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).

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Where's Jonah?

Church leaders in Iraq have called for a day of prayer on August 6th for Iraqi Christians who have been forced to leave Mosul, where the Islamic State (ISIS) issued an ultimatum: convert, leave, pay the jizya, or die. An estimated two million Christians lived in Iraq in the 1990s and church leaders estimated that figure plunged to around 200,000 by last year. The figure now may be zero, at least in Mosul.

Mosul is located on the Tigris River, opposite the former site of Nineveh, most populous city of the ancient Assyrian Empire. Nineveh was located at the intersection of important north-south and east-west trade routes. The Prophet Jonah preached to the Ninevites during the reign of Jeroboam II (793-753 B.C.). The penitence of the Ninevites was not enduring; about a century later Nahum prophesied their destruction and, in 612 B.C., the city was destroyed.

On June 10, ISIS entered Iraq’s second largest city and declared an Islamic Caliphate. On July 19, the Sunni Muslim insurgent group ordered Christians to leave. ISIS leader Caliph Ibrahim declared possessions of the unbelievers “property of the Islamic State” and confiscated cars, cell phones, cash, and even wedding rings. These were some of the last Christians to speak Aramaic, the native language of Jesus.

Around 30 churches were seized, with some turned to mosques or burned. Other religious sites were destroyed. The Vatican reported that the Orthodox Christian community successfully spirited away the relics of Thomas the Apostle who, it is said, introduced Christianity to Nineveh. The Kurdish Regional Government issued a statement welcoming the Christian exiles and calling on Kurds to assist those who have been displaced. The last Christians in Nineveh may have turned out the light.

1. Eve Conant, “Q&A: Why Sunni Extremists Are Destroying Ancient Religious Sites in Mosul”, National Geographic online, 2 Aug 2014.
2. Jonathan Krohn, “Has Last Christian Left Iraqi City of Mosul After 2,000 Years?”, NBC News, 27 July 2014.
3. Col. (ret.) Dr. Jacques Neriah, “The Islamic State Ends the Centuries-Old Christian Presence in Mosul, Iraq”, Right Side News, 4 Aug 2014.
4. “Nineveh”, Encyclopaedia Brittanica, updated 4 Apr 2014, accessed 4 Aug 2014.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Cosmos and Giordano Bruno

Has the Christian Church been anti-science? That was the clear message promulgated during the premier episode of Cosmos, a remake by Neil Degrasse Tyson of the original series by Carl Sagan. The information presented in Cosmos is interesting, the visual effects are well-done, and it is a stylish vehicle to bring scientific discoveries of the universe to viewers in a manner that is accessible to every educational level. However, the inordinate amount of time spent in episode one with Giordano Bruno’s censorship, repression, and ultimate martyrdom by the church was surprising. How much did that contribute to our understanding of the universe? It appears the producers of the show view past religious repression of scientific freedom to be a serious issue that needs to be addressed today.

So, who was Giordano Bruno? First, he was not an astronomer, nor a scientist. Even this was admitted in the show. Furthermore, Bruno’s ideas of the universe were not based on scientific measurements. He was a Jesuit monk who promulgated the notion that the universe may be infinite – like God – and the sun did not revolve around the earth. The show Cosmos portrayed Bruno as being martyred for this belief, among others, by the Roman Catholic Church. Cosmos mentioned that Bruno was shunned or excommunicated by the Lutherans and Calvinists as well, thus indicating that basically all of organized Christianity in Europe at the time sought to repress the scientific discoveries of this man.

So, was Bruno killed because the church wanted to silence astronomers whose ideas were derived from scientific methods rather than religion? That’s the idea that was portrayed in the show, but it would be inaccurate to state that was the primary reason. Bruno preached several doctrines that were much more heretical: He denied the trinity, the divinity of Christ, the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and he publicly disputed the virginity of Mary. That last one probably really ticked off the Roman Catholic Church. For the record, I don’t believe in the physical presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In fact, the Roman Catholic Church has had many problematic doctrines (e.g., purgatory, indulgences, papal infallibility, perpetual virginity of Mary, and penance, just to name a few). Some of these are discussed in more detail on this website. So, this article is by no means an apologetic for the Roman Catholic Church. The bottom line is that Bruno, who was part of the clergy, preached a number of doctrines that were contrary to the Church’s teaching and were much more heretical than heliocentrism.

The excessive amount of time spent by Tyson and Cosmos on religious persecution of Bruno could have been much better used to detail actual scientific discoveries of the time, such as those of Thomas Digges, a real scientist. Digges promoted the idea of Copernican heliocentrism in published works a quarter century before Bruno was executed. In 1573, Digges published a mathematical treatise, Alae seu scalae mathematicae, which detailed movement of a star that exploded the prior year, Tycho Brahe’s supernova. He translated part of a work by Copernicus and added his own ideas of an infinite universe. In 1676, Digges published A Perfit Description of the Caelestial Orbes in which he continued to promote the views of Copernicus, which was eight years before Bruno wrote of Copernicus’ heliocentric theory. Rather than suffer persecution from the church, Digges went on to become a member of parliament and had a successful military career.

Does the show have an agenda in addition to the advancement of scientific discovery? To answer that in the words of Cosmos Producer Seth McFarlane, creator of The Family Guy, in an interview with Esquire magazine: “We have to. Because of all the mysticism and stuff that’s gotten so popular … It’s like the civil-rights movement. There have to be people who are vocal about the advancement of knowledge over faith.” And, spokesperson Neil Degrasse Tyson told CNN: “ "I find it odd that we live in a time where people who are strongly religious want to make everyone else the same kind of religious way they are, and break down the door of the science classroom to put their religious philosophies in there." Fair enough. So, let’s present the scientific facts about the universe. Cosmos is a terrific show and it would be a shame to waste the potential to present the many fascinating scientific discoveries of the universe in order to promote a heavy-handed anti-Christian agenda.

Robert Pogge, “The Folly of Giordano Bruno”, Ohio State University, , accessed 14 Mar 2014.
J J O'Connor and E F Robertson, biography of Thomas Digges, School of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Saint Andrews, Scotland, accessed 30 Mar 2014.
Stacey Grenrock Woods, “Hungover with Seth McFarlane”, interview in Esquire Magazine, 18 Aug 2009.
Todd Leopold, “’Cosmos’ dazzles in debut”, CNN, 10 Mar 2014.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

The God gene ten years later

It has been almost two years since the “God particle” was found and almost ten years since the “God gene” was allegedly found. Further research into the Higgs Boson seems to confirm the original reports from 2012. However, the God gene hypothesis has not fared so well. In nearly ten years, no studies have confirmed the existence of a genetic basis in humans for belief in the supernatural.

The so-called God gene discovery began in 1998, when Dean Hamer, geneticist at the National Cancer Institute, was conducting a study of cigarette smoking and cancer. As part of the study, a standardized 240-question personality test was given to 1,000 subjects entitled the Temperament and Character Inventory (TCI). Among others, one of the traits measured was self-transcendence, or the ability to lose oneself in an experience. (Why this was included in a study of cigarettes and cancer is not clear.) Hamer then branched off this study to spirituality and began to examine particular segments of the human genome. He narrowed the field to specific genes that play a role in the production of monoamines, such as serotonin, and norepinephrine and dopamine. These regulate functions such as mood and can be manipulated by antidepressant psychotropic medication.

Hamer noticed that volunteers who scored high on the self-transcendence test had a variation in a gene known as vmat2 – vesicular monoamine transporter. Those with the nucleic acid cytosine in a particular location on the gene ranked high on the personality test and those with adenine in this location ranked low. [1] Even Hamer pointed out that the human genome and personality are complex and a single change in one position of a gene would not likely be the sole determining factor, stating “"The specific gene I have identified is by no means the entire story behind spirituality”. Nonetheless, in 2004, Hamer published a book titled The God Gene: How Faith is Hardwired into Our Genes.

Scientific American writer Carl Zimmer noted that Hamer’s 2004 book was premature since the genetic link between VMAT2 and self-transcendence had not been replicated by other studies and the relevance to humans had not been demonstrated. Rather than “The God Gene”, Zimmer proposed a more appropriate title for the book: “A Gene That Accounts for Less Than One Percent of the Variance Found in Scores on Psychological Questionnaires Designed to Measure a Factor Called Self-Transcendence, Which Can Signify Everything from Belonging to the Green Party to Believing in ESP, According to One Unpublished, Unreplicated Study.” [3]

It should be noted this is not the first time Dean Hamer has made the news. In 1993, he created a media splash when it was reported that he found a genetic basis for male homosexuality. He found a marker in the Xq28 region of the X chromosome on an allegedly statistically significant percentage of those subjects tested. [2] However, in more than 20 years, no other researchers have been able to replicate the study.

Those who are genetically predisposed – or as Lady Gaga would sing “born this way” – will tend to believe in some higher power or spirit world and those who lack the genetic marker will probably not believe. So, what would be the logical conclusion of this line of reason? First, this means a real god is less likely since belief is simply a genetic tendency, probably left over from our evolutionary survivalist past. Second, non-spiritual persons are less likely to be culpable for any moral failures since they are simply acting as their godless conscience leads. If a marker could be found for belief in God, would that be a form of genetic hyper-Calvinism, in which some people are predetermined to believe and others to not believe?

Are some people more predisposed toward some type of spirituality due to genetics, environment, or both? Probably to some degree. In the same manner, some people may be more prone to alcoholism, altruism, or violence. A predisposition has no bearing on truth or morality. Altruism is good and violence is generally not. Similarly, God exists regardless of a variation on a gene in my body. Human free will is not negated by genetics. As stated by Nobel Laureate Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project: “Heredity does have an influence not only over medical risks but also over certain behaviors and personality traits. But look at identical twins, who have exactly the same DNA but often don't behave alike or think alike. They show the importance of learning and experience—and free will.” [4] Collins plainly stated, “There is no God gene”.

Dean Hamer’s study would be intriguing, if statistically significant and repeatable. However, his findings were not subjected to peer review, have not been replicated, and the conclusion appears to be invalid.

[1] Jeffrey Kluger, “Is God in our Genes?” from TIME Magazine, October 25, 2004.
[2] Dean Hamer, Stella Hu, Victoria Magnuson, Nan Hu, Angela Pattatucci, “A linkage between DNA markers on the X chromosome and male sexual orientation”, Science, Volume 261, No. 5119, July 16, 1993, 321-327.
[3] Carl Zimmer, “Faith-Boosting Genes”, Scientific American, October 2004.
[4] John Horgan interview, “Francis Collins: The Scientist as Believer”, National Geographic, February 2007.

Monday, February 10, 2014

New stem cells easy and cheap

The production – and destruction - of human embryos to produce stem cells, with the hopes of treating degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, may be moving toward irrelevancy. In a study published in the journal Nature, adult cells were induced to pluripotency with a simple proceduce to act as stem cells which were capable of transforming into varied types of cells in the body. Researchers at the RIKEN research institute in Japan, with lead study author Haruko Obokata, employed a technique referred to as stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency (STAP).

Blood cells of newborn mice were soaked in a mildly acidic solution for 30 minutes, then returned to a standard cell culture medium. Those that survived this near-fatal shock were found to have been induced to pluripotency, the ability to become transformed into any type of cell in the body. Prior to this study, either embryonic cells were needed to obtain stem cells or more complicated methods involving genetic manipulation were required to induce pluripotency. The study authors noted that the technique required neither nuclear transfer nor the introduction of transcription factors. Rudolf Jaenisch, developmental biologist at the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, remarked that “It’s quite surprising” that the technique “doesn’t involve any genetic manipulation”.

A gene only present in stem cells, known as Oct-4, was tagged with a fluorescent marker after being removed from mice spleens by Obokata and her team. They found that some white blood cells exposed to mild acid stress (pH of 5.7) survived and, after two days, some of the cells began to glow, indicating they had been transformed to stem cells. These were then injected into mouse embryos and, over time, became incorporated into all three germ layers of the embryo, indicating they were inheritable. After about a week, 20% of the cells survived and, of those, 30% reverted to a pluripotent state.

Though the researchers used white blood cells from mice in the majority of the experiments, the technique was also demonstrated to be effective when used with brain, skin, muscle, and other cells. Obokata noted that the efficiency of the cells decreased with the age of the mouse, raising the need for further development of the method for use with older patients. Nonetheless, Ernst Wolvetang, stem cell scientist at the University of Queensland in St Lucia, Australia, remarked that the method is so simple that it “will make reprogramming more accessible” for widespread laboratory use.

The STAP method draws on prior research with somatic, or differentiated, plant cells which have been known to revert to an immature state when placed under certain types of environmental stress. Conditions such as insufficient water or excessive heat can cause some plant cells to become capable of forming new plants. Obokata had previously conducted studies with plants and, in 2008, began subjecting mice cells to similar stressors to determine if animal cells may react similarly.

Commenting on the study, Chris Mason, professor of regenerative medicine at University College London, stated: “If it works in man, this could be the game changer that ultimately makes a wide range of cell therapies available using the patient’s own cells as starting material – the age of personalized medicine would have finally arrived”. Furthermore, if the new STAP method works in humans, it should also reduce or eliminate the genetic mutations that can occur in induced pluripotent cells derived from embryos.

Haruko Obokata, “Stimulus-triggered fate conversion of somatic cells into pluripotency”, Nature, 505, 641-647, (30 Jan 2014).
Monte Morin, “New method makes stem cells in about 30 minutes, scientists report”, Los Angeles Times, 29 Jan 2014.
Dennis Normile, “Acid Treatment Could Provide Breakthrough Stem Cell Technique”, Sciencemag.org, 29 Jan 2014.
Lanay Tierney, “Acid bath converts blood cells to stem cells”, BioNews, 3 Feb 2014.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Extra-Biblical evidence for the Tower of Babel

One of the oldest stories in the Bible concerns the Tower of Babel. Some people today question whether it is simply a myth, with no other evidence outside of the Bible. But, like numerous other events recorded in the Bible, there are historical and archaeological records – from non-Jewish sources – which corroborate the Biblical record.

It is written in Genesis 11:1, 7-8: “Now the whole earth used the same language and the same words … let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech. So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” (Genesis 11:1, 7-9) The word babel in ancient Hebrew means “confusion”.

Location of Babel is described in Genesis 10 as in the land of Shinar. Other Biblical passages also reference Shinar, such as Joshua 7:21, Isaiah 11:11, Daniel 1:2, and Zechariah 5:11. The ancient Sumerian name for the Tower of Babel – as is known today – is Etemenanki, which means “House of the foundation of heaven on earth.” [1]

Tower of Babel stele
A black stone dated to 604-562 B.C., 45x27x11 cm, is inscribed in cuneiform script and depicts the Tower of Babel, showing it to have been built in seven stages. Also depicted on the stone is a figure of King Nebuchadnezzar II, with what is believed to be a scroll with plans for rebuilding of the tower. The stone does not provide information to date the original tower construction prior to Nebuchadnezzar’s reconstruction. The tower is named Etemenanki, “The house, the foundation of heaven and earth, ziggurat in Babylon” and the actual artifact is currently housed in the Schoyen Collection. The middle part of the inscription has been erased, though the conquering ruler’s inscription was never inserted. A ziggurat is essentially a stepped rectangular pyramidal tower, often built in stages and with an outside staircase. Schoyen Collection commentators note that the ziggurat was originally built in Babylon around the time of Hammurabi, about 1792-1750 B.C. Restoration began under Nabopolassar and was completed by Nebuchadnezzar II. [2]

Esagila Tablet
A Seleucid stone tablet from Uruk, written in cuneiform, dated to 229 B.C., is currently on display in the Louvre (AO 6555). It is known as the “Esagila” tablet because it records courtyards built in Esagila, a temple of the god Marduk in Babylon. The text was copied from an earlier document which describes reconstruction of the Marduk temple during the reigns of Nabopolassar (625-605 B.C.) and Nebuchadnezzar II (605-562 B.C.). Large stairs were discovered at the south side of the building, where a triple gate connected the Etemenanki with the Esagila. The more interesting portion of the tablet contains writing mentions the ziggurat Etemananki, “House of the Foundation of Heaven and Earth”. The tablet describes Etemananki as a multi-tiered tower and provides precise measurements of seven stories, design of the base, and stairways. This tablet is also valuable because it illustrates a complex mathematical system used by the Babylonians, which was “sacred” and only intended to be used by the “wise men”. [3]

Greek historical records
At least two Greek historians mention this tower. One was Herodotus (ca 484-425 B.C.) in his work Histories. He describes a massive tower in Babylon consisting of eight stages and is surrounded by a ramp. Herodotus stated the length of the base tower is a furlong (about 200 meters or 600 feet). [4] A second Greek source, Diodorus Siculus, also mentions the tower (Book II, 7-10).

Dating construction of the tower
Construction of the Tower of Babel, based on historical and archaeological records, has generally been dated to roughly 3500-2400 B.C. Sargon I is known to have ruled around 2350 B.C. in the capital city of Akkad, in the Mesopotamian valley. History indicates that Sargon I destroyed the temple in Babylon at that time and it was later rebuilt by Sarkalisarri around 2250 B.C. Halley’s Bible Handbook indicates the events occurred the 4th generation after Noah’s flood, around the time of Peleg (Genesis 10:25), about 101 years after the flood and 326 years before the calling of Abraham (Genesis 10:26). [5] Many scholars place the birth of
Abraham roughly prior to 2000 B.C., so this fits with dating of the tower as prior to about 2350 B.C. How much prior is difficult to determine since Biblical genealogies are known to contain gaps, making the time periods longer – maybe much longer - than they might initially appear.

John H. Walton, Professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College, describes a historical setting for the culture at that time which was conducive to building of such a structure. For example, baked brick technology was used around 3100 B.C. And, development of the ziggurat was used in the early Dynastic Period, ca. 2500 B.C., with early prototypes dating back to the late Uruk period, ca. 3500 B.C. [6] So, the Biblical narrative describing building of this tower is well corroborated by extra-Biblical lines of evidence.

The whole earth?
One issue that some raise involves dating of people groups in other parts of the world prior to the usual dating for the Tower of Babel. For instance, carbon 14 dating and artifacts found in the Americas have been dated much earlier than 3500-2400 B.C., possibly more than 14,000 years ago. There are three possible explanations for this. Either the tower was actually constructed earlier than the records seem to indicate, the migrations out of Mesopotamia were later than thought, or a combination of the two. A third possible explanation involves Biblical use of the phrase “the whole earth”. This phrase was used by Moses, author of Genesis, in chapter 11, verses 1, 4, 8, and 9, and is derived from the ancient Hebrew words koi ‘erets. These words are also used by Moses in Genesis 41:57 to describe from where people came to purchase grain. This was during the time Joseph was in Egypt. Hugh Ross makes the point, in discussing the famine of Joseph’s time, that it is important to use the writer’s frame of reference:
“We understand these words to signify that the famine devastated all the lands of the ancient Near East in and around Egypt. We do not interpret them globally, as implying that Australian Aborigines and American Indians came to Egypt to buy grain from Joseph.” [7]

Likewise, is it possible God only needed to confuse the languages of those people living in the Mesopotamian valley region to accomplish His purpose? Perhaps the events recorded in Genesis 11 concern only the people living in the Mesopotamian region during that time and not people groups living in very disparate regions of the globe. In the third millennium B.C., there was no method of communication between people of the Middle East and people of the Americas other than a very long camel ride. The “whole earth” or “whole land” during the time of Moses and Abraham may have encompassed what the people knew of, not very distant lands of which they had no knowledge and no communication.

[1] Jona Lendering, “Etemenanki (Tower of Babel)”, Livius: Articles on Ancient History, accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[2] The Schoyen Collection, “History: Babylonian”, MS 2063, website accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[3] Iselin Claire, “The ‘Esagila’ Tablet”, Louvre Museum, website accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[4] Herodotus, The History of Herodotus, (London: J. M. Dent & Sons Ltd., 1936), p. 181
[5] Henry H. Halley, Halley’s Bible Handbook, (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1965), p. 83.
[6] John H. Walton, “Is there archaeological evidence for the tower of Babel?”, Associates for Biblical Research, written 10 May 2008., accessed 1 Jan 2014.
[7] Hugh Ross, The Genesis Question, (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1998), 142-143.