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When Was the Hebrew Bible Written?

Earlier than previously thought, say Tel Aviv University researchers

Robin Ngo   •  04/15/2016

arad-ostraca

When was the Hebrew Bible written? Ostraca with Hebrew inscriptions excavated from the Iron Age fortress at Arad in Israel may provide clues, say researchers from Tel Aviv University.Photo: Michael Cordonsky, courtesy Tel Aviv University and the Israel Antiquities Authority.

Was the Hebrew Bible written earlier than previously thought? That’s what a recent studypublished in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests. The study was led by Tel Aviv University (TAU) doctoral students Shira Faigenbaum-Golovina, Arie Shausa and Barak Sober.

The TAU researchers analyzed multi-spectral images of 16 Hebrew inscriptions, which were written in ink on ostraca (broken pottery pieces),using a computer software program they developed. The ostraca, which date to 600 B.C.E., according to the researchers, were excavated from the Judahite fortress at Arad in southern Israel.

The researchers say they were able to identify at least six different handwriting styles on the inscriptions, which contained instructions for the movement of troops and lists of food expenses. A TAU press release notes that “the tone and nature of the commands precluded the role of professional scribes.”

“The results indicate that in this remote fort, literacy had spread throughout the military hierarchy, down to the quartermaster and probably even below that rank,” state Faigenbaum-Golovina, Shausa and Sober in their paper.

“Now our job is to extrapolate from Arad to a broader area,” explained TAU Professor of Archaeology Israel Finkelstein, who heads the research project, in the TAU press release. “Adding what we know about Arad to other forts and administrative localities across ancient Judah, we can estimate that many people could read and write during the last phase of the First Temple period. We assume that in a kingdom of some 100,000 people, at least several hundred were literate.”

So when was the Hebrew Bible written? What does literacy in the Iron Age have to do with it?

Scholars have debated whether the texts of the Hebrew Bible were written before 586 B.C.E.—when the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, razed the First Temple and exiled the Jews—or later on, in the Persian or Hellenistic period. If literacy in Iron Age Judah was more widespread than previously thought, does this suggest that Hebrew Bible texts could have been written before the Babylonian conquest?

The Tel Aviv University researchers think so, based on their study of the ostraca from Arad.

Not quite, says epigrapher Christopher Rollston, Associate Professor of Northwest Semitic languages and literatures at the George Washington University. In a lengthy blog postanalyzing the TAU study, Rollston contends that there is not enough information from these ostraca to make estimates about the literacy of Iron Age Judah. Rollston points out that, according to a publication by Yohanan Aharoni, the original excavator at Arad, the 16 ostraca came from different strata dated across the seventh and early sixth centuries—and therefore do not all date to 600 B.C.E. Moreover, we cannot tell how many of these inscriptions were written at the Arad fortress and how many came from elsewhere.

“Rather than arguing on the basis of 16 ostraca (that ended up at Arad) that we have a ‘proliferation of literacy,’” Rollston says, “I would simply conclude that we have some readers and writers of inscriptions at Arad. That’s all we can say.”

Rollston notes that he and others have argued, however, that there is enough epigraphic evidence from ancient Israel to conclude that “already by 800 B.C.E. there was sufficient intellectual infrastructure, that is, well-trained scribes, able to produce sophisticated historical and literary texts.”

“Additional detailed, sophisticated and substantive scholarly arguments for the early dating of the Torah have been made by William Schniedewind, author of How the Bible Became a Book, and Seth Sanders, in The Invention of Hebrew,” observes Candida Moss, Professor of New Testament and early Christianity at the University of Notre Dame, in The Daily Beast.

The “Strange” Ending of the Gospel of Mark and Why It Makes All the Difference

James Tabor presents a new look at the original text of the earliest Gospel

Women-at-Tomb

Most general Bible readers have the mistaken impression that Matthew, the opening book of the New Testament, must be our first and earliest Gospel, with Mark, Luke and John following. The assumption is that this order of the Gospels is a chronological one, when in fact it is a theological one. Scholars and historians are almost universally agreed that Mark is our earliestGospel–by several decades, and this insight turns out to have profound implications for our understanding of the “Jesus story” and how it was passed down to us in our New Testament Gospel traditions.

The problem with the Gospel of Mark for the final editors of the New Testament was that it was grossly deficient. First it is significantly shorter than the other Gospels–with only 16 chapters compared to Matthew (28), Luke (24) and John (21). But more important is how Mark begins his Gospel and how he ends it.

He has no account of the virgin birth of Jesus–or for that matter, any birth of Jesus at all. In fact, Joseph, husband of Mary, is never named in Mark’s Gospel at all–and Jesus is called a “son of Mary,” see my previous post on this here. But even more significant is Mark’s strange ending. He has no appearances of Jesus following the visit of the women on Easter morning to the empty tomb!

Like the other three Gospels Mark recounts the visit of Mary Magdalene and her companions to the tomb of Jesus early Sunday morning. Upon arriving they find the blocking stone at the entrance of the tomb removed and a young man–notice–not an angel–tells them:

“Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing (Mark 16:6-8)

And there the Gospel simply ends!

Mark gives no accounts of anyone seeing Jesus as Matthew, Luke, and John later report. In fact, according to Mark, any future epiphanies or “sightings” of Jesus will be in the north, in Galilee, not in Jerusalem.

This original ending of Mark was viewed by later Christians as so deficient that not only was Mark placed second in order in the New Testament, but various endings were added by editors and copyists in some manuscripts to try to remedy things. The longest concocted ending, which became Mark 16:9-19, became so treasured that it was included in the King James Version of the Bible, favored for the past 500 years by Protestants, as well as translations of the Latin Vulgate, used by Catholics. This meant that for countless millions of Christians it became sacred scripture–but it is patently bogus. You might check whatever Bible you use and see if the following verses are included–the chances are good they they will be, since the Church, by and large, found Mark’s original ending so lacking. Here is that forged ending of Mark:

Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it. After these things he appeared in another form to two of them, as they were walking into the country. And they went back and told the rest, but they did not believe them. Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover. So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs.

Even though this ending is patently false, people loved it, and to this day conservative Christians regularly denounce “liberal” scholars who point out this forgery, claiming that they are trying to destroy “God’s word.”

The evidence is clear. This ending is not found in our earliest and most reliable Greek copies of Mark. In A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, Bruce Metzger writes: “Clement of Alexandria and Origen [early third century] show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them.”1 The language and style of the Greek is clearly not Markan, and it is pretty evident that what the forger did was take sections of the endings of Matthew, Luke and John (marked respectively in red, blue, and purple above) and simply create a “proper” ending.

Even though this longer ending became the preferred one, there are two other endings, one short and the second an expansion of the longer ending, that also show up in various manuscripts:

[I] But they reported briefly to Peter and those with him all that they had been told. And after these things Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation.

[II] This age of lawlessness and unbelief is under Satan, who does not allow the truth and power of God to prevail over the unclean things of the spirits [or, does not allow what lies under the unclean spirits to understand the truth and power of God]. Therefore reveal your righteousness now’ – thus they spoke to Christ. And Christ replied to them, ‘The term of years of Satan’s power has been fulfilled, but other terrible things draw near. And for those who have sinned I was handed over to death, that they may return to the truth and sin no more, in order that they may inherit the spiritual and incorruptible glory of righteousness that is in heaven.

I trust that the self-evident spuriousness of these additions is obvious to even the most pious readers. One might in fact hope that Christians who are zealous for the “inspired Word of God” would insist that all three of these bogus endings be recognized for what they are–forgeries.

That said, what about the original ending of Mark? Its implications are rather astounding for Christian origins. I have dealt with this issue more generally in my post, “What Really Happened on Easter Morning,” that sets the stage for the following implications.

1. Since Mark is our earliest Gospel, written according to most scholars around the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE, or perhaps in the decade before, we have strong textual evidence that the first generation of Jesus followers were perfectly fine with a Gospel account that recounted no appearances of Jesus. We have to assume that the author of Mark’s Gospel did not consider his account deficient in the least and he was either passing on, or faithfully promoting, what he considered to be the authentic Gospel. What most Christians do when they think about Easter is ignore Mark. Since Mark knows nothing of any appearances of Jesus as a resuscitated corpse in Jerusalem, walking about, eating and showing his wounds, as recounted by Matthew, Luke and John, those stories are simply allowed to “fill in” for his assumed deficiency. In other words, no one allows Mark to have a voice. What he lacks, ironically, serves to marginalize and mute him!

2. Alternatively, if we decide to listen to Mark, who is our first gospel witness, what we learn is rather amazing. In Mark, on the last night of Jesus’ life, he told his intimate followers following their meal, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (Mark 14:28). What Mark believes is that Jesus has been “lifted up” or “raised up” to the right hand of God and that the disciples would “see” him in Galilee. Mark knows of no accounts of people encountering the revived corpse of Jesus, wounds and all, walking around Jerusalem. His tradition is that the disciples experienced their epiphanies of Jesus once they returned to Galilee after the eight-day Passover festival and had returned to their fishing in despair. This is precisely what we find in the Gospel of Peter, where Peter says:

Now it was the final day of the Unleavened Bread; and many went out returning to their home since the feast was over. But we twelve disciples of the Lord were weeping and sorrowful; and each one, sorrowful because of what had come to pass, departed to his home. But I, Simon Peter, and my brother Andrew, having taken our nets, went off to the sea. And there was with us Levi of Alphaeus whom the Lord …

You can read more about this fascinating “lost” Gospel of Peter here, but this ending, where the text happens to break off, is most revealing. What we see here is precisely parallel to Mark. The disciples returned to their homes in Galilee in despair, resuming their occupations, and only then did they experience “sightings” of Jesus. Strangely, this tradition shows up in an appended ending to the Gospel of John–chapter 21, where a group of disciples are back to their fishing, and Matthew knows the tradition of a strange encounter on a designated mountain in Galilee, where some of the eleven apostles even doubt what they are seeing (Matthew 28:16-17).

The faith that Mark reflects, namely that Jesus has been “raised up” or lifted up to heaven, is precisely parallel to that of Paul–who is the earliest witness to this understanding of Jesus’ resurrection. You can read my full exposition of Paul’s understanding “the heavenly glorified Christ,” whom he claims to encounter, here. And notably, he parallels his ownvisionary experience to that of Peter, James and the rest of the apostles. What this means is that when Paul wrote, in the 50s CE, this was the resurrection faith of the early followers of Jesus! Since Matthew, Luke and John come so much later and clearly reflect the period after 70 CE when all of the first witnesses were dead–including Peter, Paul and James the brother of Jesus, they are clearly 2nd generation traditions and should not be given priority.

Mark begins his account with the line “The Gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Clearly for him, what he subsequently writes is that “Gospel,” not a deficient version that needs to be supplemented or “fixed” with later alternative traditions about Jesus appearing in a resuscitated body Easter weekend in Jerusalem.

Finally, what we recently discovered in the Talpiot tomb under the condominium building, not 200 feet from the “Jesus family” tomb, offers a powerful testimony to this same kind of early Christian faith in Jesus’ resurrection. On one of the ossuaries, or bone boxes in this tomb, is a four-line Greek inscription which I have translated as: I Wondrous Yehovah lift up–lift up! And this is next to a second ossuary representing the “sign of Jonah” with a large fish expelling the head of a human stick figure, recalling the story of Jonah. In that text Jonah sees himself as having passed into the gates of Sheol or death, from which he utters a prayer of salvation from the belly of the fish: “O Yehovah my God, you lifted up my life from the Pit!” (Jonah 2:6). It is a rare thing when our textual evidence seems to either reflect or correspond to the material evidence and I believe in the case of the two Talpiot tombs, and the early resurrection faith reflected in Paul and Mark, that is precisely what we have.2 That this latest archaeological evidence corresponds so closely to Mark and Paul, our first witnesses to the earliest Christian understanding of Jesus’ resurrection, I find to be most striking.

Notes

1. Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament, 2nd edition, (Hendrickson Publishers, 2005), 123. Metzger also states: “The last twelve verses of the commonly received text of Mark are absent from the two oldest Greek manuscripts (? and B), 20 from the Old Latin codex Bobiensis, the Sinaitic Syriac manuscript, about one hundred Armenian manuscripts, 21 and the two oldest Georgian manuscripts (written a.d. 897 and a.d. 913).”

Correction: In the original publication of this article, Bruce Metzger’s statement “Clement of Alexandria and Origen show no knowledge of the existence of these verses; furthermore Eusebius and Jerome attest that the passage was absent from almost all Greek copies of Mark known to them” (Metzger, 2005, p.123) was not appropriately referenced as a quotation from Metzger. We thank our careful reader James Snapp, Jr., of Curtisville Christian Church in Indiana, for bringing this to our attention. —Ed.

2. We offer a full exposition of these important discoveries in our recent book, The Jesus Discovery. The book is a complete discussion of both Talpiot tombs with full documentation, with full chapters on Mary Magdalene, Paul, the James ossuary, DNA tests, and much more. You can read my preliminary report on these latest “Jonah” related findings at the web site Bible & Interpretation, here, and a good account of the controversy here. During March and April, 2012 I also wrote a dozen or more posts on this blog responding to the academic discussions, see below under “Archives” and you can browse the posts by month.

The Son of God, the Council of Nicea, and the Da Vinci Code

Bart D. Ehrman

In my main lecture during the debate this past weekend, I decided to develop in short order the case that I make in my book How Jesus Became God for how, well, Jesus became God.  (!)   But I chose to do it differently from how I do it in the book, at least in terms of rhetorical strategy.  I chose to start at the *end* of the development (it’s actually nowhere near the end – since Christological arguments continued on for centuries – but it was one sensible ending points), with the controversies over Christ’s divinity in the early fourth century, controversies between Arius and his detractors.

I’m afraid many people today (most?) get their knowledge of Arius, the Arian Controversy, and the Council of Nicea from that inestimable authority, Dan Brown, who wrote about it at length in that great work of historical realism, The Da Vinci Code.   I tell my students at Chapel Hill that if they want to learn about the history of the Middle Ages, the way to do that is not by watching “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  And if they want to learn about the history of early Christianity, the way to do that is not by readingThe Da Vinci Code.

The Da Vinci Code is wrong about just about everything it says about the Arian Controversy, the emperor Constantine, and the Council of Nicea.   That’s why I wrote my earlier book Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code.  There were tons of books written in response to Dan Brown’s novel, but virtually all of them were by highly religious (and angry) people – either Roman Catholic or conservative evangelicals – who had deep-seated theological reasons for really disliking the book.  I myself did not dislike it so much: I thought for a page-turner at the beach, it was rather fun.  My sense is that people who don’t like it (i.e., most of my friends) are simply expecting way too much of it as a work of fiction.  It’s *not* a great work of fiction.  But it’s a good blow-off novel if you don’t want a lot of substance.  Still, the problem I had with it was that so much information was wrong, even when getting it *right* would not have had any effect on the plot or the characters.   It was just gratuitously wrong.  This included most everything it says about the historical Jesus, Mary Magdalene, the New Testament, and yes, the Arian Controversy and the Council of Nicea.

Among other things – just to dispel one myth that so many people buy into – the Council of Nicea (which was called by the emperor Constantine in the year 325 CE) did not, decidedly did NOT decide, the Council did NOT decide which books should belong in the New Testament.  The issue of the canon of Scripture was not discussed at the Council.  (We know this because we have records of the issues that the council discussed and the decisions that it reached).  The first person to list our 27 books of the NT canon, as the only books of the canon, was the bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, in the year 367 CE, over 40 years after the council.  Now it’s true that Athanasius attended the Council of Nicea as a young man.  But neither he nor anyone else at the council was discussing which books should be accepted as the Christian canonical Scriptures.

And one other thing that Dan Brown (and so many others) gets wrong is that the Council did not vote on whether Jesus should be seen as the Son of God or not.   According to Dan Brown (crazily enough), Christians until that time did not see Jesus as a divine being, but only as a human being.   That, says Brown, was also the view of the main figure at the council, Arius.  The council, Brown claims, voted on whether Jesus was to be seen as the Son of God or not, and Jesus’ divinity won out, even though, says Brown, “it was a close vote.”

It wasn’t a close vote and the issue was not whether Jesus was the Son of God.  Everyone at the council – literally EVERYONE – agreed going into the council that Jesus was the Son of God.  The question instead was:  In what SENSE was he the Son of God?

I will talk about the specific issues in my next post.  But for here I just want to stress that the idea that Jesus was the Son of God goes back as far back as we have any Christian sources.  The apostle Paul was our first Christian author, and he is altogether emphatic that Christ was the Son of God.   The Gospels of the New Testament, written from fifteen to thirty-five years after Paul, all agree that Jesus was the Son of God.   In fact, all the authors of the New Testament proclaim that Jesus was the Son of God.

This is the most frustrating thing about the Da Vinci Code.  How can anyone have even the slightest knowledge of early Christianity and not know that every single author of the NT thinks that Jesus was, in some sense, divine, God’s own son?  The only way not to know that is never to have read the NT.  Has Dan Brown ever read the New Testament?  I’m afraid if he were brought up on charges of having read it, there would not be enough evidence to convict.

The big interpretive issue when dealing with the New Testament is the one I mentioned earlier: in what sense is Jesus the Son of God?  Is he the Son of God the way the nation of Israel is said to be the son of God, for example, in Hosea 11:1, as the one(s) chosen by God to fulfill his work here on earth?  Israel obviously is not personally divine; yet it is described as God’s son.  Or is he the Son of God the way the king of Israel was thought to be (e.g., 2 Sam 7:11-14; Psalm 2:1-2), as the individual on earth whom God has chosen to do his will?  Was the king actually understood to be God?  Or is Christ the Son of God in the way that angels are, as described, for example in Genesis 6?  Or is he the Son of God in the sense that he is somehow equal with God in power and authority?  Or something else?

These were issues debated from early times.   And the debates came to a head at the Council of Nicea.  There, everyone agreed that Christ was personally a divine being.  That he was the Creator of the universe.  That he was infinitely above every other being in the cosmos in terms of grandeur and power, apart from God the Father.  But what exactly was his relationship to God the Father, as God the Son?  It was that which was debated at Nicea, and I began my talk in New Orleans by laying out the terms of the debate.

How December 25 Became Christmas

 

On December 25, Christians around the world will gather to celebrate Jesus’ birth. Joyful carols, special liturgies, brightly wrapped gifts, festive foods—these all characterize the feast today, at least in the northern hemisphere. But just how did the Christmas festival originate? How did December 25 come to be associated withJesus’ birthday?The Bible offers few clues: Celebrations of Jesus’ Nativity are not mentioned in the Gospels or Acts; the date is not given, not even the time of year. The biblical reference to shepherds tending their flocks at night when they hear the news of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:8) might suggest the spring lambing season; in the cold month of December, on the other hand, sheep might well have been corralled. Yet most scholars would urge caution about extracting such a precise but incidental detail from a narrative whose focus is theological rather than calendrical.

The extrabiblical evidence from the first and second century is equally spare: There is no mention of birth celebrations in the writings of early Christian writers such as Irenaeus (c. 130–200) or Tertullian (c. 160–225). Origen of Alexandria (c. 165–264) goes so far as to mock Roman celebrations of birth anniversaries, dismissing them as “pagan” practices—a strong indication that Jesus’ birth was not marked with similar festivities at that place and time.1 As far as we can tell, Christmas was not celebrated at all at this point.

This stands in sharp contrast to the very early traditions surrounding Jesus’ last days. Each of the Four Gospels provides detailed information about the time of Jesus’ death. According to John, Jesus is crucified just as the Passover lambs are being sacrificed. This would have occurred on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nisan, just before the Jewish holiday began at sundown (considered the beginning of the 15th day because in the Hebrew calendar, days begin at sundown). In Matthew, Mark and Luke, however, the Last Supper is held after sundown, on the beginning of the 15th. Jesus is crucified the next morning—still, the 15th.a

Easter, a much earlier development than Christmas, was simply the gradual Christian reinterpretation of Passover in terms of Jesus’ Passion. Its observance could even be implied in the New Testament (1 Corinthians 5:7–8: “Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us celebrate the festival…”); it was certainly a distinctively Christian feast by the mid-second century C.E., when the apocryphal text known as the Epistle to the Apostles has Jesus instruct his disciples to “make commemoration of [his] death, that is, the Passover.”Jesus’ ministry, miracles, Passion and Resurrection were often of most interest to first- and early-second-century C.E. Christian writers. But over time, Jesus’ origins would become of increasing concern. We can begin to see this shift already in the New Testament. The earliest writings—Paul and Mark—make no mention of Jesus’ birth. The Gospels of Matthew and Luke provide well-known but quite different accounts of the event—although neither specifies a date. In the second century C.E., further details of Jesus’ birth and childhood are related in apocryphal writings such as the Infancy Gospel of Thomas and the Proto-Gospel of James.b These texts provide everything from the names of Jesus’ grandparents to the details of his education—but not the date of his birth.

Finally, in about 200 C.E., a Christian teacher in Egypt makes reference to the date Jesus was born. According to Clement of Alexandria, several different days had been proposed by various Christian groups. Surprising as it may seem, Clement doesn’t mention December 25 at all. Clement writes: “There are those who have determined not only the year of our Lord’s birth, but also the day; and they say that it took place in the 28th year of Augustus, and in the 25th day of [the Egyptian month] Pachon [May 20 in our calendar] … And treating of His Passion, with very great accuracy, some say that it took place in the 16th year of Tiberius, on the 25th of Phamenoth [March 21]; and others on the 25th of Pharmuthi [April 21] and others say that on the 19th of Pharmuthi [April 15] the Savior suffered. Further, others say that He was born on the 24th or 25th of Pharmuthi [April 20 or 21].”2

Clearly there was great uncertainty, but also a considerable amount of interest, in dating Jesus’ birth in the late second century. By the fourth century, however, we find references to two dates that were widely recognized—and now also celebrated—as Jesus’ birthday: December 25 in the western Roman Empire and January 6 in the East (especially in Egypt and Asia Minor). The modern Armenian church continues to celebrate Christmas on January 6; for most Christians, however, December 25 would prevail, while January 6 eventually came to be known as the Feast of the Epiphany, commemorating the arrival of the magi in Bethlehem. The period between became the holiday season later known as the 12 days of Christmas.

The earliest mention of December 25 as Jesus’ birthday comes from a mid-fourth-century Roman almanac that lists the death dates of various Christian bishops and martyrs. The first date listed, December 25, is marked: natus Christus in Betleem Judeae: “Christ was born in Bethlehem of Judea.”3 In about 400 C.E., Augustine of Hippo mentions a local dissident Christian group, the Donatists, who apparently kept Christmas festivals on December 25, but refused to celebrate the Epiphany on January 6, regarding it as an innovation. Since the Donatist group only emerged during the persecution under Diocletian in 312 C.E. and then remained stubbornly attached to the practices of that moment in time, they seem to represent an older North African Christian tradition.

In the East, January 6 was at first not associated with the magi alone, but with the Christmas story as a whole.

So, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, we finally find people observing his birth in mid-winter. But how had they settled on the dates December 25 and January 6?

There are two theories today: one extremely popular, the other less often heard outside scholarly circles (though far more ancient).4

The most loudly touted theory about the origins of the Christmas date(s) is that it was borrowed from pagan celebrations. The Romans had their mid-winter Saturnalia festival in late December; barbarian peoples of northern and western Europe kept holidays at similar times. To top it off, in 274 C.E., the Roman emperor Aurelian established a feast of the birth of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), on December 25. Christmas, the argument goes, is really a spin-off from these pagan solar festivals. According to this theory, early Christians deliberately chose these dates to encourage the spread of Christmas and Christianity throughout the Roman world: If Christmas looked like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.
Despite its popularity today, this theory of Christmas’s origins has its problems. It is not found in any ancient Christian writings, for one thing. Christian authors of the time do note a connection between the solstice and Jesus’ birth: The church father Ambrose (c. 339–397), for example, described Christ as the true sun, who outshone the fallen gods of the old order. But early Christian writers never hint at any recent calendrical engineering; they clearly don’t think the date was chosen by the church. Rather they see the coincidence as a providential sign, as natural proof that God had selected Jesus over the false pagan gods.It’s not until the 12th century that we find the first suggestion that Jesus’ birth celebration was deliberately set at the time of pagan feasts. A marginal note on a manuscript of the writings of the Syriac biblical commentator Dionysius bar-Salibi states that in ancient times the Christmas holiday was actually shifted from January 6 to December 25 so that it fell on the same date as the pagan Sol Invictus holiday.5 In the 18th and 19th centuries, Bible scholars spurred on by the new study of comparative religions latched on to this idea.6 They claimed that because the early Christians didn’t know when Jesus was born, they simply assimilated the pagan solstice festival for their own purposes, claiming it as the time of the Messiah’s birth and celebrating it accordingly.

More recent studies have shown that many of the holiday’s modern trappings do reflect pagan customs borrowed much later, as Christianity expanded into northern and western Europe. The Christmas tree, for example, has been linked with late medieval druidic practices. This has only encouraged modern audiences to assume that the date, too, must be pagan.

There are problems with this popular theory, however, as many scholars recognize. Most significantly, the first mention of a date for Christmas (c. 200) and the earliest celebrations that we know about (c. 250–300) come in a period when Christians were not borrowing heavily from pagan traditions of such an obvious character.

Granted, Christian belief and practice were not formed in isolation. Many early elements of Christian worship—including eucharistic meals, meals honoring martyrs and much early Christian funerary art—would have been quite comprehensible to pagan observers. Yet, in the first few centuries C.E., the persecuted Christian minority was greatly concerned with distancing itself from the larger, public pagan religious observances, such as sacrifices, games and holidays. This was still true as late as the violent persecutions of the Christians conducted by the Roman emperor Diocletian between 303 and 312 C.E.

This would change only after Constantine converted to Christianity. From the mid-fourth century on, we do find Christians deliberately adapting and Christianizing pagan festivals. A famous proponent of this practice was Pope Gregory the Great, who, in a letter written in 601 C.E. to a Christian missionary in Britain, recommended that local pagan temples not be destroyed but be converted into churches, and that pagan festivals be celebrated as feasts of Christian martyrs. At this late point, Christmas may well have acquired some pagan trappings. But we don’t have evidence of Christians adopting pagan festivals in the third century, at which point dates for Christmas were established. Thus, it seems unlikely that the date was simply selected to correspond with pagan solar festivals.

The December 25 feast seems to have existed before 312—before Constantine and his conversion, at least. As we have seen, the Donatist Christians in North Africa seem to have known it from before that time. Furthermore, in the mid- to late fourth century, church leaders in the eastern Empire concerned themselves not with introducing a celebration of Jesus’ birthday, but with the addition of the December date to their traditional celebration on January 6.7
There is another way to account for the origins of Christmas on December 25: Strange as it may seem, the key to dating Jesus’ birth may lie in the dating of Jesus’ death at Passover. This view was first suggested to the modern world by French scholar Louis Duchesne in the early 20th century and fully developed by American Thomas Talley in more recent years.8But they were certainly not the first to note a connection between the traditional date of Jesus’ death and his birth.

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus diedc was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar.9 March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception.10 Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.d

This idea appears in an anonymous Christian treatise titled On Solstices and Equinoxes, which appears to come from fourth-century North Africa. The treatise states: “Therefore our Lord was conceived on the eighth of the kalends of April in the month of March [March 25], which is the day of the passion of the Lord and of his conception. For on that day he was conceived on the same he suffered.”11 Based on this, the treatise dates Jesus’ birth to the winter solstice.

Augustine, too, was familiar with this association. In On the Trinity (c. 399–419) he writes: “For he [Jesus] is believed to have been conceived on the 25th of March, upon which day also he suffered; so the womb of the Virgin, in which he was conceived, where no one of mortals was begotten, corresponds to the new grave in which he was buried, wherein was never man laid, neither before him nor since. But he was born, according to tradition, upon December the 25th.”12
In the East, too, the dates of Jesus’ conception and death were linked. But instead of working from the 14th of Nisan in the Hebrew calendar, the easterners used the 14th of the first spring month (Artemisios) in their local Greek calendar—April 6 to us. April 6 is, of course, exactly nine months before January 6—the eastern date for Christmas. In the East, too, we have evidence that April was associated with Jesus’ conception and crucifixion. Bishop Epiphanius of Salamis writes that on April 6, “The lamb was shut up in the spotless womb of the holy virgin, he who took away and takes away in perpetual sacrifice the sins of the world.”13 Even today, the Armenian Church celebrates the Annunciation in early April (on the 7th, not the 6th) and Christmas on January 6.eThus, we have Christians in two parts of the world calculating Jesus’ birth on the basis that his death and conception took place on the same day (March 25 or April 6) and coming up with two close but different results (December 25 and January 6).

Connecting Jesus’ conception and death in this way will certainly seem odd to modern readers, but it reflects ancient and medieval understandings of the whole of salvation being bound up together. One of the most poignant expressions of this belief is found in Christian art. In numerous paintings of the angel’s Annunciation to Mary—the moment of Jesus’ conception—the baby Jesus is shown gliding down from heaven on or with a small cross (see photo above of detail from Master Bertram’s Annunciation scene); a visual reminder that the conception brings the promise of salvation through Jesus’ death.

The notion that creation and redemption should occur at the same time of year is also reflected in ancient Jewish tradition, recorded in the Talmud. The Babylonian Talmud preserves a dispute between two early-second-century C.E. rabbis who share this view, but disagree on the date: Rabbi Eliezer states: “In Nisan the world was created; in Nisan the Patriarchs were born; on Passover Isaac was born … and in Nisan they [our ancestors] will be redeemed in time to come.” (The other rabbi, Joshua, dates these same events to the following month, Tishri.)14 Thus, the dates of Christmas and Epiphany may well have resulted from Christian theological reflection on such chronologies: Jesus would have been conceived on the same date he died, and born nine months later.15

In the end we are left with a question: How did December 25 become Christmas? We cannot be entirely sure. Elements of the festival that developed from the fourth century until modern times may well derive from pagan traditions. Yet the actual date might really derive more from Judaism—from Jesus’ death at Passover, and from the rabbinic notion that great things might be expected, again and again, at the same time of the year—than from paganism. Then again, in this notion of cycles and the return of God’s redemption, we may perhaps also be touching upon something that the pagan Romans who celebrated Sol Invictus, and many other peoples since, would have understood and claimed for their own, too.16

Notes

a. See Jonathan Klawans, “Was Jesus’ Last Supper a Seder?” Bible Review, October 2001.

b. See the following Bible Review articles: David R. Cartlidge, “The Christian Apocrypha: Preserved in Art,” Bible Review, June 1997; Ronald F. Hock, “The Favored One,” Bible Review, June 2001; and Charles W. Hedrick, “The 34 Gospels,” Bible Review, June 2002.

c. For more on dating the year of Jesus’ birth, see Leonara Neville, “Fixing the Millennium,”Archaeology Odyssey, January/February 2002.

d. The ancients were familiar with the 9-month gestation period based on the observance of women’s menstrual cycles, pregnancies and miscarriages.

e. In the West (and eventually everywhere), the Easter celebration was later shifted from the actual day to the following Sunday. The insistence of the eastern Christians in keeping Easter on the actual 14th day caused a major debate within the church, with the easterners sometimes referred to as the Quartodecimans, or “Fourteenthers.”

1. Origen, Homily on Leviticus 8.

2. Clement, Stromateis 1.21.145. In addition, Christians in Clement’s native Egypt seem to have known a commemoration of Jesus’ baptism—sometimes understood as the moment of his divine choice, and hence as an alternate “incarnation” story—on the same date (Stromateis 1.21.146). See further on this point Thomas J. Talley, Origins of the Liturgical Year, 2nd ed. (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991), pp. 118–120, drawing on Roland H. Bainton, “Basilidian Chronology and New Testament Interpretation,” Journal of Biblical Literature 42 (1923), pp. 81–134; and now especially Gabriele Winkler, “The Appearance of the Light at the Baptism of Jesus and the Origins of the Feast of the Epiphany,” in Maxwell Johnson, ed., Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 291–347.

3. The Philocalian Calendar.

4. Scholars of liturgical history in the English-speaking world are particularly skeptical of the “solstice” connection; see Susan K. Roll, “The Origins of Christmas: The State of the Question,” in Between Memory and Hope: Readings on the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2000), pp. 273–290, especially pp. 289–290.

5. A gloss on a manuscript of Dionysius Bar Salibi, d. 1171; see Talley, Origins, pp. 101–102.

6. Prominent among these was Paul Ernst Jablonski; on the history of scholarship, see especially Roll, “The Origins of Christmas,” pp. 277–283.

7. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen, Oratio 38; John Chrysostom, In Diem Natalem.

8. Louis Duchesne, Origines du culte Chrétien, 5th ed. (Paris: Thorin et Fontemoing, 1925), pp. 275–279; and Talley, Origins.

9. Tertullian, Adversus Iudaeos 8.

10. There are other relevant texts for this element of argument, including Hippolytus and the (pseudo-Cyprianic) De pascha computus; see Talley, Origins, pp. 86, 90–91.

11. De solstitia et aequinoctia conceptionis et nativitatis domini nostri iesu christi et iohannis baptistae.

12. Augustine, Sermon 202.

13. Epiphanius is quoted in Talley, Origins, p. 98.

14. b. Rosh Hashanah 10b–11a.

15. Talley, Origins, pp. 81–82.

16. On the two theories as false alternatives, see Roll, “Origins of Christmas.”

The Solomonic Gate at Gezer

Questions arise regarding Gezer’s so-called Solomonic gate

gezer-solomonic-gate

A Solomonic gate stands at Gezer—or does it? Legendary archaeologist and former Gezer dig director William Dever thought so. That Gezer was home to a Solomonic gate was not questioned in the 1970s by the Hebrew Union College excavation team. So why have Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff returned to Gezer, and why are they questioning whether its famous gate should be considered a Solomonic gate?The answer is simple: The renewed excavation—now in its seventh season—does not want to make any assumptions from the past or bring in any preconceived ideas as the directors undertake their exploration. This includes the terminology Ortiz and Wolff use to refer to the six-chambered, Iron Age city gate at Gezer. In their Archaeological Views column “In the Shadow of Solomon (and Everyone Else)” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, excavation codirectors Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff describe the fresh questions they are bringing to the famous site of Gezer.

In 1871 Gezer was first identified by Charles Clermont-Ganneau, but the first excavation did not take place until 1902 when Robert Alexander Stewart Macalister began a seven-year large-scale project under the sponsorship of the Palestine Exploration Fund. From 1964–1974 G. Ernest Wright, William Dever and Joe Seger staged another excavation using more modern archaeological methods on behalf of Hebrew Union College and the Harvard Semitic Museum. William Dever returned to the site, this time sponsored by the University of Arizona, in 1984 and 1990. Both Ortiz and Wolff were part of one of these earlier excavation teams and are familiar with the conclusions drawn by them.

Before commencing this renewed expedition to Gezer, Wolff and Ortiz invited William Dever to the site to talk about its history and ruminate about its future. However, this conversation was not intended to dictate the upcoming investigation. “Bill is a legendary archaeologist—we respect him and his thoughts,” state Ortiz and Wolff, “but this was our project, and we had our own research agenda; different questions are being asked today than in the 1960s and 1970s.” These new questions provide the focus for the renewed excavations.

While maintaining a strong connection to the past, and a respect for those who have come to Gezer before them—both ancient and modern—Wolff and Ortiz will not be taking anything for granted. They intend to be fresh eyes for a fresh approach to an old site.

For more on Steve Ortiz and Sam Wolff’s process for excavating at Gezer, read the full Archaeological Views column “In the Shadow of Solomon (and Everyone Else)” in the July/August 2015 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

 

Should We Take Creation Stories in Genesis Literally?

Robin Ngo   •  01/31/2016

garden-of-eden-fall-of-man

What purpose did creation stories in Genesis serve? Were they Biblical myths? Pictured here isThe Garden of Eden with the Fall of Man (c. 1617) by Flemish painters Peter Paul Rubens and Jan Brueghel the Elder.

Were the creation stories in Genesis meant to be taken literally?

Maybe not, says Biblical scholar Shawna Dolansky in her Biblical Views column “The Multiple Truths of Myths” in the January/February 2016 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.

Our world is very different from the world in which the Biblical authors lived over 2,000 years ago. The ancient world did not have Google, Wikipedia and smartphones—access to information on human history and scientific achievements developed over millennia at the touch of their fingertips.

Many scholars believe that the ancient Israelites had creation stories that were told and retold; these stories eventually reached the Biblical authors, who wrote them down in Genesis and other books of the Bible. Creation stories in Genesis were etiological, Shawna Dolansky and other Biblical scholars argue.1 That is, the creation stories in Genesis served to provide answers to why the world was the way it was, such as why people wear clothes and why women experience pain during childbirth.

Creation stories in Genesis were among the many myths that were told in the ancient Near East. Today we may think of myths as beliefs that are not true, but as a literary genre, myths “are stories that convey and reinforce aspects of a culture’s worldview: many truths,” writes Dolansky. So to call something a myth—in this sense—does not necessarily imply that it is not true.

Scholars argue that Biblical myths arose within the context of other ancient Near Eastern myths that sought to explain the creation of the world. Alongside Biblical myths were Mesopotamian myths in which, depending on the account, the creator was Enlil, Mami or Marduk. In ancient Egyptian mythology, the creator of the world was Atum in one creation story and Ptah in another.

“Like other ancient peoples, the Israelites told multiple creation stories,” writes Shawna Dolansky in her Biblical Views column. “The Bible gives us three (and who knows how many others were recounted but not preserved?). Genesis 1 differs from Genesis 2–3, and both diverge from a third version alluded to elsewhere in the Bible, a myth of the primordial battle between God and the forces of chaos known as Leviathan (e.g., Psalm 74), Rahab (Psalm 89) or the dragon (Isaiah 27; 51). This battle that preceded creation has the Mesopotamian Enuma Elish as its closest analogue. In Enuma Elish, the god Marduk defeats the chaotic waters in the form of the dragon Tiamat and recycles her corpse to create the earth.”

 

Secret pagan basilica in Rome emerges from the shadows after 2,000 years

An underground chamber that was a place of worship for a mysterious cult 2,000 years ago has opened to the public for the first time

Riccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta Maggiore

Riccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta Maggiore Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

A mysterious Roman basilica built for the worship of an esoteric pagan cult and now lying hidden more than 40ft below street level has opened to the public for the first time.

The basilica, the only one of its kind in the world, was excavated from solid tufa volcanic rock on the outskirts of the imperial capital in the first century AD.

Lavishly decorated with stucco reliefs of gods, goddesses, panthers, winged cherubs and pygmies, it was discovered by accident in 1917 during the construction of a railway line from Rome to Cassino, a town to the south. An underground passageway caved in, revealing the entrance to the hidden chamber.

Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica   Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

A painstaking restoration that has been going on for years has now reached the point where the 40ft-long basilica can be opened to visitors.

The subterranean basilica, which predates Christianity, was built by a rich Roman family who were devotees of a little-known cult called Neopythagoreanism.

Originating in the first century BC, it was a school of mystical Hellenistic philosophy that preached asceticism and was based on the writings of Pythagoras and Plato.

A fresco depicting birds on the walls A fresco depicting birds on the walls   Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

“There were lots of cults worshipped at the time and the empire was in general fairly tolerant towards them,” said Dr Giovanna Bandini, the director of the site. “But this one was seen as a threat because it discounted the idea of the emperor as a divine mediator between mortals and the gods.”

The basilica is thought to have been constructed by the influential Statilius family.

Stucco figuresStucco figures  Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

But they were accused of practising black magic and illicit rites by Agrippina, the ruthless, scheming mother of the Emperor Nero.

The head of the family, Titus Statilius Taurus, was investigated by the Senate for what Tacitus in his Annals called “addiction to magical superstitions”. He protested his innocence but committed suicide in AD53.

The basilica eventually fell into disrepair and was sealed up during the reign of the Emperor Claudius before being forgotten about.

A dedicated team of experts is restoring the interior of the basilica, scrubbing away mould and removing encrusted deposits of calcium with chemicals, tools and lasers.

Riccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the basilica of Porta MaggioreRiccardo Mancinelli, technical director of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the basilica of Porta Maggiore  Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

Scaffolding platforms have been built in order to allow the restorers to access the arched ceiling, which is covered in stucco reliefs, some decayed but others in a remarkable state of preservation.

The restorers remove thick layers of calcium deposits first by hand, with scalpels, and then use small drills.

“They are the sort that you see in a dentist’s surgery,” said Riccardo Mancinelli, the technical director of the project.

The basilica consists of three naves lined by six rock pillars and an apse, all decorated with finely executed images of centaurs, griffins and satyrs.

There are depictions of classical heroes such as Achilles, Orpheus, Paris and Hercules.

Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica Archway and stucco figures on the walls of the underground basilica   Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

The head of Medusa guards the entrance to the chamber, while the lower parts of the walls are painted a deep ox-blood red, with renditions of wild birds and women in togas.

The basilica, which is entirely hidden to the outside world and accessed via a door masked from the street by a mesh fence, lies directly beneath the railway line. Trains rumble noisily overhead.

It was dug out of tufa, which is a rock that is easy to excavate. It is the reason that there are so many catacombs beneath Rome,” said Mario Bellini, an engineer involved with the project.

Although the restoration is still under way, the basilica can now be visited by tourists. Groups will be kept small because of the fragility of the monument.

Daniela Duranti, one of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta MaggioreDaniela Duranti, one of the team in charge of restoring stucco figures on the walls of the pre-Christian, 1st century, underground basilica of Porta Maggiore  Photo: Chris Warde-Jones/The Telegraph

“The temperature and humidity must be kept constant,” said Dr Bandini. “The temperature must not rise above 18C and humidity must not rise above 92 per cent. “But it mustn’t go below 87 per cent either, otherwise the stucco starts to dry out and crack.

“This place is unique in the Roman world in terms of its architecture and design. It was a precursor to the basilicas built during the Christian era, centuries later.”

The Origins of Religion: How Supernatural Beliefs Evolved

Michelangelo's "God's Touch"

Many Catholics reveled in the pope’s whirlwind visit to the East Coast of the United States last month. But as the devout return to life as usual, nonreligious Americans may be left scratching their heads, wondering what all the fuss was about.

The vast majority of the U.S. population does not belong to the Catholic Church, and a growing percentage of Americans are not affiliated with any organized religion at all, according to a recent survey by the Pew Research Centers. So the question then becomes, what role does religion play in today’s American society? Perhaps oddly, that question can be answered by a group of people not usually associated with religion: scientists.

Despite the popular belief that science and religion (or science and the supernatural, more generally) don’t quite go hand in hand, scientists have quite a lot to say about this topic — specifically, why such beliefs even exist in the first place. [Infographic: Views of Catholics in America by the Numbers]

The ‘god faculty’

There are many theories as to how religious thought originated. But two of the most widely cited ideas have to do with how early humans interacted with their natural environment, said Kelly James Clark, a senior research fellow at the Kaufman Interfaith Institute at Grand Valley State University in Michigan.

Picture this: You’re a human being living many thousands of years ago. You’re out on the plains of the Serengeti, sitting around, waiting for an antelope to walk by so you can kill it for dinner. All of a sudden, you see the grasses in front of you rustling. What do you do? Do you stop and think about what might be causing the rustling (the wind or a lion, for example), or do you immediately take some kind of action?

“On the plains of the Serengeti, it would be better to not sit around and reflect. People who took their time got selected out,” Clark told Live Science. Humans who survived to procreate were those who had developed what evolutionary scientists call a hypersensitive agency-detecting device, or HADD, he said.

In short, HADD is the mechanism that lets humans perceive that many things have “agency,” or the ability to act of their own accord. This understanding of how the world worked facilitated the rapid decision-making process that humans had to go through when they heard a rustling in the grass. (Lions act of their own accord. Better run.)

But in addition to helping humans make rational decisions, HADD may have planted the seeds for religious thought. In addition to attributing agency to lions, for example, humans started attributing agency to things that really didn’t have agency at all. [5 Ways Our Caveman Instincts Get the Best of Us]

“You might think that raindrops aren’t agents,” Clark said. “They can’t act of their own accord. They just fall. And clouds just form; they’re not things that can act. But what human beings have done is to think that clouds are agents. They think [clouds] can act,” Clark said of early humans.

And then humans took things to a whole new level. They started attributing meaning to the actions of things that weren’t really acting of their own accord. For example, they thought raindrops were “acting for a purpose,” Clark said.

Acting for a purpose is the basis for what evolutionary scientists call the Theory of Mind (ToM) — another idea that’s often cited in discussions about the origins of religion. By attributing intention or purpose to the actions of beings that did have agency, like other people, humans stopped simply reacting as quickly as possible to the world around them — they started anticipating what other beings’ actions might be and planning their own actions accordingly. (Being able to sort of get into the mind of another purposeful being is what Theory of Mind is all about.)

ToM was very helpful to early humans. It enabled them to discern other people’s positive and negative intentions (e.g., “Does that person want to mate with me or kill me and steal my food?”), thereby increasing their own chances of survival.

But when people started attributing purpose to the actions of nonactors, like raindrops, ToM took a turn toward the supernatural. [Infographic: Americans’ Beliefs in Paranormal Phenomena]

“The roaring threat of a thunderstorm or the devastation of a flood is widely seen across cultures as the product of a dangerous personal agent in the sky or river, respectively,” said Allen Kerkeslager, an associate professor in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at Saint Joseph’s University in Philadelphia.”Likewise, the movements of the sun, moon and stars are widely explained as the movements of personal agents with extraordinary powers,”Kerkeslager told Live Science in an email.

This tendency to explain the natural world through the existence ofbeings with supernatural powers — things like gods, ancestral spirits, goblins and fairies — formed the basis for religious beliefs, according to many cognitive scientists. Collectively, some scientists refer to HADD and ToM as the “god faculty,” Clark said.

In fact, human beings haven’t evolved past this way of thinking and making decisions, he added.

“Now, we understand better that the things we thought were agents aren’t agents,” Clark said. “You can be educated out of some of these beliefs, but you can’t be educated out of these cognitive faculties. We all have a hyperactive agency-detecting device. We all have a theory of mind.”

For the good of the group

But not everyone agrees that religious thinking is just a byproduct of evolution — in other words, something that came about as a result of nonreligious, cognitive faculties. Some scientists see religion as more of an adaptation — a trait that stuck around because the people who possessed it were better able to survive and pass on their genes.

Robin Dunbar is an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom whose work focuses mostly on the behavior of primates, including nonhuman primates like baboons. Dunbar thinks religion may have evolved as what he calls a “group-level adaptation.” Religion is a “kind of glue that holds society together,” Dunbar wrote in “How Many Friends Does One Person Need?: Dunbar’s Number and Other Evolutionary Quirks” (Harvard University Press, 2010).

Humans may have developed religion as a way to promote cooperation in social groups, Dunbar said. He noted that primates tend to live in groups because doing so benefits them in certain ways. For instance, hunting in groups is more effective than hunting alone. But living in groups also has drawbacks. Namely, some individuals take advantage of the system. Dunbar calls these people “freeriders.”

“Freeriding is disruptive because it loads the costs of the social contract onto some individuals, while others get away with paying significantly less,” Dunbar wrote in a New Scientist article, “The Origin of Religion as a Small-Scale Phenomenon.” As a result, those who have been exploited become less willing to support the social contract. In the absence of sufficient benefit to outweigh these costs, individuals will leave in order to be in smaller groups that incur fewer costs.”

But if the group can figure out a way to get everyone to behave in an unselfish way, individual members of the group are less likely to storm off, and the group is more likely to remain cohesive.

Religion may have naturally sprung up from this need to keep everybody on the same page, Dunbar said. Humans’ predisposition to attribute intention to just about everything (e.g., volcanic eruptions, lunar eclipses, thunderstorms) isn’t necessarily the reason religion came about, but it helps to explain why religions typically involve supernatural elements that describe such phenomena.

Original article on Live Science..

Ancient tablets disclose Jewish exiles’ life in Babylonia

One of the clay tablets on display in the Bible Lands Museum exhibit.

2,500-year-old said to be the most important ancient Jewish archive since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

A little known collection of more than 100 clay tablets in Cuneiform script, dating back to the Babylon Exile some 2,500 years ago, was unveiled this week, allowing a glimpse into the everyday life of one of the most ancient exile communities in the world.

Prof. Wayne Horowitz, one of the archaeologists who studied the tablets, says this is the most important ancient Jewish archive since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The tablets are on display in an exhibition entitled “By the Rivers of Babylon” that opened this week in the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem.

The collection consists mainly of administrative certificates – sales bonds, contracts and addresses, engraved in Akkadian Cuneiform script on clay tablets, some of which were fired in kilns.

Thanks to the Babylonian custom of inscribing each document with the date, according to the monarch’s years in power, the archaeologists could date the tablets to 572-477 B.C.E. The earliest tablet in the collection was written some 15 years after the First Temple’s destruction by Nebuchadnezzar, the Chaldean king of the neo-Babylonian era, who deported the Jews to Babylon. The latest was written some 60 years after the return of some of the exiles to Zion, which was enabled by Persia’s King Cyrus in 538 B.C.E.

Little is known of how the collection was discovered. Archaeologists assume it was dug up in the 1970s in southern Iraq and surfaced in the international antiquities market. It was divided into three parts. Collector David Sofer bought 110 tablets, about half of the collection, which pertains mainly to the Jewish community. Sofer lent the tablets to the Bible Lands Museum.

Two books about the collection were recently published – “Documents of Judean Exiles and West Semites in Babylonia in the Collection of David Sofer” by Prof. Laurie Pearce (CDL Press), who also translated the tablets into English, and “By the Rivers of Babylon,” by Horowitz, Yehoshua Greenberg and Peter Zilberg, published by the Bible Lands Museum and the Israel Exploration Society.

The documents reflect a settlement bloc of several villages between the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. One of the villages is named in the tablets as Al-Yahudu, a term Babylonian sources use to describe Jerusalem.

“This is ‘Babylon’s Jerusalem,’ just as New York is the new York,” says Horowitz. Al-Yahudu’s residents are Jews, as their names indicate – Gedalyahu, Hanan, Dana, Shaltiel and Netanyahu. Some of the names appear to be inspired by Cyrus’ declaration allowing the return to Zion, like Yashuv Zadik or Ya’aliyahu, he says.

Until now very little had been known about the life of the Judean community that had been uprooted from Jerusalem and deported to Babylon. The collection also corresponds with the Biblical text in which the prophet Ezekiel writes “as I was among the captives by the river Chebar” (chapter 1, verse 1). The “river Chebar” or “river Chebar village” appear several times on the tablets.

The tablets reflect trade transactions, leasing houses and fields, addresses, inheritances, etc. Certificate 31, for example, is of a deal between Yirpa Ben Dohah and Ahikam Ben Refa’iyahu, in which the former trades a “trained, five-year-old bull” for “one gray jennet.” In certificate 52 a man called Ikisha sold his female slave for “three pieces of silver.” In another document, Neriayu Ben Ahikam rents a house for “10 silver shekels … half given at the beginning of the year and the rest in the middle of the year.” The tenant undertook in the agreement to pay for damages, if any, from the foundations to the roof.

On some tablets, ancient Hebraic letters appear beside the Akkadian details. The researchers assume these were intended for cataloging and tracing. On tablet 10, for example, which deals with a bond for barley, the name Shalemiyahu appears in Hebraic. “These are the most ancient Hebraic letters from the Babylonian exile,” says Horowitz.

The estimated 80,000 Jews who remained in Babylon – Iraq – after the return to Zion formed what was to become one of the most ancient exile communities in the world, existing for some 2,500 years continuously until 1948.

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