Category Archives: Religion

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Anthropology, Religion

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.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Religion, Space

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.


Leave a Comment

Filed under QOTD, Religion

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Archaeology, Religion

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.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Religion

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.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Anthropology, Religion

Our Common Ancestors, part I

“To the extent that ancestry is considered in genealogical rather than genetic terms, our findings suggest a remarkable proposition: no matter the languages we speak or the colour of our skin, we share ancestors who planted rice on the banks of the Yangtze, who first domesticated horses on the steppes of the Ukraine, who hunted giant sloths in the forests of North and South America, and who laboured to build the Great Pyramid of Khufu.” – Rohde, Olson, and Chang, “Modeling the recent common ancestry of all living humans” quoted in Swamidass 2019.

The quote above was a comment on a study the authors performed on universal genealogical (not genetic) ancestors. Understanding this begins with the realization that each of us has vastly more genealogical ancestors than genetic ones. Genealogical ancestry refers to every single person whom you can claim as a biological ancestor. Generally, that mean two parents, four grandparents, and so forth, doubling with each generation you go back. In just a few generations, the number of ancestors you have becomes enormous. However, most of those people have not contributed any DNA to you. This is because the DNA molecule, although made up of millions of base pairs, is not divisible just anywhere. During reproduction, it divides into discrete chunks, which are passed on as units. (The number of chunks involved is somewhat larger than the number of chromosomes you have, but not immensely so.) This means that just a few generations back, it’s impossible for most of your genealogical ancestors to have contributed any DNA to you. This is even more pronounced if you limit your search to certain portions of your DNA. Mitochondrial DNA, for example, only passes from mother to child, meaning that only one person in each generation is your mitochondrial ancestor.

Genealogical ancestors, as I mentioned above, double in each generation. So after 40 generations, or about 1,000 years if you consider a generation to be 25 years, you would have over one trillion ancestors. This is, obviously, far more people than have ever lived, so equally obviously, a large majority of your ancestors that far back will be people you are related to along more than one line. I have the same number of ancestors you do, so no matter how far different we seem to be, it’s very likely that within just a few hundred years, we start having ancestors in common.

In 1999, Joseph Chang published the results of a computer simulation in which he calculated that everybody alive on planet Earth was related through an ancestor who lived roughly 700 years ago. Chang used a very simple model, which didn’t take into account that some populations are more isolated than others. A more careful study in 2004 by Rohde, Olson, and Chang refined the date of the most recent universal genetic ancestor (MRUGA) to about 2,000 years ago, and this finding seems to be holding on pretty well. Even more interesting is the identical ancestors point (IAP). It should be apparent to anybody thinking about it that the further back in time you go, the more ancestors we have in common. The IAP is the point in time where everybody alive on the planet either has no descendants in the present day, or is an ancestor of everybody alive. That point comes roughly twice as far back as the MRUGA, or about 4,000 years.

This finding drives the last nail into any biological argument in favor of racism. Every single one of us is related to every other one of us so recently that any idea of race is simply absurd. It’s long been observed that human biological variation does not cluster into identifiable races, and genealogical ancestry reveals why that’s the case; no human population has been isolated anywhere near long enough for separate races to have evolved.

This finding also led computational biologist S. Joshua Swamidass to an even more interesting finding, with theological implications. But that’s a subject for another post.


Leave a Comment

Filed under Anthropology, Religion

Safety Team

As I mentioned two posts ago, I started going to church again after not going for several years. This is not a fundamental change; I hadn’t stopped believing, I’d just gotten lazy. Also, the church I had been attending when I first came to Reno was just too big, and I realize now that it’s not good for me to attend a church where it’s too easy for me to hide and not get involved with, or even really get to know, the people. So about seven months ago, after looking at various church web sites, I decided to try visiting Outlook Christian Church, which looked good online and is close to my house.

You know how sometimes when you walk into a place you can immediately get kind of a feel for it? That happened here. At no point did I ever feel like I was a guest in that church; right from the beginning I felt like part of the family. So I went back. And kept going back, and got to know people. So now, seven months later, I’ve been recruited to be part of the security team (sometimes called the safety team, which might sound a little less off-putting for some people). When  I first found out they had a security team I was happy that the leaders were thinking about that, but also heartbroken that we live in a world where a church would even need security. Why I got asked to be a part of it is still a bit of mystery to me, since I don’t really have any security background. But Joe Lewis, the team leader, says they recruit for personality and train for competence. Okay.

I started last Sunday. It’s a little odd being in church during the service without participating in the singing or paying attention to the sermon. But I learned a lot, and I got a chance to pray with a couple of people I probably wouldn’t otherwise have interacted with. This is not a ministry that I ever really imagined myself doing, but I think it is where God wants me to be right now.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Religion

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom His favor rests

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” – Luke 2:10-12 (NIV)

Leave a Comment

Filed under Religion

ZOMG!!! Catholic University promotes Catholicism!!

And some morons apparently think that it’s a violation of their human rights if the meeting rooms at a private religious college all contain Catholic symbols.

If you’re deeply offended by Christian symbols, then perhaps a school named “Catholic University” might not be the best place for you. I’m just saying.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Religion, Weirdness