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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Train Porn

Found parked alongside a road in West Virginia (click pictures to embiggen).

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An Oasis in the Persian Gulf

I’d heard about this article while ago, and I finally got around to tracking down and reading New Light on Human Prehistory in the Arabo-Persian Gulf Oasis by Jeffrey I. Rose, which appeared in issue 51 no. 6 (December 2010) of Current Anthropology. The article is about the possibility that humans in the past lived in what is now the floor of the Persian Gulf, which was exposed by the lower sea levels during the Late Pleistocene.

It has been known for quite a while that the entire gulf is shallow enough to have been dry land during the most recent glacial episode, between roughly 74,000 and 8,000 years ago. The Tigris, Euphrates, and several other rivers flowed through it; the tracks of their former beds can still be traced on the sea floor, along with the site of a large lake. In addition, there are locations today where local aquifers release fresh water into the gulf; when the sea level was lower, these would have been springs. The combination of rivers and fresh water springs would have made the gulf habitable even during extremely dry glacial periods, when much of the surrounding regions were unable to support a human population. The author proposes that this area could have been a refuge for human populations when the climate was too arid to make surrounding regions livable.

Unfortunately, while the author spend a significant amount of space discussing the possible implications of this refuge on Paleolithic populations moving out of Africa, he gives far less attention to the much more interesting (to me) question of how it might have impacted the development of sociopolitical complexity and sedentism during the Neolithic. This was, after all, the Cradle of Civilization, and the final filling of the gulf took place not too long before the first settlement of Eridu. It was an era of rapid (compared to what went before) technological change, which readers of this blog should know is a major interest of mine. Is there evidence of Neolithic sedentism beneath the waters of the gulf? What about cereal cultivation? Animal husbandry? Early experimentation with metallurgy? We could easily imagine that people living in a highly productive environment that is somewhat limited in size and surrounded by much less productive regions might experience population pressure and adopt agriculture as a form of intensification. Is that what actually happened, or was the trajectory quite different? Given the current political/military reality in the Middle East, we might have to wait a while before any answers can be sought. Still, the idea is intriguing, and well worth pursuing as soon as it can safely be done.

 

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Well duh!

I’ve been reading Joseph Tracy’s The Great Awakening: A History of the Revival of Religion in the time of Edwards and Whitefield. Originally published in 1842, this book gives a good overview of the famous American revival of the 1730s and 40s, told from a sympathetic perspective. And it also includes some very important information about transportation in the colonial era. On page 166 the author, describing how Reverend Josiah Crocker was having difficulties traveling back and forth between Taunton and Ipswitch, Massachusetts in early 1742, makes the stunning observation that “there was no railroad between the two places.”

No railroad between those two towns in Massachusetts in 1742. Gee, ya think?

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Quote of the Day

“Some of us have met people who can speak three or four languages but cannot say anything sensible in any of them, including their own.” – Cornelius Plantinga

 

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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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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.

 

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Snow Dog

I don’t really have anything new to say, so here’s a picture of my favorite dog, taken back in January of 2016 (click to embiggen).

 

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Traditional Narratives – Why a Story’s Origin Isn’t Important

I said last time that the origin of a traditional narrative is not a particularly interesting or useful question. That seems counterintuitive, but it’s easy to understand if you think about your own stories. Every one of us has stories we can tell about interesting or unusual things that we’ve experienced. If you’re like most people, you know a few stories about things that happened to your parents before you were born. And possibly a few from your grandparents, although most likely not very many. The more generations back you go, the fewer stories you probably know. Why don’t you know those stories? Obviously because nobody told them to you. Even extremely interesting stories don’t tend to get passed down once there’s nobody alive who remembers the people who experienced them. They don’t become sacred history.

The principle here is that narratives are only passed on if they are in some way important to the living people who hear and tell them. An interesting anecdote that happened to somebody you know is important because of the relationship you have with that person. A sacred story – a myth – is only passed on as a sacred story if it is relevant to the lived reality of the people telling and hearing it. Just being old doesn’t make it sacred. When considering myths, therefore, the question that needs to be answered is not how did this story get started, or what historical basis it might have, but what does it mean to the people for whom it is sacred.

Now, this is all assuming we’re talking about an oral narrative. Written texts are a little different. A text that is considered sacred may contain passages that are not especially important to current readers, because the sacred character of the text as a whole precludes changing or removing them (c. f. Biblical genealogies for many modern Christians). With a written text, the question to be considered is what did this story mean at the time it was added to the canon – which may or may not be the same as the time it was first told, or even first written down. Oral traditions, however, do not have the kind of connection with a greater whole that would keep then in the “canon” once they are no longer relevant to modern listeners.

So when you find that certain myths are present in many different cultures all over the world, that’s an indication that certain ideas are relevant to the lives of people in a huge variety of natural and cultural environments. And that’s a very interesting finding, because it may be telling us something about the way the human brain works, if we’re just clever enough to figure it out.

 

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Flood Stories

Following up on my last post, the worldwide flood is easily the most commonly encountered myth just about anywhere you look. Generally the flood leaves only a bare handful of survivors who frequently, although certainly not always, stay alive by taking refuge in a box or other container. In some myths the survivors are human, in which case everybody in the present world descended from them. In other cases they are divine or semi-divine beings, and the creation of mankind occurs after the flood. In any case, the flood seems to serve as a type of return to the primordial, watery chaos out of which the world was first formed, and serves to separate an ancient world of supernatural beings from the current world dominated by humans.

Now, before I go any further, I need to make it clear that I am approaching this subject as an anthropologist. Therefore, by “myth” I mean a sacred narrative, believed to be true, which often plays a central role within a larger belief system (Lehmann, Myers, and Moro 2005:54). I specifically do not mean that it is fictitious or false. Myths express sacred truths to believers, and there is nothing about the status of a story as myth that prevents it from also being historically accurate. (Nor, it must be said, is there anything that requires it to be. The historical accuracy, or lack thereof, of any narrative, is simply not relevant to its being a myth.)

In addition to the Great Flood story, there are some other myths that are found all over the world. Examples include:

  • A man makes a long journey to the world of the dead to try and recover his wife. He finds her, but on the return trip he violates some sort of prohibition, resulting in his being unable to bring her back to the world of the living (often called the Orpheus myth, after the protagonist in the Greek version of this story).

 

  • With the world originally covered in water an animal, often a duck or other water bird, dives down to the very bottom and returns with bit of mud from the bottom under it’s fingernails. From that bit of mud, dry land is created.

 

  • People obtain fire by stealing it from a group of divine or semi-divine beings. Often the theft is carried out by animals, who are pursued and pass the fire from one to another as a sort of relay.

Many other myths are widespread within geographical regions. (The monster slaying Hero Twins being one example that is found throughout much of North America.)

 

To relate this back to my last post, when we’re discussing narratives like these, that are widely distributed throughout the world, it must not be assumed that the story in question had not been part of any particular cultural tradition for millennia prior to the oldest textual record of it that survived to the present day. In the absence of evidence that the story was not part of certain cultural traditions prior to a particular date, we can not make any assumption about who had that story first. Therefore, any speculation about borrowing in one direction or another is unwarranted. Applied to the specific situation of the ancient near east, I consider it likely that the Great Flood story did not originate with any of the historically identified cultures of the region, but is quite a bit older than any of them.

In addition, we also need to keep in mind that the origin of a traditional narrative isn’t a particularly interesting or useful question. That, however, will need to addressed in another blog post.

 

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