First Books

It was back in the day when I believed a book was the final word.  Remember those times?  (I have a suspicion that many Republicans really are longing for the days of simple answers: “Smith wrote it in History of Everything so it must be true,” and such.)  You’d read a book assigned in college and assume that since the author wrote a book s/he (but generally he, in my day) must be right.  If college really caught on, however, you’d start comparing sources.  Still, there was that one book that got you started thinking in a new way.  Back in the day when I believed a book was the final word I read J. Alberto Soggin’s Introduction to the Old Testament.  I remember the context well: Harrell Beck’s intro course at Boston University School of Theology.  We were given a list of texts and allowed to pick.  I chose Soggin.

Reading that book I realized for the first time that ancient Israel had borrowed from its even more ancient neighbors.  The fact that I’d attended Grove City College and majored in religion without ever having been introduced to the idea says volumes.  (Some parties, it seems, have always preferred to suppress information.)  I followed it up with Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion.  I was hooked.  If we knew that there were ancient sources, and if we knew their languages and their cultures, why hadn’t it been obvious to the general public?  I started on a doctorate to uncover the truth since I couldn’t find courses on it at seminary.

We didn’t take many books with us to Edinburgh, but Ringgren was one.  By then I’d begun to realize that introductions weren’t really research books.  I spent my years digging deeper and deeper into ancient West Asian culture.  If it’d been possible I’d be there still.  Soggin and Ringgren, I realized by this point, were clearly biblical scholars, and not students of the specialized field that’s still called Ancient Near Eastern studies.  But still, their books had started something.  My copy of Soggin has followed the socks in the dryer, and I now realize the politics of introductory texts (if you believe it’s innocent you may be happier remaining in your bliss).  Still, I owe a debt of gratitude to those scholars who wrote in accessible words aimed at the novice.  Time has passed and nature has begun its own tonsure process, but this fallen monk has learned that many books are the only way of getting to the truth.

Not Your Parents’ Bible

As someone always interested in origins, I reflect on how I’ve ended up the way I have.  I mean, who plans to end up a Bibles editor?  In the grand scheme of a universe with a sense of humor, it’s an odd job.  I grew up reading the Bible, but lots of people do.  Most of them end up with ordinary people jobs.  Obviously, working on a doctorate in the field is admittedly strange, but then, my interests have always been to get to the truth.  The other day I spotted a book on my shelf—the book that arguably started it all.  The Lost Books of the Bible and The Forgotten Books of Eden.  These days I would recognize this for what it is, a cheap reprint of a book published quite some time ago (1926 and 1927).  No “value added content.”  Just a reprint.  But why did this book have such influence?

It was the first time I’d realized—and growing up in poverty with parents lacking college educations you have to teach yourself a lot—that there were other books about as old as the Bible.  The idea fascinated me.  Somehow my fundamentalist upbringing had convinced me the Bible was the first book ever written—after all, its author was God and how much more primordial can you get?  Now this particular book (Lost Books of the Bible etc.) contains some apocryphal Gospels.  Not having a strong grasp on the concept of canon, I wondered why these books had been excluded, or, to use the title conceit, “lost” and “forgotten.”  In college I would learn about the canonical process.  I’d hear more about it in seminary.  There I would learn that even older sources existed.  In the pre-internet days, in a rural town without so much as a public library, how would you find out about such things?

Helmer Ringgren’s Israelite Religion captured my imagination in seminary.  Even there, however, nobody on the faculty seemed to know much about what had come before the Bible.  Harrell Beck told us of ancient Egypt in our classes, but clearly there were further depths to plumb.  I learned about James Pritchard’s Ancient Near Eastern Texts, which I bought at the Harvard Divinity School bookstore.  Other texts went back beyond Holy Writ.  Just how far would have to wait until the University of Edinburgh.  I sometimes wonder if I might’ve taken a different turn here or there had anyone been able to answer my young, unformulated questions about the origins of the Bible and other ancient books.  Now we just have to ask the internet.

Dinosaur Ark

Over the weekend I had a detailed comment left on my post about the discovery of Aardonyx celestae, found here. Since the comment is a lengthy rebuttal, my answer begged to become a post of its own, so I present it here. The first remark I have to make is that my commenter wrongly suggested two problematic assumptions: I “don’t care” about correctly representing Creationist viewpoints and that I “ridicule Christians.” For those many students who have taken my classes over the past 17 years, it is always clear that I respect all religious viewpoints; in fact, empathy is generally cited as one of my main characteristics. I vehemently defend the rights of individuals to believe the religion they believe to be right – e.g., I do care. As for the ridiculing Christians concern, I ridicule no person. I will, however, point out viewpoints that are ridiculous, “Creation Science” being one of the most obvious. As is clear to anyone who takes the time to survey Christianity, the large majority of Christians in the world have no problems with evolution. A small but vocal sub-sect of the religion, mainly based in America, is the main Christian group that supports Creationism.

My theological assailant tells me that the Hebrew word for “kind” in the Noachian account is “min” (the root, marked as “dubious” in the standard lexicon, is myn) and that it is “much broader” than the word translated “species.” The problem here is that the ancient Semitic viewpoint has been left unaddressed. For the ancient Israelite dog was dog and wolf was wolf, and ne’er would the twain meet. Arguing that a limited evolution has taken place in order to make room on the ark is a fatal flaw to the position. Once it has been admitted that the Noah story is not literally each and every species known, it is the equivalent to the ark springing a leak mid-deluge. The commenter’s examples of animals breeding only “within their kinds” is also problematic. Such “kinds” are not recognized by “nature” and numerous examples of viable offspring crossing species have been recorded. Nature simply doesn’t abide by the neat and tidy categories that the ancient Israelites recognized. Suggesting that two sauropods were all that was needed on the ark to produce everything from Titanosaurus to Anchisaurus is a stretch for even “day-age” theorists since the genetic differences between them are as immense as their body size differentials. This slippery use of the word “kind” has all the imprecision of a god-of-the-gaps.

Did God say to take seven pair of each clean animal? My Bible reads “two of each kind” in Genesis 6.19. But wait, the story changes in Genesis 7.3. Could it be that we have two separate sources (or “kinds”) here? My commenter does not inform me where the fresh-water fish came from; after God blew the water out of the cosmic dome (Genesis 8.1) they must have had time to evolve while the salt leeched out of the low-lying basins left behind by the flood and its marvelous geography-forming power. Good thing Noah had plenty of fresh water on the ark!

“Take time to consider what scientists have already said on the issue,” my debate partner adjures me. That’s just the problem, however. I do read what the scientists say. And all of them who write without a Genesis bias tell me that the ark story is not scientifically feasible. More than that, being a life-long Bible reader, I came to that conclusion as well, based on the genre of the story (myth). I never claim to be the first to find contradictions that prove problematic for the Bible – I simply try to make my readers consider the implications of the fact that such contradictions indeed exist.

What I find so interesting about such criticism is that the author of the comment has not tested his/her hypothesis about what I actually believe. On principle I do not share my personal religious beliefs on my blog, just as I do not share them in the classroom. What I believe is immaterial to the issue of Creationism; in this issue the facts speak for themselves. The fact is “Creation Science” is science fiction.