Animal Planet’s Mermaid Special and History Documentaries

If you are like me (and have a masochistic interest in watching pseudo-scientific documentaries) then you probably watched Animal Planet’s Mermaids: The Body Found over the weekend. And if you were like me, you probably knew that it was fake. You could tell just from the commercials, before the documentary aired, that there was something completely bunk about it (like the fact that it claims mermaids are real, for instance–usually sends up red flags for me). They even made a rather subtle disclaimer:

Although they were not very clear on which parts were fiction and which were based on ‘real science’. See below for details.

However, if you weren’t like me, you probably thought the documentary made a very compelling case and were convinced by its conclusions. Well, sorry to say, you were fooled (FOX News seems to think the doc was genuine). As reported by MSNBC:

If you were unnerved over the holiday weekend by Animal Planet’s special “Mermaids: The Body Found,” take a deep breath. It’s OK to go back in the water again, and you can quit eyeing your copy of “The Little Mermaid” suspiciously.

The two-hour program is fiction, but it’s presented in documentary style, with actors playing scientists who claim to have found the body of a mermaid on a Washington state beach.

via TV & Entertainment News – Reviews, Rumors, Gossip – The Clicker | TODAY.com Blogs – Were you fooled by Animal Planet’s mermaid special?.

While I was watching the documentary, the producers did some very interesting things. They used CGI to produce long segments of content (specifically about the ‘Aquatic Ape theory‘), they used real science (complete with DNA analysis, cellular analysis, the link between dolphins and humans, certain interesting evolutionary attributes of humans, and gave it credibility by using agencies like NOAA), drew upon real coverups (like the Navy’s coverup of sonar equipment testing which led to several beachings like the one in North Carolina), counted on the value of internet information (i.e., viral videos and the trust many people have in internet underground media), and also attempted to link mermaids culturally using archaeology and art history. They even used an image of a cave painting (completely CGI’d, of course) where humans and mermaids were either fighting or working together or something, but it is based on real cave paintings.

The CGI’d Mermaid cave art (left) is structured on cave art from places like the Lascaux Caves (middle) and San art in the Karoo, South Africa (right).

Behind the guise of credibility, the falsity–that mermaids are real–was neatly presented in a manner through which many of us have become accustomed: sound bites and edited clips. While I watched the production, I was on the net reading responses. Some were skeptical right away, as they rightly should have been. Many of the claims were debunked during the airing (like the fact that IMDB listed actors who played the roles of the scientists) and the website linked to the film, which has a fake DOJ/Homeland Security Seize order (determined to be fake just by looking at the name of the file under the page info). A quick Google search yielded no reference to a mass beaching in Washington or in South Africa during the years mentioned in the film. No intricately carved spearheads made of stingray tails and spines were found.

And while some were skeptical, many–too many–were persuaded (read the comments, some commenters believe that the government paid people to talk down the show!). They were persuaded even when the documentary presented itself as a fiction (at the end of the doc). Twitter is still blowing up with comments about how ‘mind blowing’ the doc was; it is downright upsetting that so many have bought into this fiction without even verifying their information. The most Wikipedia said about it during the airing was that it was a ‘mockumentary’, with no real discussion about the film until some time later the next day. Comments on blogs and on hype videos were full of people just accepting the conclusions of the film. And it reminded me of an episode of Fact or Faked: Paranormal Files (because I love this show, even if they play up/hype the fakes a little for production value) where they faked a video of a lizard man and posted it on Youtube, and people claimed they had seen this very faked lizard man, and that clearly the thing was real (even though the team fabricated the whole thing).

This is why shows like Ghost Hunters are popular. When you produce a show well, and focus on your audience by feeding them semi-factual information and information which seems like it should be possible, they will more than likely accept your conclusions. Films about the historical Cain and Abel, the Shroud of Turin, Jesus nails, Noah’s Ark, the Ark of the Covenant, Mary Magdalene, Atlantis, and others use this very same formula to produce believable stories which, unfortunately, are based mostly (or wholly) on fiction. Ancient Aliens is another presentation just like this. They prey on their audiences ignorance.

In the end, I enjoyed Mermaids: The Body Found, because I knew what I was going to be watching–I knew it was fiction and just made for entertainment. I thought a lot of the (faked) evidences were cleverly conceived and tied together. It was entertaining, the acting was decent (sometimes it was excellent) and if Mermaids did exist (don’t worry, they don’t) you would expect this sort of evidence to exist–you would need exactly this sort of extraordinary evidence in order to prove it. So I thought that was very interesting. The paranoid operative who remained anonymous was a good touch–really hammered home the fun factor for me. But I worry about those who are not as skeptical as I am; those who would watch it and accept it at face value instead of doing any additional research. That this happens with a documentary about mermaids–mermaids–is worrisome. Because when it comes to figures like Moses, or Adam and Eve, or even Jesus, I know people will be less likely to challenge what they see and more readily acclimated to accept what they see at face value.

So hopefully, maybe, this docufiction will be a lesson to everyone. We’ll just have to wait and see.


UPDATE (5/31/12):
Right now the twitter feed is blowing up at #mermaids; right now the show is re-airing and people still think, three days later, that it is a real documentary.  I’m talking hundreds of people on twitter really bought into this, without doing the slightest bit of research.  Hopefully someone is reading this and will pass this article along.

Book Review – Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology, by James G Crossley

Just received word that James Crossley’s new book will be shipping soon!  This is quite exciting.  I have been looking forward to this book since I heard about it months ago.

I will be writing up a book review here, so check back or subscribe to my feed so you can be sure to keep up with it.

Here is the ToC:

Preface
Chapter 1: Introduction: Jesus Quests and Contexts

PART I: From Mont Pelerin to Eternity? Contextualising an Age of Neoliberalism
Chapter 2: Neoliberalism and Postmodernity
Chapter 3: Biblioblogging: Connected Scholarship
Chapter 4: ‘Not Made by Great Men’? The Quest for the Individual Christ
Chapter 5: ‘Never Trust a Hippy’: Finding a Liberal Jesus Where You Might Not
Think

PART II: Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism
Chapter 6: A ‘fundamentally unreliable adoration’: ‘Jewishness’ and the Multicultural Jesus
Chapter 7: The Jesus Who Wasn’t There? Conservative Christianity, Atheism and
Other Religious Influences

PART III: Contradictions
Chapter 8: ‘Forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing!’ Other
Problems, Extremes and the Social World of Jesus
Chapter 9: Red Tory Christ

Chapter 10: Conclusion

You can also pick up a copy on Amazon, if you so wish:

Amazon.com: Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism: Quests, Scholarship and Ideology (BibleWorld) (9781908049704): James G Crossley: Books.

Update 6/26/12:

My review copy of Jesus in an Age of Neoliberalism arrived yesterday and I had some extra time that I could skim through it and make some initial impressions.  What struck me first was the weight of the book; for the subject matter, at over 250 pages, it covers quite a bit.  James Crossley and I had talked about the publication and he mentioned that I would be in the volume so, the narcissist that I am, I eagerly looked myself up in the book (this being the second volume that I know of to discuss my forthcoming collection of essays, in which James Crossley has a chapter, it was rather exciting).  I was pleased to see that Crossley references both my blog and ‘Is This Not the Carpenter’ on several occasions, all in good order. Interestingly, Crossley cites me within the context of the Jesus Project, and he spends a great deal of time on the Project as a whole, in a manner which is both responsible and apt–and he would know since, like myself, he was a part of it.  I’ll cover more on this issue when I get to reviewing that chapter at some point in the next month or so.

One minor correction (which is not Crossley’s fault) which should be highlighted is that he lists me as a mythicist.  At the time of the Jesus Project in 2008-2009 I did consider myself a mythicist, and by the time Crossley had submitted his manuscript to Equinox for publication, I had not clearly denounced that affiliation.  Crossley is aware of the change but, alas, it is too late to rectify the volume!

I browsed through the rest of the volume with interest and found the range of topics compelling.  Crossley’s book, while he admits is not comprehensive, is perhaps the most solid examination thus far of the subject of the political-social-religious reception of the figure of Jesus across the spectrum.  From atheists and secularists, to fundamentalists, to republicans and liberals, to diverse social groups, concerning confessional theology and presuppositional apologetics, Crossley does an exceptional job of laying out the subject.  And he isn’t doing it to make friends.  From the brief exposition into the volume, no one comes away from the volume feeling clean and unscathed.  And that is a good thing.  It keeps the world of New Testamentlers honest.

UPDATE 6/29/12: Chapter 1

Because the book is divided into sections, with Chapter 1 sort of standing alone, I’m going to review the first chapter and then move on to reviewing the sections instead of each subsequent chapter.  My skim of the book was positive and, so far, James Crossley’s book does not disappoint.  Chapter 1 is primarily an introduction to what he wants to do with the rest of it.  At times introductions can be boring and appear almost as if they were an afterthought to the reader, but not so with Crossley’s book.  Crossley delivers his purpose with lucidity and humor, making it a joy to read.  He spends the appropriate time necessary laying out definitions for his terms and, while normally that may be dull, the way he organizes it–with bits of funny tongue-in-cheek thoughts in parentheses–kept my attention.

To the meat of it, Crossley discusses doing away with the function of named quests (i.e., first quest, second quest, third quest, etc…); and I find those thoughts echo my own, since I don’t believe that is a practical way of describing the cultural phenomena of politicizing or socializing the figure of Jesus.  And I certainly appreciated Crossley’s discussion of ‘the well'; that is to say, scholarship on the figure of Jesus which has predominantly been about the scholar staring into the well, seeing his own reflection, and calling that reflection ‘Jesus’.   But Crossley does argue that he feels that this cannot always be the case; of course he is correct.  My concern though is that I am not so sure that we might not clearly be able to recognize those instances when the Jesus presented to us is a reflection of something other than ourselves (i.e., Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs seems to suggest that we are forever wrapped up in the self concept and the figure of Jesus provides, for many at least–though not all–some of those basic needs).

I am looking forward to getting into the sections now; it is hard to put the book down!  More anon.

More on the ‘Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion’ Story

Last week I published a critique of the rather sensationalized claims of the Discovery site about the dating of the crucifixion (see also here, here, here).  Since then Jeff Williams, one of the authors of the study upon which the sensational article was written, has contacted me in an attempt to clarify some of the issues.   Jeff was apologetic towards the sensationalism surrounding his paper and assured me that he been in touch with the author of the original piece and their editor and a corrected story will be published soon.

He also generously sent along his original paper so I could read and comment on it.  Overall, the report is very technical.  The first few pages have nothing to do with the crucifixion, instead the focus is on the methods and previous studies in the region.  I won’t comment on these sections because I don’t know enough about them to comment, suffice to say that I have no direct reason to be skeptical of the information.  However since most of their sources and reference material are behind pay walls, it makes it difficult to determine exactly what their source material stated.  This is problematic, for when I see a statement like ’28 historically documented earthquakes’, I can not be certain if ‘historically documented’ means ‘from the written historical record’ or if they mean more broadly, that is, from the geological record.  If they mean ‘from the written historical record’, then there may be implications to the discovery which may invalidate it or at least draw additional caution, since the written accounts we have from the past were not restricted to telling ‘what happened’.  That said, there are some issues in the paper that do need to be addressed, primarily with the discussion of the earlier paper by Humphreys and Waddington.

First, I’m concerned that the use of various texts, both vital to the conclusions of the paper and to the dating process throughout, seem so uncritical without any sort of discussion with the problems of reception–problems which are so demonstrably important to their arguments.  For example, the reference in Josephus, Wars 1.19.370 (also discussed in Antiquities 15.121), to an earthquake in 31 BCE (discussed on pp. 3-4 of the paper) is a great deal different than the two earthquakes discussed in Matthew at the crucifixion and resurrection.   While Josephus exaggerates a real event (in one account he says 10,000 men perished, in another 30,000 perished) and uses it to make a political point (i.e., about the enemies of the Jews in the region), it is clear that within the context the earthquake has some significance.  But the same cannot be said for Matthew’s account.  And the way with which the accounts appear, sans any discussion on how Biblical authors wrote (imitating earlier texts to express theological messages in new ways) and how these might be different than, say, an ancient historian (without ever addressing the issues with ancient historians) seems a little irresponsible.  One may argue that the purpose of the study was not about the value of ancient texts, but they would be wrong since the value of the “primary source” used (Matthew) is presumed in order to reach the conclusion (that the crucifixion happened on a specific date).

When the time comes to discuss the findings of Humphreys and Waddington, whatever textual evidence they might have had for the earthquake is abused.  Aside form the the fact that the article goes into the criterion of multiple attestation (i.e., that multiple Gospels generally agree), the authors (and conversely, Humphreys and Waddington) don’t use the criterion correctly.  They miss the vital fact that only Matthew recounts an earthquake (and I’ve already laid out my thoughts on one of its possible origins) and Mark, our earliest Gospel, is silent.  Luke, who was aware of Matthew, doesn’t mention an earthquake, and neither does John.  So in this instance the criterion of multiple attestation fails, since there aren’t multiple accounts–and even if there were multiple accounts, none of these would be considered ‘independent’ witnesses since the later Gospels utilized the earlier ones to formulate their narratives and narrative structures.

In addition to this, as Mark has already pointed out, Matthew–the Gospel which mentions earthquakes–does not date the crucifixion to the 14 Nisan, but the 15th (on Passover).  John is the only canonical Gospel which suggests that Jesus is crucified on 14 Nissan, and he does not recount an earthquake.  So how anyone has come to the proposed dates of Friday 7 April 30 CE (14 Nisan) or Friday 3 April 33 CE (14 Nisan) is beyond me (note here that these are not Jeff’s estimates, but those of Humphreys and Waddington), since that would mean that Matthew is not the source of the account by John, but he is not a primary source for an earthquake.

Finally, the use of Acts of the Apostles is problematic for the same reasons that Matthew’s gospel is a problem.  Acts is possibly much later than Matthew (with a new date suggested around the early second century, a la Joe Tyson) and highly influenced by different theological agendas than Matthew would have been.  Still, even if Acts could be authoratatively dated to the first century, the earthquakes in Acts like those in Matthew are theological representations and not historical ones.

These criticisms aside, I am interested in the general conclusions of the piece.  Jeff has made it clear that there are three possibilities.

  1. the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew occurred more or less as reported;
  2. the earthquake described in the Gospel of Mathew was in effect ‘borrowed’ from an earthquake that occurred sometime before or after the crucifixion, but during the reign of Pontius Pilate;
  3. the earthquake described in the Gospel of Matthew is allegorical fiction and the 26–36 AD seismite was caused by an earthquake that is not reported in the currently extant historical record.

Of course I am more partial to the third option and I have to imagine that the consensus would fall into that third option as well.  Even the second option would not be out of the question, though I would remove the caveat that it had to have been ‘during the reign of Pontius Pilate’ since, without the crucifixion, the earthquake would have no relevance: the two events are too interconnected in the narrative to remove one or the other.

Also, interestingly enough, this paper is generally contrary to the article written by Discovery, which is refreshing.  I’m not convinced by the arguments overall.  I am not sure why one even needs to include the crucifixion as it is neither relevant to this sort of study or valuable as a tool to date earthquakes.  It just seems rather silly and contrived.  Still, I thank Jeff for clarifying his position with me and sharing his paper.  It was much less incautious than I was led to believe (via news media reporting on his story) and overall I found it interesting, even if I didn’t find it all that compelling.

Earliest Music Instruments Found!

This is just awesome.  It shows that even tens of thousands of years ago, man had a fascination with music.   And today we try to close up music programs and fire music teachers; this is such an important part of our social and biological heritage.  We should be saving it.

The flutes, made from bird bone and mammoth ivory, come from a cave in southern Germany which contains early evidence for the occupation of Europe by modern humans – Homo sapiens.

Scientists used carbon dating to show that the flutes were between 42,000 and 43,000 years old.

The findings are described in the Journal of Human Evolution.

Prof Nick Conard, the Tuebingen University researcher who identified the previous record-holder for oldest instrument in 2009, was excavator at the site.

He said: “These results are consistent with a hypothesis we made several years ago that the Danube River was a key corridor for the movement of humans and technological innovations into central Europe between 40,000-45,000 years ago.

“Geissenkloesterle is one of several caves in the region that has produced important examples of personal ornaments, figurative art, mythical imagery and musical instruments.”

Musical instruments may have been used in recreation or for religious ritual, experts say.

via BBC News – Earliest music instruments found.

What to See What Irresponsible Belief Looks Like?

This is why science needs a louder voice.  Faith is fine, but faith cannot heal your 9 year old son.  That is what doctors, medication, and trial tests are for.  Every few months now some tragic story like this is big news.  What is the point of saving a life in the womb if you are going to neglect it once it is born?!

As a member of the Church of the Firstborn, “We just believe that prayer works,” Grady told police.

“I didn’t want to be weak in my faith and disappoint God,” she said.

“I don’t believe what I did, with the way I believe, was wrong,” she told police in 2009. “I try to have faith and do what I feel is right.”

Grady, 43, is charged with second-degree manslaughter. Prosecutors allege that she acted negligently toward Aaron between June 2 and June 5, 2009, by not seeking medical treatment for him, allowing his medical condition to become increasingly worse.

There has been testimony that Aaron’s weight dropped from 68 pounds on April 28, 2009, to 52 pounds on the day he died.

Dr. Michael Baxter, a pediatrician who reviewed medical records in the case, indicated that a 16-pound drop in a boy that size over that time span, and without medical attention being sought, indicated that Aaron “suffered from child neglect.”

Aaron’s weight went from average to “off the charts,” Baxter testified Thursday.

Evidence indicated that Aaron went to two different doctor’s offices in April 2009.

Regarding those trips and her reliance on faith, “I don’t feel like that’s healing,” Grady told police in the interview.

Grady said Aaron had slept on a couch, and never got off the couch, on the day he died.

Family members from Indiana had traveled to Oklahoma. She said on that day, she knew “he was pretty sick.”

Aaron “stopped breathing,’ and people who had gathered at the apartment prayed, according to Grady’s statement.

“We just believe prayer works,” she said.

Second-degree manslaughter involves “culpable negligence” – an omission to do something that a reasonably careful person would do or failure to use ordinary care and caution in the performance of an act usually and ordinarily exercised by a person under similar circumstances and conditions.

The maximum sentence for second-degree manslaughter is four years in prison.

Testimony resumes Friday in Tulsa County District Judge William Kellough’s court.

via Mother’s testimony in child’s death: ‘I felt like God would heal him’ | Tulsa World.

And now you are going to jail and you have lost your child.   Seriously…stupid.  So stupid.

More Nonsense from Discovery: Day of Jesus’ Crucifixion

File this under ‘stupid claims Discovery made':

Jesus, as described in the New Testament, was most likely crucified on Friday April 3, 33 A.D.

The latest investigation, reported in the journal International Geology Review, focused on earthquake activity at the Dead Sea, located 13 miles from Jerusalem. The Gospel of Matthew, Chapter 27, mentions that an earthquake coincided with the crucifixion:

“And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open.”

To analyze earthquake activity in the region, geologist Jefferson Williams of Supersonic Geophysical and colleagues Markus Schwab and Achim Brauer of the German Research Center for Geosciences studied three cores from the beach of the Ein Gedi Spa adjacent to the Dead Sea.

Varves, which are annual layers of deposition in the sediments, reveal that at least two major earthquakes affected the core: a widespread earthquake in 31 B.C. and an early first century seismic event that happened sometime between 26 A.D. and 36 A.D.

The latter period occurred during “the years when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea and when the earthquake of the Gospel of Matthew is historically constrained,” Williams said.

Once more Discovery’s craptastic policy ‘if it mentions Jesus, print it’ has bit them in the pants.  That no one bothers to fact-check these claims with credible historians is tragic.

Mark Goodacre beat me to the punch this morning and already dealt with the discrepancies in the report, clearly showing that someone behind this report doesn’t know their Bible (which is sort of important, one would think, since they seem to want to prove it is reliable):

The “all four gospels” is the kind of thing that might sound impressive to someone not acquainted with scholarship on the Gospels because it gives the impression of multiple independent attestation.  However, it is consensus in New Testament scholarship that Matthew and Luke knew Mark and were dependent upon Mark for their crucifixion narratives, so this is not independent attestation.  Views differ a little on John, but many (like me) think that John knew the Synoptics too.

The first three bulletpoints are taken over from the article by Humphreys and Waddington, which also uses the rhetoric of “all four gospels”.  The latter two bullet points contain errors.  The Synoptics appear to place the death of Jesus on the day of Passover, 15 Nisan, and not on 14th.  They depict Jesus engaging in the Passover meal at sunset, when the day begins, and being crucified that same day.  John does indeed differ from the Synoptics, but not in the way claimed here.  John depicts Jesus’ death as occurring not on the day of Passover (15th), but on the day before (14th).  So either Williams is confused or the journalist is confused or both.

Typically, the same errors are taken over without any checking in other versions of the report, e.g. the Daily Mail.

Mark’s conclusion is perhaps most appropriate:

To take Matthew’s “earthquake” as a geological report is to misread his account.  The story he is presenting here is one of those that very few New Testament scholars would take seriously as history.  It’s even read with caution by the most conservative scholars, and for good reason.  The Discovery report ends its quotation of Matt. 27.51-2 with the tombs opening, but Matthew goes on to recount what some people call the Zombie Pericope, when bodies come out of the tombs, walk around and meet people.  This is not history but legend.

Indeed, the article makes a point to show multiple attestation of certain events, but the day it proposes to have discovered–the day of crucifixion–based upon a particular event–the earthquake–is not multiply attested, though this is never explained in the article (which also seems like an important detail).

This is rather important.  I’m glad Mark left open some room to discuss why scholars don’t consider this history.  What is most important is, as Mark aptly states, first recognizing that the Gospel authors were not independent witnesses or sources; Luke and Matthew used Mark and John probably used the synoptic gospels to create his own narrative.  Incidentally, the passion narratives best represent this dependence upon one another.  It is easy to demonstrate and I’ll do so below using just the synoptic gospels.

Mark’s gospel portrays the events of Jesus’ death in a subtle manner (at least, more subtle than the others).  Jesus dies and is buried and that is pretty much it.  Jesus’ tomb is found empty the day after the Sabbath, but there is no great commission, no visitations by Jesus–those who went to the tomb the next day are met by a child clothed in white who tells them the tomb is empty and then they flee.   I would here argue that this motif is actually an allegory for the destruction of the temple, where the tomb represents the destroyed temple and the boy represents the ‘coming up of the holy ones'; the scene is a possible intertextual reference to Zech. 14:2-5:

I will gather all the nations to Jerusalem to fight against it; the city will be captured, the houses ransacked, and the women raped. Half of the city will go into exile, but the rest of the people will not be taken from the city. Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south. You will flee by my mountain valley, for it will extend to Azel. You will flee as you fled from the earthquake in the days of Uzziah king of Judah. Then the Lord my God will come, and all the holy ones with him.

Matthew and Luke expand upon this story in common myth-making fashion.  But it seems as though they recognized the reference and built upon it in their own way.

At Jesus’ death Matthew adds the earthquake (cf. Zech. 14:5), the tearing of the veil in the temple (cf. Zech. 14:4), and the saints rising from the grave (cf. Zech. 14:5). After Jesus is buried, after the Sabbath, the tomb is again approached by followers (specifically two women: Mary and the “other Mary”).  There is another earthquake and Mark’s boy in white is now, through the process of myth-making, a full-blown angel, who descends from above and rolls back the stone and sits on top of it.  He tells the women to enter the tomb and see that jesus is risen, and then Matthew includes visitations by Jesus to followers and a great commission.

Luke does not bother with the earthquake or the saints rising in zombie-like fashion, but he does include the tearing of the veil and adds, for all its theological worth, the darkening of the sun (cf. Zech. 14:6-7) showing once more that Luke understood Mark’s original theological imitation of the Hebrew Bible.

Following Jesus’ burial, on the first day of the week, followers approach and find the tomb already opened.  This time Luke portrays them entering the tomb first, prior to any visitation.  Then when they find it empty, Mark’s simple boy in white and Matthew’s single angel are now rewritten as two men is dazzling white garments.  In this narrative, when the women return to explain the events at the tomb to the disciples, they refuse to believe until they go there and see it for themselves.  Along with this there are additional visitations (like the road to Emmaus which has a similar feel to the visitations by Romulus to Proculus).

John’s version is even more mythologized than the others, showing clearly (in my opinion) that he was aware of previous gospel narratives and used them to rewrite his own version of the events, as the other authors had done. But John does not include an earthquake; instead he shows his recognition of the motif and allegory in Mark and the other two gospels by writing that Jesus’ side was pierced, and that from the wound poured “blood and water”, reminiscent of the verse:

On that day living water will flow out from Jerusalem, half of it east to the Dead Sea and half of it west to the Mediterranean Sea, in summer and in winter. (Zech. 14:8)

The value of this narrative is not in its historical core, which there is none–there was no worldwide darkness (otherwise everyone on the planet forgot to mention that this happened except Luke), not even a darkness in Jerusalem, no earthquake the author is referencing, no dead rising from the graves.  The value is the theological and political significance.  That may not make some people comfortable, but as they say, critical scholarship doesn’t exist to ease comfort.

My Visit to a Local Calvary Baptist Church

Last night I was generously invited to a local Calvary Baptist church (did I say church? More like a campus) to speak one on one with an apologetics teacher in front of his class. I have generally refused such offers before because, as I’ve said on this blog and elsewhere, I just don’t care enough about the whole ‘does god exist’ question–its boring. But I agreed to this one in particular for a few reasons. First, it was an interesting way to reengage with critical issues in a relaxed atmosphere. I wasn’t going into a debate, it was just a discussion. Second, I wanted to build up some friendships across the isle. I have said it before, we too easily develop a cultural mythos about people who think differently than we do and thus it is quite easy to vilify or demonize people without ever once meeting them. This was a way for me to put my money where my mouth is, so to speak. But more than that, I wanted to establish a friendship in a way where both secular and religious groups could work together in community outreach programs. I am hoping that in the future, the Calvary Baptist community and the secular humanists of our area could work together helping people, feeding the poor, working charity events, to give back. Third and finally, I was asked really nicely. People should never ignore the value of good manners, they go a long way.

I arrived at the mega-ultra-gym-na-church-na-kitchen-na-school-natorium around 6:30 or so and got my first impression of the place. As you have probably guessed, the building was rather monstrous. It loomed over me; at one point I was pretty sure the walls were going to bleed as I entered through the main door. There was an eerie hum in the background and I could almost hear ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ playing. No I kid, actually, it wasn’t that bad. The place was spotlessly clean, children were running amok as they always will, and I was warmly greeted by some of the class members. Apparently they had just had a little gathering in the dining hall (yes, they have one of those) and a lot of people were clearing out. My gracious host and the teacher of the class, Jim, led me up to the next floor (yes, they have floors) which was lined with classrooms. Each classroom had these large digital presentation whiteboards, which were just awesome.

As Jim set up his laptop, I greeted some of the class as they came into the room. Everyone was really nice and all had smiles on their faces (and none looked as though they were carrying stones to throw at me, so that was a plus). When the majority of the class had arrived, Jim started introductions and we got right into it. I would like to bring up that I was a little disappointed to find that Jim had shared our private correspondence with the class without telling me, which I thought was a slight breach of trust, but overall there had not been anything bad or damaging in the emails, so I let it go (the emails were about content for the discussion, so no harm done; though for future reference, I generally consider email private or closed correspondence and next time I should be asked first before the content of those messages are shared).

Overall I felt the conversation went pretty well.  I let Jim and his audience know about my background as a Catholic and that I’m no expert and further inquiries about subjects outside my field of knowledge would have to be directed towards those with credentials (especially when it comes to biological or zoological matters, where I really must defer to scientists), but I offered my opinions on the matter (and that whiteboard came in real handy).  I explained a little bit about the process of sexual selection and evolutionary psychology, subjects about which none in attendance seemed to have any knowledge.  I also delved a little bit into string theory, the process of evolution (check this out, this tree represents the relationships of about 3,000 species, of which roughly less than 1% of known species), and transitional fossils.

Of course, Jim’s group was largely made up of Young Earth Creationists who, while eager to learn and explore new ideas, were greatly misinformed on even the most very basic functions of evolutionary theory.  Jim used a lot of sound-bites and quotes which, as I explained to him, is just not how science works.  Science isn’t about who can have the coolest quip, but about understanding the state of the available evidence through careful (often tedious) analysis.

Some claims were made during the course of the discussion that were simply not true, but I did not have a chance to engage.  At several instances the conversation was turning around so quickly that it was difficult for either one of us to really keep a steady topic.   Here are some of them, with some of my rebuttals.

The claim was made that there are only a certain number of galaxies in the universe (I believe the number stated was 100 billion) but that is actually a sleight of hand.  It is only the number of galaxies we can see in the current observable universe since as it stands the light from those galaxies haven’t yet reached us.  And the number of observable galaxies is more like 170 billion, not 100 billion.

Additionally, the claim was made that there are only a certain number of particles in the universe (10^82) which is another sleight of hand.  First, what particles?  Neutrinos?  Neutrons?  Quarks?  Incidentally some particles can appear and disappear into and out of existence.

The argument was also made that evidence for human evolution was paltry, which is simply false.  Along with this some odd claims were made about piltdown man which I was not fully equipped to handle.  I suggested that the class take a trip to a natural history museum and have someone qualified give them a tour.  I hope that they take me up on this and go.  After seeing their church, I’m sure they could afford a bus and lunches for the community.

Also the argument of irreducible complexity came up, which was unfortunate.  I really wanted to get into this because the watchmaker argument (Jim used the automobile) is so flawed and logically unsound I could have easily shown them.  Unfortunately I did not get a chance to establish a beachhead in that discussion as it moved onto another topic far too quickly.

See also: Here, here, here, here.  So many more it is silly to list them all.

The concept of entropy also arose as a creationist argument.  That is that life is impossible and incompatible based upon the laws of thermodynamics.  Again, I was unable to really respond at the time, but this link exposes some of the flaws behind the claims (see also these excellent articles here, here, here).

There is one matter that I should probably clear up since I wasn’t satisfied with my answer.  The question arose as to the methodology and reasoning behind evolutionary theory.  I made the comment that evolution is deductive rather than inductive, but really that isn’t the whole truth of the matter (click the links).  Evolution by definition is both a theory and a fact, and some of it is deductive and some of it is inductive.  Scientists reflect, infer, and deduce from a plethora of evidence spanning several fields of life science when coming up with evolutionary models.   I strongly recommend that those interested research evolution on their own, engaging actual research rather than just criticisms of it from creationists.  A great place to start is the Talk.Origins archive and FAQ which handles a lot of these issues.

Finally, when the question is asked, ‘why is it that there are billions of other galaxies out there with potentially billions of planets if we’re the function of God’s creation?’ a reading of a Bible verse in response does not an answer make.  Quoting from Psalms about the glory of God and his majesty does not answer the question, it simply ignores it.

At the end of the night, I was really happy to have been invited to the class.  It was great to meet everyone–all of whom were just exceptionally great people–and I thank them all (and Jim especially!) for their time, attention, and patience. It was a risky and generous offer on their part and I am supportive of any group that opens their doors to new ways of thinking–especially contrary ways of thinking, regardless of whether they are convinced by my arguments.  I hope they thought me a worthy adversary and found me cordial and entertaining, even if I wasn’t very accommodating to their beliefs on the origins of life and the universe.  Overall I was impressed by the amount of questions I got from the class and the interest they expressed and hope that translates into further research on their own time.

I hope they invite me back again sometime in the future and really hope that they accept my offer to do community work with them at some point.  Also, it would be great if we could organize or cosponsor a live discussion at the church with an expert in evolution (re: scientist) and a creationist champion.  I think that would go a long way towards gaining better understandings.

Addendum: I have invited Jim and his class to comment on this post and welcome the furthering of this conversation.  Please feel free to engage each other, but keep it cordial.  Abusive or insulting comments will not be permitted.

Tom Verenna:

Another case of ‘Biblical Archaeology’ jumping the gun. When will they learn that archaeology is not about proving the Bible true, it is “The scientific excavation and study of ancient human material remains.” Nothing more, nothing less. And what those remains tell us is important, not what we tenuously pretend they tell us.

Originally posted on Zwinglius Redivivus:

George Athas convincingly argues that the bulla newly discovered which the IAA says proves the existence of Bethlehem does no such thing at all.

Once again, however, it seems that we have an Israeli archaeologist jumping to inordinate conclusions that simply do not reflect the actual evidence, all so that they can make a sensational political statement about Israel or Judah in antiquity. There are a number of issues with Shukron’s proposal:

And then George shows why Shukron is wrong.  He concludes

It seems we need to wait for some more reliable and unsensational epigraphic analysis to be done on this bulla. Unless I’m very much mistaken(1), it seems fairly clear from the published photo that this bulla does NOT refer to Bethlehem. I lean towards seeing this as the seal of a prominent woman, though ultimately I can’t even be sure of that. Could a decent epigrapher please go…

View original 95 more words

Calvin on the Use of ‘BC’

Classics Quote of the Day: Cicero, Academica 1.3.11

Nunc vero et fortunae gravissimo percussus vulnere et administratione rei publicae liberatus doloris medicinam a philosophia peta et oti oblectationem hanc honestissimam iudico. – M. Tullius Cicero, Academica 1.3.11

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