Monthly Archives: December 2010

The Politics of Dentistry

A story from the Associated Press on NPR this week announced the discovery of some teeth. No ordinary teeth, these perhaps belonged to Homo sapiens at 400,000 BP (“Before Present,” no apologies to gas-guzzlers). And they were found in Israel. Archaeologists from Tel Aviv University are quoted as stating this could rewrite the story of human evolution, suggesting that modern humans emerged some 200,000 years earlier than thought, and in Israel instead of in Africa. Now those are some ambitious choppers! Coincidentally, the discovery was announced the day I was discussing the earliest human occupation of the Levant in my Winter Term class. Of course. One of my students pointed the article out to me.

One of the endlessly fascinating aspects of archaeology and paleontology is the constant surprise of discovery. Often I have to remind myself that the past only exists in reconstruction. Once the moment is over it is lost forever, only to be rebuilt by specialists in documents and artifacts. Reconstruction, however, often comes with a political price tag. Anyone who follows the claims based on archaeological finds knows the folly of discovery. In disputed territories the work of archaeologists is used to stake claims to modern land ownership. Who in the world would not want to own the first location where modern humans emerged on the planet? What staggering claims could be made!

I have always sensed a comfort when thinking of human origins in Africa. Far from the (modern) industrialized mayhem of “civilization,” early hominids took their first tentative steps in Africa. Cut off from the rest of the post-Pangean continents except via the narrow passage of the Sinai, Africa harbored our pre-sapiens ancestors. Once they reached Asia and Europe, they interacted with Neanderthals, as genetics now demonstrate. Interaction led inevitably to extinction, so politics had to have been involved. To find the pre-political Garden of Eden, we need to cast our eyes on Africa. Anthropologists are even now disputing whether the teeth are of Homo sapiens or not. I find, when I’m in the dentist’s chair, it is best to leave politics out of the discussion.

From the Associated Press

Dating Daniel

Last semester one of my students had an encounter with a literalist. This is not uncommon, but the issue raised ran counter to what we were covering in class, namely, the book of Daniel. Apocalyptically minded literalists use Daniel and Revelation as a two-tiered roadmap to the future, supposing that these books are predictions of the end of time. Scholars who’ve studied apocalyptic literature, however, know that such interpretations misrepresent a fascinating genre of ancient writing that says more about its own time than some unforeseen future (our time). Nevertheless, the myth of Daniel’s foresight persists.

Long ago biblical scholars noted that although set in the period of the Babylonian Empire, the book of Daniel makes several basic errors about that time period. On the other hand, Daniel knows the period of the Seleucid Empire (when it was actually written) in relatively precise detail. We think nothing of it when an author today sets a story in the past, but somehow this is dirty pool in the composition of an evangelical Bible. Apocalyptic was intended to provide encouragement to those under persecution, not to give them a Google-mapped future. It is in the nature of apocalyptic to present the author as a seer, but the future age is a Zoroastrian contribution that gives books like Daniel and Revelation their edge.

Misunderstanding genre is a large concern among literary scholars. A document like the Bible, which contains several distinct genres, must be handled carefully if it isn’t to be misrepresented. I used to point out that if the passages intended to be read ironically were understood literally many Bible-quoters would be in trouble. After all, doesn’t Amos declare, “Go to Bethel and sin; go to Gilgal and sin yet more” (4.4)? Learning to place biblical genres within their proper context makes a world of difference. Instead of Daniel telling us to hold tight because the end is near, he is found to be encouraging those who were suffering in his own day. We have no biblical roadmaps for the end times because the end of the story has not yet been written.

Daniel tells the lions a story about the future

Ipse Dixit Dragon

Confession time: I have little patience for scholars who have already made up their minds before examining the evidence. Anyone who has put themselves through the ordeal of reading my academic publications will know that I do not advocate sloppy research or slipshod thinking. Nevertheless, if we are to be honest about our world, we must follow the evidence. It is for this reason that I sometimes read unconventional material. I am well aware that untrained amateurs sometimes misinterpret what they see (so do trained professionals), but when evidence exists, why deny it? I just finished reading Archie Eschborn’s The Dragon in the Lake. Chalk this up to my having lived for many years in southern Wisconsin, and maybe a touch of nostalgia. I first learned of Eschborn’s book while teaching for a year in the Anthropology and Religion Department at the University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh. The chair of the Anthropology Department had me in his office one day and showed me this book by a “crackpot” amateur underwater explorer who really believed the claims that Rock Lake – between Madison and Milwaukee – actually housed underwater Native American structures.

I visited Rock Lake during my years in Wisconsin, along with the nearby prehistoric site of Aztalan State Park. There is no doubt that Aztalan was a major settlement of Native American mound builders. The structures there, while not quite rivaling Cahokia in southern Illinois, are quite impressive. Aztalan is three miles east of Rock Lake. Rumors of “pyramids” in Rock Lake have circulated for many, many years. The lake, however, is clouded with marine growth and sediment, and although there are undoubtedly underwater features the official line is that they are glacial artifacts rather than human constructions. Eschborn’s book is an attempt to demonstrate the artificial nature of these features. At his own expense and effort, the author built up a small research society, purchased a boat, and spent several early springs and late falls (when the water is clearest) sending divers and sonar scanners into the water to document what is there. While the book was self-published (and could have used some professional editorial attention) it nevertheless lays out solid evidence that Rock Lake does house a mystery worthy of exploration.

While I can’t accept all of Eschborn’s conclusions, I would insist that his evidence demands the attention of those who deny it is even worth investigation. This is less a struggle of evidence versus absence of evidence than it is a struggle against academic arrogance: professionals know better and need not be bothered with evidence. I have personally witnessed this in my own field many, many times. It is what Eschborn calls “ipsi dicit” [sic]; ipse dixit, “he himself said it,” is the assumption that a well-respected authority may be accepted as uttering the truth in principle, based on reputation. Many professionals in this country make their living based on this faulty premise. Eschborn died prematurely shortly after his book was published, before he could launch the next phase of his investigations. While his interpretation of the data may reach too far, the world suffers for the loss of a truly open mind, and the establishment ruling, as usual, still stands.


Winter Term is underway, and one of the first aspects of the Bible I discuss with students is the fact that the Bible was a book that was compiled instead of written. In our society we are used to the concept of the Bible as a document that is unified by divine authorship, often forgetting (or ignoring) that none of the authors was intending to write a book with the tremendous authority the Bible now enjoys. Students ask how the Bible came to be; it was a process of gathering material widely utilized in Judaism. No one knows the actual composition history of the Torah, but after the Pentateuch got the process rolling, scrolls were gathered in collections and added to the Bible en masse. By the end of the first century of the Common Era, we had a Hebrew Bible.

Sometimes this historical reconstruction is a hard-sell to members of a society where a divinely written book is accepted alongside sub-atomic particles and super novas. Despite the technological sophistication that accompanies growing up in our engineered world, students are often ill-equipped to accept the Bible as a product of human exploration. The writers, whoever they were, traveled this same path of discovery that we continue to tread. They wrote down their hypotheses, based on their experience, just like modern people continue to do. The difference is they did this a very long time ago.

Those books that were selected for inclusion in the Bible became the defining documents of western civilization. Even though there is now an international space station orbiting out of sight above our heads, and even though quarks, leptons, and bosons fly out of cyclotrons large enough to encircle most small towns, God still holds a quill pen. The fixation just after the age of cuneiform is a curious one. If only God had held out for the invention of the Internet, the compilation of the Bible would have taken a very different course, I suspect. Instead of beginning its title with the word “Holy” it would more likely have commenced with “Wiki.”

Virtual Religion

Rabbi and author A. James Rudin, in an op-ed piece in Sunday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger, tolls the warning bells for traditional brick-and-mortar religion in the western world. We live in a virtual world where nearly any need may be met through the Internet. You may satisfy your hunger by ordering out online, and consult a virtual nurse online later when you don’t feel so good. Holiday shopping is a breeze without having to do anything more than tap out a wishlist on your keyboard and then click your mouse. Why should spirituality be any different? Rudin points out that many classics of western religion used to be confined in research libraries, but are now freely available online. Any number of self-appointed doyens of spirituality offer the truth in electronic form. What need have the faithful of starting the car on a cold morning, facing bitter winds and blowing snow, to march into a half-deserted house of worship when God is only a few keystrokes away?

There can be no doubt that the Internet has changed views of religion. Exposure to exotic or unfamiliar practices and beliefs is common. American religion has often been compared to a marketplace, and the best place for comparison shopping is online. This is not, however, cause for alarm. Ancient religions, including the early Judaism that will give birth to Christianity, accommodated other belief systems they encountered. There is no pristine form of religion that preserves the exact original recipe. The change took place more slowly in ancient times, but take place it did. Judaism, for example, moved from a basic, colorless Sheol to a fully populated Hell in Christianity, complete with lakes of burning sulfur and trident-wielding demons. These views were not indigenous to Judaism, but after rubbing shoulders with the Magi, such ideas eventually worked their way in.

All that the Internet has done is speed up the process. Without the web, people took longer to encounter and learn about different religions. Some of us took university degrees to figure out as much as we could. Now it requires little effort and minimal time. Like most e-commerce, if you don’t like what you’ve bought somebody else is offering something similar just a server away. What web-culture has done is to hold up a mirror to our bizarre shopping attitude towards religion. We can see in fast-forward what appeared smooth and organic in real-time. Religions change and the methods of selecting religions change as well. My observation is that clergy who take courses in web-casting will be at the front of the class until the next technological revolution comes along.

Understudy Angels

Since moving to New Jersey my family has attempted to sample as much of the vibrant arts scene as we can on our modest income. At times it feels like being a starving man locked in a fine restaurant. So we scrimp, save, and buy the cheap seats when we can. Thus it was on Christmas Eve we found ourselves in the audience for Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker ballet. I’ve been on this planet for nearly five decades and I’ve never before seen a ballet. I knew the basic story of the Nutcracker: weird uncle gives niece an odd toy, jealous brothers soon break the toy, and the niece has a bizarre, if exceptionally graceful, dream where the toy becomes her escort. Beyond that I didn’t know what to expect. When I looked through the program, I was interested to see that there were angels, snowflakes, clowns, and mice. And there were understudy angels.

Students sometimes ask me what became of the ancient gods. In the cultures surrounding Israel, as well as in early Israel itself, polytheism reigned. Once the Exile had conceived monotheism what happened to the other gods? Did they all get absorbed, Borg-like, into Yahweh? It seems not. Many of these ancient gods continued to eek out their existence as supernatural, yet strictly sub-divinity, beings. We recognize such beings as angels today, and every holiday season they are ubiquitous in store windows and church lawns. It should come as no surprise that with so many angels a few understudies must be necessary.

In popular imagination – (dare I say it?) Christian mythology – angels derive from dead Christians. Many children are taught that if they are good, when they die they become angels wafting through the heavens. This popular doctrine does not match the official teachings of any major branch of Christianity. Angels are different in substance, essence, or whatever else a theologian might care to call it, from humans. You don’t evolve into an angel. Either you’re born one or you’re not. And so it seems we are earth-bound in our existence. No cause to mourn, however; even the gods had to learn how to be angels. We can only hope they had the benefit of many understudies to carry on the tradition.

Battling Billboards

CNN’s Belief Blog carries the beleaguered story of the Lincoln Tunnel billboard battles. Last month a billboard proclaiming that the Christmas story is a myth had been sponsored by American Atheists to try to raise awareness that not all commuters are Christian. In response, the billboard has now been rented by the Times Square Church and newly proclaims “God is” with a number of devotional qualifiers. ‘Tis the season of wearing one’s passions on one’s red sleeves with white trim. Since this is America, it must be writ large.

The recriminations fly like childhood accusations: “but s/he started it!” Can’t mature adults agree to disagree? In a world constantly filled with inequality and strife, religion is used as a cudgel to enforce uniformity. The holiday season is much more than various religions marking their territories. The symbolism of the return of light after a long descent into darkness is archetypical, no matter whether it is the finding of oil to light lamps, the birth of Jesus, or the triumph of Sol Invictus or any of a plethora of other celebrations. It should be something that all people are able to share.

It is the “other” that is feared: the groups who do not share our religious outlooks. “He who is not for us is against us.” It is much safer to slap the other with a billboard barrage than to have to look into the eyes of another human being and say, “I respectfully differ.” Instead of welcoming in the light, we dig further into darkness. The Manichean sensibilities are undiminished after all these centuries. Some would argue that all must be brought into conformity for peace to prevail. To them I say, “I respectfully differ.”