Category Archives: Religion

Inequality in Ancient Israel

I read an interesting 2018 monograph* this morning by Avraham Faust about the archaeological evidence for social stratification in the Levant during the Iron Age. Faust looked at architecture, specifically houses, at dozens of archaeological sites. He divided the houses into four classes based on size, construction quality, and shared walls, and used the resulting categorization to create Lorenz curves for each site.

Interestingly, graphing the curves revealed significant social stratification for urban location – cities and large towns – but essentially none in rural villages. Faust attributes the difference to the presence of hired labor in urban areas. He also notes that this result implies that when the Biblical prophets denounced the exploitation of the poor, they were looking at what was happening in urban areas, not rural villages.

I would add in addition that this finding implies that in that society it was effectively impossible for individual households to accumulate large amounts of land. Archaeology obviously can’t reveal how closely Iron Age villages followed the laws about land and inheritance in the Torah, but we can use it to infer that whatever rules actually were followed led to farm land being distributed among a large number of households instead of just a few, and that the distribution at the level of the village was roughly equal. There were no large estates or landlords.

In contrast to my rant back in April about the misuse of Biblical archaeology, Faust’s monograph is an example of its proper application. He used archaeological methods to address an archaeological question about a culture in the past, not to try and prove or disprove anything in the Bible. The results do provide some insight into the way certain Biblical texts would have been understood by their original intended audience, however, and also give us a more precise picture of who the original intended audience of those particular passages was; that this message was aimed specifically at wealthy urban dwellers.

*Social Stratification in the Iron Age Levant. In Behind the Scenes of the Old Testament, edited by Jonathan S. Greer, John W. Hilber and John H. Walton, pp. 482-491. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids.

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A Wild Speculation

It has occurred to me to wonder whether it’s possible that the Hebrew word ‘rrt given in Genesis as the resting place of the Ark should be read as “Arrata” instead of “Ararat.” Although the location of the legendary land of Aratta is uncertain, the road there from Sumeria, according to an account from the 21st century BC, went through Susa and Anshan. That would probably put it somewhere in the southern part of modern Iran. If that were the case, then the Mountains of ‘rrt, where the Ark was supposed to have landed, would be best understood as the mountains that separate Arrata from Sumeria. That is, the Zagros range.

I’ve been thinking about this in connection with a previous post here about the Persian Gulf Oasis. A major flood there, in the era when it was exposed above sea level, would easily cover a vast area. (The word ‘eres, translated as “earth” in Genesis 6 is also used i many other places in Genesis, and in the rest of the Bible. In most cases, it clearly does not refer to the entire planet. That’s something that should be kept in mind, since geology has definitively ruled out a planetary flood at any point during which humans, or anything that can be recognized as a human ancestor, existed.)

The hypothetical oasis and the region around it are now beneath the waters of the Persian Gulf. However, the rising sea could not have occurred fast enough to produced a catastrophic flood. But a river flood there could be just as devastating as a river flood in any other mostly flat region. And if the rising sea had, hypothetically, been held back by a natural levee of some sort, a sudden breakthrough would likely have utterly destroyed the entire area. Either way, debris and any boats could easily have wound up at the base of the Zagros Mountains. Thus my speculation about the name ‘rrt.

Now, granted, I am not a specialist in the Ancient Near East (my master’s thesis was The Archaeological Investigation of Gardening at the Historic Railroad Station of Kearsarge, California). I do know a little, however; enough to have adopted the position of a fairly strong maximalist, as that term is used in Biblical archaeology. In other words, I consider the Biblical text to be reliable history unless and until other evidence rules it out. The opposite, or minimalist, position holds that the Bible is not reliable except when corroborated by external evidence. (These positions should be understood as the ends of a continuum, not a dichotomy.)

And let’s be clear; all I’m offering at the moment is speculation. As far as I know, there is no evidence either for or against this scenario. However, it is likely that evidence to either support or refute this speculation can be found in the geology and archaeology of the Persian Gulf, if political conditions there are ever such that research can safely be done.


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Explaining the Trinity

For nearly 2,000 years, theologians have tried to come up with an analogy to explain the Trinity in a way that isn’t heretical. So far, no one has succeeded, as two Irish peasants explain to St. Patrick:

It has occurred to me that the concept of particle/wave duality in physics might be used to develop a non-heretical analogy. Unfortunately, even if it can be done, it would fail on the grounds that the basic purpose of an analogy is to make a difficult concept easier to understand, and no part of modern physics makes anything easier for normal people to understand.


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Thoughts on a Sabbath Healing

In Matthew 12:9-14 (NIV), we find this account of Jesus healing a man’s hand:

9Going on from that place, he went into their synagogue, 10and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, they asked him, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?”

11He said to them, “If any of you has a sheep and it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will you not take hold of it and lift it out? 12 How much more valuable is a man than a sheep! Therefore it is lawful to do good on the Sabbath.”

13Then he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” So he stretched it out and it was completely restored, just as sound as the other. 14But the Pharisees went out and plotted how they might kill Jesus.

It’s sadly ironic that the Pharisees were angered by a man being healed on the Sabbath, but apparently had no problem with plotting to kill somebody on the Sabbath. Comparing this with other passages in the Gospels, it’s clear that they understood the Sabbath as a duty they performed in service to God, while Jesus, in contrast, understood it as a benefit God had provided for humanity.

The Pharisees were so convinced they had properly interpreted God’s Law that they were unable to recognize when they were in the presence of the one who had authored that Law. And this same attitude that elevates a particular understanding of the Scriptures to the status of Scripture itself, is sadly rampant in evangelical Christianity today. There is a decided lack of acceptance of the possibility of having gotten even the slightest detail wrong. This is, oddly, in contrast with mainstream Protestantism, where there is too often an unwillingness to accept the possibility of having gotten it right! The middle way, trusting that, in the Church, God has preserved the true Gospel, while accepting that any particular individual or group might have misunderstood some of the details, requires both faith and humility; faith without pride and humility without compromise.


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Ancient Near Eastern Creation Stories

In his book Old Testament Cosmology and Divine Accommodation: A Relevance Theory Approach, Old Testament scholar John W. Hilber offers the interesting observation that:

“First, it is important to keep in mind that there is no ancient Near Eastern creation account per se, whether one considers Mesopotamia, Egypt, Anatolia, or the Levant. Various traditions that are related to creation were put into the service of texts with other interests. This in itself is instructive, since it shows that the interests of the ancients revolved around questions such as theogony, cultic order, the relationship between gods and humans, magic, participating in creation cycles to overcome death, or the concerns of agriculture – not the age of the earth or how earth’s natural history unfolded. What was important to the ancients was the final order of the universe as it pertains to time, weather, and food production as well as implications for temple service. In terms of relevance theory, it is inherently improbable that Gen 1 addresses chronology of natural history or any question of interest to modern science”

Speaking more broadly, it is to be expected that some of the symbols (and all language, including written language, is a system of symbols) produced by a culture other than our own may well appear to have straight forward, obvious interpretations that are, nevertheless, not correct. It really is the case that some things which are self-evidently true to people raised in one culture are self-evident nonsense to people who grew up in a different culture.

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The Heavens Declare the Glory of God

I’ve been looking at animations of the way galaxies evolve over time. Astronomy is not my specialty, so I’ve been staying with sources that are pretty universally regarded as mainstream and reliable, so as not to wander off into aesthetic but fanciful projections.

First from the people running the James Webb Space Telescope:

And one direct from NASA:

I hear from some people that God does not exist, and yet when you project stellar movements on a time scale of billions of years, they don’t just move, they’re dancing. The stars are dancing.


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Quote of the Day

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words.

– Matthew 6:7 (NIV)

I love the phrase, “do not keep on babbling like pagans.” It’s funny (why some people think that God doesn’t have a sense of humor is incomprehensible to me), it sticks in the brain, and it also makes the point; God is not a machine where I just pull the lever (perform the prescribed ritual) and the blessing that I want comes out. This theme is continued in the immediately following verses, in which Jesus teaches his disciples that when they pray they should address God as “Father,” and in the larger context of the portion of Matthew’s gospel that this verse comes from – the passage known as the Sermon on the Mount – in which the major idea is that neither God nor other humans are to be treated as objects (whether as a means to get what we want, or as obstacles in our way), but rather as people who are valuable in themselves.


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Rant – Archaeology and the Bible

Historically, archaeology has been used both to defend and to attack the accuracy of the Bible. As an archaeologist, even though my specialty is technology in the American West, I see this a lot. In my view, both are misuses. The proper archaeological study of past cultures requires understanding the evidence on its own terms. It is not valid to use it as a means of “proof texting” either for or against any particular preexisting opinion. Using it that way almost necessarily involves cherry picking of evidence, and making decisions about how to weight archaeological findings based primarily on whether or not the support the desired outcome, which is not the way good science is done. It also commits one to a particular understanding of the archaeological evidence which may be undermined by future findings.

As a method of coming to understand past cultures, archaeology helps us determine how the biblical texts would have been understood by their original audience. It can also constrain modern interpretations, by ruling in or out certain readings, and can help us understand practices that are foreign or obscure to modern readers. But it is not the handmaid of apologetics, whether theistic or atheistic.

In the words of Old Testament scholar John H. Walton:

Archaeology is a discipline independent of biblical studies. Although archaeology in the Middle East has often served those in biblical studies, and at times in its history has been motivated and undertaken  by those whose interests were in biblical studies, it is not an arm of biblical studies. It is a scientific discipline that is driven by its own ends and means. This is why some today are uncomfortable with the label “biblical archaeology” – archaeology cannot be carried out with integrity if it is just targeting the Bible. As a science, it has a much larger task to fulfill as it focuses on recovering the material culture and successive lifestyles of the people of antiquity.

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He is Risen!

Luke 24:1-53 (NIV)

On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words.

When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.

Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.

He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They stood still, their faces downcast.

One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”

“What things?” he asked.

“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”

He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.

As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.

When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”

They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.

While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”

They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”

When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.

He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”

Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.

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Our Common Ancestors, part 2

In my last post, I mentioned biologist S. Joshua Swamidass, who has taken the concept of genealogical descent in a theological direction. In his book The Genealogical Adam and Eve: The Surprising Science of Universal Ancestry he develops the idea that a man and woman who were miraculously created de novo in the Middle East 6,000 or more years ago and whose descendants interbred with people living outside the garden (who evolved over millions of years) would almost certainly not be detectable by any current scientific methods and could, by the beginning of the first century AD, be the genealogical ancestors of everybody on Earth without invoking any extraordinary coincidences or miracles beyond their initial creation.

Importantly, Swamidass does not argue that the scientific evidence supports this hypothesis, merely that it does not rule it out. That is, since it would be incredibly unlikely that one specific couple at that temporal distance would be detectable either genetically or archaeologically, the lack of evidence for their existence is meaningless. However, that lack of evidence also means that belief in their existence has to come from some other source, such as trust in the Bible; it is not a reasonable inference from the scientific data alone.

For believers, Swamidass shows that a traditional reading of Genesis 2-3 can be maintained without having to explain away the massive amount of scientific evidence that Homo sapiens shares common ancestry with apes and has never dropped to a population of less than about 10,000 individuals. The scientific account of human origins describes the people outside the garden, many of whom are every bit as much our ancestors as Adam and Eve. The Biblical account would be understood as describing two specific individuals of special theological importance. Because these people are universal genealogical ancestors, most theological understandings of original sin remain intact. (Understandings that depend upon genetics rather than genealogy are, in my view, suspect regardless, since the Biblical authors had no concept of genetics, but make extensive use of genealogies.)

This is a idea that offers people with different beliefs about human origins some common ground on which they can interact (hopefully) without hostility. And, interestingly, it also illustrates a practical application of Stephen J. Gould’s well-known concept of non-overlapping magisteria.


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