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.

South Park on the History Channel, Ancient Aliens, and the Public Understanding of History

South Park spoofed the History Channel’s series Ancient Aliens and I have to say, it was both hilarious and scary.  South Park has always been on the front lines (so to speak) of social commentary and satire.  Spoofing silly beliefs is nothing new for the show.  A few years ago it spoofed Scientology and before that it spoofed Mormonism.  Both episodes were extremely entertaining but it showed a side of humanity that frightens me.   In both of these earlier episodes, it explained what these two groups actually believe (and what they believe is just nonsense; see for yourself and watch the videos and then do a little research to verify).  Needless to say, the show Ancient Aliens has decent enough ratings and a large enough following to scare me as well.

But this particular episode is interesting.  As I’ve said before, those who believe that there were ancient astronauts from outer space who came to earth–and that there is evidence for this–are just nuts.  It’s a new form of maximalism, whereby nonexperts pretend as if they know what they are talking about by making up ridiculous conspiracy theories and connecting the dots which can’t exist anywhere but in the fabric of their own imaginations.

To quote from Giorgio A. Tsoukalos (the guy pictured on the left):

“The Great thing about the ancient aliens theory is the fact that we can compare modern acheivements with stories from our ancient past.”  (source)

He goes on to argue quite absurdly that if we can create a two headed dog today, this allows for the possibility that two headed dogs existed in the past, created by ancient aliens.  Yes, that is exactly what he is saying.  Watch the video.

This is either a space suit or a scuba suit. We await the next History Channel series: 'Ancient Deep-Sea Alien Dive Teams'

And then compare this sort of illogical position with that of, say, the Zeitgeisters, who are just as crazy with their theories about astrotheology and the stars.  They say, for example, that the stars line up a certain way and on certain times of the year they do such and such and that is where the ancients get such and such an idea.  It’s all crap.  When you punch in the data to an astronomy program that maps the stars and can tell you about their positions in the past, they just don’t line up the way the Zeitgeist movement claims.  And when you start to factor in that some constellations are fixed and have no bearing whatsoever on the ancient Near East, it collapses the whole argument because the thread of links they correct are so fragile. For example the ‘southern cross’ constellation.  The movie Zeitgeist argues that the southern cross has bearing on the fabrication of the Gospel narratives.  But this just doesn’t work once you do a little fact checking:

The stars of the Southern Cross are just visible above the southern horizon in Alexandria, and in Jerusalem in antiquity although I don’t think it is visible there now. The constellation was, however, not recognized in antiquity, and its four bright stars were included by Ptolemy in Centaurus, which sort of surrounds it11 (bold emphasis is mine).

Why wasn’t the Southern Cross constellation recognized in antiquity? Dr. Swerdlow explains:

That Crux, the Southern Cross, was not recognized as a separate constellation in antiquity is probably because, as seen from the Mediterranean, it is low on the southern horizon and is surrounded on three sides by stars of Centaurus, which is a large, prominent constellation, and the four bright stars of Crux are included as stars of Centaurus in Ptolemy’s star catalogue. It is only when you go farther to the south, so that Crux is higher in the southern sky, that it becomes prominent as a group of stars by itself, so its recognition had to wait until the southern voyages of the sixteenth century.12

In other words, the “Southern Cross” (Crux) constellation could not have served as a basis for the Gospel account of Jesus, because it was not distinct enough for any of the ancient Mediterranean inhabitants to identify it.

(source: read all of it and judge for yourself)

To add to this, the movie tries to suggest that the Crux is visible in April, around the time of Easter.  This is only true, however, for anything at or less than the 25th parallel north.  None of the relevant cultures of the ANE would have been able to witness this (Egypt, Palestine, Italy, Asia Minor, etc…).  Only those locations in the far, far southern hemisphere see the Crux year-round.    But facts mean nothing to the Zeitgeist movement and its most ardent followers (of whom this author has had many encounters and none of them have been remotely interesting or cordial–they don’t take well to dissonant perspectives).  The same can be said for those who believe in ancient aliens.

I’m glad to see that the creators of South Park laid out all the glaring problems of the series Ancient Aliens in an entertaining way.  For those who want to see more about what I and others have to say about this series, check out this link after you watch the clip below.

South Park: Ancient Aliens Thanksgiving

Evolution: The Threat to Christianity

I can understand this journalist’s perspective.  I thought this was a very astute observation:

So-called “reality TV” has done the world a grave disservice. I don’t just mean because the vast majority of such programs are mind-numbingly tedious, but because they have given people the idea that reality is something that can be decided by popular vote.

And again:

Evolution poses a further threat to Christianity, though, a threat that goes to the very heart of Christian teaching. Evolution means that the creation accounts in the first two chapters of Genesis are wrong. That’s not how humans came into being, nor the cattle, nor the creeping things, nor the beasts of the earth, nor the fowl of the air. Evolution could not have produced a single mother and father of all future humans, so there was no Adam and no Eve. No Adam and Eve: no fall. No fall: no need for redemption. No need for redemption: no need for a redeemer. No need for a redeemer: no need for the crucifixion or the resurrection, and no need to believe in that redeemer in order to gain eternal life. And not the slightest reason to believe in eternal life in the first place.

via Evolution threatens Christianity – On Faith – The Washington Post.

I think overall her article was snarky; there are more cordial ways of getting your point across.  Still, the article is interesting and should be read.  You are welcome to disagree, but she is correct that evolution is indeed a fact.  It’s a shame that so many people have been duped by creationists and certain evangelical apologists into believing otherwise.  But belief alone does not make it so.  Evidence is the key.  And evidence is what we have.  Tons of it, in point of fact.  To say otherwise is to show ignorance.  And as the journalist remarks:

Remember that ‘ignorance’ is not an insult, but merely a term for ‘lack of knowledge’. Many of the people who protest so vociferously against the teaching of evolution do not understand how overwhelmingly strong the evidence for it is; and many of those who proclaim “But it’s only a theory” do not understand that the scientific and everyday usages of the word ‘theory’ are very different.

Everyone is welcome to their own opinion, but don’t assume that your opinion will dislodge fact.  Believe what you want, though, because that is also a choice you make, and you are welcome to believe or accept whatever you want.  Just don’t pretend to be able to influence our education system to fit your ignorant opinions.  There is a definite correlation between the 62% of people in this country who do not accept Evolution as it is and the failures of science education in our country.  I don’t allow people who believe in elves to demand changes to our commerce laws to account for the needs of elves; don’t think for a second I’m going to allow your belief in a fictional (but theologically rich) creation story to mess with the education system.

Quake in Virginia Rocks East Coast

Crazy…we felt it in PA too…

A 5.9 magnitude earthquake centered northwest of Richmond, Va., shook much of Washington, D.C., and was felt as far north as Rhode Island and New York City.

The quake sent hundreds of people spilling into the street a block from the White House, with other buildings evacuated in North Carolina and tremors felt as far away as New York City.

The U.S. Geological Survey said the earthquake was 3.7 miles deep. Shaking was felt at the White House and all over the East Coast, as far south as Chapel Hill, N.C. Parts of the Pentagon, White House and Capitol were evacuated. The quake was in Mineral, Va., in Louisa County.

via Quake Rocks Washington Area, Felt on East Coast – ABC News.

New Galaxy Pictures and a Thought

Just amazing.  This should be completely normal now; we’ve found tons of galaxies.  It’s not atypical to get great shots like this.  But it still boggles my mind that we, us humans, have the capacity to recognize not only that we are a part of this large, vast universe but that we have the drive to continue to explore.  I wonder if someone, on some distant planet, circling some distant star in this galaxy is looking at pictures of our own galaxy, and wondering the same thing.

Archaeologists Hack Kinect to Produce New 3-D Tool

Pretty awesome!  I can only imagine the applications this sort of tool could be used for!

The hacked “ArKinect” casts a pattern of infrared dots on people and objects so that it can map them in 3-D, just as it typically captures the full-body motions of gamers playing on the Xbox 360. It can already digitize people and small objects such as ancient weapons or pottery, but researchers at the University of California in San Diego hope their device can soon capture 3-D scans of entire buildings or neighborhoods.

“We are hoping that by using the Kinect we can create a mobile scanning system that is accurate enough to get fairly realistic 3-D models of ancient excavation site,” said Jurgen Schulze, a research scientist at the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

via Archaeologists hack Kinect into 3-D scanner – Technology & science – Innovation – msnbc.com.

I wonder if Bob Cargill knows about this…

Emanuel Pfoh – Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Introduction)

While I am on vacation this weekend, and since we recently sent our imprimatur to the publisher for our own book project (so I no longer have any pressing matters or deadlines), I thought I should catch up on book reviews (since muses never sleep nor do they take vacations, it seems).  Emanuel Pfoh was goodly enough to send over a copy of his edited collection of essays Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Biblical Intersections 3; Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2010), and since he is a friend, I decided what better place to start?  (Plus, I do have a soft spot for Gorgias Press)

The table of contents can be found listed here (earlier blog post); in a nut-shell, the book contains seven contributions plus an introduction and is broken up into three sections (Method, Criticism, and Case Studies, respectively).  I will start with the introduction and then review each of the three sections individually (rather than by contributor) and write up a final conclusion of the book as a whole when I complete the reviews of the sections.

My initial impression of the book was one of hope; overall the use of sociology and anthropology in Biblical Studies is a mixed bag.  Some sociological studies are quite good (like those by Erich Gruen or John M.G. Barclay) but these tend to focus on periods of time rather than Biblical Studies as a whole (Barclay’s work on Jews in the Diaspora primarily centers on the Hellenistic through Roman periods and Gruen’s work centers on the Hellenistic period).   And these are also about more documented periods in time, wherein we can better gauge the social conflict, the varying types of assimilation, things that might not be so easy to determine from Biblical literature (and in much of these works, pseudepigrapha and inscriptions make up a large portion of their case studies).  Pfoh and his contributors have done a fantastic job of attempting to challenge the status quo in Biblical Studies with the use (and abuse) of sociology and anthropology.

Pfoh writes:

Although some social anthropologists … attempted some work on a sound anthropological comprehension of Biblical images, myths and depicted practices, … and cared little for issues of historicity, in general sociological and anthropological approaches and proper social-scientific criticism of the Old Testament have usually aimed at strengthening a not usually disputed historical image of ancient Israel.  In other words, these approaches have often taken for granted the historicity of many biblical figures, events and socio-historical processes … and proposed anthropological, sociological and/or socio-scientific explanations for realities depending more on ancient stories but hardly confirmed by independent archaeological or historical work.

I believe this is quite telling of the general thrust of the collection of essays.  Pfoh also writes (astutely):

My point is that historical reconstructions have been based on an acceptance of the biblical narrative’s ‘historical’ plot and supplemented with socio-anthropological insights.  But the real critical attempt would be to see how anthropology and sociology can modify and enhance our representations of Israel’s historical past without relying or depending slavishly on the Bible’s depictions.

Overall the introduction, as short as it might seen, is packed with reasons to critically examine not only anthropological and sociological roles in the study of the Biblical narratives, but also in their application, that is to say, specifically how and why they might be applied.  His words trace the usefulness of earlier attempts while gently nodding towards the flaw of starting from a presupposition of historicity rather than upon the evidence and where it may lay.  Overall, I am pleased with the production and I believe the route Pfoh has decided to take will make for a fascinating read.  I look forward to the positions laid out in the actual meat of the book.  More to come as I explore it further.

Noah and the Flood: The Historical Impossibility

Noah’s Ark/Flood Story:

Recently there has been an aggressive push by the media to include stories in their coverage about the flood and the Ark.  Here are a few stories from the past few months:

None of this is new.  A Google News search indicates that people have been searching for Noah’s Ark since as early as the 1940’s.

Every attempt has led to failure or abuse of information.  Why?  Because the Ark is not on Ararat.  It’s not anywhere.  It never was.  The story of the Ark is a theological story.  It is not a history account.  Let’s break the narrative down into increments:

1. Men were mating with giants (yes, giants lived on earth, according to Gen.  6)

2. ‘Sons of God'(?) ( בְנֵי־ הָֽאֱלֹהִים֙) took human women as their wives (‘the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose’ – this line looks remarkably Greek to me, as if this were from Homer about the sons of Zeus) and bore mixed offspring.

3. Angry at this, God wishes to ‘undo’ humanity, but decides in his mercy to save a remnant through Noah who was upright and perfect in his eyes.  So God commands Noah to build an Ark for his family and seven pairs of every clean creature and one pair of every unclean creature on earth.

4.  Noah does this.  God floods the world.

5. God makes the water recede.  Commands Noah to leave the ship, which he does.

6. Noah builds an alter to God and makes a burnt offering of some of the animals he just saved from being swept under in the flood.

7. God feels bad and says, after smelling the pleasant aroma of the animal sacrifice, ‘Never again will I curse the ground because of humans, even though every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood. And never again will I destroy all living creatures, as I have done.’

8. Noah decides to build a vineyard and become a drunkard.

Now, just from this summary, where in it can we find history?  The part about the giants?  Do we find it in the demi-God offspring between the sons of God and the daughters of men?  In the flooding of the world?  That Noah rounded up every creature, across continents, and stuffed them in his ship?  No, none of this story is historical.  Then why would someone believe the flood narrative is historical?  As Bob Cargill aptly points out (and please read the whole article, it is very good):

The worldwide flood described in Genesis 6-9 is not historical, but rather a combination of at least two flood stories, both of which descended from earlier Mesopotamian flood narratives. Note that this does not mean all of the claims made in the Bible are false (or true for that matter); I am dealing here only with the biblical stories of the flood. (Also understand that the “slippery slope” claim of “all of the Bible is true or none of it is true” is simply an unnecessary rhetorical device designed to keep readers from doing precisely what scholars do every day: analyze each claim in the Bible on a case-by-case basis. It is not necessary to accept an “all or none” stance towards the Bible.)

Most biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholars argue that the flood is a mythical story adopted from earlier Mesopotamian flood accounts. These earlier accounts include the 17th century BCE Sumerian flood myth Eridu Genesis, the 18th century BCE Akkadian Atra-Hasis Epic,and the Epic of Gilgamesh, which are some of the earliest known examples of a literary style of writing. The most complete version of the Epic of Gilgamesh known today is preserved on 12 clay tablets from the library of Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (685-627 BCE). This extant Akkadian version is derived from earlier Sumerian versions. In the story, Gilgamesh and his companion, a wild man-beast named Enkidu, travel the world on a number of quests that ultimately displease the gods. After the death of Enkidu, Gilgamesh embarks on a journey to learn the secret of eternal life by visiting the immortal flood hero, Utnapishtim. Utnapishtim tells Gilgamesh how the god Ea (equivalent to the Sumerian god Enki) revealed the gods’ plan to destroy all life with a great flood, and how they instructed him to build a vessel in which he could save his family, friends, and livestock. After the flood, the gods repented for destroying the world and made Utnapishtim immortal.

But it might also have roots in an Egyptian narrative known as Legend of the Destruction of Mankind, where Râ sends Hathor out to destroy mankind for blaspheming him.  When Râ sees what he has done he seeks a way to cease the massacre:

But having tasted blood, Sekhmet would not
be appeased. For three nights the goddess Hathor-
Sekhmet waded about in the blood of men, the
slaughter beginning at Hensu (Herakleopolis
Magna). Ra now realized that Hathor-Sekhmet
would destroy the human race completely. Angry
as he was, he wished to rule mankind, not see it
destroyed. There was only one way to stop
Hathor-Sekhmet — he had to trick her.

He ordered his attendants to brew seven thousand
jars of beer, and to color it red using both the
mandrakes and the blood of those who had been
slain.

After he has tricked Hathor into a drunken stupor and the massacre stops, Ra remarks:

Now, although the blasphemers of Ra had
been put to death, the heart of the god still was
not satisfied. The next morning he confessed to
Hathor his true feelings: “I am smitten with the
pain of the fire of sickness. Why did I have such
pain? I live, but my heart has become exceedingly
weary because I still have to live with those men.
I have slain some of them, but worthless men still
live, and I did not slay as many as I ought to have
done, considering my power.”

Then the gods who were in his following said
to him, “Don’t worry about your lack of action, for
your power is in proportion to your will.”

Ra, the Majesty, said unto the Majesty of Nut,
“My members are as weak as they were at the
first time. I will not permit this to come upon me
a second time.”

What makes this narrative so interesting compared with that the of the Akkadian, Sumerian, and Jewish flood narratives?  The simple answer has nothing at all to do with the historicity of the events; the answer is plain, that is to say, it has to do with the theological message, God’s mercifulness.  Some will of course quibble with the value of mercy when multitudes of creatures and people are killed in brutal ways, but the story held a certain place in the ancient mythic mind.

Taking the additional content surrounding the flood narrative out of the story of Gen. 6-9 not only fractures the narrative and removes context, the emulative quality of the narrative, and its theological purpose, but it ignores the rich literary tradition from which the narrative derives.   Pseudo-archaeological attempts to illustrate the historicity of the flood also ignores volumes of scientific and mathematical data which not only suggests its impossibility as a historical event, but demonstrates the ignorance of the narrative by those wishing to impose their modern bias anachronistically onto ancient literature.  The value of these stories rest in their theological meaning, which would have held a much more valid function for ancient readers of these texts.

Some Additional Reading Information:

T.L.Thompson, The Origin Tradition of Ancient Israel: The Literary Formation of Genesis and Exodus 1-23 (JSOTSuppS 55; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1987), pp. 74-83.
T.L. Thompson, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (New York: Basic Books, 2000), pp. 75-93
P.R. Davies, The World of Genesis: Persons, Places, Perspectives (JSOTSuppS 257; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic, 1998), pp. 24-44
P.R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History–Ancient and Modern (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), pp. 27-35

“Religion Created Civilization?” A Response to Brad Hirschfield on Göbekli Tepe

It’s an interesting concept.  Brad Hirschfield writes:

For years, historians, archeologists, anthropologists and pretty much all of the other “ologists” have agreed that agriculture created civilization, including religion, as we have known it for the past 12,000 to 15,000 years. The assumption was that settling down to lives of farming, people built cities, created art and made up organized religions to suit the new needs they faced in the transition from hunter-gathers to farmers. Or not.

via Brad Hirschfield: Did Religion Create Civilization?.

Go read the whole thing.  Then come back.

Back?  Good.

There are some serious problems with this article.  I am hesitant to draw the same conclusions, in the same manner, about the site of Göbekli Tepe that Hirschfield draws here. There are two main arguments that Hirschfield makes: (1) that Religion, not agriculture, was the foundation of civilization and (2) this is due to the inherent human nature to be religious.  Both of these are oversimplified constructs of what the data (we have) actually suggests.  In truth, the information highlights a much more convoluted reality than the one idealistically devised by Hirschfield.

On his first point, problems persist.  Very little of the site has been excavated overall (about 5%) and though that is still quite substantial, there is more work to be done and I doubt that we will have a great understanding of the site for at least a few decades more.  So it is a little presumptuous on the part of Hirshfield to claim:

The evidence from Gobekli Tepe suggests that religion is both more real, and more human, than is often admitted. The ultra-orthodox in both camps in the ongoing debate about what religion “really is,” where it came from and what purposes it serves may find this difficult to accept.

I fail to see how the existence of a cultic complex dating to the pre-neolithic revolution somehow points to a ‘more real, and more human’ meaning to religion. The evidence suggests nothing of the sort. If anything, what this site shows is that there was, at this point in time, a religious caste which must have yielded some power. The real value to this site is that it exists without a permanent settlement. This implies that a group of hunter gatherers journeyed to this location for a ritual purpose (but maybe not so much ‘religious’) of specific intent rather than settle first and build later. But this does not imply that cultivation, in some form, was not practiced.  Instead the presence of obsidian and flint tools at this location has led to the determination that cultivation did take place–not after the building of the cultic structures, but around the same time.

But there is a darker reason why I feel Hirschfield might want to reconsider his argument.  Under the alter of one of these cultic buildings is evidence of hundreds of human and animal remains.  If we were to place the start of civilization on the shoulder of religion, we must also accept that this was the start of human sacrifice, the start of war.  Agriculture has, for the better part of the past century, taken the burden of these dreadful human faculties–particularly the faculty to wage war–onto itself.  And it has done this under the reasonable observation that once man became stationary, began to plant seeds and grow crops, it needed to protect that land from other hunter-gatherers, other scavenger animals and also required land to feed more people, to provide better protection from predators.  This is where civilization ‘sprouted’.  First permanent dwellings, fortifications, and other communal structures were built.  From here, deity-worship developed along with the crop-growth (something like: God is mad, so poor crop yield and less food; God is happy, so great crop yield and more food).  But what Hirschfield is suggesting is that religion should actually be bearing this burden.  If he were to accept that claim, I might be more inclined to accept his.

But it needn’t matter in the scheme of it all; according to his second argument:

The evidence from Turkey suggests that the pilgrimage impulse, the collective worship impulse, the sacred space impulse, are all supra-natural, if not super-natural. There is something within us, not necessarily from outside us, which compels the building of Gobekli Tepe and places like it. That “something” is not simply accounted for by the usual explanations which seek to explain, or, too often, explain away, people’s attachment to religious expression.

The word ‘impulse’ is quite misleading in the manner that Hirschfield uses it.  Humanity has an ‘impulse’ yes, but not to worship (I wonder if Hirschfield’s rabbinic training is leading his conclusion in this direction).  Our evolutionary psychological reason is either to follow or to lead.  What this site demonstrates is the human propensity to form into social groups and use those social groups or castes to its own advantage. In this instance, ‘religion’ has just replaced ‘government’, but that does not mean man has an ‘impulse’ to create governments!  Next we’ll be told man has a ‘impulse’ to be a member of a political party.  Worship is a form of ritual, it is not the worshiping itself that is the impulse.  That is to say, people don’t have an impulse to worship.  Rather the ritual–or the participation in a ritual–like the desire that baseball players have to perform tasks they feel will help them win, before the game is the impulse.  When a sports figure does things a certain way he feels will give him an edge over something, he doesn’t do these for any spiritual figure (unless, of course, that sports figure participates in a ritual prayer), they just exist as part of a function that man has gained through the process of evolution.

And I am not so certain ‘religion’ has anything to do with it anyway, as Philip Davies reminds us:

Many scholarly books mention the “religion” of “Israel” as “Yahwism.” As far as I know, Yahweh was a god worshipped in Israel and Judah, and apparently also in Teman and elsewhere. But a “religion of Yahweh”? There was no “Baalism” “Mardukism,” or “Elism.” Deities are not religions. Indeed, it is misleading to use the word “religion” to imply a system of belief and practice. In the ancient Near East, people venerated many deities and participated in many cults simultaneously. Their “religion” was an amalgam of these—ancestral cults, city cults, royal cults, national cults, cults of sacred places, and so on. People were far too religious to have one “religion.”

Returning to the neolithic site, the size and the weight of these structures, including the sculptures and roof supports, suggests that this was not something built over a few days, or by any small number of people.  This was a herculean effort, wherein plans were probably ‘drawn’, and these structures did not come about ex nihilo.  There must have been a gradual build-up to these sorts of structures and, also, they must have left a legacy on the region of the ancient Near East.  We know of a few other sites which resemble PPNB (Pre-Pottery Neolithic B) sites like this in Anatolia.  So there must have been a social reason for the construction of these complexes and this social reason seems to be limited to the PPN.

And it seems as though this sociological stimulus (possibly predicated on the origins of agriculture and crop cultivation and the start of caste structures that are seen possibly in sites like Göbekli Tepe) lasted for only the PPN.  In fact during the PN (Pottery Neolithic), the 3,000 or so years following PPNB, communal ritual goes away almost completely and is replaced by a smaller amount of rituals, almost always domestically.  The social structure during this period might rest upon the growth of communities to large sizes relative to the size of their structures and the inward turn of importance from the communal setting to domesticity and family life.  Even burial rituals, though communal in the PPN, became domestic practices during the PN.  As a consequence of this data, the ‘impulses’ to collectively worship and make pilgrimages seems to completely disappear and leaves Hirschfield with more problems than solutions.

So did religion create civilization?  No, of course not.  Civilization grew out of a complex web of dynamic social situations which were flourishing based upon a number of factors relating to climate change, the availability of food, the discovery of cultivation (even squirrels plant seeds, for goodness sake!), and sure, even ritual and deity worship.   Göbekli Tepe does indeed change our understanding of the human world and does alter what we thought about the Neolithic Revolution, about agriculture, and about the state of human ritual before the tenth millennium BCE.  But it does not, in any way, suggest that religion created civilization, nor does it suggest that without religion, civilization wouldn’t have come about on its own.  Clearly the perception of the social setting of that period is going to shift as more data comes available.  Hirschfield has attempted to throw his understanding of religion and worship anachronistically at these prehistoric peoples.  The idol that needs to be smashed is not,  as Hirschfield suggests, the failure to accept the deeply religious and the human impulse as one, but the blanket claims such as ‘religion created civilization’.  To say this is to prove how completely simplistic ones understanding is of the ancient past.

Further Reading:

Schmidt Klaus. Göbekli Tepe, Southeastern Turkey. A Preliminary Report on the 1995-1999 Excavations. In: Paléorient. 2000, Vol. 26 N°1. pp. 45-54.

Verhoeven Marc. Transformations of society : the changing role of ritual and symbolism in the PPNB and the PN in the Levant, Syria and south-east Anatolia. In: Paléorient. 2002, Vol. 28 N°1. pp. 5-13.

Four Planets in Night-Sky Summit

This month will see a fascinating display of four planets–Mercury, Venus, Mars, and Jupiter–‘dancing’ around each other to be connected with a crescent moon at the end of the May.  The article is quite interesting and makes note of this:

What might ancient sky watchers from 500 or 1,000 years ago have ascribed to such a series of gatherings as this?

Most likely, they would have felt a mixture of fear and wonder. A fine example was a case in 1186 A.D. when an unusual gathering of the five planets visible to the naked eye resulted in a near-panic across the whole of Europe after religious leaders predicted that worldwide disasters would result!

via A fascinating dance of 4 planets in night sky – Technology & science – Space – Space.com – msnbc.com.

The article cites 1186, and they are probably talking about the supposed prediction of John of Toledo in 1179 that the alignment would be a sign of the end of the world; unfortunately, I cannot track down a reliable source other than websites which just repeat the claim–so I am unconvinced of this presently.  But that doesn’t change the fact that this month has tenaciously held a place in the hearts of conspiracy theorists and fundamentalists, it seems.  On May 5, 2000, a large planetary alignment meant that groups gathered with fear in anticipation that the end was near!   With religious fanatics still claiming the end is near (at the end of the month), one can surely see how people continue to repeat history in a way indicative of sci-fi.

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