Over on his blog Charles Payet has a post entitled “It’s the End of the World as We Knew It.“ Overall, it is a rather pessimistic piece and one with which I cannot help but sympathize. The very real threat of climate change, for example, almost guarantees that the world my children will inherit will be far more difficult than the one I have. Payet notes this and writes, “Now, I have no desire to ever have grandchildren, because humanity is destroying the planet, and Christians and Muslims are leading the way with their denial of science and reality.” He is right because while there are many Christians and Muslims who aren’t science deniers, the overwhelming majority of deniers come from the religious Right. Their views on science are colored by their theological assumptions. This will invariably result in a world that is far more dangerous than the one we see today. (On a side note, if you don’t follow Payet on Twitter you should. He is an accomplished dentist and from what I’ve seen appears to be something of a polymath despite having ADD. Plus, he’s just a really nice guy. There aren’t enough of those around anymore.)
Chris Hansencontinues his series examining pop-apologist J Warner Wallace’s book Cold-Case Christianity. Wallace claims that the Gospel “accounts puzzled together just the way one would expect from independent eyewitnesses” when he first read them “forensically” (343, 344, electronic edition). But as Hansen points out, the Synoptics all show literary dependence and so they cannot be independent eyewitnesses: “So, apparently there was a level of harmonization going on, just what Wallace doesn’t want.” In other words, Wallace’s argument breaks down based upon Wallace’s own criteria. And this guy was a homicide detective?!?!
Last August astrophysicist Hugh Ross and retired chemist Peter Atkins engaged in a dialogue on the Unbelievable podcast with host Justin Brierly. The topic for discussion was the origin of the laws of nature which Ross attributes to a divine mind. Atkins, an atheist, does not see that as an adequate explanation and considers it to be “intellectual laziness.” Ross tries to make the Bible a prognosticator of future scientific discoveries and Atkins rightly calls him out on it. Atkins makes some appeal to a multiverse and Ross rightly calls him out on that. As a debate it was a wash but I did find some of what was discussed fascinating.
@ElishaBenAbuya has a new blog where he is moving over posts from his old one. He recently published a post on Zechariah 12:10, a text that apologists think is a prediction of the crucifixion of Jesus. That view is not without precedent as the Johannine author quotes it in John 19:37. A lot could be said about that reference as well as how the translator of Zechariah 12:10 in the Septuagint interpreted the passage. I may write a blog post on it in the future.
Phil Long, who blogs over at Reading Acts, wrote a series of posts last week on the book of Acts as history, story, and theology. Though Long’s conclusions about Luke’s historical writing are a bit too conservative for my taste, he raises some interesting questions and makes some helpful analogies.
In the last installment of “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers” we investigated Ray Comfort’s claim that the text of Job 26:7 affirmed that our planet was “freely floating” in space. As I pointed out in that post, Comfort’s bad science led to bad exegesis. Today we continue looking at Comfort’s claims that come from his book Scientific Facts in the Bible.
Comfort quotes Hebrews 11:3 from the NKJV: “By faith we understand that the worlds were framed by the word of God, so that the things which are seen were not made of things which are visible.” He then writes,
The Bible claims that all creation is made of invisible material. Science then was ignorant of the subject. We now know that the entire creation is made of invisible elements called “atoms.”1
Let’s begin with the scientific problems before we move on to the exegetical ones. The epistle to the Hebrews is anonymous and while some have attributed the letter to the apostle Paul, that connection remains dubious.2It was likely written around 90 CE. But for the sake of argument, let us suppose that the epistle was written by Paul before his death in the 60s. Did Paul have advanced knowledge of the atomic world that he wrote down in the epistle to the Hebrews? Is Comfort right that “[s]cience then was ignorant of the subject”? The answer is “no” to both questions.
The Pre-Socratics and the Atom
The word “atom” is derived from the Greek word atomos, from the negative particle a, and the word tomos, “cutting.” It appears one time in the New Testament where Paul writes that the resurrection will take place “in a moment [atomō], in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Corinthians 15:52). The idea conveyed by atomos is of something indivisible, so fundamental that one cannot go beyond it. Paul compares atomos to “the twinkling of an eye,” the idea being that the process of resurrection will be instantaneous.
Centuries before Paul was a twinkle in his father’s eye, the idea of an atom was being toyed around with by pre-Socratic philosophers. In the fifth century BCE, the Athenian philosopher Anaxagoras posited a world in which the material cosmos consisted of tiny bits of matter that could not be seen with the naked eye. Similarly, Democritus (460-370 BCE) reasoned that if you take a material object and began dividing it into smaller and smaller pieces you would at some point reach a piece that was atomos – “uncuttable.” Democritus believed that the material world was made of these “atoms” that were uniform, homogenous, and invisible.3This was the birth of what has become known as “atomism.” And while atomism did not win the day in Greek philosophical circles, it was a step in the right direction toward discerning the nature of the material universe.
What this shows us is that if we suppose that Paul was writing of the atomic world in Hebrews 11:3, he was doing so centuries after Greek philosophers had already done so. And since the tag line to Comfort’s book is “Amazing truths written thousands of years before man discovered them,” we can soundly reject that this particular biblical text contains advanced scientific knowledge. It is in fact a few centuries too late.
An Exegesis of Hebrews 11:3
That leaves us to examine the meaning of Hebrews 11:3 in its proper context. The eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews is perhaps its most famous. It begins with a rudimentary definition of faith (11:1) and includes what some refer to as the “Hall of Fame of Faith” (11:4-11:40). These heroes of ancient Israel are meant to stir up the recipients of the epistle to greater faith in the face of growing opposition and persecution (12:1-3). This is the immediate context in which we find the words in question.
The sequence of chapter eleven follows the general order of events in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, from 11:4 to 11:22 the focus is on the characters in the book of Genesis; from 11:23-29 the focus is on stories contained in the book of Exodus; and from 11:30 to the end there are characters from the books of Joshua, Judges, 1-2 Samuel and more. This suggests strongly that what is described in 11:3 is part of this sequence of events: it is a summary of the creation story we find in Genesis chapter one.
One of the key elements of the first chapter of Genesis is that God speaks words and those words accomplish his purposes. “‘Let there be light,'” God says, “and there was light” (Genesis 1:3). “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters,” he declares, and it comes to be (Genesis 1:6-7). The emphasis is on God speaking things into being. In Greek, when referring to someone’s speech, there is a particular Greek word that can be employed: rhēma. This is the word the author of Hebrews uses when summarizing Genesis chapter one: “By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word [rhēmati] of God.” That is, the world was prepared through what God had spoken.
This helps us understand the second half of Hebrews 11:3 when it says “that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” What is seen is the world that God created. What is not seen are the words God used to accomplish it. By this exegesis, it is not atoms to which the author is referring – as Comfort would have us think – but rather to God’s speech in Genesis chapter one. For the author of the epistle to the Hebrews, while we cannot see the words which God spoke, we can see their effect and it is by faith we understand that the world around us came from God’s words.
No Atoms Here
Comfort again reveals his sorely wanting exegetical skills. By reading the Bible through twenty-first century eyes and not in its own context he has forced upon it a reading that is not viable. Such eisegesis shows a lack of respect for both the text and its author. Comfort would do well to leave the task of biblical exegesis to those of us who know the Bible and handle it with respect.
No, Ray. There are no atoms in Hebrews 11:3.
1Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters Publications, 2016), 5.
2There are a total of thirteen letters that are directly attributed to the apostle Paul in the New Testament. Only seven of them (1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Romans, Philippians, Philemon, and 1 Thessalonians) do scholars have a consensus that Paul was the actual author. The Pastoral Epistles (1 and 2 Timothy and Titus) are likely forgeries and the authorship of the remaining epistles (Ephesians, Colossians, and 2 Thessalonians) are debated. The epistle to the Hebrews lacks the tell-tale signs of Pauline authorship.
3Anne Rooney, The Story of Physics (Arcturus, 2011), 18-19.
Below you will find links to all five posts in the series “Hopelessly Confused: Heather Schuldt Takes on Bart Ehrman.” I suggest that to get a full grasp of just how confused Schuldt is that the reader have a look at her post “5 Examples Why Bart Ehrman Is Not a Gospel Expert.”
It should also be noted that Schuldt and I had a brief email exchange wherein we discussed topics for discussion and venue. However, she has not responded to my last email and as of the date of this writing has blocked me on Twitter.
Part 1 – In this post I examine issues surrounding the dating of the Gospel accounts. I take a brief look at the Synoptic Gospels specifically and discuss the reasons many scholars date them to the 70s and 80s CE.
Part 2– In this post I examine issues surrounding the authorship of the Gospel accounts. I discuss Papias on Mark and Matthew, the “We Passages” in Acts, and the “Beloved Disciple” in John.
Part 3– In this post I examine the relationship of the oral tradition behind the Gospels and the Gospels themselves. Particularly, I consider whether or not we have evidence for Schuldt’s claim that written forms are not malleable.
Part 4– In this post I examine the Passion Week in both Mark and John. I discuss how the two versions do not sync as Schuldt hoped they would.
Part 5 – In this post I examine the timing of Jesus’ death in Mark and John and how John has strategically placed Jesus’ crucifixion at the time he does for theological reasons. I also summarize the series and offer some thoughts on Schuldt’s approach.
In this post we will be looking at Schuldt’s attempt to reconcile the Synoptics version of Passion Week with that of the Gospel of John.
PASSION WEEK PROBLEMS
In the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ first trip to Jerusalem is also his last. The final chapters of Mark’s Gospel are devoted to what has become known as “Passion Week.” Beginning with the “Triumphal Entry” episode and finishing with the crucifixion, the events take place over a seven-day period. In John’s Gospel, Jesus has made multiple trips to Jerusalem over the course of a few years (see John 2:13, 5:1, etc.). And in John, Passion Week doesn’t begin with the Triumphal Entry but with an anointing at Bethany. Let’s begin with the Markan Passion Week.
Markan Passion Week
The sequence of events in the Markan narrative is fairly clear and we have the benefit of certain time markers to guide the way. Let’s briefly look at each day.
On Sunday, Jesus enters the city on the back of a colt, goes into the temple complex to survey it, and departs that evening for the city of Bethany (Mark 11:1-11).
On Monday morning, Jesus and the disciples make another trip to the temple (Mark 11:12-19).
On Tuesday morning, Jesus and the disciples make yet another trip to the temple (Mark 11:20-13:37).
On Wednesday, “two days before the Passover,” Jesus is anointed by an unnamed woman in the home of Simon the leper in Bethany (14:1-9) and Judas seeks out the religious authorities to betray Jesus (14:10-11).
On Thursday, Jesus’s disciples prepare to eat the Passover Seder and that evening they share the Seder and Jesus institutes the Lord’s Supper (14:12-31). Following this, Jesus takes the disciples to Gethsemane where he is subsequently arrested and brought before the Sanhedrin (14:43-72).
On Friday morning, Jesus is brought before Pilate who then crucifies him at 9am (15:1-32). At 3pm Jesus dies (15:34-41). That evening, Joseph requests Jesus’ body from Pilate for burial (15:42-47).
On Saturday, Jesus’ body lay in a tomb.
The sequence of events is quite clear. The first major event of the week is the Triumphal Entry. The next major event is the cleansing of the temple. Then comes the anointing in Bethany. After this is the Seder meal and Jesus’ arrest. Finally comes Jesus’ crucifixion and burial.
Johannine Passion Week
The sequence of events in the Johannine version of Passion Week differs greatly from the Markan version as can be seen in some very obvious discrepancies.
Whereas in Mark the Triumphal Entry takes place before the anointing in Bethany, in John’s Gospel the Triumphal Entry (John 12:12-19) takes place after the anointing in Bethany (12:1-8). John has rearranged events such that the Wednesday anointing in Mark takes place on Sunday and the Sunday Triumphal Entry in Mark takes place on Monday.
Whereas in Mark Jesus cleanses the temple complex the day after the Triumphal Entry, in John the cleansing of the temple takes place years before not long after Jesus performs his first miracle in Cana (2:13-22).
Whereas in Mark Jesus shares in a Seder meal with the disciples, in John the meal is not a seder meal as the context makes abundantly clear. For example, we are told that the meal of 13:21-30 takes place “before the festival of the Passover” (13:1). Furthermore, the religious authorities refuse to enter Pilate’s headquarters to turn Jesus over “so as to avoid ritual defilement and to be able to eat the Passover” (13:28). We are also told that the day Jesus was crucified “was the day of Preparation for the Passover” and that it “was about noon,” the time when the Passover lambs would have been slaughtered. So in John, the Passover coincided with the sabbath making that sabbath “a day of great solemnity” (19:31).
So we have in John’s Gospel a Passion story that contradicts quite clearly that found in the Gospel of Mark.
How does Schuldt respond to this? She offers five points that demonstrate that “Jesus ate the Passover meal on Thursday night.”
First of all, the Old Testament is very clear in several different books of the Pentateuch when the Israelites were supposed to eat the Passover meal (Lev. 23:4-8, Nu. 28:16-25). It says the Passover meal is supposed to be eaten on the first calendar Jewish month (Abib, also called Nisan), on the fourteenth day at twilight. The Passover dinner was supposed to be a one time dinner once a year.1
In a sea of misinformation and poor scholarship, Schuldt gets this one right! So let’s not linger.
Second, the Jewish day would begin at twilight and extend into the night and throughout the next sunlight part of the day. Ehrman completely overlooks this important cultural difference between the culture back then to the culture today. So the fifteenth can also be called Passover day, but the Passover dinner was supposed to be eaten at twilight on the fourteenth day of Nisan (Abib). Jesus knew all these festival rules and regulations. He followed them by eating the Passover meal that we refer to as his Last Supper, but other corrupt priests might have planned on eating a Passover dinner on another night during the seven days that followed, which they were not supposed to do. In other words, corrupt priests may not have been following the rules for when to eat the Passover meal.
Schuldt is absolutely correct that the Jewish day in the first century was reckoned from evening to evening, roughly 6pm to 6pm. She is wrong that “Ehrman completely overlooks this” fact. Ehrman writes in his textbook on the New Testament that “in Jewish reckoning, a new day begins when it gets dark (that is why the Jewish Sabbath begins on Friday evening).”2She is correct that the Passover Seder was to be eaten on the evening of the Passover, which would have been Thursday evening in Mark. But what she claims next is just downright dirty.
Schuldt claims that while Jesus followed the rules and regulations set forth in the Torah concerning the Passover, “corrupt priests” may have acted against those regulations and celebrate it at a different time not prescribed by Levitical law. But this is not only pure speculation that she brings in to rescue inerrancy (i.e. eisegetical), it also flies directly in the face of the textual evidence. In Mark’s Gospel we are clearly told that before the Seder of Thursday night the disciples made preparations to celebrate it “[o]n the first day of Unleavened Bread, when the Passover lamb is sacrificed” (Mark 14:12). The lambs were sacrificed before the Seder meal. Since the Deuteronomic code forbade sacrificing Passover lambs anywhere but the temple (Deuteronomy 6:5-6) the disciples would have acquired their lamb at the temple from a priest that Thursday.
But this plainly contradicts what John says. It is John (not the priests) who note that the meal of John 13:21-30 takes place before the Passover (13:1). It is John (not the priests) who are said to not enter Pilate’s headquarters lest they become defiled and are therefore unable to eat the Passover meal that would have taken place later that evening (18:28). It is John (not the priests) who tell us that the day Jesus was crucified was the day of the Preparation for the Passover, i.e. the day when the lambs were slaughtered for that evening’s Seder (19:14). It is John (not the priests) who inform us that the coming sabbath day was one “of great solemnity” (19:31) because the Passover Seder would be eaten the evening the sabbath began.
The lengths to which people like Schuldt will go to rescue inerrancy never cease to amaze.
Third, the Feast of Unleavened Bread lasted seven days beginning with Passover (day) on the fourteenth/fifteenth. Some people may have referred to the seven day celebration by calling all seven days the Passover Week. In the gospels, we hear what the people were actually saying and doing, but the law of Moses describes what was actually supposed to happen (Ex. 23:14-15).
I have no idea why Schuldt has brought this up here. Clarification on her part would be needed. So let’s move on to what she says next.
Fourth, the “preparation day” most likely refers to Friday, the day before the Sabbath day. Every Friday was called the Jewish day of preparation in order to rest on the Sabbath (Saturday). On the fourteenth of the first month, however, the Israelites still had to prepare for the Passover meal. Thursday that year was also a kind of preparation day, preparing for the Passover dinner that night. According to the law of Moses, the Feast of Unleavened Bread required food preparations on all seven days of the celebration. If Ehrman would take the time to understand some of these things, he would not be concluding with contradictions. Further explained in this way: Thursday the fourteenth of Nisan is when Jesus had the Last Supper at its proper time when the Passover dinner was supposed to occur, according to the law of Moses. Jesus was arrested after dinner. The next day was Friday the fifteenth of Nisan when Jesus was crucified, but it was technically still called Passover Day. Friday happened to be the day of preparation for the Sabbath, but it was also the day of preparation for the first Day of Unleavened Bread when the sacred assembly celebrated. John 19:14 does not contradict any other gospel book. Some people began to call the seven day celebration of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, “Passover Week.”
Here again Schuldt needs to change the wording of the texts to fit her narrative. Regardless, this doesn’t actually change the narrative details found in the Gospel accounts themselves. In Mark, the lambs were sacrificed on Thursday afternoon before the Seder which happened Thursday evening. In John, the lambs were not sacrificed until Friday afternoon in preparation for the Seder which happened on Friday night.
Things that are different are not the same.
Next, Schuldt writes,
Fifth, in the Pentateuch, some people asked if they could still participate in the Passover meal even if they had been around a dead person. According to the books of Moses (Nu. 9:7-16; 19:11-16), a person who touched or was around a dead person was considered to be unclean for seven days. After Moses asked the Lord about this, the Lord instructed those unclean people to celebrate the Passover dinner in the following month, the second month of the Jewish calendar, at twilight on the fourteenth. In other words, no… anyone who touched a dead person or anyone who was around the dead person cannot participate in the ceremony because they are unclean for seven days. This might be why some people backed away from Jesus when he was dying on the cross: they didn’t want to be counted as unclean for seven days.
This has nothing to do with the sequence of events in the Gospels so we will not comment on it.
Schuldt’s explanation for the discrepancies between Mark’s version of Passion week and John’s version is very contrived. It denies the language used by the authors in a bid to rescue the doctrine of inerrancy. It also shows how utterly out of her depth she is when it comes to reading the New Testament and dealing with scholars like Ehrman. Calling his expertise into question actually serves to call her own into it.
In the previous installment of “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers” you were introduced to Ray Comfort and his book Scientific Facts in the Bible. As we saw in that post, his first example of a “fact” was anything but a fact. Furthermore, his hermeneutic led to absurdities that were undoubtedly out of sight and therefore out of mind for the notorious evangelist. Today we move on to the next “fact” in his book and, as we will see, it reveals Comfort’s sorely lacking exegetical abilities.
“The Bible Proclaims…”
Comfort quotes Job 26:7 from the NKJV which reads, ” “He stretches out the north over empty space; He hangs the earth on nothing.” He then writes the following:
The Bible proclaims that the earth freely floats in space. Science once thought that the earth sat on a large animal. We now know that the earth has a free float in space.1
Setting aside the strawman contained in the second sentence,2 it is simply not true “that the earth has a free float in space.”3 Therefore, if Comfort is claiming that the “Bible proclaims that the earth freely floats in space” then the Bible is in error. End of discussion.
But about what is the text of Job speaking? If it isn’t prescient astronomical knowledge then what is it? As the immediate context of the passage makes clear, it is speaking of the cosmic geography as perceived by someone living in the Ancient Near East.
A Creation Story…in Reverse
There is considerable evidence that suggests Job 26:7-13 is a creation narrative told in reverse.4 In many ancient cultures, prior to the creation of land or humanity there was an ancient sea that covered the world. Often the sea is personified with names like Tiamat in the Babylonian Epic of Creation or Yamm in the Ugaritic Baal cycle and it takes a hero to defeat the Sea and bring order to the watery chaos. We see hints of this view in the opening chapter of Genesis as Elohim takes the “formless void” (tohu wabohu)of the earth (i.e. “the land”) that is covered by waters and, by the power of his word, begins to fashion the world (Genesis 1). But in the Genesis story there is no explicit reference to Elohim defeating another deity to bring order to the chaos. Nevertheless, Elohim does need to subdue the chaos and he does by simply speaking.
But the Priestly creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:3 is not the only creation story to be found in the Hebrew scriptures. For example, a creation story in Proverbs 8 (vss. 22-31) goes back farther than the one we find in Genesis, before there were even “deeps” (8:24; cf. Genesis 1:2). Yet in that narrative we find Yahweh taking control of the chaotic waters and setting boundaries for it and it isn’t until he sets those limits that the land can appear (Proverbs 8:27-29; cf. Job 38:8-11). The theme of the biblical texts is in line with the view of the Babylonian and Ugaritic tales: at first there was a water chaos that needed to be subdued.
As we return to Job 26:7-13 we can observe some of these elements as well. But as already stated, this is a creation story told in reverse and it begins with 26:12-13. In language borrowed directly from the Baal cycle,5 God is said to have “stilled the Sea [Hebrew, yam],” “struck down Rahab,” and “pierced the fleeing serpent.”6Having defeated the personified Sea, God is then able to take control of the waters which he does by “describ[ing] a circle on the face of the waters” (26:10; cf. Proverbs 8:27b) and by “bind[ing] up the waters in his thick clouds” (26:8) by which he “covers the face of the throne” (26:9; NRSV, “the face of the full moon”). Then with the chaotic waters controlled, God “stretches out Zaphon over the void, and hangs the earth upon nothing” (26:7).
So Job 26:7 is the culmination of the creation story whereby God has defeated the Sea (26:11-13) and taken control of the chaotic waters (26:8-10). But now we need to ask what the text means when it says that he “hangs the earth upon nothing.”
Hanging Upon Nothing
Let’s begin with the verb translated as “hangs.” In Job 26:7 “hangs” renders the participial form of talah, a verb that is frequently used in the Hebrew Bible to refer to execution by hanging or impaling (Genesis 40:19, Deuteronomy 21:22, etc.). That which is hung is the eretz, “earth” or “land” (cf. Genesis 1:9-10). That which the eretz is hung “upon” (Hebrew, ‘al) is beli-ma, “nothing.” There is some debate over what is meant by ‘al-beli-ma. David Clines suggests that ‘al-belima means “without anything,”7 the idea being that the land appears to be entirely unsupported, i.e. it does not hang upon anything. John Walton sees be-lima as nonexistence but only in a functional, not material, sense.8That is, the earth hangs upon that which has not yet been given purpose. And that which has not yet been given purpose in context are the waters.
Walton’s view certainly fits in with the context of Job 26:7-13. We also see in other biblical texts where the eretz is described as being “founded on the seas” (Psalm 24:1-2) and as being “spread out…on the waters” (Psalm 136:6). In Job 26:5 we read that “the rephaim [NRSV, “shades”] below tremble,” set in parallel with “the waters and their inhabitants.” This reflects the belief that the eretz was akin to an island surrounded by the cosmic sea that was above it (i.e. held back by the dome; cf. Genesis 1:6-8), all around it, and below it.
So what is Job 26:7 describing to us? Well, it is describing how at the culmination of God’s defeat and structuring of the watery chaos he hangs the earth upon the waters as if it were an island. This fits in with the view of many in the ANE, including that of the Israelites.
Bad Science and Bad Exegesis
Comfort’s lack of scientific knowledge led him to undermine his thesis that the Bible was proclaiming “scientific facts” about the nature of the earth in space. The earth isn’t in free float and if Job 26:7 was teaching that then it too was in error. As we have seen, the text simply isn’t about the planet but is instead about the eretz. The text is imbedded in a reverse creation story that is in no way a scientific description of the origin of our world. It is instead a story told by ancient people to explain what they saw all around them. Yes, they were wrong. But Comfort, a man born in the modern era, is simply without any excuse.
His bad science led him to bad exegesis.
1Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters, 2016), 5.
2Comfort’s assertion that “[s]cience once thought that the earth sat on a large animal” is very misleading. It is true that some cultures believed that the world sat upon a giant tortoise (or turtle) or upon elephants or upon both (as in the The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett). But these weren’t scientific views; they were culturally based views. Consequently, not all cultures viewed the world as being on the back of an animal at all. Some believed in a World Tree while others, including many in the ANE, believed in a world surrounded by cosmic waters.
3The earth doesn’t “free float” anywhere. It is gravitationally bound to the sun. In fact, nothing in the universe is in “free float” as all objects are gravitationally bound to one another. Gravity, physicist Carlo Rovelli observes, “is not diffused through space; the gravitational field is that space itself” (Seven Brief Lessons on Physics [Riverhead Books, 2016], 8). Objects with mass curve space and that is what gravity is. Objects follow the curve.
Among fundamentalists there are few as notable and infamous as Ray Comfort. Known primarily for his Way of the Master evangelism program and organization, Comfort has been a vocal opponent of evolutionary science, Big Bang cosmology, and much more. He is also known for his various documentaries which include 180: Changing the Heart of a Nation (2011), Evolution vs. God: Shaking the Foundations of Faith (2013), and The Atheist Delusion (2016). Comfort is a prolific writer as well with such titles under his belt as Hell’s Best Kept Secret (1989), God Doesn’t Believe in Atheists (1993), and a short work entitled Scientific Facts in the Bible (2001). In 2016, Comfort released an updated version of Scientific Facts in the Bible which will be the focus of the next few posts in the “Invasion of the Bible Snatchers” series.
“No Ordinary Book”
Comfort’s intention in Scientific Facts in the Bible is to point to “compelling evidence that the Bible is no ordinary book.”1 He starts with Jeremiah 33:22 – “As the host of heaven cannot be numbered, neither the sand of the sea measured…” (KJV). Comfort notes that this passage was written twenty-five hundred years ago and that it
claims that there are countless stars (described as the “host of heaven”). When this statement was recorded, no one knew how vast the stars were, as only about 1,100 were observable. Now we know that there are billions of stars, and that they cannot be numbered.2
In one sense, Comfort’s argument makes sense: the text says that there are innumerable stars and we know today that there are literally innumerable stars in the cosmos. But is that what this passage is discussing? Is this really a lesson in cosmology?
Light in the Darkness
The first thing we need to ask ourselves is, “What is the context?” After all, a text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.”3 The chapter wherein the phrase rendered in the KJV as “the host of heaven” is part of a section that is dated to near the end of reign of King Zedekiah (32:1) and during the siege of Jerusalem by the Babylonians (32:2). Nebuchadrezzar attacked the capital of Judah for two years beginning in 589 BCE, finally taking the city three years later in 586. During that time, Jeremiah was stuck within the walls of the city and watched as slowly but surely its resources diminished and hope began to fail. The city, Yahweh declared, would fall “into the hands of the Chaldeans and into the hand of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (32:28, NRSV). Invariably this meant death and destruction for the city’s inhabitants and, as was common in that era, the death of the king and the royal court including any descendants who might have a claim to the throne.
Yet even in the midst of such dark and desperate times there was hope.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David; and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety. And this is the name by which it will be called: “The LORD is our righteousness” (33:14-16).
What this reveals is that Yahweh will guarantee that not only will the city of Jerusalem be restored but that the house of David itself will once again reign on the throne.
For thus says the LORD: David shall never lack a man to sit on the throne of the house of Israel, and the levitical priests shall never lack a man in my presence to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time (33:17-18).
It is against this hopeful backdrop that we find the words quoted by Ray Comfort as evidence of prescience.
As is clear from Comfort’s citation of Jeremiah 33:22, he does not provide the verse in full which reads,
Just as the host of heaven cannot be numbered and the sands of the sea cannot be measured, so I will increase the offspring of my servant David, and the Levites who minister to me.
The surrounding context helps us understand this promise, particularly in light of the two other variations of it found in 33:17-18 and 33:19-21. The point of all three is to reinforce the idea that not only will Israel be restored to her former glory (33:14-16), she will always have a Davidic heir on the throne and the Temple cult will always have priests “to offer burnt offerings, to make grain offerings, and to make sacrifices for all time” (33:18).
But why the appeal to “the host of heaven” or “the sands of the sea”? Anyone familiar with the Hebrew scriptures should recognize this type of language immediately and recall the promise made to Abram by Yahweh that his descendants would possess the land of Israel in perpetuity (Genesis 12:2) and that those descendants would be innumerable:
[Yahweh] brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them….So shall your descendants be” (Genesis 15:5; cf. 22:17, 26:4).
The human eye can only perceive objects in the night sky that have sufficient magnitude to be seen. That ends up being around nine-thousand.4 If we use the hermeneutic Comfort employed in interpreting Jeremiah 33:22 here then it seems that Yahweh is only promising Abram around nine-thousand descendants. That doesn’t seem like a very long-lasting lineage. But we need not use Comfort’s hermeneutic because it is ridiculous. Consider the words of Moses in Deuteronomy 1:10
“The LORD your God has multiplied you, so that today you are as numerous as the stars of heaven” (Deuteronomy 1:10).
By some counts, there are around one billion trillion stars in the universe.5 Are we to imagine that 1 billion trillion Israelites departed Egypt for the Promised Land? Of course not. Nor are we to think that since there are only ten-thousand objects in the night sky visible to the naked eye that only ten-thousand Israelites departed Egypt for Canaan. That isn’t what is going on with these comparisons.
Missing the Point
No one in the Ancient Near East knew exactly how many stars were in the night sky; there were too many to count! And that is the point of the comparison. When Yahweh challenges Abram to count the stars and then promises that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the sky, he is saying that just as there are a lot of stars up in the sky so also will Abram have a lot of descendants. The same principle is at work in Jeremiah 33:22: there are a lot of stars and a lot of grains of sand and so there will be plenty of Davidic descendants for the throne and plenty of priests to serve in the Temple. Not only has Comfort missed the point, his hermeneutic acts as a sword cutting against his views on the Bible’s advanced scientific knowledge as well.
1 Ray Comfort, Scientific Facts in the Bible (Living Waters Publications, 2016), 4.
In 1956, the movie Invasion of the Body Snatchers was released in theaters across the United States. Here is a synopsis of the movie from the IMBD website.
Dr. Miles Bennell returns to his small town practice to find several of his patients suffering the paranoid delusion that their friends or relatives are impostors. He is initially skeptical, especially when the alleged doppelgangers are able to answer detailed questions about their victim’s lives, but he is eventually persuaded that something odd has happened and determines to find out what is causing this phenomenon.
So they look like the original, talk like the original, and even have the memories of the original, but they are not the original.
Invasion of the Bible Snatchers
Something similar has been going on among fundamentalists and evangelicals with regard to biblical exegesis. A couple of examples should suffice to demonstrate it.
In a book aptly titled The Bible Has the Answer, the late Henry Morris – a pioneer of the Young Earth Creationism movement and founder of the Institute for Creation Research – wrote, “The fact is…that true science has always confirmed the Bible!”1 Morris was so convinced by this that he published his own study Bible demonstrating its validity: The Defenders Study Bible. In his note on Job 26:7 – “He stretcheth out the north over the empty place, and hangeth the earth upon nothing” (KJV) – Morris writes,
Not only was the earth rotating, but it also began orbiting space, suspended from the sun by “nothing” except the mysterious force of gravity, acting at a distance. This verse was written at least 3500 years before Isaac Newton identified and described this force.2
We don’t have time to dissect Morris’ take on Job 26:7 but needless to say it is problematic at best and it is a passage that we will discuss in greater detail in a later post in this series. For now, let’s move on to another example.
In his apologetics handbook, the late Robert Boyd discusses a variety of scientific insights found in the biblical texts. For example, regarding Leviticus 13:45 – “The person who has the leprous disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head be disheveled; and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean'” (NRSV) – Boyd wrote,
Lip covering is mentioned in Leviticus 13:45. Surgeons today would not dare operate without such a mask. Many times before entering a patient’s room in a hospital, visitors must don a gown and a mask to keep from spreading germs. Moses gave such precautionary advice about 3,500 years ago, long before Pasteur discovered germs.3
Again, we do not have time to dive into the text to dissect it and Boyd’s take on it. What these two examples show is that Christians like Boyd and Morris were willing to take great liberties with biblical texts that invariably ignore the context in which those texts were composed and replaces them with an alien interpretation. And this could be multiplied dozens of times over. So when you read the biblical text through their interpretive framework, it looks like the original text and may even sound like the original text but it is not the original text.
Because of these Bible Snatchers and their eisegetical tendencies, as well as the proliferation in mainstream American Christianity, this series has no end-date. Instead, we will look at such eisegesis both old and new from now deceased Christians like Henry Morris to the very much alive Hugh Ross. My goal is to show how their takes on certain biblical texts do not acknowledge the literary and cultural context from which they arose as well as to offer some semblance of a sound interpretation that does acknowledge those important details.
If any of my readers have particular takes that they would like me to examine and take on, please forward the relevant information to my email: firstname.lastname@example.org. I also welcome debate that can be included in the comments section or sent to my email address. I am the Amateur Exegete and so I know full well that I can be (and have been) wrong in my approaches to texts.
1Henry M. Morris, The Bible Has The Answer, original edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1971), 62.
2Henry M. Morris, The Defender’s Study Bible: Defending the Faith from a Literal Creationist Viewpoint (Grand Rapids, MI: World Publishing, 1995), 584.
3Robert T. Boyd, Boyd’s Handbook of Practical Apologetics (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 1997), 74.