Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why Isn't Tomorrow Ever Yesterday? Part I

Why does time flow in one direction? The fundamental equations of physics (to the extent that they are known) are essentially symmetrical with respect to time. So why do we remember yesterday and not tomorrow? Why does an ice cube left on the ground on a warm day spontaneously melt, but a puddle of water on the ground never spontaneously become an ice cube?

A recent Science News article addresses this age-old question and discusses the answer proposed by Sean Carroll (of Cosmic Variance fame). Sean has explained his theory in a popular-level book, too.

Fundamentally, the answer boils down (hah!) to entropy, which is just the physicist's way of saying it's all a matter of probability. There are vastly more ways for an ice cube to transform itself into a puddle of water than there are for a puddle to transform itself into an ice cube, so the former process is vastly more likely than the latter. To say it another way, for the puddle to become an ice cube (on a warm day) would require a huge number of exceedingly unlikely coincidences: water molecules oriented perfectly, and with perfectly aligned motion, so that they bond together and channel the excess energy away.

But for the entropy explanation to work, the universe must start out in a low-entropy state, so that there is some room for entropy to increase. If the universe began its existence in a state of maximum entropy, then it would be impossible for entropy to get any bigger. In such a universe, you might see an occasional increase or even an occasional decrease of entropy in some local region, caused by random fluctuations, but the overall trend would be no increase or decrease of entropy. In contrast, what we see in our universe is a universal trend for entropy to increase. So why did the universe start out that way - and doesn't that violate the fundamental time symmetry of the equations of physics?

Carroll suggests that it all has to do with what happened before the Big Bang. The basic idea - and I want to emphasize that this idea is completely speculative at this time - is summed up in this diagram:

The basic idea is this: There is a large slab of spacetime in the middle of the diagram (labelled "de Sitter space") that spits out little baby universe blobs. Our universe is one of these droplet-shaped blobs, and the pointy end - the end nearest to the slab - is our Big Bang. There are, presumably, infinitely many other droplets that are other universes completely separate from our universe, which we will never encounter or even detect in any way.

The clever bit is that there are blobs below the slab as well as above it. For those blobs, the pointy end is at the "top" of the blob: the Big Bang in those universes occurs at what, from the God's-eye perspective of the diagram, we would call a later time than all the other events of that universe. However, for beings living inside one of those universes, the Big Bang would appear to be in the past, not the future, just as in our universe.

Since there are blobs both above and below the slab, the overall picture is (on average) time-symmetric. That is, if you flip the whole diagram upside-down, it looks more or less the same. So Sean's model lets us have our cake and eat it, too: we can have entropy increasing within each little blob, but in the overall picture there is no difference between the "forward" and "backward" time directions.

Now, I don't want to go into the details of the physics of this model, because I don't really understand the details myself. What I want to ask is: What does an explanation like this explain? Is this sort of speculation a matter of physics or of metaphysics? What kind of evidence could we obtain in our little bubble of spacetime that would justify the conjecture of infinitely many other unobservable bubbles?

This post is already getting rather long, so I will leave you to ponder those questions until next time.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Humanist Symposisum #56

Welcome to edition #56 of The Humanist Symposium!

Religious people like to challenge atheists by asking if we examine our own assumptions as closely as we ask them to examine their own. Here are some folks who are asking some deep and important questions.

Fundamental Questions

Greta Christina asks one of the hardest, and most important, questions of all: What do we do when we disagree about our most fundamental values? Is there any way around the impasse? This is a truly great post; check it out at  Why Liberal Values Really Are Better, posted at Greta Christina's Blog.

Andrew at 360 Degree Skeptic asks for better definitions of science and religion. See Sunday Sacrilege: The Tricky Definition Game .

Communicating With Religious Folks

No Forbidden Questions discusses the spectrum of religious beliefs and asks: How do we best address people who are at different points along that spectrum?

Eric Michael Johnson at The Primate Diaries asks: How can we promote a better understanding of biological evolution? How about  a hip-hop album that got a very positive review in a scientific journal? Check out The Evolution of Hip Hop (by Natural Selection).

David Michael, at Perplexicon, asks how issues of personal identity override rationality in The Christian and the Christ: can one be rational and delusional? 

And Dale McGowan of The Meming of Life asks: What would be your reaction if you walked into your child's public kindergarten classroom and saw this on the whiteboard?


Leah Libresco at Unequally Yoked asks what's at stake in belief claims, and how does what's at stake change the nature of the evidence we require? Read Eye has not seen, ear has not heard: Atheism and Anecdotal Evidence.
When Reasonable is Wrong: Autism and Divorce Rates discusses why even claims that seem reasonable need to be tested. Another one from Andrew at 360 Degree Skeptic.

The Atheist Community

vjack of Atheist Revolution asks us to take a closer look at how we respond when people talk about the atheist community, in Success of Atheist Community Depends on Ability to Look Beyond Our Experiences.

And finally, Paul S. Jenkins remembers a Humanist Hero: Arthur C Clarke. Posted at HumanistLife.

Thanks to everyone for their submissions, and to Adam for letting me host! And remember to visit the next Humanist Symposium, on July 18 at Unequally Yoked.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Next Humanist Symposium

The next edition of the Humanist Symposium will be held right here at Somewhat Abnormal next Sunday (June 27). I have not received very many submissions yet, so if you think your blog has something appropriate, please submit it here.

How Christians Became Cannibals, Part 2

In the last post, I argued that the Jewish abhorrence of blood makes it very unlikely that Jesus could have introduced a meal that involved the (symbolic or otherwise) eating of his flesh and drinking of his blood, and that scholars have largely ignored this difficulty in assuming the Last Supper was a historical event. (It is gratifying that, after writing that post, I stumbled across an article by a genyuwine New Testament scholar that makes the same two points at great scholarly length.) But if Jesus did not start the blood-and-guts Eucharist tradition, then how did it come about? There are basically two possibilities, that I labelled (2a) borrowing from a pagan cult, and (2b) internal development within Christianity.

Taking the second possibility first, the argument for internal development goes something like this. Jesus began a practice of sharing meals among his followers without the usual regard for status. These meals had no sacrificial overtones and didn't make use of the body/blood symbolism. His followers continued these shared meals after Jesus's death, and they began picking up symbolic imagery. The bread became a symbol of the community of believers, spread out on the earth but gathered together in Jesus's name, as in the Didache. For Paul, the community of believers form the body of Christ, so we get bread = community  = body of Christ. The wine, in the Didache tradition, became a symbol of the Vine of David, but in Paul's tradition it became a symbol of Christ's death. Here is Paul's Eucharistic tradition (1 Corinthians 10:16-17):

The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.

Paul does not talk of drinking the blood of Christ, but of participating in it: the blood of Christ here is not the wine, but Christ's death on the cross. That was the sacrifice that allowed believers to be reunited with God. And the cup (wine is not mentioned) has become the symbol of Christ's death, as the bread has become a symbol of the resurrected Jesus, alive in the community of believers.

From there it was a short step - presumably taken in a Gentile, not a Jewish, context - to talking of drinking the blood and eating the body of Christ. Eventually, it was all re-worked into a "historical" event, the Last Supper, providing a myth of origin for the ritual.

But this scenario leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Why was that short step taken that introduced the eating of Jesus's flesh and blood? And how did some Jews (the author of the gospel of Matthew, for example) come to accept it? 

What of the possibility of borrowing of a pagan tradition? The difficulty here is that it is very hard to pin down the exact form of various pagan traditions. The mystery cults, of course, kept their rituals secret: that was the whole point of the cult. The penalty for revealing the cult secrets was death.With no written texts, the rituals undoubtedly varied widely in both space and time, complicating the issue even more.

The most promising parallel is the cult of Dionysus, the god of wine. In early times (c. 400 BC), there was a ritual called omophagion, the eating of raw meat. This may or may not have been symbolic of eating the god himself: the evidence is unclear, and scholars are divided. Several writers mention wine as the blood of Bacchos/Dionysus, and drinking wine as "drinking the god." Euripides refers to the common Greek custom of pouring a libation of wine as an offering before drinking by saying:

Dionysus, himself a god, is poured out in offering to the gods....
Compare this with Mark's version of the Last Supper (Mark 14:20):

And he said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many."
The Dionysian initiation was intended to make the initiate god-like. Gold plates from tombs have been found with the inscription:

Welcome, you who have suffered such suffering as you suffered before; From man you have become a god; kid, you fell into milk.

But in 186 BC, the Dionysian celebrations got so out of hand that the Roman senate cracked down severely on the cult. By the time of Jesus, the cult had been reborn as a mystery religion - how much it resembled the older cult is unknown. It certainly retained a widespread popularity in Jesus's time: Marc Antony had himself declared the New Dionysus when he came to Ephesus in 41 BC. And the walls of a villa in Pompeii depict scenes from the cult ritual.

Special meals were important in most pagan cults. The worshipers of Sarapis held regular feasts at which Sarapis himself was the host, and sometimes even issued the invitations. The second-century Christian writer Justin notes a close connection between the meals of the Mithras cult and those of Christian Eucharist:

... Jesus took bread, and when He had given thanks, said, "This do ye in remembrance of Me, this is My body;" and that, after the same manner, having taken the cup and given thanks, He said, "This is My blood;" and gave it to them alone. Which the wicked devils have imitated in the mysteries of Mithras, commanding the same thing to be done. For, that bread and a cup of water are placed with certain incantations in the mystic rites of one who is being initiated, you either know or can learn.(1st Apology, 66)

Just how close the two rituals are is hard to tell. Justin may be exaggerating the similarity in order to support his demonic imitation explanation, and he is, of course, not allowed to reveal the secrets of the mystery cult. (Note, though, that he clearly knows the secrets himself, and assumes that the emperor, to whom he is writing, knows them or can find out easily enough.)

These pagan parallels are certainly suggestive, but they leave unanswered the questions of who, when, and why. Who introduced pagan elements into the Christian shared meal? When and where did this occur? (It must have been early; Mark, the earliest gospel, already has a fairly developed form of the Last Supper.) Why did they do so, and why did even Jewish Christians accept the change?

The Dionysian ritual depicted in the Pompeii frescoes shows a libation, music and dance, a girl offering her breast to a kid, and flagellation by a winged, female figure. So the Christian Eucharist could hardly be a wholesale adoption of the Dionysian ritual. For Mithraism, we have only Justin's ambiguous statement about the meal tradition. The other elements of the cult - a rigid hierarchy of grades with a series of initiations into each grade, and a central myth of Mithras slaying a bull - do not seem to have been part of Christianity in its early stages. Likewise for the other mystery cults of which we have some knowledge: a wholesale adoption of some pagan ritual just doesn't seem to work as an explanation.

There is, as far as I can see, no really satisfactory explanation for the origin of the Christian Eucharist. Certainly we can agree with H.-J. Klauck that "without hellenistic influence, the sacramental conception of the Lord's Supper in early Christianity would not have come about." There is absolutely no precedent in Jewish literature for eating the flesh and drinking the blood of a man or a god. Whereas in Greek religion the language of "drinking the god" is certainly there, even if we can't identify a specific ritual that closely resembles the Eucharist. But when and how and why this language crept into Christian ritual, and thence into dogma, remains mysterious.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

How Christians Became Cannibals

Even stranger, perhaps, than the transformation of the carpenter's son into one-third of God is the fact of the Eucharist, or Lord's Supper. According to the gospel of Mark, and apparently backed up by Paul, Jesus declared that some bread and wine had become his flesh and blood, and asked his followers to eat and drink it. Apart from the (rather strong) ick factor, there are powerful prohibitions in Judaic law against the drinking of blood - let alone human blood - or even eating meat that contains blood. And "long pig" - human flesh - would hardly count as Kosher. How, then, did Jesus convince his followers to carry on a ritual cannibalistic feast?

There are several ways one might attempt to answer this question, and I will try to enumerate them:

1) Jesus was so charismatic, and his hold over his followers so great, that their cultural Jewish inhibitions were overcome.

2) Jesus never said any such thing. Rather, the whole legend of the Last Supper was created by later Christians. There are two ways this could have happened:
    2a) By influence from pagan religions, such as the cult of Dionysus, that already celebrated the eating of flesh and drinking of wine (the blood of the god),
     2b) By a natural development within Christianity, uninfluenced by pagan religion.

Most New Testament scholars accept Paul's account of the Last Supper (in 1 Corinthians 11:23-34) as based on a historical event, and therefore assert some version of (1). Paul is thought to have written his letters about 20 years after Jesus's crucifixion, but to have been converted to Jesusism (the term "Christianity" did not yet exist) only a few years after the crucifixion. The early date of his conversion, and the direct report of the Last Supper "event," are enough to establish the authenticity of the event. Or so it is thought.

There are some serious problems with this conclusion, though.

First, I don't think these scholars really consider what it would have meant for a first-century Jew to drink "blood" - even if it was clearly symbolic blood. Imagine Oprah, on her last show, taking out a large Tootsie Roll and passing out pieces of it, saying, "This is my shit. Take it and eat it in memory of me." How many people would leave feeling good about Oprah? How many would actually adopt this ritual? (OK, probably a few nuts would. But Oprah has millions of admirers, Jesus only had 12.)

The gospel of John reports a very different Last Supper, one with no mention of Jesus's body and blood, and no command to repeat the event in remembrance. This is not because John (the author of the gospel, who certainly wasn't the apostle) rejects the body-blood deal: John 6:56 says

Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.

So it seems John accepts the Eucharist and its standard interpretation, but doesn't connect it with a Last Supper event.

The Didache, a first or early 2nd-century document, gives not one but two versions of the Eucharist (in 9 and 10), neither of which have any mention of the body and blood, or any connection of the ritual with a historical Last Supper.

Also, there is a well-known tradition of agape meals among early Christians. Like the Eucharist, these were shared meals, but there was no body-blood liturgy associated with them.

So, which is more likely: that Jesus instituted the Eucharist and commanded his followers to perform an abomination and to repeat it in his memory, and then some groups forgot that he had done so (but continued to celebrate some version of it anyway), or that the ritual as we know it was a later invention?

John Dominic Crossan argues forcefully for the latter option in The Historical Jesus (360-367). But he has a problem explaining how the blood-and-guts Last Supper appears so early in Paul.

Now, in my essays on early Christianity, I tried to stay with arguments and conclusions that are fairly widely accepted among New Testament scholars. What follows breaks this tradition, so, reader, beware!

What if the Last Supper in 1 Corinthians sounds like a later version because it is a later version - it was never there in Paul's original letter. That is, 1 Corinthians 11:23-34 , or some portion of it, is what scholars call an interpolation - a segment that was added to the letter at a later time. Many New Testament books are known to have interpolations. In some cases, one version of the text contains a note in the margin, while a later version contains the same note incorporated into the text. One well-known interpolation that is directly relevant is Luke's version of the Last Supper (Luke 22:14-23), which exists in a long version and a short version in different manuscripts. Thus, either someone added to Luke's original Last Supper story, or someone deleted something from it. (In the latter case it would not, of course, be an interpolation.)

Why might the 1 Corinthians passage be an interpolation? The main indicators scholars use (when there isn't direct evidence from textual variants) are vocabulary, style, and context. Now, the vocabulary here is solidly Pauline - there are no words that appear out of place (by reason of not appearing in other of Paul's letters). But this passage is the only place in Paul's letters where he tells a story from Jesus's life, and it is the only place where he has a direct quotation of Jesus's words. (There are about a half-dozen places where Paul gives an indirect quotation.) So the argument from style seems pretty strong. The context of the passage has a different understanding of "body" in mind: the body of believers in Jesus. Also, Paul has already given his version of the Eucharistic tradition in 1 Corinthians 10:16, so why would he repeat it here?

As I said, most scholars don't accept the argument for an interpolation here. (R.D. Richardson is the exception, from whom most of the above argument comes. See his commentary to Mass and the Lord's Supper, pp. 598-600.) So take the previous paragraph with as much salt as you like.

Still, the evidence points to the conclusion that Jesus did not "institute" the Eucharist, with body and blood symbolism, in a historical Last Supper. Rather (Crossan argues), Jesus established a tradition of eating shared meals at which all social ranks were able to eat together. This tradition got developed in various ways: as an agape meal with no symbolic overtones, or with the bread representing the body of believers (as in the Didache), or with the bread representing the body of Jesus (as in Mark, 1 Corinthians, etc). But where did this last interpretation come from? I'll try to address (2 a & b) next time.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

How To Become God

The central and enduring puzzle of Christian origins is how Jesus came to be viewed as (a) god. According to the traditional story, he declared himself to be God, and his followers believed him because of the miracles he performed. But declarations of that sort are only found in one Gospel (John's), and it is hard to believe that the other writers would have left out such an important point. Therefore, New Testament scholars conclude that Jesus made no such declarations - they were added on at a later time by followers who already believed Jesus was divine. If Jesus's first followers were, in fact, monotheistic Jews, it's hard to see how such an apparently non-monotheistic belief as the Trinity could arise.

There is an obvious solution to this problem that goes like this: Jesus's followers did not think of him as divine - they thought of him as a (special) man. As Christianity spread into the Greek world, new converts from pagan backgrounds imported polytheistic concepts into the religion. Later theologians reconciled these ideas with Jewish monotheism by inventing the Trinity.

This is a rather attractive hypothesis because it explains such a wide variety of mysteries about early Christianity: not just ideas about Jesus, but also Christian rituals like baptism and the Eucharist (or Lord's supper) can be seen as deriving from similar pagan practices. Atheists and other critics of Christianity who run across this idea often find it extremely attractive - what better put-down for Christian proseletizers than to respond, "Your whole religion is stolen from paganism!" They create websites and write books proclaiming their discoveries. Unfortunately, the hypothesis is almost completely false.

The pagan origins hypothesis has been around a long time - more than 100 years, in fact. It was popular among a group of scholars known as the "History of Religions School," because they sought the origin of Christianity in its connections to other religions.These scholars made many important contributions to our understanding of Christian origins. But, over the course of the past century, scholarship has swung back in the other direction. Important new discoveries, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Nag Hammadi library, have changed our picture of ancient Judaism as well as of early Christianity. Many now see features previously thought to derive from paganism as coming from Judaism, albeit a Judaism that was already strongly influenced by the surrounding Greek culture. So, modern proponents of the pagan origins hypothesis are about 100 years out of date.

But how, then, did Jesus come to be seen as a god? As we saw in the last few posts, there was considerable room in "monotheistic" Judaism for belief in various supernatural entities apart from God. Among these we sometimes encounter a figure who acts on God's behalf, as a sort of ambassador or political agent of God. In Roman times, the ruler could not be present in all parts of his realm, and communication was slow. The only way to rule was by proxies who could travel in the emperor's place, and whose word was accepted as the word of the emperor. In various Jewish texts written around the time of Jesus, there are references to such a figure who could speak for God, bear God's name, even sit on God's throne. This figure is given a variety of names - the Great Angel, Metatron, the Logos (Word). The first-century AD Jewish writer, Philo, describes him this way:

God’s First Born, the Logos, who holds the eldership among the angels, their ruler as it were. And many names are his, for he is called “the Beginning,” and the Name of God and his Logos and the Man after his Image… (Philo, On the Confusion of Tongues 146)

Christians took all these terms and applied them to Jesus. A particularly important concept was Jesus as the Wisdom of God:

...Christ who is both the Power of God
and the Wisdom of God. (1 Corinthians 1:24)

As the Wisdom of God, Jesus could be from God, indeed even be a part of God, without taking God's place. And as God's agent-ambassador, he could speak for God without usurping God's place in Jewish monolatry.

Careful analysis of the New Testament texts indicates that it was a Jewish ladder, not a pagan one, that Jesus climbed to become part of the Trinity.(For more details on all of this, take a look at my essay, Promoted to God.) This is not to deny that, at times, Christian beliefs might have been influenced directly or indirectly by pagan religious and philosophical ideas - they certainly were. But the main lines of development of ideas about Jesus come straight out of contemporary Judaism.

If religion teaches us atheists one thing, it should be this: to be skeptical of claims that we want to believe. Some atheists seem to have fallen into the trap of believing in a pagan origin for Christianity because it suits their agenda, rather than on the basis of the evidence. We should instead be careful about all claims, until they are established on the basis of actual data and methodical scholarship.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Jews and Scotsmen

Over the past few decades there has been something of a revolution in scholars' understanding of Judaism. Once thought of as a monolithic, monotheistic religion, it is now recognized that Judaism was much more diverse. This is true not just of ancient Israelite religion, as we saw in the last couple of posts, but also of the Judaism of Jesus's day.

"Monotheism," as we think of it today, was practically non-existent in the first century. As New Testament scholar Paula Fredriksen puts it, "All monotheists in the ancient world were polytheists." Existence of other gods was, for the most part, assumed as a matter of course. At issue for Jews was whether these gods should be worshiped. And did Jews worship only one God? The answer, it turns out, depends on what you mean by "worship." The basic meaning of the Greek term is to bow down before someone or something. But it can also refer to prayers, hymn singing, and offering of sacrifices.

Angels are an interesting test case for Judaism. Some Jewish and early Christian texts speak out against the worship of angels. As we saw last time, such prohibitions are proof that some were worshiping angels. Too, archaeologists have uncovered Jewish funeral inscriptions from Delos that invoke angels. The fact that two such inscriptions are identical suggests that this funerary prayer was standard, at least for this time and place.

A story in 2 Maccabees 12:39-40 tells of a Jewish defeat in battle. Afterward, those picking up the bodies of the slain Jews found that every one was wearing an amulet bearing the tokens of the gods of Jamnia. While this is obviously a bit of polemic intended to explain the defeat in terms of the apostasy of the soldiers, it still suggests that the wearing of such amulets was not unthinkable to the author of the story. Again, the prohibition proves the practice. And again the conclusion is supported by archaeology: a Jewish grave containing a talisman with the image of Medusa.

Another inscription tells of a Jew, Moschion son of Moschion, who freed his slave after having a dream in which two gods appeared to him and told him to do so. And inscriptions in a temple of Pan indicate several Jews who gave thanks to God there.

New Testament scholar James McGrath (from whose book The Only True God these examples are taken) says these examples show

the recognition by a Jewish individual of both the existence and the authority of figures other than God Most High in a way that is surely indicative of a characteristic of Jewish piety in this period. There was simply no way one could go through life without dealing with the "lower functionaries" responsible for the region one was living in. If, as [Deuteronomy 32:8] seemed to suggest, God had appointed the "sons of God" over the various nations, then to assume one could avoid all interaction with these figures while living in the Diaspora may have seemed not only unthinkable but also unbiblical.
Defenders of the faith, both Jewish and Christian, often suggest that examples like these show that some had turned away from Judaism, or syncretised it with pagan religion. Thus, they were not true Jews. But this is the "no true Scotsman" fallacy. Given the extensive evidence, both textual and archaeological, for these practices, there can be little doubt that they represent Judaism as actually practiced - even if some of these practices were condemned by some segment of the Jewish populace.

What, then, was distinctive about Judaism? According to McGrath, the line in the sand was drawn at sacrificial worship: the offering of sacrifices to a god. One could bow down before, or pray to, or wear the tokens of, or obey the commands of, other figures and other gods without abandoning Judaism. But for Jews - a strong majority of them, at least - sacrifices were only to be offered to the one God above all others.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

How Many Gods?

The religion of ancient Israel was rather different from the Jewish religion of today (or of Jesus's day). This is clear to anyone who actually tries to read the Old Testament without imposing their own theology on it.

For example, the famous First Commandment (Exodus 20:2-3) reads:

"I am Yahweh your God ... you shall have no other gods before me."

Note what this verse does not say: it doesn't say that no other gods exist, and it doesn't say that you can't believe in other gods (though it goes on to say you can't make any idols or bow down to or serve them). It just says that Yahweh is to be the primary god, and the only one worthy of worship.

Likewise the famous Shema of Deuteronomy 6:4:

"Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one."
This has often been taken as a fundamental declaration of monotheism. But recall what we learned last time: Israelite religion was the result of combining Yahweh worship and El worship. So the original meaning of this verse might have been quite different: it might have been a declaration of identity, Yahweh = El.

The Old Testament often makes mention of other gods. Some of the time, of course, these are foreign gods and are to be shunned. But in some places, the "gods" are mentioned in a positive way:

Exodus 15.11:
Who is like you among the gods, Yahweh?
Daniel 11:36

...God of gods...
 Psalm 29:1

Ascribe to Yahweh, sons of gods,
Ascribe to Yahweh, glory and strength...

This, as we have already seen, shows the influence of the Canaanite religion from which Israelite religion developed. But it also shows that other gods were not absolutely denied or forbidden. So ancient Israelite religion is sometimes called monolatry rather than monotheism: only one god is worshiped; more than one may be acknowledged.

One must realize, though, that the texts that survive as the Old Testament only represent one version of Israelite religion. This is, in some sense, the "official" Israelite religion: it was the version supported by the educated elite - or at least some subgroup of that elite. What actual Israelites were doing might have been quite different from what their leaders wanted them to be doing. And, in fact, it was.

There are two different routes to this conclusion: the texts themselves, and the archeological evidence.

Throughout the Old Testament we see the Israelites "turning away" from Yahweh to worship other gods. No sooner has Moses brought the Commandments down from Sinai than he discovers the people making an idol (Exodus 32). Again and again the people turn to other gods and are punished for it. Clearly, this is a theme that many of the Old Testament authors agreed on: worship other gods and you will be punished, worship Yahweh alone and you will be saved. But even though many (or most) of these incidents are not historical, they must reflect a historical reality at least for the time of the author, or the theme would not keep appearing.

(There is a maxim in historical studies to the effect that if you want to know what people were doing, look at what was being prohibited. This seems counter-intuitive at first. Surely if there is a command "Do not kill," then (good) Israelites didn't kill, and if one says, "Don't worship other gods," then they didn't worship other gods, right? But imagine this: you go into an unknown church on a Sunday and find in the bulletin, written in large print at the bottom, "Please turn off cell phones during the service." That wouldn't be there unless people were leaving cell phones on, would it? Now imagine finding instead, "Please do not run naked in the aisles during the service." Your reaction, no doubt, would be, "What kind of crazy church is this???" In other words, you assume that, if it is prohibited, it must be something that sometimes occurs. Most churches don't have a written prohibition on nakedness - not because it's allowed, but because it just doesn't ever happen.)

The case of Asherah is particularly interesting. As we saw in the previous post, Asherah was the consort of El in Canaanite religion. In Judges 6:25 we find some sort of Asherah symbol associated with Baal,

That same night the LORD said to Gideon, "Take the second bull from your father's herd, the one seven years old. Tear down your father's altar to Baal and cut down the Asherah pole beside it..."

Again we find the theme of Israelites turning away to other gods, and then returning to Yahweh. But archaeology tells a different story. Inscriptions found at Quntilat 'Ajrud and at Khirbet el-Kom read

"Blessed be [someone] by Yahweh and his Asherah."
Here, instead of being a foreign god, Asherah appears as part of the cult of Yahweh. Combine this with the fact that references to Asherah are found in Judges, Deuteronomy, and 1 and 2 Kings, and it is clear that the cult of Asherah was a long-running affair among the Israelites.

Possibly related are the large numbers of female figurines that have been found in excavations at Israelite sites, even in the royal palace at Ramath Rachel! Such idols, of course, were explicitly forbidden by the "official" religion. Their prevalence shows that, whatever common Israelites were doing, it was not limited to the officially sanctioned forms.

I can't do better than to end with a quote from archaeologist William Dever (from the Wiki article):

We do not know for sure what the belief in the god Yahweh meant for the average Israelite. Although the biblical text tells us that most Israelites worshipped Yahweh alone, we know that this is not true... The discoveries of the last fifteen years have given us a great deal of information about the worship of the ancient Israelites. It seems that we have to take the worship of the goddess Asherah more seriously than ever before.

Humanist Symposium

The new edition of the Humanist Symposium is up at No Forbidden Questions. Check it out!

The next edition will be held right here at Somewhat Abnormal on June 27. Please submit your blog entries here.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Yahweh Is Not My Way

I was taught in Sunday School that Yahweh, the one true God and creator of the universe, revealed himself to the patriarchs of Israel, as described in (what Christians call) the Old Testament.

What I was not taught: ancient Israel was actually polytheistic, and this Yahweh has close connections with the gods of Canaan.

God is called by many names in the Old Testament. God's name, Yahweh, is the modern transcription of the tetragrammaton, YHWH. In ancient Hebrew, there was no notation for vowels, and in later times it became forbidden to say the name out loud, so "Yahweh" is simply a guess: "...who can say if they called him Yahweh, Yehowah, or even Yahu-Wahu?" (The Cartoon History of the Universe, I.152)

El in the Old Testament is basically equivalent to the English word "god." It is used of Yahweh, but also of other gods (Baal, Moloch).

Elohim is also commonly used to refer to God in the Old Testament. It is a strange form, though: it is a plural. Depending on the context, it is sometimes translated as "God" and sometimes as "(the) gods." From the Wikipedia article:

The form of the word Elohim, with the ending -im, is plural and masculine, but the construction is usually singular, i.e. it governs a singular verb or adjective when referring to the Hebrew god, but reverts to its normal plural when used of heathen divinities (Psalms 96:5; 97:7)

"The LORD your God," a frequent phrase in the Old Testament, translates "Yahweh your Elohim." How this plural word came to refer to a singular God seems a bit of a mystery. At least, I have not read any explanation that is satisfactory. If you know of a good source for this term, please let me know in the comments.

In Canaanite religion, El is the is the creator and the father of all the gods. They are referred to as the "sons of El," as in this Phoenician inscription:

The Eternal One (‘Olam) has made a covenant oath with us,
Asherah has made (a pact) with us.
And all the sons of El,
And the great council of all the Holy Ones.
With oaths of Heaven and Ancient Earth.

Here we also encounter Asherah, El's consort. She is mentioned in the Old Testament, too, as we will see.

Of course, in the Old Testament as well as the New, God is creator and father. The "sons of El (God)" appear, too, as well as the council of the Holy Ones:

Who in the skies can compare with Yahweh?
Who among the sons of god can rival him?

God, awesome in the assembly of the holy ones, great and dreaded among all who surround him…
(Psalm 89:6-7. See also Job 1:6, where Satan is among the sons of God)
 It seems that Yahweh was originally one of the sons of El. In Deuteronomy 32:8-9, Elyon (the "Most High") assigns the various gods their appropriate peoples:

When the Most High apportioned the nations, when he divided humankind, he fixed the boundaries of the peoples according to the number of the gods; [Yahweh's] own portion was his people, Jacob his allotted share.

Exodus 6:2-3 reveals that the name "Yahweh" was an innovation:

"I am Yahweh. To Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob I appeared as El Shaddai, but I did not make my name Yahweh known to them."
Historians interpret these verses as an attempt to merge the Yahweh cult with the El cult. (in addition to the Wikipedia articles linked above, see The Early History of God, by Mark S. Smith, and Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Epic, by Frank Moore Cross.)

Next time I'll look at further indications of polytheism in the Old Testament.