Saturday, August 17, 2013

Answers in Genesis Responds to my Critique of their Museum

I can't deny.  I dig the beard. 
[Edit 8/19/13: I've introduced some clarifications, stylistic changes and minor marked emendations into this post.] 

Answers in Genesis' Ken Ham and Georgia Purdom have posted these two responses to my blog post critiquing their museum.  I encourage everyone to go read their short token replies.

Let me point out nothing in my original blog post was condemnatory of young earth creationism.  In fact, you could still believe the earth was created 6,000 years ago contemporaneously with Larry King and adhere to all the points I outlined.  I haven’t declared my side in the debate. (I prefer to be obnoxious like that.)  In a glorious plot twist, I may very well rip off my mask at any moment and announce I’m actually a young earther. I understand AiG’s passionate response assumes this is a doctrinal throw down, but the reality is this entire discussion is irrelevant to major articles of doctrine, and young earthers can be assured that it's not my angle to disabuse them of their position on the age of the earth.  I find it much more fun to creep you out in the hermeneutics department.

Speaking of creeping my fellow evangelicals out, I've speculated before that young earthers may do better to search for warrant for their "no pre-fall death" position by juxtaposing texts like Enki and Ninhursag (particularly descriptions of the Eden parallel Dilmun) with Isaiah's descriptions of the eschaton. (See the Electronic Text Corpus of Sumerian Literature.) There I go again, speculating about all that boring literary-historical context stuff.

Before we respond to this piece from them, let’s take a moment to recall all the things Ham and Purdom simply have not attempted to address that my blog brings up:

1) Anachronistic Moses They were silent about their display with Moses holding the Ten Commandments in a script which wasn’t adopted by the Jews until the 5th century and dotted with vowel points which were invented in the Middle Ages.  A museum should be interested in avoiding anachronisms in their exhibits like this.

2) Leviathan They have not defended or mentioned their identification of Leviathan as a dinosaur [A reader alerts me Ken Ham protests in a short facebook status here that "dinosaurs were technically not sea creatures." So I will instead be using the term plesiosaur]. This is a claim Ham is famed for.  I can’t emphasize enough how much I’ve seen expressions of this idea articulated in evangelical circles.  Leviathan can’t be a dinosaur plesiosaur because the Psalms tell us he has multiple heads (This portion in Psalm 74 sadly doesn't get much lov'n from them for obvious reasons).  Psalm 74 demands Leviathan is a west Semitic chaos deity because it inserts YHWH into the Babylonian account of creation as a literary polemic. Job tells us he breaths fire. Isaiah tells us he was killed in conjunction with the creation of the world but that he will be killed (i.e. “punished”) again at the eschaton. That notion is contradictory if Isaiah has a member of the animal kingdom in mind.

If that isn’t enough, the Ugaritic texts come right out and inform us he is a chaos deity.  This is the sockdolager and should stop being ignored. (See my Leviathan post for an example of the Ugaritic parallels.)  Answers in Genesis would have discovered this years ago if they more highly valued interpreting the Bible in its historical, particularly Babylonian-exilic, context rather than interpreting it to serve modern scientific polemics.  It’s easily accessible in modern commentaries. As an example, I refer readers to the note on Psalm 74 in the NET Bible.

3) Behemoth They did not touch the subject of Behemoth or the semantic range of the word for “tail” in that passage that I raised.  Again, their desire to interpret the Bible through a scientific lens has superseded their evangelical lip service to interpret the text in its historical context.

4) Isaiah’s Flying Serpents They said nothing defending their comical identification of Isaiah’s flying serpents as pterodactyls.  My post gained readership from professors Michael S. Heiser and James McGrath particularly due to this claim by AiG.  Their failure to respond to my exegesis and exhume their “scientific polemic” exegesis indicates to me the obvious.

5) The Voltaire Sign I noticed in the museum that a sign perpetuates the pulpit legend that Voltaire’s mansion was turned into a Bible printing house after his death.  AiG on their own website warns against believers using this very argument.  I don't care to vaunt this mistake in their faces anymore after this post since everyone makes flubs like this, but it would be nice for them to acknowledge the error, and I do hope they change the sign. While they are at it, it would also be nice on that same sign if they would remove the image of Socrates with the accompanying description implying he rejected the afterlife.  Plato (also an Athenian) in his Phaedo happily presents Socrates as convinced in the afterlife.  Again, not a hill to die on and totally ancillary to my hermeneutical focus, but I offer it as a courtesy to the museum.

That’s roughly half of what I wrote.  Now on to the main headings Purdom (a geneticist) raises in her response to me.

Presuppositions about Dragon Legends

I brought up Adrianne Mayor’s influential dissertation as an object lesson demonstrating why modern dinosaur legends should not be used as a weapon to bolster our exegesis.  You can be an old earther, young earther or secularist and still affirm Mayor’s general thesis that dragon myths are the result of ancient paleontology.  The museum parades these legends as scientific evidence of their exegesis when the reality is the data could comfortably be accommodated by an old earth or even secular perspective.  As I said, “In many cases it is certain that ancient people were offering extinct animal fossils as the origin of mythological creatures.”  Purdom takes umbrage with my tone of certainty:
Notice the phrases, “it is certain,” “mainstream view,” and “extremely powerful and convincing.” But Mayor’s views are based on her ideas about the past (she wasn’t there) and she does not presuppose the Bible as truth. She interprets the evidence of fossil beds and dragon legends in light of her presupposition that man’s ideas about the past—including evolution and millions of years—are true and God’s Word is not.
I wan't conjecturing.  There is high certainty this sort of thing was going on in the ancient world, and it’s no accident these legends sometimes correspond with known fossil beds.  Jason Colavito refers me to the case within Pallene, Crete [Colavito corrects himself: the [K]assandra peninsula], “where the giants lost the war against the gods.”  Colavito informs me, “The story is found in Solinus 9.6-7, with lesser references in Pausanias 1.25.2, Apollodorus 1.6.1, Ptolemy Hephaestion in Photius  Photius, Myriobiblon 190, and about a dozen other sources. In 1994, paleontologists decided to go looking for the site and discovered a giant bed of Pleistocene fossils, mostly mastodons.”  It’s likely these sorts of remains informed the Cyclops myths.

There is no reason this same principal of ancient paleontological interpretation should not be entertained in explaining Scythian griffins, early dragons or even North American legends of the thunderbird, and anyone can review Mayor’s arguments for these identifications in her books.  Dong Zhiming and other Chinese paleontologists have even documented the modern continuation of the practice in traditional Chinese medicine.  Don't tell me it never happened in ancient times because the practice is still going on and is inspiring dragon myths today. I’m illustrating an exegetical point. Dinosaur legends are not a sockdolager demonstrating the accuracy of any one particular interpretation of scripture.  This undermines the museum’s entire dragon argument theme.

The Absolute Beginning

I’m not inclined to care what Purdom or Terry Mortenson have to say in their retort against Holmstedt’s thesis because they are bring science to a Hebrew syntax fight. (Is it Christian of me to describe their response here as "fantastically lazy"?) They aren’t trained to interact with the Semitic parallels Holmstedt cites to illustrate the noun-bound-to-clause structure of that passage indicates an unmarked relative clause, and they have provided no grammatical reason to doubt him. (No, you don't need a PhD in languages to understand the basic outline of his argument. He does a great job explaining it in accessible terms.) They haven’t touched the specifics of the grammar with a ten foot pole.

I’m also not inclined to care what an astrophysicist like Jason Lisle says about the ancient Hebrew grammar, or whatever irrelevant list of scientists Mortenson may produce who believe this or that theory about the age of the universe. I trust the infallible, inspired word of God (which comes with its own grammatical rules) over the changing, fallible sciences of Ken Ham. (See what I did there?)

Mortenson pronounces Holmstedt “arrogant” and speculates that his interpretation is driven by the influence of secular institutions by reviewing his institutional history. [Edit 8/20/13: Holmstedt was amused by this and has given a response here.] Let me emphasize Holmstedt’s analysis has a long history and is not an idiomatic or “arrogant” view among experts. It is the position professed by grammarians like Martin Baasten at the University of Leiden, Mark Smith (possibly one of the most influential living Semitist in North America), Ellan van Wolde from Radboud University and Michael Heiser, the academic editor of Logos.

Mortenson’s quote concludes with an attempt to circumvent grammatical discussion of Gen. 1.1 with this amazing claim:
But, it should also be pointed out that neither Ken Ham nor any other creationist we know would ever say that we can “date the universe [only] with Genesis 1:1.” It is Genesis 1:1–2:3, Genesis 5 and 11, Exodus 20:8–11, and many other relevant verses that lead to the conclusion of a 6,000-year-old universe. But I guess this seminary student and his Hebrew authorities aren’t too interested in reading young-earth creationist literature carefully. (Bolding of verses mine)
None of those above texts Mortenson cites describes a creation of the universe or provides grounds for dating the universe. His dependence on Gen. 1.1 is palpable. Genesis 1:1-2:3 does not parse whether the earth and sky were made of pre-existent matter. (That’s the whole point of Holmstedt’s expatiation.) You need Gen. 1:1 to be an absolute temporal clause to assert that.  Genesis 5 is a genealogy. Obviously the existence of the universe and the materials of creation predate Adam and so, it is irrelevant to the age of the universe. Genesis 11 is the Babel event followed by a genealogy starting with Shem. (How on earth does this text allow us to date the universe?) Exodus 20.8-11 states, “…For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea, and all that is in them, and rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” Again, this text does not tell us if that creation of the heavens and earth was accomplished using preexisting matter (read: preexisting universe).

It’s very likely the formless void of Genesis 1:1-2:3 was preexistent, and we have no way of knowing how long it was there before the creation days. In fact, our evangelical lip service to interpret the Bible in its historical context would bid us to believe that’s what the author had in mind. In Enuma Elish it’s obvious the creation of the heavens and earth is accomplished by Marduk using a parallel preexistent watery chaos. I'm not just some pointy headed liberal making that connection because I believe the Bible is on par with Babylonian myth. That cosmological connection is overtly supplied by the exilic author of Psalm 74 himself.

Reconciling the Two Creation Accounts

Nothing Purdom says addresses Heiser’s blogpost. She only links a possible explanation of the “contradiction” between the two creation accounts in Genesis. I’m fine with that as a competing explanation. Heiser’s point is that it is possible to explain that contradiction in such a way that allows for two creations of man (one outside Eden and the other within Eden). This is a view neither Heiser or I am married to and which has its own history--being held for example by the Medieval Rabbi Rashi. Since she doesn’t offer anything which might exegetically disqualify the possibility, I have nothing to give in response.

A Question of Credentials

I made a mistake when I stated in my original post that Ken has only earned a bachelor in science academically and have since corrected the statement. As an aside, Purdom tells us his Australian diploma in teaching "is roughly equivalent with a Master’s." A kind educator based in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia with the same diploma has emailed me and informed me Purdom is incorrect about this "roughly equivalent with a master's" comment. Though, I don't care to belabor the issue since it's not my point. [1]

I hope the substance of my point is not lost. Ken Ham is not a Biblical scholar. He is not trained to interpret ancient Jewish literature. *I'm not saying* he can't interpret the Bible, but rather, that anytime he does he must, like me, be depending on Semitic and ancient Near Eastern scholars or else he will err. I find it odd and scary we Evangelicals wax eloquently about the need to interpret the Bible in its historical context then turn around and interpret it in our modern scientific context. That has been my remonstration against the scientist dominated origination from the beginning. It’s symptomatic of why we’ve ended up with such wacky interpretations and the evangelical desire to demythologize the Bible in a science polemic.


There are a lot of other methodological subjects I could clamor about like their assumption of comprehensive mosaic authorship of the Torah, their inability to accommodate prescientific divine condescension in their doctrine of inerrancy (see my post on evil eye magic) or their assumption that the Holy Spirit operates to supply believers with the meaning as well as the significance of the text. (See my post "The Holy Spirit and Interpretation" which based on the Daniel P. Fuller article.) However, my message here has been much more simple: Evangelicals must learn to recognize the ancient Near East as the matrix for Bible interpretation and study. Not modern science and scientists.

[1] The reader informs me the Australian Qualifications Framework, available here states Ham’s diploma it is a level 5 qualification (p.38).  A Master’s is a level 9 (p. 59). To be regarded as being equivalent to a Graduate Diploma it must level to an 8 qualification (p. 56).