December of 1872 marked a watershed in biblical studies. At a highly publicized lecture for the Society for Biblical Archaeology, with British Prime Minister William Gladstone in attendance, an Assyriologist named George Smith revealed the startling contents of a tablet he had recently discovered. The tablet, one of 25,000 or so that had been excavated from the ruins of ancient Nineveh and sent back to the British Museum in London, told the story of a universal flood that sounded very much like the tale of Noah’s Ark that every churchgoer is familiar with. The tablet turned out to be one of twelve that made up the now-famous Gilgamesh Epic.Read More »
Some Curious Numerical Facts about the Ages of the Patriarchs
“Why did the people in Genesis live to be hundreds of years old?” is a question that surely everyone who ever took the Bible seriously has asked. Those who have moved on from their childhood (or childish) adherence to a literal interpretation of Genesis are still generally curious about the ages and if there is any symbolism to the numbers that the Bible records with such tedious exactitude.
Some of the typical answers provided by biblical scholars are less than satisfying, and the fact is that most of the numbers themselves may simply be meaningless on their own. However, some odd facts concerning the ages of the patriarchs have recently been analyzed in biblical studies journals, adding to our knowledge of the Bible’s composition history in the process. There are two issues of particular interest: the numbers in the genealogies taken as a whole, and a problem introduced by the Flood story, which required some tampering with the genealogies by the Bible’s editors.Read More »
Cosmos and Chaos: Understanding the Bible’s Description of Creation
With the recent Bill Nye-Ken Ham debate and the conservative religious reaction to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s new educational TV series Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, the spotlight is once again on Creationists — a vocal minority of the Christian public that believes “biblical creation” as described in Genesis ought to be taught in place of scientific theories about the origins of life and the universe.
Although the scientific absurdities of Creationism have been widely addressed, the biblical and theological failings of this doctrine are less well known. Even outside Creationist circles, most Christians (even most theologians, perhaps) know very little about the subject. What exactly did the ancient Jews believe about the creation of the world, and how are those views expressed in the Bible?
It is a common misconception that Genesis 1–3 is the key passage for understanding biblical creation. After all, this story (two stories, actually) is found at the very beginning of the Bible and seems to provide the basis for what comes after. This simplistic approach, however, ignores the complicated history of the Bible’s compilation and canonization — not to mention the rich cultural background of Palestine. Genesis 1, in fact, is a rather late retelling of a story that is woven throughout much of the Bible — the Psalms, Job and Isaiah in particular — and does not really mean what many people think it does.