55. Does the human yolk sac infer evolution?

embryo-6 weeks old-1

One human yolk sac, hold the yolk (six weeks gestation).

The human yolk sac emerges during the first few days of gestation and provides some of the first cells and circulation necessary for life. After about seven weeks, the yolk sac’s role diminishes as it is supplanted by the placenta.

But in oviparous (egg-laying) animals the yolk sac goes on to be filled with yolk, which allows the fetus to continue feeding while outside the womb.

Because most mammals get their nourishment directly from the placenta and lactation, yolk is unnecessary. 

But does the existence of a yolk sac in humans infer evolution?

Evolutionists say yes, insisting the yolk sack is a vestigial remnant of our egg-laying past.

Creationists say no, and point out that the yolk sac plays an essential role in the development of the embryo.

Evolutionists agree that the yolk sac is vital, but argue that it no longer plays the role it once did.

Creationists assert it never played that role, and that God must’ve designed the yolk sac to play two distinct roles.

And historically this is where the debate would end, in a draw, because you can’t prove that human yolk sacs once carried yolk… or can you?

What’s that you’re hiding in your genes?

Recently, researchers decided to see if human DNA contained the genes responsible for creating yolk. I’ll let Professor Dennis Venema explain the particulars:

One protein used as a yolk component in egg-laying vertebrates is the product of the vitellogenin gene. Since placental mammals are proposed to be descended from egg-laying ancestors, Chicken embryo at 16 days. researchers recently investigated whether humans retained the remnants of the vitellogenin gene sequence in pseudo-gene form. To assist in their search, this group determined the location of the functional vitellogenin gene in the chicken genome, noted the identity of the genes flanking the vitellogenin sequence, and located these genes in the human genome. They found that these genes were present side-by-side and functional in the human genome; then they performed an examination of the human sequence between them. As expected, the heavily mutated, pseudogenized sequence of the vitellogenin gene was present in the human genome at this precise location. The human genome thus contains the mutated remains of a gene devoted to egg yolk formation in egg-laying vertebrates at the precise location predicted by shared synteny derived from common ancestry.

While the vitellogenin pseudogene is compelling, it is but one example of thousands that could be given.

If creationists are correct in saying that the human yolk sac was never designed to carry yolk, what are we doing with a “scrambled” yolk gene?

The Creationist Response

In light of this new evidence, creationists kick the can further down the road by speculating that the vitellogenin gene is still active, and serves some other purpose in mammals.

It is presumptuous to assume that just because these genes were first found in association with egg yolk that their mammalian counterparts are vestigial remnants or that they, like so much other so-called junk DNA, will not be found to actually have functions unrelated to any ancestral history of making yellow goo.
Dr. Elizabeth Mitchell for Answers in Genesis

Dr. Mitchell goes on to point out that the vitellogenin gene is known to serve other purposes in honeybees and some non-mammalian vertebrates.

And maybe she’s right, just because the vitellogenin gene is associated with yolk production in non-mammals, doesn’t mean the gene is associated with yolk production in mammals… well.. except for that it is.

Echidna-Photo-550x461Luckily for us there are a few mammals that actually do have a functional vitellogenin gene; namely the monotremes: the platypus and two species of echidna. And guess what these mammals can do that no other mammal can do? You guessed it, they can produce yolk.

So it doesn’t seem presumptuous to assume that this is what the gene does (or once did) in mammals.

So why has this gene mutated?

It’s worth noting that when a copying error occurs in a vital gene, the carrier becomes less likely to survive or reproduce. But if a copying error occurs in a non-vital gene, the damage is inconsequential, and therefore the error is allowed to remain.

For example, if a chicken were born with a damaged gene that caused its eggs to contain no yolk, this mutation would be an evolutionary dead-end. Nature wouldn’t allow it. But if the same damage occurred in a placental mammal, it would be inconsequential, because the animal could get equivalent sustenance elsewhere. 

Natural selection selects for advantages and selects against disadvantages, propelling life forward through a simple process of trial and error. But inconsequential changes are just that. 

Conclusion

We have these three clues: an empty yolk sac that’s just like a bird’s, a gene that’s necessary for generating yolk, and evidence that this gene can produce yolk in mammals. Sure, we can always say, “God just wanted to design it this way,” but even if true, God designed it in such a way that also strongly infers evolution.

Professor Dennis Venema writes elsewhere:

These data make perfect sense if humans are descended from egg-laying ancestors and share common ancestry with chickens. It is very difficult to rationalize this data from an antievolutionary perspective. Since the common ancestor of humans and chickens was a reptile, this indicates that the vitellogenin pseudogene should be present in all non-egg-laying mammals. Studies so far have found this unitary pseudogene in wide variety of additional species ranging from dogs to wallabies.
Dennis R. Venema, An Evangelical Geneticist’s Critique of Reasons to Believe’s Testable Creation Model: RTB and Human-Ape Common Ancestry

From an evolutionary perspective, our yolk gene has suffered the same fate as our vitamin C gene: both were once vital, but became nonessential after we had alternative sources for obtaining similar sustenance.

Interestingly, creationists argue that our vitamin C gene was once functional in the Garden of Eden, but broke sometime after the fall of man. But creationists can’t very well argue that our yolk gene also once performed perfectly in the garden, so they argue that the gene must do something other than the obvious. 

We can always make up new excuses, but if looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck. Or in our case, if we have a yolk sac like a duck, and the genes for producing yolk like a duck, then maybe we’re related to the duck.

Other Sources:
Science Daily, Loss Of Egg Yolk Genes In Mammals And The Origin Of Lactation And Placentation, Mar. 2008
Forbes.com, The Fossils in Our Genes, John Farrell, Oct. 2011
The Mammalian Yolk Sac Placenta, Department of Zoology, The University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia, Sept. 2009.
Creation.com, The human umbilical vesicle (‘yolk sac’) and pronephros—Are they vestigial?, May 2009
ChristianAnswers.net, Does the human fetus temporarily develop gills, a tail, and a yolk sac?
Posted in Intelligent Design? | Tagged , , , | 14 Comments

54. Did Isaiah 7:14 predict the virgin birth of Jesus?

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Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.
~ Isaiah 7:14

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
~ Matthew 1:22-23

Isaiah 7:14 is the only sentence in the Old Testament that hints at a virgin birth, which makes Isaiah 7 a very important chapter. Could it really be that Isaiah predicted the virgin birth of Jesus 700 years before it happened?

Let’s open our Bibles to Isaiah chapter 7 and attempt to reach an intellectually honest conclusion about what is being predicted, and see if Jesus fits the bill.

Isaiah 7:1 When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it. 

Allow me to set the scene. In 743 BC, Israel was still divided into two nations, Israel and Judah. Ahaz was 20 years old at the time and had just succeeded his father as the King of Judah (2 Chronicles 28:1, 2 Kings 16:2).

MapTo the north of Judah were Ahaz’s rowdy neighbors, King Pekah and King Rezin. Pekah ruled Israel (sometimes referred to as Ephraim, because Ephraim was the primary tribe), and Rezin ruled Syria (sometimes referred to as Aram or Damascus, because Damascus was located in Syria at that time). These three nations were stacked on one another like an ice cream cone, with Syria on top, Israel in the middle, and Judah on the bottom. 

To the east lived a big-bad-wolf named Assyria; a rising superpower that wanted to devour this tasty ice cream cone. Concerned about this threat, King Pekah (Israel) and King Rezin (Syria) agreed to join forces to fight Assyria if necessary, but King Ahaz (Judah) refused to join their coalition (most likely due to past tensions).

In what is now referred to as the Syro-Ephraimite War (736 BC-732 BC), Israel and Syria attacked some areas of Judah with some success (2 Chronicles 28:5-6), but neither was able to independently capture Ahaz or the city of Jerusalem (Isaiah 7:1, 2 Kings 16:5, 2 Chronicles 28:16), so they decided to join forces.

Isaiah 7:2 Now the house of David was told, “Aram [Syria] has allied itself with Ephraim [Israel]”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

When King Ahaz heard about their collaboration, he feared the worst.

Ahaz was no friend to God, but he did represent the Davidic line, so God took pity on him and sent Isaiah to reassure him that these two tyrants would not overthrow him.

Isaiah 7:3 Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” 

The two kings to the north wanted to defeat King Ahaz and capture Jerusalem so they could share the spoils and put someone else in power who would help them in their fight against Assyria.

God tells Ahaz to keep calm, and to not be afraid, and refers to the northern kingdoms as “two smoldering stubs of firewood” that are on their way out.

Isaiah 7:7 Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘It will not take place, it will not happen8 for the head of Aram is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is only Rezin. Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people. 9 The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son. If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all.’”

Again, God reassures Ahaz that this invasion will not happen. Isaiah also gives us an important time-frame for this prophecy: within 65 years, Israel will be shattered.

Isaiah 7:10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

God offers Ahaz a sign to verify what Isaiah has spoken and to strengthen his faith. Normally Ahaz would’ve been correct not to test god, but since God was offering, God (presumably) knew Ahaz needed a sign. When Ahaz refused God’s offer, Isaiah rebukes him for acting as if he didn’t require one:

Isaiah 7:13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 

Isaiah-iconIf it seems a little odd to jump from a story about Ahaz and his naughty neighbors to the north, to a prophecy about the virgin birth of Jesus, that’s probably because it is. Let’s take a look at what has been prophesied so far and see if Jesus fits the bill.

Unlike some prophecies which can be vague, this one is reasonably clear. Isaiah is predicting that:

  1. A child will be born to a virgin (or a young maiden).
  2. His mother will name him Immanuel (“God is with us”).
  3. His birth will serve as a sign to Ahaz.
  4. Before the child matures, the two kingdoms “will be laid waste.”
  5. The two kingdoms will be scattered within 65 years.

In comparing this prophecy to Jesus:

  1. It’s claimed that Jesus’ mother was a virgin.
  2. The angel Gabriel instructs Mary to name him Jesus (“God saves”), not Immanuel (“God with us”).
  3. Jesus’ birth could not serve as a sign to Ahaz, since Ahaz had died hundreds of years earlier.
  4. The two kingdoms were destroyed long before Jesus was born, so their destruction did not take place between his birth and his maturing.
  5. Jesus was not born within 65 years of the prophecy.

Taken at face value, Jesus is no match.

There are, of course, a litany of explanations offered by Christians to address these discrepancies, but there is no consensus. Let’s take a look at some of the most popular explanations to see if any sound reasonable.

“Jesus was literally ‘God with us.’”

It’s true that Jesus came to be known as the physical incarnation of God on earth, but was this really what Isaiah was predicting?

The Hebrew grammar makes it clear that Immanuel (“God with us”) was the name to be literally given to the child by his mother; the verse reads: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Immanuel is what she names him after giving birth, it is not a title he earns later in life.

We see a parallel to this in the next chapter (chapter 8). When Isaiah has a son, God tells him to: “Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz.” Isaiah doesn’t give him some other name, he literally names him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (against his better judgement). This sort of thing happens several other times throughout the Bible (see 1 Chronicles 22:9, Luke 1:13, and Luke 1:31).

Also in chapter 8, Isaiah speaks about how he and his sons serve as signs:

Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.
~Isaiah 8:18

In Isaiah’s day, it was normal for children (and even objects) to be given names that represented signs and symbols, or that spoke to the nature of God. Isaiah’s son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz’s name meant “quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil,” but that didn’t mean he would literally be the one plundering, nor did Isaiah’s son Shear-Jashub‘s name mean that he would literally be the “remnant that returned.” Likewise, to Ahaz, the name Immanuel meant that God would keep his promise and remain with him during this difficult time.

It’s ridiculous to suggest that Isaiah may have thought Immanuel was going to be God in the flesh. If Isaiah did think this, why did he only mention Immanuel twice (in Isaiah 7 and 8)? Other than serving as a sign, Immanuel was an unimportant character.

“God was addressing the house of David, not Ahaz.”

This explanation suggests that God was addressing the Davidic line and not Ahaz himself. The motive in saying this is to try to negate the 65-year deadline, but this idea falls apart when you consider:

1) The passage reads: “Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.’ Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?” Who was trying the patience of humans and God? It was Ahaz, who had just refused to choose a sign. It was not the entire line of David.

2) The “house of David” is notified of current events in Isaiah 7:2. Just because someone addresses “the House of David,” it does not automatically infer future events. (It’s possible that Isaiah was addressing Ahaz and his counsel.)

3) Verse 16 emphasizes that the two kingdoms will be destroyed before the child matures. The birth of the child signals that these events are about to take place. Had this truly been about Jesus, there would be no need to emphasize the time between the child’s birth and when he matures; God could’ve said, “These kingdoms will be destroyed long before Immanuel is born.”

4) If we insist this sign is intended for a future generation, it takes away from the story of Ahaz. Suddenly this poor schmuck is left with no sign at all. While Ahaz may have refused to ask for a sign, God was not punishing him for his shortcomings, God still knew Ahaz needed a sign, and the sign God offers him was directly related to the situation at hand (the destruction of the two kingdoms).

5) An almost identical incident plays out years later with Ahaz’s son Hezekiah (Isaiah 38). God sends Isaiah to speak to King Hezekiah who is on his deathbed. God promises to add fifteen years to his life and deliver him from the Assyrians, and then seals this message with a sign. 

“‘This is the Lord’s sign to you that the Lord will do what he has promised: I will make the shadow cast by the sun go back the ten steps it has gone down on the stairway of Ahaz.’” So the sunlight went back the ten steps it had gone down.
~ Isaiah 38:7-8

Just as Hezekiah received a sign to show that the Lord would do as promised, Ahaz was also to receive a sign.

“This chapter has a dual meaning.”

Upon careful inspection, many Christian scholars agree that this prophecy was far too relevant to Ahaz’s circumstances to only be about Jesus.

Taken in the context of Isaiah 7, it is hard to deny that verse 14 directly predicts a child who would be born during rather than after Ahaz’s life…
Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew edited by Daniel M. Gurtner, John Nolland, pp. 238-239

But if the prophecy was for Ahaz, then it’s not about Jesus… unless there is some kind of dual meaning. A dual meaning might seem like an ideal solution, but it’s not without consequences.

First, Matthew strongly suggests that all the events surrounding Jesus’ birth represent a direct fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophesy:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
~ Matthew 1:22-23

While Matthew may want to believe this prophecy is about Jesus, he doesn’t bother to explain how the rest of the prophecy relates to Jesus, or what it means for poor Ahaz. (Perhaps this is why Matthew and Luke are the only New Testament authors to cite the virgin birth as evidence.)

Second, not all Christians agree with the dual-meaning, because dual meanings are subjective, easily faked, and impossible to prove.

This two-fold approach provides an easy way out of a difficult problem because it enables the reader to maintain contemporary relevance for Ahaz as well as the New Testament perspective on the fulfillment of these verses… It seems fundamentally illegitimate to claim that God inspired Isaiah to say things that meant one thing (the meaning he was aware of), and then suggest that these words also mean something different from what Isaiah understood them to mean (the New Testament meaning)… there would be no legitimate authoritative basis for the second meaning.
~~Isaiah 1-39, Gary V. Smith, p. 204

Indeed. Dual meanings allow anyone to read anything into Isaiah’s words; a practice formally known as eisegesis (which literally means “to lead into”). Exegesis (which means “to lead out”) is the opposite of eisegesis, and insists on letting the text speak for itself. Gary Smith admits there is little exegetical grounds for interpreting Isaiah 7:14 as Messianic:

The main critique of this Messianic approach is that it appears to read back into the Isaiah passage a meaning that is difficult to develop from the words in 7:14. It almost seems that this interpretive conclusion is controlled by theological beliefs derived from the New Testament rather than exegetical evidence in Isaiah 7.
~Isaiah 1-39, Gary V. Smith, p. 204

CaveIf you’re going to allow eisegesis for Christianity, you must also permit it for other religions. A good example is how Muslims read their prophet into Isaiah 7:14. Specifically, Muslims claim that because the Qur’an uses the phrase “God is with us” (Qur’an 9:40) in a remark loosely related to Muhammad, this is evidence that Isaiah was prophesying about Muhammad. Christians would, of course, argue that Muslims are reading this into the text, but Muslims could accuse Christians the same thing. I think they’re both right.

We also saw dual-meanings crop up in Isaiah 53. When Christians come to the realization that the suffering servant was just a personification of Israel, they attempted to salvage the connection to Jesus by appealing to various allegorical, spiritual, metaphorical, or typological types of dual-meanings. But again, these dual-meanings are extremely subjective, and can be easily manipulated to conform to any preexisting theological bias, and therefore they cannot be used as evidence to prove the claim.

“Isaiah 9 also speaks about a child, who appears to be the Messiah.”

Isaiah chapter 9 may be about the Messiah, and so some Christians attempt to link the child in Isaiah 9 with Immanuel in Isaiah 7.

For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.

There are good reasons to doubt this theory.

1) Jews do not believe that Isaiah 9 is Messianic prophecy, because it describes a child who has already been born (most likely King Hezekiah).

2) Even if we assume the child in Isaiah 9 is the Messiah and he is also the child Immanuel, the Messiah would still need to be born within 65 years of Isaiah’s prophesy.

3) There are no details linking these two children. The child in Isaiah 9 is never called Immanuel, nor is it said he was born of a virgin. Likewise, it’s never stated that Immanuel would reign on David’s throne, or bring about a new government of everlasting peace.

4) To make matters worse, between Isaiah 7 and 9 there is another child, Isaiah’s child. There are actually more reasons to speculate that Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz is Immanuel. However, Isaiah’s wife was no virgin (or young maiden), nor did she name him Immanuel, so it appears these are two separate children.

In all likelihood, Isaiah is speaking of three separate events and three separate children, one in each chapter.

Conclusion

An honest evaluation of the evidence should lead us to conclude that Isaiah was speaking of a child to be born within 65 years, not 700+ years in the future.

Hearkening back to question 32, we see a number of prophetic problems with Isaiah 7:

  1. Isaiah’s prophecy was no secret to the ones proclaiming its fulfillment (#2); in fact, Isaiah is more frequently alluded to in the New Testament than any other book in the Old Testament. Early Christians were heavily invested in trying to persuade others that Jesus was the Messiah, and so there existed the means, the motive, and the opportunity to fabricate the virgin connection (#4, #7, #19).
  2. In their eagerness to believe that Jesus was the Messiah, followers ignored the other prophetic details in Isaiah 7 that did not point to Jesus (#8).
  3. The virgin birth, while highly improbable (#5), is valueless as prophecy because it is easily lied about and impossible to verify (#19).
  4. To its credit, Isaiah’s prophecy is not “eternally pending” (#17), and sets a deadline of 65 years. But then this important deadline is either discarded or reinterpreted by Christians who want it to be about something else.
  5. Because the remaining prophetic details don’t match up, Christians must shoehorn Jesus into a prophecy that was never considered Messianic (#9, #18).

…it should be noted that no known Jewish writings prior to Matthew interpret this passage as a reference to the virgin birth of the Messiah.
~ Isaiah, Volume 1, by Terry R. Briley, p. 125

While Mary’s virginity is impossible to verify, it is possible to show that Isaiah 7:14 was never intended to be viewed as Messianic, and that Jesus does not fit its description.

If God truly wanted to give a prophecy about Jesus, he could’ve said: “The Messiah will be born of a virgin in 725 years, and he shall be named Jesus.” Sure, skeptics could still argue that Jesus’ story was manufactured to match up with Isaiah’s prophecy, but at least we would have a match; at least we could say the prophecy was spot-on.

What we have here is not a match, it’s a prophecy about another child, who was to be born in another time, for another purpose, and we’re forced to resort to fuzzy logic and mental gymnastics to force Jesus’ slipper onto Immanuel’s foot. We shouldn’t have to resort to these kinds of tactics to defend a legitimate prophecy.

But if this prophecy was clearly never intended to be about Jesus, then why did Matthew insist that it was? The only reasonable explanation is that some early believers were not above lying, not if it helped them to sell Jesus’ as the messiah.

Posted in Jesus, New Testament, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , , , | 16 Comments

53. Is the Bible divinely inspired? Or did it evolve over time?

Bible

Another argument that is made to demonstrate the Bible’s divine inspiration is the argument from consistency, which goes something like this:

It [the Bible] is truly an amazingly consistent document. The messages of approximately 40 different writers of the 66 books of the Bible, written over 1,500 years, in three different languages, all fit together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. There is one continual theme throughout—God’s plan of salvation from sin won for the whole world by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This consistency itself attests to the miracle of this book.
~ FaithFacts.org

But is a miracle the only possible explanation for this consistency? Or is it possible that such a story could develop over time?

While it’s probably ill-advised to tell a creationist that evolution also explains the origin of his religion, evolution provides us with one of the best metaphors for explaining how complex religious stories might arise over time.

The Meme

In his 1979 book The Selfish Gene, the infamous Richard Dawkins coins the (now famous) term “meme,” which is just an idea or concept that gets passed around and becomes subject to evolutionary forces. (His original intent was to show that genes are not the only things that evolve. But the meme, ironically, became a meme unto itself, evolving into internet memes and the new science of memetics).

In short, if an idea or concept is useful (like language, or instructions for catching food), or interesting (like a funny story), or has some explanatory value (like how the world came to be), it tends to get repeated. When these ideas are repeated, they are like living organisms making copies of themselves.

Memes are similar to genes in that the most useful ones will generally get copied more often. As they are copied, their content is inherited, they face competition, and they may adapt to changing conditions. When a gene or meme reproduces more rapidly than others, it is considered more fit. 

However, unlike biological evolution, memes do not derive their adaptations from small random changes, their changes are usually intentional.

The Gospel of James (T. Kirk)

Let’s use Star Trek as a modern example of how a cultural meme might evolve.

star trek tosThe “Star Trek meme” began in the 1960s inside the head of Gene Roddenberry. His idea for the teleplay faced competition from other shows, but was selected because it was believed it would have more mass appeal. This new meme quickly copied itself with the help of the story-retelling medium of television.

Over the years, the story has evolved in the minds of many writers, artists, directors, and fans. The core themes remain the same, and the characters, philosophies, and technologies became more flushed out. Gene Roddenberry’s idea has spawned over 726 episodes, a dozen movies, hundreds of characters, and thousands of books. 

We might even go so far as to say that:

Star Trek is truly an amazingly consistent story. The messages of hundreds of different writers, writing over 50 years, in many different languages, all fit together like the pieces of a giant jigsaw puzzle. There is one continual theme throughout—exploring strange new worlds, going where no one has gone before, while adhering to Federation law and the prime directive. This consistency itself attests to the miracle of Star Trek. 

Well… obviously Star Trek is no miracle, nor is it divinely inspired, but it does show how one simple idea can grow into a highly complex story with consistent themes. Is it possible that religious stories might also do likewise?

[Note: Some non-Trekkies have argued that Star Trek contains contradictions, errors, and inconsistencies, but I can assure you that all of these issues have been explained away by faithful Trekkie apologists.]

The Evolution of Religion

Like Star Trek, Christianity also began with a small cult following. But let’s go all the way back to the beginning and consider the possible evolution of God himself.

From its earliest days, “The God meme” (if you will) has been under attack, not only from other religions, but also the idea of God in general. And in nature, when an organism faces threats, it must adapt or risk extinction. The God meme may have undergone a similar process of refinement and adaptation.

While the idea of God provided an explanation for how everything came to be, the idea wasn’t without its problems.

For example, when the idea of God was first suggested, people may have asked, “Why can’t we see God?” There may have been many answers, but the most effective explanations — those that worked well enough to get repeated — were naturally selected out. In this case, the best defensive answers were: “Because he’s invisible,” and “If you saw him, it would kill you.”

Satisfied with these answers, people went on to ask, “Well… if we can’t see him, can you have him lift that rock? Or do something else to prove he’s really here?” And again, the best defensive answer became, “God’s creation should be enough evidence, and God desires that you believe with no more evidence than this.”

Job-redeemerlivethAfter following God for some time, people noticed another problem, and asked: “Why does God treat us the same as the non-believers? We both suffer and prosper equally.” The story of Job answers this question, essentially saying: “Never question the meme! It knows better than you, so just believe.”

When it came to competition, the meme said: “You should kill anyone who tries to introduce foreign memes. If you continue to believe in this meme, good things will happen, but if you believe in other memes, horrific things will happen!”

And so the meme gradually increased its fitness, by: 1) providing non-falsifiable answers, 2) discouraging questions, 3) eliminating the competition, and 4) offering a slew of promises and threats.

By far, the greatest adaptation to the God meme was Jesus, who took a primarily Jewish religion and made it accessible and applicable to everyone. Christianity also brought with it powerful new threats and promises, and commandments to spread this updated meme:

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation.”
~ Mark 16:15

For mellina, the authors of the Bible built upon the foundations others had laid. They were able to do this because they all spoke the same language (mostly Hebrew and later Greek), lived in the same vicinity, and shared the same stories, culture, and history.

The Evolution of Biblical Themes

When we look at the Bible, it does appear as if many of its core themes have evolved.

  • The character of God evolves. The God of the Old Testament is strikingly different from the God of the New. The God of the Old is primarily interested in the Jewish people and the state of Israel. He is jealous and angry; he wipes out sinful cities, floods the world, sends plagues, and kills millions; and he repeats ad nauseam that he is one God. The God of the New Testament is three Gods in one! He extends love to everyone, Jew or gentile. He preaches forgiveness instead of vengeance, and sends healing instead of plagues or floods.
  • michaelangelo adam and eveThe character of Satan evolves. He begins as a very literal snake (Gen. 3:1-14), but is eventually replaced by a fallen angel.
  • The role of the messiah evolves. We go from a literal king who will save the Jews and restore Israel, to a metaphorical king who doesn’t save Israel, but saves the world by being executed. 
  • God’s salvation plan — the most commonly cited example of Biblical consistency — also evolves. In Noah’s day, God’s plan wasn’t to save the world, but to flood it. Much later, God makes a covenant with Abraham, but it wasn’t for salvation, it was for land and offspring in exchange for ongoing loyalty and penile mutilation (Gen. 17:1-14). Under Moses, this covenant was extended to include a torrent of new rules, and the people did begin offering sacrifices for forgiveness, but this wasn’t done for salvation from hell, but for the ongoing safety and prosperity of Israel. In fact, God even plays down the importance of sacrifices, and says that they are not a prerequisite for obtaining forgiveness (more on this later). It’s only after Jesus arrives that the importance of sacrifice is played up again, and the nearly heretofore unmentioned idea of hell comes to the forefront, along with a new requirement to believe that God has a son in order to escape torment. 

“I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.”
~Hosea 6:6

The character of Jesus has continued to evolve over the centuries, as thousands of denominations experiment with new twists on an already successful meme.

[Note: Apologists have spent centuries reconciling these inconsistencies, but are these accurate and fair explanations? Or do they represent new adaptations evolved by the meme in order to protect itself?]

The Exponential Power of Memes

Perhaps the most profound aspect of this evolutionary metaphor is this: if tenacious extremophiles (like those that can survive in acidic waters, or under Arctic ice, or at the bottom of the ocean, or miles below the earth’s surface) can randomly adapt their way into the most inhospitable environments, then how much more should intelligently designed memes be able to adapt to the eager environment of the human mind? And have we grossly underestimated this potential?

If we assume for a moment that God is not real, and is just a meme that we ourselves have created, then consider how our minds have turned absolutely nothing into everything we need. We have convinced ourselves that God is invisible, and does not need to be tested, and that it is wise to believe without any evidence. We’ve managed to excuse God’s indifference towards his followers, and we’ve promised ourselves everything we could ever want… in the afterlife.

Through centuries of trial and error, the God meme has developed both offensively and defensively. It has learned how to provide its host with what it needs, in order to get repeated, and how to protect itself from attack. The meme “knows” what works, because what works gets repeated. The meme knows the mind, because it is born of the mind. It knows what we hope for and what we fear, and it uses these things to its advantage.

It’s as if the meme enters the mind and asks: “What does it take to survive here? I see this environment has hopes and fears; if I can provide solutions to these things, I can make a home for myself here, and make copies of myself into other minds that need the same things.”

Our meme supplies us with interesting stories to tell and “good news” to share. It provides us with hope, reassuring answers, explanations, and a feeling of certainty. It gives us a way to cheat death. It promises to protect us from our enemies and to heal our bodies. It gives us purpose and makes us feel loved. It gives us a community — one we can trust, and a social safety-net. It allows us to believe we are behaving as we ought, and it allows us to relinquish our guilt. It gives us a father-figure to cry out to in times of need, and a feeling that everything will be okay, and that someone is in control.

But reject this meme, or refuse to spread it, and it threatens us with eternal suffering.

But whosoever shall deny me before men, him will I also deny before my Father which is in heaven.
~ Matthew 10:33

v3fwVkHAnd so, when we’re born into this world, this highly evolved meme stands ready to be poured out onto our brain, filling in all its cracks. “Ahhhhhh,” sighs the brain, “That’s exactly what I needed!” And it is! Because it has evolved to be. And from that point on, the brain and the meme share a kind of symbiotic relationship: the meme reassuring the brain, and the brain protecting the meme (regardless of which religious meme it may be). The religious meme has become like the Borg in Star Trek, warning us: “Resistance is futile, you will be assimilated.”

Conclusion

It’s possible that the Bible was divinely inspired, but it’s also possible that religious memes have evolved to meet our needs.

If God is just a highly evolved meme, then the only thing that can stop it is competition, competition from another meme whose fitness exceeds that of the meme currently occupying the same space in our brain. However, I’m doubtful that any natural view will ever trump religion’s ability to fill the desires of our heart, for the same reason that eternal life will always be more appealing than eternal death. Religion has evolved to meet our needs, atheism has not.

Posted in New Testament, Old Testament | Tagged , , | 27 Comments

52. Why did the Israelites worship a golden calf? (Exodus 32)

Golden CalfWho would’ve thought that a casual conversation between a man and a burning bush would lead to some of the most spectacular miracles the world has ever seen? But that’s how the exodus began, and the Hebrew slaves who lived in Egypt became firsthand eyewitnesses to many of these amazing miracles, including:

  • The ten plagues of Egypt: the Nile turning into blood, the toads, the gnats, the flies, the locusts, the boils, fire raining from the sky, and the death of all the firstborn of Egypt;
  • Moses’s staff turning into a snake and back again;
  • the parting of the Red Sea;
  • God appearing as a magical pillar of smoke and fire that led them day and night;
  • bitter water that was turned sweet;
  • God appearing as a cloud on multiple occasions, with a voice like thunder;
  • manna that magically appeared on the ground each morning, and
  • water that came flowing from a rock.

And 70 elders even got to meet God in person!

Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and the seventy elders of Israel went up and saw the God of Israel. Under his feet was something like a pavement made of lapis lazuli, as bright blue as the sky.
~ Exodus 24:9-10

Yet after meeting God and witnessing all these amazing things, these men did something utterly inexplicable, they disobeyed a direct order from God and worshiped a golden idol. Why?

How the Israelites turned against God

After God had performed all these miracles, he led the Jews around the desert for a while, and then appeared at the top of Mount Sinai. 

Baby GoatFrom there, God called to Moses, and began to chat with him for forty days about the kind of sanctuary he wanted. God described to Moses exactly how it should look, and how the ark should look, and the bread table, and the lampstand, and the tabernacle, and the tabernacle court, and the curtains, and the alter, and the basin, and the priestly garments; and then he told Moses who should make this stuff, and how the priests should consecrate themselves, and what sacrifices should be offered, and what blood and guts should go where, and what anointing oils and incense should be used, and how much the Israelites should pay in taxes, and how everyone should conduct themselves during the Sabbath day, and — somewhere between explaining how to make quality men’s undergarments (Ex. 28:42Ex. 39:28) and why it was okay to kill and eat adorable baby goats but not delicious pigs (Ex. 23:19, Lev. 11:7), God glances down the mountain and exclaims, “Holy Moses! Those nimrods are making a… a… holy cow!”

Moses was taking so long in returning that the Israelites began wondering if he was ever coming back. So they turned to Aaron and said, “It appears as if your little brother is not going to return, would you fashion some new gods for us to worship?” And Aaron (who was second in command and had met God in person) did the unthinkable:

Aaron answered them, “Take off the gold earrings that your wives, your sons and your daughters are wearing, and bring them to me.” So all the people took off their earrings and brought them to Aaron. He took what they handed him and made it into an idol cast in the shape of a calf, fashioning it with a tool. Then they said, “These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.” When Aaron saw this, he built an altar in front of the calf and announced, “Tomorrow there will be a festival to the Lord.”
~ Exodus 32:2-5

Aaron was an idiot.

By this point, God is fuming (though he surely saw it coming). God told Moses he was going to slaughter the lot of them for their insolence (Ex. 32:10), but Moses reasoned with God, and God realized Moses was making some valid points, and so he relented.

Then the Lord relented and did not bring on his people the disaster he had threatened.
~Exodus 32:14

“Fine,” God said, “you handle this. I’m in no mood to speak to them right now, anyway. I just — I just can’t believe it! And after I specifically told them not to do that, then they go and do it anyway! What a stiff-necked people!”

So Moses departs and descends Mount Sinai, careful not to damage the heavy stone tablets that God had written upon, so that he could smash them in full view of everyone.

The Israelites had made a graven image, and this was a clear violation of God’s second commandment (Ex. 20:4-5), so in an effort to teach them the importance of obeying God’s commandments, Moses violates the sixth commandment (“Thou shall not kill”), and kills 3,000 of them. God then strikes them with a plague, just to make sure they got the message, and they did: some of God’s commandments are absolute, while others are… well… more subject to interpretation. 

(Fun fact: Moses did not kill his brother Aaron, the person who was actually responsible for making the idol).

Was it all just one big misunderstanding?

After everything they’d witnessed, why would these Jews disobey God and worship a golden calf? Or to put it another way, why build a cow when you can get God’s milk (and honey) for free?

One possible explanation is that they saw this as a tribute to the god who did these miracles, and that the Jews just didn’t realize what they were doing was wrong. After all, Moses never said God wasn’t a cow…

But the Bible is clear that God had warned the Israelites about making idols (Ex. 20:4-6Ex. 20:22-23Ex. 22:20) and that they understood this warning (Ex. 24:3-7). God also makes it clear that this was an intentional violation of a commandment they’d been given:

“They have been quick to turn away from what I commanded them and have made themselves an idol cast in the shape of a calf. They have bowed down to it and sacrificed to it and have said, ‘These are your gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’”
~ Exodus 32:8

This wasn’t just a simple misunderstanding.

Golden CalfThe only reason the Bible gives for this dissent is that these men were prone to doing evil (Ex. 32:22), but this answer isn’t very satisfying. These Jews had just witnessed spectacular miracles and were terrified of God (Ex. 20:18-19), and they were also ordered not to serve other gods under penalty of death (Exodus 22:20). A rebellion under these circumstances would equate more to lunacy than evil.

Today, many (if not most) Christians would be willing to lay their lives down for God, without having observed anything like these great miracles, so how much more would they believe if they had witnessed these things? How much more should the Israelites have believed? Would you run off to find some other alternative god to worship?

Conclusion

So to sum up, God performs a bunch of fantastic miracles, leads his people out of Egypt, feeds them bread and water, gives them direct orders not to make other gods, and so they rebel and make other gods. Even Aaron, a man who’d seen these mighty works and saw God in person (or at least his feet), was willing to fashion this false idol, and build an alter to it, and order a festival in honor of it!

Do these sound like the actions of a people who have just witnessed such events firsthand? Like the crowd that chose Barabbas over Jesus, these eyewitnesses do not appear as impressed as one might expect.

That’s not to say there are not some grains of truth to the story. Some Jews may have been enslaved by Egyptians, and they may have even thought God had rescued them. These stories may have become exaggerated over time. I imagine if we were to travel back in time to witness these events firsthand, we would probably return with a much different version of this story.

So what was the author’s motive? How does the author(s) benefit from writing this story? We all like to tell and hear stories, especially stories that have explanatory value; but the author(s) of Genesis and Exodus also benefit by using these stories as a way to place a lien against a particular piece of land, long before property liens existed. In essence, the story says, “The God who created all things has personally promised us this specific piece of land.” But this lien only works as long as the people believe in the God who established it, and so the story insists that only this one God be worshiped, and strict penalties are imposed for those who stray from the official state God.

The goal of Exodus 32 may have been to stop any thoughts of dissent before they started. The author is saying: “Don’t bother worshiping other Gods, because this has already been tried, and it didn’t end well. Also… we’ll kill you… so don’t.”

Posted in Miracles, Old Testament | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

51. Was David prophesying of Jesus in Psalm 110?

god-jesus-holy-ghostThe book of Psalms is a collection of songs, most of which are usually attributed to King David. Many of the Psalms sing God’s praises, many plead for protection and blessings, and a handful are cited by Christians as inspired messianic revelations. I want to take a close look at these messianic verses (here and under future questions) starting with the bomb that is dropped in Psalm 110:1:

A Psalm of David.

The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for you.”
~Psalm 110:1

Few words in the Bible have stirred up more controversy than, “The Lord says to my lord.” Who was God speaking to at his right hand? And why was David calling this mysterious person “my lord” (or “my master”)?

For Christians, the obvious answer is the messiah. Surely David wouldn’t call himself “my lord,” and God couldn’t’ve been talking to himself, and so David and God must’ve been addressing someone else of great importance: the messiah!

And so for Christianity, Psalm 110:1 is an important verse, because it suggests that the messiah is more than just an earthly king in the line of David; he’s someone who existed prior to his own birth, and he comes from a position of authority in heaven. (Fun fact: Psalm 110 is also the most frequently cited Old Testament chapter in the New Testament.)

Jesus also assumes that Psalm 110 was referring to the messiah:

Then Jesus said to them, “Why is it said that the Messiah is the son of David? David himself declares in the Book of Psalms: ‘The Lord said to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.”’ David calls him ‘Lord.’ How then can he be his son?”
~Luke 20:41-44

And Jesus makes it clear that it is he who sits at God’s right hand:

And Jesus said, “I am; and you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
~ Mark 14:62

Notice that Jesus also describes himself as “I am,” an unmistakable reference to the Godhead:

God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM. This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I AM has sent me to you.’
~ Exodus 3:14

Charles Haddon Spurgeon sums up David’s “divine revelation” this way:

Though David was a firm believer in the Unity of the Godhead, he yet spiritually discerns the two persons, distinguishes between them, and perceives that in the second he has a peculiar interest, for he calls him “my Lord.”
~ Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The Treasury of David

If David was indeed referring to a second person in the Godhead, this verse would represent a colossal shift in Jewish thinking. But was this really what David was implying?

Who were the two lords?

The Godhead

There’s no question that the first Lord is God, as it’s the Hebrew world “Yĕhovah.” The second lord is much more ambiguous, and is the Hebrew word “‘adown,” which is usually translated as “lord,” “master,” and occasionally “Lord.”

In the early days of Christianity, Jews were of the mind that this second lord was David. We know this because Peter had to combat such thinking (Acts 2:29-34). According to Peter, since Jesus rose from the dead to sit at God’s right hand, and David was still dead, Psalm 110 must be referring to Jesus. This argument works so long as you accept Peter’s literal interpretation of Psalms 110, and his claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and his claim that Jesus now sits at God’s right hand. In other words, it works as long as you’re already a believer.

While Christians still insist this second lord was Jesus, Jews and critics have suggested a few other possibilities: 

  1. According to Rabbi Tovia Singer, the second word used for lord in Psalm 110:1 “never refers to God anywhere in the Bible” and “is used only to address a person, never God.” Rabbi Singer suggests that David wrote this Psalm so that it could be sung by others at the temple, who would understand it to mean: “The Lord [God] said to my lord [King David] ‘Sit thou at my right hand…’”
  2. Others suggest that this was a Psalm of (or about) David, but not by David (not all Psalms were authored by David), so “my lord” is simply a reference to David. 
  3. Another suggestion is that David was quoting a prophecy that was given to him early in his administration, where the prophet refers to him as “my lord.”
  4. There’s a small chance that David is calling Melchizedek his lord. Melchizedek was once the king of Salem who is described as a “priest of God Most High” in Genesis 14:18. David mentions him in verse four, and his name is held in high regard: “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: ‘You [presumably David] are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.’”
  5. There’s the possibility that we’ve simply misunderstood what David was saying. Perhaps David was putting a poetic spin on this phrase, and the meaning of the expression has been lost to time.
  6. And finally, there’s the possibility that scribes copied this verse incorrectly, or mistakenly labeled it “A Psalm of David,” or that someone retold the story using the words “my lord” in reference to David.

King-David

The Missing Psalm

If David meant what Christians think he meant, I mean, if he really did have a spiritual revelation about a second person next to God who was worthy of being called lord and master, I find it wholly inconceivable that David would not elaborate on this massively important spiritual revelation. Perhaps by writing another Psalm about him, perhaps something like this:

Psalm 110.5 (The Missing Psalm)
A Limerick of David

There once was a God named Yahweh,
who had a son in an odd way;
he was fully Him, yet he was also his kin,
and the son of God was known to say:

“I do as my father pleases,
I even sneeze when my father sneezes,
we walk the same walks, and we think the same thoughts,
but I am not him, I am Jesus!”

“I love you,” said God one to God two,
“Because of you I can get things done faster;
so you go and die, while I watch from the sky,
and they can call me ‘God’ and you ‘Master.’”

So to sum up this song, we Jews have had it all wrong,
there are TWO persons in heaven, not one;
the Lord on the throne is the Lord we’ve always known,
and the lord to his right is His son!

Even a crappy Psalm like this one would’ve helped to clear things up. But David doesn’t elaborate, which suggests to me that he didn’t feel any need to, because what he’d said wasn’t revolutionary, and didn’t require any explanation.

Whose enemies? David’s or the Messiah’s?

Rather than elaborating on this new second person of the Godhead, David spends the remainder of Psalm 110 elaborating on how God would help this person defeat his enemies.

If you’ve read the Book of Psalms, you know that one of the most prevalent themes is how God helps David deal with his enemies, so it stands to reason that Psalm 110 is an extension of that same theme. It seems less likely that Psalms 110 represents a departure from this theme into a nearly identical, but spiritual, version of this theme, about a heretofore unknown second lord in the Godhead who also, incredibly, needs help defeating his enemies.

Whose feet? David’s or the Messiah’s?

We also find verses that seem to collaborate the idea that it is David whom God delivers from his enemies, by placing his enemies under his feet:

You make your saving help my shield,
and your right hand sustains me;
your help has made me great
I pursued my enemies and overtook them;
I did not turn back till they were destroyed.
I crushed them so that they could not rise;
they fell beneath my feet.
~ Psalms 18:35-38

“You know that because of the wars waged against my father David from all sides, he could not build a temple for the Name of the Lord his God until the Lord put his enemies under his feet.”
~ 1 Kings 5:3

Is being at the right hand really such a big deal?

The expression “right hand” is used 35 other times in Psalms, without any of the literal or legalistic fanfare Christianity seems to place upon it in Psalm 110:1. For example:

I keep my eyes always on the Lord. With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.
~Psalm 16:8

With my mouth I will greatly extol the Lord; in the great throng of worshipers I will praise him.
For he stands at the right hand of the needy, to save their lives from those who would condemn them.
~Psalm 109:30-31

So sometimes God is at your right hand, and sometimes you’re at his.

And just because a person happens to sit at God’s right hand doesn’t necessarily mean this person is ruling with God, or is a part of the Godhead. Rather, it appears that the person in this case is being asked to sit only to exaggerate how little effort they will need to exert in order to defeat their enemies. God is not saying, “Sit here and rule with me as father and son.” He’s saying, “Kick back, relax, and have one of these fruity blue drinks with an umbrella in it while I deliver your enemies on a silver platter.”

Conclusion

While it’s possible that Psalm 110 is a spiritual revelation about the messiah, there are a number of issues that serve to undermine that conclusion.

First and foremost, we’re placing a tremendous amount of importance on a verse that’s very ambiguous.

Second, David’s failure to elaborate about this second person suggests he didn’t believe he was revealing anything that warranted further explanation.

Third, war is an ongoing theme in Psalms, along with David’s defeat of his enemies who are placed under his feet, so there’s little reason to believe that Psalm 110 departs from this theme to introduce a spiritual metaphor about a second god who also needs defending.

Finally, even if David came right out and said, “God has a son, and the two rule together in heaven, and God’s son will one day be born as my human offspring,” all Jesus has to say is, “Okay then, I’m that guy.” In other words, this isn’t a prophetic proof-text, it’s just a description of the messiah, and one that’s easy for anyone to lay claim to. It’s one thing to say, “I existed before I was born at the right hand of God,” it’s another to say, “Did I ever tell you twelve about the ice ages? Or how giant lizards once roamed the earth before they all died off?” Jesus doesn’t express anything that would help us to place him before his time.

I wish I could travel back in time and ask King David: “When you said ‘The Lord says to my lord,’ were you implying that the second lord was a second person in a triune Godhead? And that this second person, while separate from God, was also mysteriously one with him, as to still allow for one God? And that one day this second person would be born as your great-great-grandson, who separates himself from God, but still remains one with him?” I imagine David would give me a puzzled look and ask, “What the Sheol are you talking about?”

Posted in Jesus, Old Testament, Prophecy | Tagged , , , , , | 29 Comments

50. Did Joshua really get the sun and moon to stand still?

image21In the book of Joshua, God was really intent on helping Josh (as I like to imagine his friends called him) defeat the five kings of the Amorites (who were probably a bunch of gay liberals). So rather than just offer his usual brand of silent esoteric support for wars waged in his name, God actually helped out, pelting the enemy with large hailstones (Joshua 10:11), and stopping the rotation of the earth at Josh’s request, just so he could finish the battle.

On the day the Lord gave the Amorites over to Israel, Joshua said to the Lord in the presence of Israel: “Sun, stand still over Gibeon, and you, moon, over the Valley of Aijalon.”

So the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, till the nation avenged itself on its enemies, as it is written in the Book of Jashar.

The sun stopped in the middle of the sky and delayed going down about a full day.
~Joshua 10:12-13

Proof of a miracle?

Back in the 1980s, I’d heard an evangelist tell an audience that NASA had actually discovered Josh’s missing day. According to the story, NASA had been performing some calculations for satellites and inadvertently discovered a day missing from earth’s history. If this is true, it could be evidence of a spectacular miracle, and the existence of God. 

Is it possible to detect a missing day?

Long story short, no.

The only way that the computer would know that a day was missing would be if it had the actual astronomical data from millennia past to compare to. Obviously we have no such data. So even if we it were true that there is a missing day in history as the Bible claims, there would be no way to verify this using computer simulations. We don’t, and will never, have the data needed to confirm that specific claim.
~

So where did the NASA story come from?

Turns out, the origin of this urban legend is now well documented.

Harry Rimmer

Harry Rimmer, Creationist, Liar

The original version of the story goes back to the late 1800s, and it was popularized in Harry Rimmer’s book The Harmony of Science and Scripture in 1936, in which he claimed that British astronomer Sir Edwin Ball had somehow calculated a missing day in earth’s history.

This story reemerged in the 1960s when Harold Hill, who worked as a plant engineer at NASA, began claiming the story as his own, but revised it so that it was NASA that’d made the discovery. Harold Hill’s version was then passed around and preached from the pulpits for another 30 years, until it began showing up in email inboxes.

In 1997, NASA finally squelched this urban legend, denying that such an event ever took place, and denying that Hill would’ve had access to any of their computers. They also explained that such a calculation would be impossible. 

To their credit, many popular Christian websites now try to dispel this hundred-year-old legend, though most agree that the Biblical legend itself is still true. 

If it can’t be proven, is it theoretically possible?

According to NASA, it’s physically impossible. But if you believe in a God of miracles… well… anything goes; so let’s move on.

Corroborating eyewitness accounts?

If this miracle left no physical evidence, is their any other evidence? Many Christians say yes, in the form of ancient eyewitnesses.

…there appears to be solid evidence from the Bible and from folklore around the world that there was one day which, depending upon geographical location, presented the inhabitants of the earth with an unusually long span of daylight or night… Agnostic or atheistic scholars choose not to deal with the ancient witnesses.
~geocentricity.com

Well… if it’s true that agnostics and atheists choose not to deal with these ancient witnesses, it is probably because so many things can potentially go wrong when trying to prove an extraordinary claim by way of myths, legends, and folklore.

First, teasing out the fact from the fiction can be a subjective process.

Second, we’re dealing with a 3,500 year-old event. It’s hard enough to get accurate eyewitness accounts of events that happened yesterday. 

Osiris sun worshipThird, as one might suspect, the sun is an extremely popular topic in myths, legends, and lore, and so it’s not uncommon to find parallels. For example, both the ancient Lithuanians1 and Aztecs2 have legends about a time when the sun did not emerge for many months/years. And there are Polynesian1 and New Zealand3 legends that say the sun used to move much faster across the sky than it does today. There are also many stories about catching the sun1 and tethering it to the ground (no doubt inspired by the sun’s rays). But just because these parallels exist, doesn’t prove any of them happened. 

Fourth, the large number of sun myths makes it possible to “pick the winners” that corroborate the Biblical account (i.e. confirmation bias). For example, a believer might choose to ignore the Lithuanian myth of a very long night because it should’ve been a long day. 

Fifth, dating these stories can be difficult. And even if a myth was first told hundreds of years after the event, it might still be said to be corroborating a much older story.

Sixth, it’s possible to loosely reinterpret these legends to match up with the Biblical details. For example, it doesn’t seem to matter if the sun stops for ten days or ten years; as long as it stops, it is said to corroborate the Biblical event.

And finally, these legends are sometimes difficult to track down to their original source. These legends often come to us only by word of mouth, or the original sources are missing, or (in some cases) the stories are outright fabrications.

Confirming the legends

Skeptical as I was, I did investigate a few of these alleged parallels.

I found numerous Christian books and websites citing the same collection of legends, which I traced back to none other than Harry Rimmer. Harry writes:

In the ancient Chinese writings there is a legend of a long day. The Incas of Peru and the Aztecs of Mexico have a like record, and there is a Babylonian and a Persian legend of a day that was miraculously extended. Another section of China contributes an account of the day that was miraculously prolonged, in the reign of Emperor Yeo. Herodotus recounts that the priests of Egypt showed him their temple records, and that there he read a strange account of a day that was twice the natural length.
~ The Harmony of Science and Scripture, pp. 269-270.

Harry Rimmer’s work has since been discredited and criticized by both scientists and creationists. As early as 1955, Christians like Bernard Ramm were already finding problems with some of these legends. He writes in A Christian View of Science and The Scripture that he was unable to “track down nor confirm” the validity of “Egyptian, Chinese, and Hindu reports of a long day.”

We’ve already learned about the Aztec legend of the long night (that actually lasted for several years), let’s look at a couple of others.

Rimmer cites the story of Emperor Yao. This story first appeared in 1733 in a book by J. Hübner (Kurtze Fragen aus der Politischen Historia) and has been cited by Christians ever since. 

Chinese history speaks of Yao, their king, declaring that in his reign the sun stood so long above the horizon that it was feared the world would have been set on fire.
Nelson, David, 1793-1844The Cause and Cure of Infidelity, pp. 26

There are several problems with this story. First, the sun was on the horizon for ten days, not two. Second, Emperor Yao lived approximately 800 years before Joshua. And third, this legend is mysteriously absent from all the manuscripts we have today.

Sunrise_at_CreationRimmer also mentions Herodotus, a Greek historian in the fifth century B.C. who wrote about a trip to Egypt. Reading his account, I wasn’t able to find any mention of a day that lasted twice as long. The closest thing I found was a claim by the Egyptian priests that the sun would occasionally change where it rose or set, but this does not represent a long day:

In this time [the past three hundred generations of men] they [the priests] said that the sun had moved four times from his accustomed place of rising, and where he now sets he had thence twice had his rising, and in the place from whence he now rises he had twice had his setting…

If this was what Rimmer was referring to, it’s been deceptively reinterpreted. If this isn’t what he was referring to, then why does he ignore this solar miracle?

Moving on, I found other Christians citing the fact that five North American Indian tribes all have tales of a long night. This isn’t actually five independent accounts of a long night, but one legend shared across five tribes (with different variations).

IMG_0244According to these legends, someone catches the sun (often a young boy) and tethers it to the ground, causing the sky to remain dark. A small rodent (either a mouse, a beaver, a mole, or a rabbit) manages to free it by chewing or cutting through the tether, getting burned in the process. These stories all emphasize the importance of these animals and how they got their physical traits. 

I’d feel pretty uncomfortable about building my faith upon stories that also feature heroic beavers and moles. I mean, if this is what qualifies as good evidence, then I’m pretty sure I’d also have to accept all the anecdotal evidence for things like ancient aliens, Bigfoot, and chemtrails. 

I could go on, but I don’t think this kind of evidence is going to convince anyone who isn’t already a believer.

Did the sun stop, or the earth?

I should also mention that there is a lot of debate over why the Bible says that the “sun stood still” instead of “the earth stopped turning.” Didn’t God know better?

I’m willing to accept that God could’ve been speaking to us in terms we’d understand (e.g. we still call it a sunrise and sunset, even though we know better), so I won’t make a big fuss over it. But some Christians are less forgiving, and follow their literal views to jaw-dropping conclusions:

God wrote in verse 13 that the “sun stood still and the moon stayed.”  God either meant what he wrote, or he did not.  There is no excuse for God because he is the God of truth; therefore all things he says and does must reflect that fact. So God cannot utter an untruth and we must conclude that the Bible teaches, in Joshua 10:13 and else where, that the universe rotates around the earth once per day, carrying the sun, moon and stars with it, regardless of what introductory astronomy texts may say.
~geocentricity.com

Seriously? The earth is stationary? And the entire universe revolves around us? Whoa.

Other Christians prefer to just dismiss the story as poetry, but this also means dismissing the miracle.

Conclusion

When I began researching this question, it was in hopes of finding some legitimate evidence that could confirm a miracle. The quality of this evidence quickly dwindled, and it’s time to move on.

While we can’t prove nor disprove this event, we can show that inventing sun myths is a popular human pastime. The only thing that sets this myth apart is that it appears in the Bible, but is that enough? Unless God is willing to perform an encore, we have no reason to believe it’s anything more than an ancient urban legend, not unlike those more recently concocted by Rimmer and Hill.

References

1. Olcott, W. T., 1914.  Sun Lore of all Ages: A Collection of Myths and Legends Concerning the Sun and its Worship, (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons), p. 205-220.

2. Caso, A. 1937.  The Religion of the Aztecs, (Mexico City: Popular Library of Mexican Culture, Central News Co.), pp. 15-16.

3. Pappas, Stephanie, 2012, Live Science website, Fiery Folklore: Dazzling Sun Myths 

Charles A.L. Totten (1890), Joshua’s Long Day and the Dial of Ahaz

Rimmer, Harry (1936), The Harmony of Science and Scripture, (Berne Witness Co.).

Ramm, Bernard (1954), The Christian View of Science and Scripture (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans).

Snopes.com (2009) , The Lost Day

Posted in Miracles, Old Testament | Tagged , , , , , , , | 37 Comments

49. Why did the crowd choose Barabbas over Jesus?

-----PILATE-ASKS-ISRAEL-JESUS-OR-BARABBAS------1According to the gospels, Jesus was a charismatic figure who was constantly attracting crowds wherever he went. People wanted to be healed, see a miracle, or hear what Jesus had to say. Often there were so many people it was difficult to get close to Jesus, and people literally climbed trees (Luke 19:3-4) and cut holes in rooftops (Mark 2:4, Luke 5:19) just to get closer. The gospels are filled with stories like these:

Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. Mark 3:20

Again Jesus began to teach by the lake. The crowd that gathered around him was so large that he got into a boat and sat in it out on the lake, while all the people were along the shore at the water’s edge. Mark 4:1

Soon afterward, Jesus went to a town called Nain, and his disciples and a large crowd went along with him. Luke 7:11

Now Jesus’ mother and brothers came to see him, but they were not able to get near him because of the crowd. Luke 8:19

Meanwhile, when a crowd of many thousands had gathered, so that they were trampling on one another… Luke 12:1

These crowds also traveled long distances and to remote locations just to see him.

Jesus withdrew with his disciples to the lake, and a large crowd from Galilee followed. When they heard about all he was doing, many people came to him from Judea, Jerusalem, Idumea, and the regions across the Jordan and around Tyre and Sidon.
Mark 3:7-9

Late in the afternoon the Twelve came to him and said, “Send the crowd away so they can go to the surrounding villages and countryside and find food and lodging, because we are in a remote place here.” Luke 9:12

These lucky crowds got to witness some of the most amazing miracles in history. They saw Jesus feed 5,000, heal the lame and the blind, cast out demons, raise people from the dead, and perform so many other miracles that “even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written” (John 21:25). The Bible gives us a snapshot of what these crowds saw:

A large crowd followed him, and he healed all who were ill. Matthew 12:15

When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick. Matthew 14:14

…the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen. Luke 19:37

…and a great crowd of people followed him because they saw the signs he had performed by healing the sick. John 6:2

Now the crowd that was with him when he called Lazarus from the tomb and raised him from the dead continued to spread the word. John 12:17

Jesus vs. Barabbas

But when it came time for the public to choose between freeing Jesus “the miracle worker” or Barabbas “the murderer” — the choice should’ve been clear, and yet… they chose to free Barabbas.

This ancient public opinion poll tells us that Jesus’s approval rating was, somehow, even lower than that of Barabbas’s… who didn’t exactly set the bar very high. The crowd didn’t even free Barabbas because they liked him, but because they disliked Jesus. Luke 23:23 says, “With loud shouts they insistently demanded that he be crucified.” That really doesn’t sound like the actions of a crowd who were deeply impressed by the miracles of Jesus.

Lazarus

Where were all of Jesus’s supporters? Where were the crowds that traveled long distances to see him? Or even just the local fans? Where were the apostles? Where was the blind man saying, “Free Jesus, for I was blind and now I see!” Where was the deaf man? The lame man? Jesus’s mother and brothers? The centurion? The bleeding woman? Mary Magdalene? Where was the father whose son was possessed? Where was Lazarus saying, “Free Jesus! For I was dead and Jesus made me alive again!” Where was Zacchaeus saying, “Free Jesus! For I was a short, nerdy, tree-climber and Jesus hung out with me anyway!” Where were the large crowds that spread cloaks and palm branches and sang to him as he entered Jerusalem? Where were the droves that were healed? Or the thousands that were fed? Where were the legions of sick crying out, “Free Jesus so that we too may be healed!”? Where were all these people? If crowds gathered wherever Jesus went, where were they now?

Unfortunately, there’s no way for us to go back in time and observe the miracles of Jesus, but thanks to this informal public opinion poll, we know that the people who were there at that time didn’t seem to think much of him. In fact, if they could see all of the cathedrals and mega-churches dedicated to Jesus today, they might say, “What…? You mean that guy? That guy we passed over for Barabbas?! Well, I was there, and I saw what he did, I saw it with my own two eyes! So you can wipe off that grin, I know where he’s been, it’s all been a pack of lies!” (Sorry — Phil Collins humor.)

The Chief Priests: The reason for the crowd’s change of heart?

According to the Bible, the reason the crowd turned on Jesus was because the chief priests and the elders “persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas” (Matt. 27:20, Mark 15:11).

tissot-the-chief-priests-take-counsel-together-739x505

The gospels paint the chief priests as antagonists, and I don’t doubt that some of them were corrupt, but they were still probably the best qualified to identify a potential messiah, and they seemed to be doing as God had instructed.

The scriptures clearly warned them that God would be testing the Jews by sending false prophets, who would try to impress them by accurately predicting the future and performing signs and wonders. God also instructed them to kill such prophets if they ever tried to lead people away from the one true God. 

If a prophet, or one who foretells by dreams, appears among you and announces to you a sign or wonder, and if the sign or wonder spoken of takes place, and the prophet says, “Let us follow other gods” (gods you have not known) “and let us worship them,” you must not listen to the words of that prophet or dreamer. The Lord your God is testing you to find out whether you love him with all your heart and with all your soul… That prophet or dreamer must be put to death for inciting rebellion against the Lord your God…
Deuteronomy 13:1-5

So along comes Jesus, making prophecies, performing signs and wonders, inciting rebellion, and leading Jews to follow an unfamiliar God (one with a child, who came from a human woman), and so the chief priests did exactly as God instructed. If God didn’t want them to kill Jesus, perhaps he should’ve been more specific about what they should expect, so there would be no misunderstanding about who to kill and who to worship.

On top of all this, Jesus wasn’t exactly matching up with a number of messianic prophecies (as the Jews understood them). So there are many possibilities here:

  1. The chief priests were correct about Jesus being a false prophet.
  2. The scriptures were man-made, and therefore useless for predicting anything about anyone.
  3. Barabbas was a more impressive character than Jesus.
  4. The crowds didn’t believe the stories about Lazarus and the other miracles.
  5. God blinded all Jews (because of past sins), and prevented them from recognizing their messiah.
  6. God permitted Satan to deceive all the people so they would kill Jesus.

Most Christians would probably opt for one of the last two explanations, but if either are true, then the Jews (and mankind in general) are not responsible for killing Jesus — God made it impossible for us to recognize him. And strangely, even after the resurrection, we have to presume God continued to prevent the overwhelming majority of Jews from ever recognizing him. (Poor Jews.)

Why did the crowd listen to the chief priests?

If Jesus had healed me or my family, or raised me from the dead, I wouldn’t give a flying fig what the chief priests said. And according to the gospel of John, the crowds didn’t care. They recognized that these miracles meant that Jesus was something special, even if he didn’t exactly fit their messianic expectations:

At that point some of the people of Jerusalem began to ask, “Isn’t this the man they are trying to kill? Here he is, speaking publicly, and they are not saying a word to him. Have the authorities really concluded that he is the Messiah? But we know where this man is fromwhen the Messiah comes, no one will know where he is from.”

Then Jesus, still teaching in the temple courts, cried out, “Yes, you know me, and you know where I am from. I am not here on my own authority, but he who sent me is true. You do not know him, but I know him because I am from him and he sent me.”

At this they tried to seize him, but no one laid a hand on him, because his hour had not yet come. Still, many in the crowd believed in him. They said, “When the Messiah comes, will he perform more signs than this man?”
~ John 7:25-32

So the crowds were (reportedly) impressed with the miracles of Jesus, and were willing to overlook a few inconsistencies. And really… who are you going to believe? The guy who can literally walk on water… or the chief priests… who can’t?

Conclusion

Whatever may have happened that day, it’s clear that the crowds were not impressed by the works of Jesus, at least not enough to spare his life. And it’s difficult to imagine that the chief priests were so persuasive that they could talk people out of a miracle worker and into a murderer. It’s also difficult to believe that of all those who were healed, that they would all abandon Jesus in his time of need. As impressed as we are today with the works of Jesus, those who lived with him did not seem nearly as impressed.

Hypothetically speaking, if the story of Jesus were just a legend (based upon an actual person), the size of the crowds and the miracles performed could’ve been exaggerated one generation after Jesus, and it would’ve been difficult to confirm or deny these details. However, you couldn’t lie and say Jesus did so many great miracles that they made him king of the Jews (people would know that was bullshit). The gospel writers had little choice but to excuse his execution by insisting these witnesses were ignorant and blind. But… what if they weren’t?

Posted in Jesus, New Testament | Tagged , , , , , , | 54 Comments