Thursday, 11 July 2013

How We Know The Bible Was Written By Ignorant People






A stone axe from near Shanghai, eastern China. May show a form of primitive writing.
Photograph: AP
Inscriptions found in Shanghai pre-date 'oldest Chinese language by 1,400 years' | World news | guardian.co.uk

This article in today's Guardian got me thinking about how ridiculous the Bronze Age origins myths in the Bible are and how easy it is to refute them by just looking at the world today.

For example, in Genesis we read about a worldwide flood which only a single family survived. It is inconceivable that the details of this and the names of Noah and his family, the people who saved the world and from whom we are all descended, would have been forgotten in just a few generations.

Yet further on we find a particularly implausible attempt to explain all the different languages with the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), although it only seems to account for the languages which were found within a few day's journey of the Middle East. Incidentally, this is the second attempt in the Bible to explain different languages. The first had been the even less plausible story of how all the descendants of the 'sons of Noah' spoke their own languages, in the immediately preceding chapter. (Genesis 10).

Whoever wrote Genesis 11 seems to be unaware of Genesis 10 and opened with:

And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.

Genesis 11:1

And this was only six generations after Noah!

The Tower of Babel, Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Assuming there were five surviving children per couple per generation on average (almost certainly on the high side given the rate of infant mortality in an agrarian society), this would amount to under 200,000 people available, including women and children, to build this tower up to Heaven, which in those days, apparently was located directly above the Middle East and within reach of a man-made tower, presumably just above the dome over the earth on which the stars were stuck and from which the sun and moon were hanging (Genesis 1:7-8, 14-17).

Anyway, be that as it may, according to the Bible, the creator god believed this was possible, although he didn't seem to have been omniscient in those days because he didn't seem to know this would happen, and had to go and check to find out what was going on. It's almost as though this god was constantly surprised by what his creation was getting up to in those days. He seems to have talked to himself a lot too, though someone must have been around to have written it all down.

And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another's speech.

So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.
Genesis 11:5-9

So, if we take this tale at face value and ignore the implausibility of so few people being able to build such a tower, what with someone needing to grow the food to feed the workforce and other such economic problems of which the author seems blissfully unaware, we have a group of people located in the Middle East but suddenly speaking Chinese or at least a precursor language of modern Chinese. And these people, just a few generations after Noah, would certainly have known the stories of how the creator god had drowned everyone in a fit of pique and how they owed everything to the righteousness of Noah and his family, their recent ancestor. Why, Noah had even chatted personally with this god, allegedly!

According to Young-Earth Creationists and Bible literalists, this all happened about 5,500 years ago.

Hwang Ho (Yellow River). The cradle of Chinese Civilization
Yet, according to the archaeological evidence described in the Guardian article, the Chinese were using a precursor to written Chinese in Zhuangqiao near Shanghai about 5,000 years ago. The Chinese had apparently migrated from the Middle East all the way across Central Asia without leaving any trace of their passing, had settled in the Hwang Ho (Yellow River) Valley, developed a distinct culture and writing, and had entirely forgotten the story of Noah and the flood, some 500-1000 years later.

This is like Americans forgetting all about Columbus, the Puritans and the Mayflower, or the English forgetting Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Francis Drake and Cardinal Wolsey, complete with their entire religion, as well as their entire folklore, music and counting system. Every trace of their former culture completely eradicated from their collective memory, and a whole lot of new stories, origin myths, gods and cultural imperatives popping out of nowhere to replace them.

If you believe that you'll probably believe anything and will certainly be prey to all the spivs and charlatans who parasitize human credulity. I have these four magic beans for sale....

There is also other evidence that the Chinese were there even before the alleged biblical flood and that the origins of written Chinese are in the Neolithic.

In recent decades, a series of inscribed graphs and pictures have been found at Neolithic sites in China, including Jiahu (c. 6500 BCE), Dadiwan and Damaidi from the 6th millennium BCE, and Banpo (5th millennium BCE). Often these finds are accompanied by media reports that push back the purported beginnings of Chinese writing by thousands of years. However, because these marks occur singly, without any implied context, and are made crudely and simply, Qiu Xigui concluded that "we do not have any basis for stating that these constituted writing nor is there reason to conclude that they were ancestral to Shang Dynasty Chinese characters." They do however demonstrate a history of sign use in the Yellow River valley during the Neolithic through to the Shang period.


So how did the Bible's authors make such silly mistakes?

Quite simply it was the same reason they got so much of the science wrong - parochial ignorance. Just as they believed all the animals on Earth lived within a few days walk of Noah's house so saw no need to explain how he rounded them all up in a couple of weeks, so they believed all the languages on Earth were spoken in the Middle East and could be accounted for by the migration of the families of a few survivors of a flood within a handful of generations.

And of course, they believed that the only possible place for a mythical Heaven, where their mythical creator god lived, was directly above the Middle East where they lived. They never saw any need to explain why no one else remembered any of this stuff because they had no idea that anyone else existed and they couldn't imagine 'Heaven' being anywhere else because they lived on a small, flat planet with nothing of any importance much beyond the horizons.

Bible literalists can see nothing wrong with this view of the world, and see no problem at all with it not being supported by any evidence and being utterly inconsistent with what we know about little things like the origins of Chinese culture, language and writing.

After all, they are preaching to people almost as parochial and ignorant in their view of the world as were Bronze-Age Middle Eastern nomadic people in the infancy of our species.

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9 comments :

  1. It's strange how Biblical literalists remain stubbornly steadfast when their credibility has been so thoroughly demolished. As someone who moved slowly from a non-literalist, more liberal Christian tradition to non-belief, I think we can still use the absurdities of the Old Testament to good effect with 'more enlightened' Christians who no longer read the Bible literally. Those absurdities forced me to re-think my religious faith even though I never took the Fall, the Flood, the Tower of Babel etc literally. Non-literalist Christians are the more important target for rationalists - at least outside the US - since they represent the majority of believers. One avenue of persuasion is to challenge them to explain how these 'inspirational' texts and 'metaphorical' stories can be so horribly flawed and still be 'divinely inspired'.

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    1. This is a good point you raise. If the bible is not taken literally why did god make such a mess of it. If it is meant to be taken literally, then it is incorrect. No escape for the theist.

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    2. Yikes. That IS sort of a catch-22...

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  2. Great post. As John points out in the previous comment, this is only really a problem for literalists. Really, literalists didn't exist until the second half of the 1800s, when the Niagara folks and the Princeton bunch started worrying that Christianity was in competition with science and decided that the Bible was a science text.

    If these stories are seen as myths or models - as a way to understand the world - they are nearly so deadly. From what I've read about Judaism, for example, it sounds as though they don't take their origin myths nearly so seriously as we take their origin myths.

    I mean, thank God nobody put a "How the Zebra Got its Stripes" story into the Bible or we'd all be talking about how France and Spain went to war for 150 years in the 1500s over the Great Zebra Heresy.

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    1. Mind you, it comes close. It DOES explain how the Jacob's Sheep got it's colours. Gensis 30:37-39. The very next chapter even tells of God congratulating Jacob on this brilliant piece of genetic engineering, but then what did a Bronze-Age god know? :-)

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  3. How the Bible Led Me to Islam - The Story of Joshua Evans : http://youtu.be/IYMKQKSV0bY

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    1. Was it the mountains as pegs to stop earthquakes or the abolition of pleasure and the excuses for killing people you disagree with which he found so attractive?

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  4. A good debunk.
    So could it be that the Gilgamesh tablets have been inspired by Jiahu, Dadiwan and Damaidi stories? On the other hand, tsunamis happened and will happen on a regular basis, and everywhere.
    But who knows how in a couple of thousand years the recount of the 21st century tsunami in Asia will look like? Will the 9/11 attacks get a place in a New Testament, ther Sequel?
    Digital news info is no guarantee for indestructible preservation.
    We have little idea how often and to what extend elements in ' original' Hebrew and Christian scriptures have been adapted and corrected, but my guess is that the so-called prophets and in particular the popes from the first christian millennium took their liturgical liberties. Read the episode on Noah's 'shame', it's not only a ridiculous story - a nude taboo in Neolithic times, really? - it also seems to have a beginning and an end and no more than that. How can a priest give a sermon on this subject without stammering? If the Curse of Ham is a misnomer for the curse upon Ham's son Canaan or the narrative was interpreted by some Jews, Christians, and Muslim as an explanation for black skin, than say so! The worst thing is that Noah turned to God for advice, and God gave the curse his blessing.
    The same with the notably abridged episode on the Nephilim. The Hebrews wrote a much lengthier account! Clearly some heavy Christian editing/deleting has been done. By a short pope who couldn't stand tall people?

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