Thursday, July 21, 2016

No, Jeremiah 10 isn’t a Christmas Tree

I’ve been asked before to comment on the popular claim made by the Hebrew roots movement that Jeremiah 10:1-5 is about a Christmas tree.

I’ve translated the passage here:
1. Heed the word that the Lord speaks to you, house of Israel
2. The Lord says this about the way of the nations: Don’t learn them, and do not be dismayed at the signs of heaven, for the nations are dismayed at them.
3. For the religion of the people is a crock! Since one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman חרש with chisel.
4. They (lit.) beautify it in silver and in gold, with nails and hammers they fasten it so it will not move.
5. They are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak. They have to be carried, because they cannot walk. Don’t be afraid of them, for they cannot harm, nor is it in them to help you.
Why this passage isn’t about a Christmas tree: 

First off, does it really make any sense to criticize a Christmas tree for not being able to speak, walk, harm you or bring good on you? Those are all criticisms which would make sense if what Jeremiah is describing here were an ancient Near Eastern idol. In the ancient Near East, idols were created by craftsmen and given certain rituals which would invite a deity to incarnate them so worshipers could barter with the god on earth. In short, the reason this passage can’t be referring to a Christmas tree is the word translated “craftsman” חרש in the third verse. We have 35 occurrences of this word in the Bible. Don’t take my word for it, read them all here. The word invokes a sense of skilled artistry, specifically things like jewelers, carpenters and blacksmiths. The real nail in the coffin is that this exact same word is used in other passages like Isaiah 40:19, 20 and Deut. 27:15 to also describe skilled idol makers. Compare:

Isaiah (ESV):
An idol! A craftsman חרש casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and casts for it silver chains. He who is too impoverished for an offering chooses wood that will not rot; he seeks out a skillful craftsman חרש to set up an idol that will not move.

Deuteronomy (ESV):
“Cursed be the man who makes a carved or cast metal image, an abomination to the LORD, a thing made by the hands of a craftsman חרש, and sets it up in secret.’ And all the people shall answer and say, ‘Amen.”

For the religion of the people is a crock! Since one cuts a tree from the forest, the work of the hands of a craftsman חרש with chisel.

A rant I’ve ranted many times before:

Does it really make sense to argue that Christians should not make use of symbols with pagan origins or associations when Christians are either: a) totally unaware of a symbol’s history, or b) using the symbol with no pagan (or completely different) intentions? My problem with the Hebrew roots movement is that the standard of purity it uses to beat up Christian holidays and symbols cannot even be applied to the Bible. I’ll give you some examples:

John uses a snake as a symbol for Jesus (John 3:14); it is well known that many of the Biblical proverbs have Egyptian origins and influences (If you don’t believe this you simply haven’t ever picked up an academic commentary on Proverbs.); psalm 104 is very reminiscent of an earlier hymn to Aten; psalm 29 seems to be modeled after Baal texts (for example); both Jesus and YHWH are given the Baal’s deity title “cloud-rider” in both testaments. (Here’s an M.A. thesis on this); or consider that the book of Revelation is crawling with Greco-Roman astrology. (Ever read Revelation 12?)

What examples like these show is that symbols are not magically evil. John uses a snake to represent Jesus and it’s totally kosher in his mind. We talk about Jesus “riding on the clouds” and it’s not an issue that this was a title that originally belonged to Baal. The history of a symbol or its uses in pagan contexts doesn’t make it evil or unusable by Christians, it’s the intention behind the symbol that makes it good or bad. I say this as someone who thinks the whole Santa thing is kinda dumb. Yes, little Billy, if you do good works a supernatural being dressed in the papal vestige is going to break into our house, drink a libation of milk and cookies, reward you with material possessions then fly back to Asgard on his magical flying chariot.

Saturday, May 7, 2016

How to Learn the Ugaritic Alphabet Ludicrously Fast

Learning memory techniques before starting a language is bound to save you hundreds of hours and buckets of needless sweat. I'm going to illustrate this by showing how you can learn the Ugaritic alphabet. Cuneiform is such a homogeneous script that remembering it feels like doing differential equations while watching c-span, but the key here is to jettison all that nonsense your 3rd grade schoolmarm told you about "focusing" and start daydreaming like an idiot. Light speed is too slow. You want to go ludicrous speed. The following mnemonics can be printed and added to flashcards, but the best way to get them in useful resolution is to login to the free flashcard website Memrise where I've uploaded them to this course.
After an hour or so playing around with the app, you should be reading the basic words in the course. You'd be surprised how much of the vocabulary you'll remember from Hebrew.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Geronimo’s Dragon: Dinosaur Fossils behind the Apache Creation Myth

Forget Chuck Norris. His ancestors
killed 20 foot dragons with bows.
It doesn’t look like anyone has written anything on this online or in any of the published material. One of my favorite audiobooks is the biography of the American Apache Indian Geronimo. The entire thing can be downloaded free on LibriVox.

After the Chiricahua finally conceded to the US government, Geronimo agreed to meet with a translator to publish his life biography. The biography opens with the Apache origins myth. He then tells stories of growing up as a Native American, fighting bears, mountain lions, and his countless battles with Mexican troops and the US Army.

The Dragon Legend

Relating the Apache origins myth, Geronimo tells about an evil dragon that would eat all the children of the first woman. For this reason, humanity could never flourish. The woman becomes so distraught that she hides one of her boys and has him raised in secret. When the boy became old enough to hunt he challenged the great dragon to a duel:
Then the dragon took his bow, which was made of a large pine tree. He took four arrows from his quiver; they were made of young pine tree saplings, and each arrow was twenty feet in length. He took deliberate aim, but just as the arrow left the bow the boy made a peculiar sound and leaped into the air. Immediately the arrow was shivered into a thousand splinters, and the boy was seen standing on the top of a bright rainbow over the spot where the dragon’s aim had been directed. Soon the rainbow was gone and the boy was standing on the ground again. Four times this was repeated, then the boy said, “Dragon, stand here; it is my time to shoot.” The dragon said, “All right; your little arrows cannot pierce my first coat of horn, and I have three other coats—shoot away.” The boy shot an arrow, striking the dragon just over the heart, and one coat of the great horny scales fell to the ground. The next shot another coat, and then another, and the dragon’s heart was exposed. Then the dragon trembled, but could not move…[The boy] sped the fourth arrow with true aim, and it pierced the dragon’s heart. With a tremendous roar the dragon rolled down the mountain side—down four precipices into a canyon below…[F]ar down in the canyon below, they could see fragments of the huge body of the dragon lying among the rocks, and the bones of this dragon may still be found there. This boy’s name was Apache.
There it is, more evidence that dragon and giant legends around the world are actually based in ancient people interpreting fossilized remains. This is a subject Adrienne Mayor (Stanford University) has written a really cool book on.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

That 666 Video is Stupid: 666 doesn’t spell out Allah

Have you seen this video which has been shared over 80,000 times on Facebook?  It features the starbucks cup guy yelling at us like an unfair caricature of an evangelical pastor in an NCIS episode about an apocalyptic cult. (Can I even blame non-Christians for thinking we evangelicals are a bunch of mouth-breathing dupes? They’re largely right.)  I have formal training in several Semitic languages and Biblical Greek, and it’s obvious to me that Josh can’t read a word of Arabic or Greek.  He’s parroting Walid Shoebat’s old spiel without having a clue what he’s talking about.  (But it’s for Jesus, so I guess that’s ok.)

Why this theory stinks (scroll down beneath the explosion picture if you want the short version):

1) Josh’s symbols were made up and monkeyed with to make them appear similar:
In the video, Josh tells us the upper image says, “in the name of Allah” and that this "matches up--parallels perfectly" with the Greek for 666.
The first line of the Quran begins with the phrase “in the name of Allah.”  This is what it actually looks like in Arabic, as taken from's digital text of Al Fatiha:

Creepy how much it "matches up" and "parallels perfectly," huh? As you can see, the preposition (that long line on the right) has been fudged around with and retained parallel. (Or is it a whip tied to a levitating sword cutting an apple, I'm not sure.)  The name Allah Josh shows has been flipped sideways and then inverted to look like the Greek letter Xi.  When I showed the image to my missionary friend who is fluent in Arabic he responded that it was “completely moronic.”

the insect anti-Christ
Josh seems to think Arabic is logographic like ancient Chinese or ancient Egyptian—that the sword icon actually says something.  Nein!  Arabic is a consonantal alphabet like Hebrew.  In other words, those crossed swords were just thrown in randomly to make this look sexy. But Ben, that middle character looks SOOOO similar.  Really? Since Arabic is stylistic cursive, you could turn all sorts of words sideways and invert them to make them look like the Greek letter Xi. That's just how Arabic do.  I spent three minutes randomly typing words into google translate and here's the word for 'bug' to the right.  It probably looks closer to a Greek Xi in some of the other manuscripts I'm about to show you...ooooohhhh spooky.

2) Did anyone bother to read Revelation?

The second problem for Josh’s theory is the text of Revelation itself. Revelation is concerned with the actual number here, not the shapes of the letters.  The author tells us point-blank that the meaning of the symbol is to be "calculated" ψηφισάτω within gematria, not the shape of the handwriting.

The final nail in the coffin

3) Josh's manuscript is from the 15th century, and the original Greek script of Revelation looked different than the script Josh shows us:

Let’s flog this dead horse further. The Greek letters he shows are taken from Codex Vaticanus, a book composed in 350 AD.  Its venerable ancientness is meant to impress you, as if Shoebat was led by Gandalf into the Minis Tirith library by flickering candle light and decoded the symbols on the back of a dollar bill to open a secret room.  From the dust of forgotten centuries he exhumed this esoteric volume of early Christianity.  Peering over his glasses he sagely eyes the symbols which whisper of a forgotten prophecy which is about to plunge him and Nicholas Cage in a high-speed car chase.  Truth is Vaticanus didn’t originally contain Revelation.  This text Josh is showing us was tacked on by a scribe in the 15th century. It is written in miniscule.  A font that didn’t exist in the first century. It’s in a different paleographic style than the original autograph of Revelation could have contained or any other early manuscript does.  That squiggly letter Xi would have been more angular.

Here it in the same verse in Codex Sinaiticus (Sinaiticus writes out the number rather than abbreviating it).  Sinaiticus was composed around the same time as Vaticanus. Notice the Greek letter Xi doesn’t look much like what Josh needs it to.

The third letter sigma especially took a different form that looks identical to a ‘C’ (you can see it in the manuscript above); it looks nothing like what Josh needs it to. (If one of you suggest that maybe this is a crescent moon, I’m gunna bean you.)  Here is the same abbreviation in Papyrus 47:

Here is our oldest text of Revelation 13:18 (Papyrus 115).  It actually says the number of the beast is 616, but I don’t want to get into all that right now.  The point is that last letter sigma in this older manuscript also does not look like the idiomatic Vaticanus sigma but takes the form of a 'C.' (That straight line above the number is a marker of abbreviation in Greek, by the way.)

If you want a bird’s eye view, here’s a paleography chart to show Josh’s entire theory is dependent on a single idiomatic manuscript he pulled out of the 15th century for no reason:

I’m sorry my ranting about crusty things like manuscripts and first century paleography makes me sound like old man Wilson yelling at the kids to get off his lawn and probably isn’t as thrilling as Josh’s youtube video with a graphic of flaming 6’s. (‘Merca!)  Please love me.  I can make textual criticism cool.  I can be cool. Here’s a picture of an explosion if it will hold over your attention span for one more paragraph, America:

For the TLDR crowd:

The author of Revelation tells us point-blank that the number “calculates” the meaning, not one shape in the middle of the number. 2) The Arabic image Feuerstein found on the internet was totally made up, flipped and inverted arbitrarily with some random swords thrown in for the express purpose of looking good—it could qualify for a circus contortionist act. 3) It’s easy to make things in Arabic look like a sideways Greek letter Xi because it’s a cursive script. And 4) the Greek only looks sorta like this made-up Arabic image if you are raping a 15th century text written in a different style than the autograph of Revelation.


Sunday, January 17, 2016

Why the Christian Head Covering Movement is Wrong

I’ve been coming more and more across videos like this.

They advocate restoring the New Testament cultural practice of head covering. The fact that this whole discussion is even necessary is probably evidence that most theologians and pastors don’t really take their lip service to interpret the Bible in its context seriously or have even been trained by their seminary to know what that would look like. I don’t care what Wayne Grudem’s Systematic says or what interpretation some sage pastor thinks God laid on his heart. You actually need to consult linguistic databases and first century literature to know what's going on here.

Frankly, we know why women were expected to cover their hair in the first century. Hair was scientifically considered an erotic organ. We have medical texts which explicitly explain the mechanics of this. The language of these texts highly corresponds with Paul’s language. The throwaway, “because of the angels” line fits like a glove with Second Temple literature on this interpretation (the New Testament authors took supernatural traditions like Enoch a lot more seriously than we do), and it perfectly explains why Paul thought nature dictated women ought to have long hair and men short hair. Troy Martin’s article in the Journal of Biblical Literature is a good place to get acquainted with the context I’m talking about. “Paul’s Argument from the veil in 1 Corinthians 11:13-15: A Testicle Instead of a Head Covering.” JBL 123/1, (2004), 75-84. (Thanks to Michael Heiser for making it available online.)

But why would God allow Paul to defend bad science?

Imagine you are an ancient Corinthian. You and all your pagan neighbors in the Las Vegas of the ancient world think that female hair is literally an extension of genitalia (thanks Aristotle)—that there is a one-to-one correspondence with hair length and feminine fecundity in your culture’s science.   Because of this belief, your educated culture has wisely instituted head coverings for women as an expression of sexual modesty.

Imagine then, some guy Paul comes to your hyper-sexualized culture and some new God you’ve never heard of called the Holy Spirit gives him a divine science lesson. Paul then runs around telling his church not to care about covering the genitalia on their head because it’s bad science. Now you have a church exposing what all their neighbors think are genitalia in the name of the Holy Spirit.

I’m sorry if those “serious exegetical studies” people read by 18th century pastors haven't equipped them to incorporate scientific condescension in their understanding of inspiration, but God didn’t care to give David a divine physiology lecture in Psalm 16:7 when he praised God for instructing his kidneys (If that reference is confusing, here's another journal article), and he doesn’t seem to care to do so here. If your cool theology, Reformed or whatever, forces you to take these things as mere metaphor then your theology prevents you from interpreting the Bible correctly in its context. Your theology disables you from understanding the Bible and that's a problem.

What’s the take-away?

In the English world, giving someone a thumbs-up is a good thing.  In some Arabic countries it is a vulgar symbol—the equivalent of giving someone the middle finger.  It would be morally ok for me to go around flaunting the symbol in one culture and not ok in the other.  Our culture attaches nothing like sexual promiscuity to displaying hair because we don’t have the complex 1st century scientific apparatus that supplied that connotation in the ancient world.  This verse can be taken then as a warning against appearing or being sexually immodest.  All this applies to hair length on the interpretation I’ve offered too.  The form may not translate to our culture but the meaning does.