is almost certain if not for the Crusades, all of Europe would have come under Islamic rule.

Were atrocities committed during the Crusades?
Yes. Atrocities are committed during most wars. This does not excuse those done by people fighting against Muslim aggression. One group of Crusaders, led by Count Emicho, was reported to have massacred Jews in various towns in the Rhineland in 1096, drawing widespread outrage and causing a major crisis in Jewish-Christian relations. And in 1099, after entering Jerusalem, Crusaders allegedly slaughtered hundreds of men, women, and children. Though the Crusades were originally decreed by a Roman Catholic Pope, not all crusaders adhered to honorable conduct during wartime.

Violence and the founder of Christianity
Jesus of Nazareth never conquered any people or territory. No one disputes the historical fact that he was crucified and, furthermore, all of the original disciples, with the exception of John (exiled) and Judas (suicide), were martyred for their faith. Other prominent early church fathers did not utilize military conquest or threat of violence, but were murdered for simply being non-violent Christians: Stephen, Paul, James, Justin Martyr, Ignatius, Polycarp, and so on. None took up the sword as a crusader, but rather were killed by non-Christians for their faith.

Neither Jesus nor his disciples used violence at all – with the exception of Peter cutting off the ear of Malchus, a slave of the High Priest. And this incident is very telling of Jesus’ attitude toward violence. He healed the ear (Luke 22:51) and told Peter, “Put your sword back into its place; for all those who take up the sword shall perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:51).

Violence and the founder of Islam
Muhammad was a military leader and conqueror. According to the biography The Life of Muhammad, written by Islamic historian Ibn Ishaq (died 768 A.D.), Muhammad personally beheaded approximately 700 Jewish male captives, then sold the women and children into slavery. In 627, Muhammad and his army of about 3,000 attacked a Jewish tribe at Medina and ordered the beheadings. In 628, they conquered Jews at Khaybar, who paid the jizya to be allowed to live. In 630, Muhammad and his army conquered Mecca.

Comparison of the scriptures
The Qur’an states:
• “I will instill terror into the hearts of the unbelievers: Smite ye above their necks” (Sura VIII.12).
• “fight and slay the pagans wherever you find them” (Sura IX.5).
• “strike terror into the hearts of the enemies” (Sura VIII.60).
• “Fight those who believe not in god nor the last day, nor hold that forbidden which hath been forbidden by god and his apostle, nor acknowledge the religion of truth, (even if they are) of the people of the book, until they pay the jizya” (Sura IX.29). [10]

Christian attitudes toward violence found in the Bible:
• Jesus said, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:4).
• Peter wrote, “Do not repay evil for evil” (1 Peter 3:8).
• Paul wrote, “be at peace with all men” (Romans 12:18).
• Hebrews states: “Pursue peace with all men” (Hebrews 12:14).
• James wrote, “the seed whose fruit is righteousness is sown in peace”.
• Just before Stephen died from stoning, he prayed, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them” (Acts 7:60).

Using the Crusades as an excuse for violence today is a completely disingenuous argument, yet a well-worn tactic. After numerous and repeated offensive attacks, when the victim finally mounts a defense, accuse the victim of being the aggressor. Unfortunately, this public relations strategy is effective on those who don’t know history.

[1] Jared Malsin and Chris Stephen, The Guardian, “Libya and Egypt launch air strikes against Isis after militants post beheadings video”, 16 Feb 2015.
[2] James Taranto, “Obama’s Crusades”, Wall Street Journal, 6 Feb 2015.
[3] Robert Spencer, “Crusaders were ‘terrorists’”, Jihad Watch, 8 Mar 2006.
[4] Frank Turek, “Obama Hijacks Christianity to Defend Islam”, Townhall, 6 Feb 2015.
[5] Thomas F. Madden, “Inventing the Crusades”, First Things, June 2009.
[6] Andrew G. Bostom, Editor, The Legacy of Jihad, (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2008), pp. 368-382.
[7] Constantelos, “Greek Christian and Other Accounts of the Moslem Conquests of the Near East,” p. 125.
[8] History.com staff, “Crusades”, A&E Networks, published 2010, accessed 16 Feb 2015.
[9] Thomas Madden, “The Crusades”, interview by Zenit International News Agency, Oct 2004.
[10] Abdullah Yusuf Ali, The Qur’an, (Elmhurst, NY: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, Inc., 1987).

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Did Matthew make a mistake in writing about Jesus?

Matthew records circumstances surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ:
“But when he (Joseph) heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Then after being warned by God in a dream, he left for the regions of Galilee, and came and lived in a city called Nazareth. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophets: “He shall be called a Nazarene.’” (Matt. 2:22-23, NASB)
But, there is no such quotation in the Old Testament which predicts that “He shall be called a Nazarene”. So, did Matthew make a mistake?

Some scholars suggest that Matthew quoted a prophecy that was known in the ancient Hebrew tradition, but was not ultimately recorded in the Bible. While that may be true, a more likely possibility is that the original Greek text does not indicate a direct quotation of a previous verse as we may expect in modern English. Noted New Testament Greek scholar R.C.H. Lenski analyzed the grammatical construction and concluded that this portion of Matthew 2:23 was not intended to be a quotation of a particular verse or even an indirect quote. It may be intended to refer to the prophets in general or even the entirety of the Old Testament. So, the English translation with quotation marks does not accurately reveal the original intent of the writer.

More than one prophet?
It is very important to note a small detail – Matthew does not mention one particular prophet; rather, “prophets” plural. It appears he never intended this to be understood as a direct quotation from one specific Old Testament prophet. As Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe note, we “should not expect to find any given verse, but simply a general truth found in many prophets to correspond to his Nazarene-like character.” [1] And, Lenski wrote: “Jesus lived in Nazareth in order to fulfill the prophets; and the evidential reason by which we ourselves can see that his living in Nazareth fulfilled the prophets, is that afterward, due to his having lived there, he was called ‘the Nazarene’ … Matthew writes nothing occult or difficult. A Nazarene is one who hails from Nazareth. Matthew counts on the ordinary intelligence of his readers, who will certainly know that the enemies of Jesus branded him the ‘Nazarene’”. [2]

Another possibility is that Matthew is making a play on words – not unheard of in the Bible – by indicating that Jesus, as the “branch” of Jesse prophesied in Isaiah 11:1, which states: “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” Isaiah 11 is a clear reference to the Messiah. Matthew may be comparing this passage with the town of Nazareth which is derived from the Hebrew word for branch, netzer, or NZR since the Hebrews did not write vowels. This would translate to: NaZaReth. [3] So, Matthew could have been using this reference to connect Jesus of Nazareth with the branch or shoot from Isaiah’s prophesy.

It is probably not appropriate to confuse this passage in Matthew 2 with a “Nazarite”, even though the words appear similar. Requirements of the Nazarite vow are described in Numbers 6: (1) shall not drink any alcohol or anything made from grapes, (2) shall not cut hair on his head, and (3) shall not defile himself by touching a dead person. Samson, Samuel, and John the Baptist are considered to have been Nazarites. There is nothing in the New Testament which indicates Jesus took this vow or was considered to be a Nazarite.

It is very unlikely that Matthew, who was so careful and precise in all of the historical details of his gospel account, would make an obvious error that any Bible scholar could easily detect. There are several possible explanations for the misunderstanding of verse 2:23. It may be due to the differences in the grammatical construction of ancient Greek and modern English. It may also be due to the Nazarene-like characteristics of the Messiah’s life, rather than a direct word-for-word quotation.

1. Norman Geisler and Thomas Howe, When Critics Ask, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1992), p. 328.
2. R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel, (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg, 1943), p. 88.
3. Matt Slick, “Did the OT prophesy Jesus coming from Nazareth?” Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry, accessed 28 Dec 2014.
4. Bert Thompson, PhD, “Jesus would be called a Nazarene – N.T./O.T. contradiction?”, Apologetics Press, accessed 28 Dec 2014.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Did the little town of Bethlehem exist?

Though the town of Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible a total of 53 times (44 OT and 9 NT), with the first mention in Genesis 35:19-20, which states: “Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). Jacob set up a pillar over her grave …” This indicates that the city was known about 1,700 years prior to the birth of Christ. Then, around 700 years prior, the Prophet Micah was very specific regarding the Messiah’s birthplace: “But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah. From you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” (Micah 5:2)

However, apart from the Bible, no historical documentary records of this town had been found that dated prior to the 4th Century AD. As to be expected, critics and skeptics considered this to be further evidence that the Bible was written by forgers many centuries after the alleged events. That is until 2012, when a very small object was discovered during excavation in the City of David, near Jerusalem. A statement was released by the Israel Antiquities Authority on May 23, 2012 describing the artifact.

The discovery
The bulla, or stamped piece of clay used to seal a container or document, is 1.5 cm and is dated to around the 7th Century BC, during the first temple period. The small inscription, written in Hebrew, states:
בשבעת (Bishv’at)–”in the seventh” (reference to the year of the king’s reign)
בת לכם (Bat Lechem)–”Bethlehem”
למל ]ך] ([Lemel]ekh)–”to the king”
In the 14th century BC Bethlehem was a city-state named after the goddess Beit Lahmu. Later it was called Ephrata (Genesis 35:16) and was also referred to in the Hebrew Bible as Beit Lehem. In Hebrew “Beit” means house/home/household and “Lechem” means bread/Manna/nourishment or even battle. Commonly the name is understood to mean House of Bread.

What is it?
Bullae (plural for bulla) were stamped pieces of clay that were used to seal containers or documents. They were used to identify the sender or author of a document, an important method of marking ownership in ancient transactions. According to Eli Shukron, director of the excavation for the Israel Antiquities Authority, this discovery appears to show that “in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem." Shukron dates this bulla to the period around the 7th or 8th centuries B.C., during a time when bullae were used in Judah for taxation of shipments.

Which Bethlehem?
During Biblical times, the name Bethlehem was given to two towns in Israel, one of which was in Galilee, located in the north, near Nazareth and near the Sea of Galilee. The second is in the south, in Judea, near Jerusalem. This is not unusual and does not invalidate Biblical accounts. Many examples exist today in which two or more towns having the same name are located in different parts of the country. To identify where Jesus was born, Luke records that “everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary” (Luke 2:3-5). Luke goes on to record: “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son … and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:6-7). The journey from Nazareth to the northern Bethlehem was about seven miles which, even with Mary’s condition, may have been completed in a day. Though possible, it seems unlikely the two would have been stuck looking for an inn only seven miles from home. On the other hand, the journey from Nazareth to the town of Bethlehem in Judea near Jerusalem was about 70 miles, which fits better with Luke’s narrative.

Archaeological excavations
So, does archaeology corroborate Luke’s historical account? Some material from the Iron Age, about 1200 to 550 B.C., has been found in this town, as has material from the sixth century A.D. However, some archaeologists interpret the finds to indicate the one in Judea did not exist as a functioning town between the dates of 7 and 4 B.C., the time period when Jesus was likely born. According to Aviram Oshri, a senior archaeologist with the Israeli Antiquities Authority, no material has been found from excavations in the first century A.D. or the first century B.C. in Bethlehem of Judea. Oshri noted: “If the historical Jesus were truly born in Bethlehem, it was most likely the Bethlehem of Galilee, not that in Judaea. The archaeological evidence certainly seems to favor the former, a busy center [of Jewish life] a few miles from the home of Joseph and Mary, as opposed to an unpopulated spot almost a hundred miles from home.”

Despite the large number of Biblical references to the town of Bethlehem, discovery of the bulla is the first archaeological evidence extending the history to a First Temple Period Israelite city. In a news release, Eli Shukron, excavation director, provided an understanding of the significance of the bulla: “It seems that in the seventh year of the reign of a king (it is unclear if the king referred to here is Hezekiah, Manasseh or Josiah), a shipment was dispatched from Bethlehem to the king in Jerusalem.” He further stated, “this is the first time the name Bethlehem appears outside the Bible, in an inscription from the First Temple period, which proves that Bethlehem was indeed a city in the Kingdom of Judah, and possibly also in earlier periods.” This discovery fills a hole that had existed in the record, between about the 14th century B.C. and the 4th century A.D. It is solid proof that a town named Bethlehem existed and was large enough to be taxed by a centralized Hebrew kingdom in the 8th century.

1. Marisa Larson, “Bethlehem”, National Geographic, 11 Feb 2008.
2. Dave Miller, “Two Bethlehems”, Apologetics Press, 2003.
3. Biblical Archaology Society, “History of Bethlehem Documented by First Temple Period Bulla from the City of David”, 23 May 2012.
4. Yonah Bob, “Archaologists find first proof of ancient Bethlehem”, The Jerusalem Post, 23 May 2012.
5. Thomas L. McDonald, “First Ancient Proof of Bethlehem’s Existence Discovered”, Patheos.com, 24 May 2012.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Does thanksgiving make us complacent or lazy? Myths about gratitude

We’re not discussing the laziness everyone encounters after a large Thanksgiving meal. The questions we’re asking are: Does gratitude make us complacent or lazy? Can thankfulness be false humility or inappropriate? Robert A. Emmons, Ph.D., University of California, Davis, is considered to be the world’s leading scientific expert on gratitude. He addressed several myths and misconceptions that are common. Very few people would argue that gratitude is not a good trait to possess and practice. However, some subtle reservations creep into our thinking.

Is it true that a person who is grateful may not be as motivated to change negative things in the world or improve his life? Would a thankful person tend to accept injustices, rather than attempt to make positive changes? In fact, the opposite is true. Grateful people are actually more successful at reaching their goals and have a greater sense of purpose. In a study conducted by Dr. Emmons and his colleagues, participants who were randomly assigned to keep a gratitude journal exerted more effort toward reaching their goals than those who did not. In another study involving young teens published in Motivation and Emotion, those who were more grateful performed more pro-social activities and had a desire to give back to others.

A second myth addressed by Emmons is one many of us may have thought: gratitude ignores the negativity and pain in life. It seems Pollyannaish, seeing the world with rose-colored glasses of thankfulness, while people all over are suffering. This myth demonstrates a misunderstanding of gratitude. To be thankful, one must recognize a dependence on others, leading to some sense of indebtedness to others or feelings of responsibility to take care of that for which one has received. So, gratitude is not as much ignoring the negative, it is magnifying the positive.

A third myth relates to a phenomenon most of us have seen – the person who appears to be overly-humble, refusing to take credit for his or her own good work. It seems to be false humility. While this may be true of a few people, a study by Dr. Emmons demonstrated that, when people were given a difficult task and given a hint to assist, they acknowledged the benefit of the hint, while also taking credit for their own work. So, it is possible to do both.

Another myth is that it is not appropriate – or is even impossible – to be thankful in the midst of adversity or suffering. A study conducted by Emmons involving subjects with severe neuromuscular disorders were asked to keep a gratitude journal over a two-week period. Not only did these people who were experiencing significant pain find things for which to be thankful, they reported more positive emotions than those in a control group. Furthermore, they felt more optimistic, socially connected, and slept better.

“Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; for His lovingkindness is everlasting.” (Psalm 118:1)

Robert Emmons, “Five Myths about Gratitude”, Greater Good, 21 Nov 2013,

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lost Gospel Found? Was Jesus Married?

Last week, The Lost Gospel was released, written by Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson. The publishers state this book details the authors’ discovery of “confirmation of Jesus’ marriage to Mary Magdalene; the names of their two children; the towering presence of Mary Magdalene; a previously unknown plot on Jesus’ life, 13 years prior to the crucifixion; an assassination attempt against Mary Magdalene and their children”. The Daily Mail reported, “If true, this would make it the greatest revelation into the life of Jesus in nearly 2,000 years.” [1] Is this a fifth “lost gospel” that provides additional, and even contradictory details, concerning Jesus Christ?

What is the story of Joseph and Asenath?
The book, The Lost Gospel, is an interpretation of a known story entitled Joseph and Asenath (also, Aseneth), dating to around the 6th century A.D. A vellum copy of Joseph and Asenath was purchased in 1847 by the British Museum and has been in the archives of the British Library for about 20 years. The earliest manuscript of Joseph and Asenath, dated to possibly as early as the 1st century B.C. was written in Syriac, but the original, earlier language was Greek. This pseudepigraphal work appears to have been written in the Jewish Diaspora of Egypt and, because of parallels with the Dead Sea Scrolls, some believe it has Essene influence. [2] The story, which does not mention Jesus or Mary of the New Testament, is set in the time period when Joseph was in Egypt, particularly beginning with the first year of the seven plentiful years (see Genesis 41:45-49). In fact, Asenath is mentioned in Genesis as a wife given to Joseph by Pharoah (verse 45).

Is Joseph and Asenath an allegory?
There are several possibilities in our interpretation of the story of Joseph and Asenath, in descending order of likelihood. First, it is a pseudepigraphal fictitious story derived from the actual marriage mentioned in Genesis 41. This is by far the most probable. Second, some have speculated that it could be an allegory of Jesus (portrayed as Joseph) and the Church (as Asenath). This would, of course, require that the writing is post-Christian, rather than a Second-Temple-era Jewish text, as some scholars believe. Third, if it is a Christian-era allegory of Jesus and Mary Magdalene, there is a heavy burden of proof that the two were married. As James Davila, Professor of Early Jewish Studies at the Divinity School of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland has noted, “this would merely be evidence for a creative apocryphal notion thought up sometime in late antiquity (and there were many, many such notions). It would remain to prove that this text told us anything about the historical Jesus and Mary and that would be very difficult indeed to establish.” [3]

Who is Simcha Jacobovici?
One of the co-authors of the book, Jacobovici, has written previously about Jesus in his documentary The Lost Tomb of Jesus, which describes the finding of the Talpiot Tomb, which he claimed was the family tomb of Jesus. Breitbart reported that Professor Amos Kloner actually oversaw the archeological work at the Talpiot Tomb when it was discovered in 1980, and wrote the official excavation report. Kloner said of Jacobovici’s hypothesis: “I think it is very unserious work. I do scholarly work.” This film “is all nonsense.” He added, “Give me scientific evidence, and I’ll grapple with it. But this is manufactured.” [4]

So what is it?
There are several problems with The Lost Gospel. First, it is not lost – copies have been at the British Library since 1847. Second, it is not a gospel. At best, it is an allegorical story. Third, it does not even mention Jesus or Mary Magdalene at all. The original Joseph and Asenath story must be “decoded”, according to the authors, to make this assertion. The four canonical gospels and the rest of the New Testament, which were accepted by the 1st century church, never mention Jesus was married or had children. None of the early church fathers mention that Jesus was married or had children. David Instone-Brewer, PhD, Cambridge, and researcher at Tyndale House, commented: "It's a great story - a love story written in the early centuries. But it's not talking about Jesus ... In the third century the Jews were often writing fan fic [fiction] about characters in the Old Testament." And, according to Dr. Robert R. Cargill, University of Iowa, The Lost Gospel is little more than “speculation wrapped in hearsay couched in conspiracy masquerading as science ensconced in sensationalism slathered with misinformation”. [5]

[1] Harry Mount, “Is this proof Jesus married and had two sons? Ancient manuscript said to be 'lost gospel' with a sensational twist”, Daily Mail, 9 Nov 2014.
[2] “Joseph and Asenath”, Early Jewish Writings, accessed online 13 Nov 2014.
[3] Jim Davila, “A new Syriac Gospel in which Jesus married Mary Magdalene? I don't think so.”, Paleojudaica.org, 11 Nov 2014.
[4] Thomas D. Williams, “Media fall for ‘married Jesus’ hoax, again”, Breitbart, 11 Nov 2014.
[5] Marcus Jones, “Lost Gospel authors claim book fits with Bible”, Premier, 12 Nov 2014.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Is our universe the ultimate free lunch?

Have recent astrophysical theories proven that God is not necessary? Stephen Hawking wrote, “It’s not necessary for God to light the blue touch paper and set the universe going.” [1] And, theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss stated: “Forget Jesus, the stars died so you could be born.” [2] The publisher asserts that Krauss’ book, A Universe from Nothing, is a: “game-changing entry into the debate about the existence of God and everything that exists.” So, is it possible this universe began from nothing?

What exactly is nothing?
This would seem to be a nonsensical question, but according to Lawrence Krauss, nothing can have many different meanings. Regarding the common notion of nothing as people read into Genesis 1, Krauss notes: “That kind of nothing turns out to be full of stuff in a way … because due to the laws of quantum mechanics and relativity, we now know that empty space is a boiling, bubbling brew of virtual particles that are popping in and out of existence … and that kind of nothing, if you wait long enough, you’re guaranteed by the laws of quantum mechanics, to produce something.” [3] According to the current understanding of particle physics, at the Planck length, space-time can be conceptualized as a sea of foaming bubbles, particles and anti-particles popping into and out of existence. The commonly held understanding that empty space literally contains nothing is not commonly held by theoretical physicists. Krauss explains: “Once you apply the laws of quantum mechanics to gravity itself, then space becomes a quantum mechanical variable and fluctuates in and out of existence.” So, what humans perceive as containing nothing can be very active on the subatomic quantum level. Krauss goes on to assert that, “You can literally, by the laws of quantum mechanics, create universes, create space and time where there was no space and no time before.” Here, Krauss makes a statement that is not empirically provable and is an invalid logical leap. It is impossible for experimental physicists to know with certainty what existed prior to the creation of this universe because this universe is the only data set we have to work with. The statement is also illogical because the quantum fluctuations occur within space and time that we know now. With no space and no time, there would be no arena within which the subatomic particles could function.

Zero energy universe?
Virtual particles operate according to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which states one cannot accurately measure a subatomic particles position and momentum at the same time accurately. So, the thinking goes, this leads to unpredictability in these particles. The same principle is applied to quantum energy fluctuations, which are also unpredictable. And, the greater energy fluctuations necessarily last for a shorter duration. Low energy fluctuations can last longer. The durations in these events are on the Planck level, vastly shorter than a second. This, of course, creates a problem with a universe that has existed for 13.7 billion years. The resolution, according to Hawking and others, is that the universe has zero net energy. Sure, there are pockets of positive energy, but overall, the net sum is zero, so they say.

In the inflationary theory of our universe, matter, photons, and the like are considered to consist of positive energy. However, this is balanced out by negative energy, such as gravity. How is that, one might ask? A falling object has positive energy, but as matter is gathered to the center of a mass, such as a planet, the gravitational energy is negative. According to this reasoning, the sum of the positive energy in the universe is balanced by the negative, making the entire universe a zero sum. And, to run the inflation backward to the beginning of a zero sum universe, only a very small spark would be required to start. This is the so-called ultimate free lunch – a universe that began from nothing and has no energy.

Bathed in quantum foam
Observations in tiny disturbances in the energy levels of the electron in a hydrogen atom led Hendrik Casimir (namesake of the Casimir Effect) and Dirk Polder in 1947 to make a prediction. If the quantum foam is real, then particles should exist everywhere in space. Since particles have a wave function, there should also be waves everywhere – even in “empty” space. They used an experiment with two parallel metal plates, placed very closely together so only short waves could exist between them and longer waves would be outside the plates. Because of this imbalance, the excess of waves outside the plates should push them together. This effect was confirmed and measured accurately in 1997. [5] So, the quantum foam is real - there are extremely small virtual particles which seem to pop into and out of existence.

Time and nothingness
According to the Hartle-Hawking model (James and Stephen), if one travels backward to the beginning of the universe’s expansion, one would reach the point where there would be only space and no time. Beginnings, such as the big bang, are based on time. Since there was no time, a beginning is meaningless. With all due respect to Mr. Hawking, even zero time and zero energy do not mean nothingness. The singularity that is our universe is still something. As is the so-called quantum foam which allegedly contains a sea of extremely small particle pairs that pop into and out of existence. This “foam” is still something, even though to our measurements, it is a zero sum game. Another way to think of this is to imagine an object sitting on the ground. The object, say a rock, is not in motion and is producing no energy. It is in equilibrium with the gravitational attraction of a larger rock – the Earth. So, according to mathematical calculations, this smaller rock is a zero sum. But, no rational person would say it is nothing.

Out of time
The theory that the universe popped into existence is problematic regarding the issue of time. As Astronomer Hugh Ross notes, the probability of a quantum outcome, such as the production of a virtual particle, increases with the passage of time. The larger the time interval, the greater the likelihood of an occurrence. However, according to space-time theorems, time began coincident with the beginning of the universe. In fact, even Stephen Hawking has stated the same. If the time interval is zero, then the probability for any quantum event is zero. So, there is no time for quantum mechanics to create a universe. [4]

Cause and effect
While it is true that quantum fluctuations producing virtual particle pairs are observed frequently on a sub-atomic level, the big question is: From where did the virtual particle pairs originate? From nothing? That is exactly what appears to happen, but a very well established physical law states that an effect always has a cause. We know this from life experience – nothing happens without being caused in some manner. Because current observational methods are incapable of detecting the state of these virtual particles prior to “popping” into existence, it does not mean there was nothing at all. We simply are not able to observe what came before. It is inaccurate to assume that since I cannot see something, then that something must not exist.

Kicking the can back the road
Whether these virtual particles are comprised of strings (one dimensional) or branes (two dimensional), and seem to come from nowhere, this does not rule out an intelligent creator. This simply pushes the origin question farther back. From where did the strings or branes (comprising virtual particles) originate? Any explanation, even by those as brilliant as Hawking and Krauss, requires something to start with. To claim that random quantum fluctuations in a sea of dark energy seem to pop into and out of existence still requires something to emerge from nothing. The best explanation for that phenomenon is an intelligent creator who is outside of the laws of physics.

Faulty Biblical interpretation
There seems to be a very common misreading of the Bible these days. Inexplicably, many people reach a mistaken conclusion that, if modern science comes up with some new theory to explain human origins, then the Bible must be wrong and there’s no God. I challenge anyone to find that in the Bible. Even Krauss himself falls into that faulty logic: “There are many seeming ‘miracles’ of nature that appear so daunting that many have given up trying to find an explanation of how we came to be and, instead, blame it all on God.” (Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, p. 12) The reasoning is that, since we, the educated modern humans, have discovered how some physical processes operate, we are now able to demonstrate that unsophisticated, primitive theists erroneously invoke a deity in matters with which they are ignorant. Gaining more understanding of the creation does not eliminate the Creator.

The first few verses of the book of Genesis state, as most people know very well, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” Where in those verses does the Bible explain how God created? Where in those verses does the Bible state God did not bring about the universe via a quantum foam or subatomic “strings”? The point is, none of the new theoretical physics disprove God or the Bible – despite statements to the contrary by Krauss or Hawking. They are making an invalid logical leap based on a faulty reading of the Bible.

We must be careful not to turn the Bible into a particle physics textbook. That’s not to say the Bible is inaccurate or outdated; rather, it simply does not explain the details of how God completes His purposes. Many people in the 21st Century have reached the invalid conclusion that, if something can be explained, then God must not have done it. And we should keep in mind that, in the area of theoretical particle physics, explanations of the big bang are still highly speculative.

[1] Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, The Grand Design, (Bantam, 2012).
[2] Lawrence Krauss, A Universe from Nothing, (Atria Books, 2013).
[3] Lawrence Krauss, Life, the Universe, and Nothing lecture, 2012.
[4] Hugh Ross, “A Universe from Nothing? A Critique of Lawrence Krauss’ Book”, Reasons to Believe, 12 Apr 2012.
[5] Don Lincoln, “Quantum Foam, Virtual Particles and Other Curiosities”, PBS Nova, 23 Oct 2012.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Sennacherib Cylinder confirms Biblical record

"Now in the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah, Sennacherib king of Assyria came up against all the fortified cities of Judah and seized them.” (2 Kings 18:13)

The Bible provides an account of the siege of Jerusalem by Assyrian King Sennacherib during the reign of Judah’s King Hezekiah. In fact, it is mentioned in several locations in the Old Testament: Isaiah 36-37, II Kings 18-19, and II Chronicles 32. The siege occurred in the 14th year of Hezekiah’s reign, which placed it around 701 B.C. However, there was no extra-Biblical evidence of these events, so critics could dismiss the account as Hebrew mythology – until 1830.

British Colonel R. Taylor was excavating in the area of Nineveh in northern Iraq, now Nebi Yunus, in 1830 when he found a six-sided baked clay document, or prism, about 38.5 cm in height. The cuneiform writing records an account of Sennacherib’s third campaign, which involved the destruction of 46 cities in Judah and the deportation of 200,150 people. (The entire cylinder describes eight military campaigns, only one of which involves the Jews.)

As the Assyrian army laid siege to Jerusalem, the Bible records that Hezekiah sent a message to Sennacherib: “’Withdraw from me; whatever you impose on me I will bear.’ So the king of Assyria required of Hezekiah king of Judah three hundred talents of silver and thirty talents of gold. Hezekiah gave him all the silver which was found in the house of the Lord, and in the treasuries of the king’s house ... and gave it to the king of Assyria.” (2 Kings 18:14-15)

Column 3 of the prism records similar events: “As for Hezekiah the Judahite, who did not submit to my yoke … (Hezekiah) himself, like a caged bird I shut up in Jerusalem, his royal city. I threw up earthworks against him … As for Hezekiah, the terrifying splendor of my majesty overcame him ... In addition to the thirty talents of gold and eight hundred talents of silver … which he had brought after me to Nineveh, my royal city. To pay tribute and to accept servitude, he dispatched his messengers.”

Aside from the standard exaggerated aggrandizement of the king's exploits, some additional detail regarding the tribute exacted by Sennacherib can be found in the cylinder’s writing. The primary details in the descriptions of the events in both accounts are in agreement. Then, a funny thing happened on the way to Jerusalem. After the Assyrian army surrounded Judah's capital city and prepared for invasion, they simply turned around and went home without an explanation mentioned in the cylinder. The Bible, however, provides further details. God spoke through Isaiah the prophet, who told King Hezekiah: “’He (Sennacherib) will not come to this city or shoot an arrow there; and he will not come before it with a shield or throw up a siege ramp against it. By the way that he came, by the same he will return, and he shall not come to this city,’ declares the Lord.’” (2 Kings 19:32-33)

The book of Isaiah continues regarding the ultimate fate of Sennacherib which are, not surprisingly, not found on the clay cylinder: “Then the angel of the Lord went out and struck 185,000 in the camp of the Assyrians; and when men arose early in the morning, behold, all of these were dead. So Sennacherib king of Assyria departed and returned home and lived at Nineveh. It came about as he was worshiping in the house of Nisroch his god, that … his sons killed him with the sword ...” (Isaiah 37:36-38)

Though historians and scholars may dismiss the supernatural explanation provided in the Bible, a written account by the enemy and invading army certainly lends credence to the historicity of the battle. This is yet another example of later evidence confirming what the Bible had written thousands of years before.

(photo courtesy of the British Museum.)

[1] The Taylor Prism, The British Museum online, accessed 8 Oct 2014.
[2] Randall Price, The Stones Cry Out, (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 1997), 272-274.
[3] Sennacherib Prism, University of Texas, Translation Adapted from Luckenbill (1924:23-27).