Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Israel's God: A History

Tablets from the Enuma Elish, the ancient Babylonian creation myth.

I have been a long-time fan of Evid3nc3's video series on his de-conversion from evangelical Christianity.

His latest installment, derived from his reading of Karen Armstrong's A History of God, talks about the history of the monotheistic god, Israel's polytheistic past, and the ongoing construction and re-construction of the Bible.


The narrative here touches on several themes that have come up in my series on James Kugel's How to Read the Bible. One theme is that we can look outside the Bible and see how its contents have many historical connections and sources. Another theme that while the Bible on its own is fairly dry, its history and evolution is exceedingly interesting. A third theme goes to the question that Kugel asks, which I'll paraphrase as what do we do with the Bible once we know (and perhaps believe) the hypotheses about its origins and development? Do we use it as the basis of religious worship and daily living? Do we consider it alongside other religious works of other cultures, that is, as interesting and valued but not as communicating a special truth about the nature of the universe?

Like Evid3nc3, I felt the second path was probably correct. Once I realized and accepted that it was unreasonable to take the Bible seriously as an authority on the nature of the universe and my personal obligations in the world...well, it became impossible to look at Judaism or religious figures the same way as before.

Related to the above video is another from earlier in Evid3nc3's series.

15 comments:

  1. I don't think Evid3nc3's criticism works very well against Judaism.

    Scholarship seeks to find the most plausible way the bible could be a cultural product, and it does. Judaism seeks to reconcile its various ideological commitments with the bible, and it does.

    Protestantism is based on the idea that the bible has a message for everyone. Judaism is based on the idea that the bible has a secret message only accessible with methods and supplements only it has access to.

    The bible's failure to have a coherent message belies Protestantism and also points directly to multiple politicized human authors rather than one. Yet this ought to have little to no effect on how we treat theories of the bible as a divine code. Such a theory was no more likely to be true before any research was done on the text than it is now that we have a compelling story of how humans wrote it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. "I don't think Evid3nc3's criticism works very well against Judaism."

    I'm not sure I understand you. Although E. is critical, I take his thesis to be primarily that the God of Israel--later appropriated by Christianity and Islam--has historical precursors and analogues. Plus, Israel itself was not truly monotheistic until later in its history; before, "God" was the chief and most powerful of several gods.

    Whether one accepts the thesis as true--in part or in whole--or not has profound ramifications for an understanding of Judaism. Your formulation of Judaism's purpose, "Judaism seeks to reconcile its various ideological commitments with the bible," is not something I think is primary. Rather, I think Judaism views the Torah as the source of its various ideological commitments, as these commitments take shape in the prophetic writings, other writings/narratives/songs, midrash, and talmudic discussions.

    But to Jews, I think Torah is a vehicle for the relationship between God and the Jew. The Jew is God's employee and the Torah is the company handbook of policies and procedures. The important messages are not "secret," as you say, but hidden. Zohar, I realize, troubles this assertion I have just made, but Zohar has its own troubles.

    The fundamental issue that E.'s video raises is that the Bible may not, in fact, have anything divine about it in origin or content. The historical nature of the God concept makes this question real and legitimate. One may decide that yes, the Bible is or has some divinity to it, but it is a decision and it's not a decision that is clear-cut or obvious.

    ReplyDelete
  3. "Whether one accepts the thesis as true--in part or in whole--or not has profound ramifications for an understanding of Judaism."

    Whether one accepts it depends on its strength relative to alternative explanations. The particular evidence that supports this theory coincidentally eviscerates Protestantism but does not much trouble Judaism.

    "Rather, I think Judaism views the Torah as the source of its various ideological commitments"

    Not at all. The oral law is, particularly the Babylonian Talmud. The Torah is something to be consistent with, and to learn from only to the extent one can learn from having to be consistent with it.

    "...the Torah is the company handbook of policies and procedures."

    The torah is the C++ program designed to run on a Mesorah OS. The apologetics are handbooks and the Talmud is the contracts and legally binding documents.

    "Zohar, I realize, troubles this assertion I have just made, but Zohar has its own troubles."

    The Zohar is considered by everyone a probable forgery and has no or nearly no legal implications. I was not referring to it at all.

    "The fundamental issue that E.'s video raises is that the Bible may not, in fact, have anything divine about it in origin or content."

    The reality that we are humans on Earth with innumerable holy books raises the issue that the bible may not be divine. Determining that it is incoherent as a message from one entity (plus the other claims made) means that the best naturalistic interpretation is that it was made by committee, retroactively, and with political motives. It also means that religions postulating it is a long message from a relatively straightforward god are falsified. These discoveries hardly touch hypotheses such as: a) a trickster god cobbled together a misleading document as a joke, b) a pantheon of gods wrote it, c) the bible is generally a halachic code that happens to often have a pshat meaning, etc.

    "The fundamental issue that E.'s video raises..."

    It's Bayes' theorem. Before analyzing which explanation of the present is correct, we must map out all possibilities such that they add up to one. If you arbitrarily inflate the "it was magic" prior and arbitrarily exclude everything but religions like Protestantism (like Evid3nc3 did) then yes, the evidence he presented would appear to rule out single human or divine authorship, which destroys the "theist" possibility-but it does so only because we picked unjustified (Protestant-style) beliefs to enter our study with!

    A more reasonable prior expects the written cultural artifact to be man made even before we know exactly how it was likely done. It does not make a special case out of the bible but rather anticipates its movement from the bucket of things we know to ask about to the bucket of things we know comprehensively, like most everything else goes. Learning the specific theory credibly explaining which men probably made the bible does not really increase the odds it was man made.

    On the "magic did it" side of the ledger, showing that the book fits the form of one by multiple authors with different agendas shatters the belief it is a clear book for a priesthood of all believers. However, this same evidence gives some conspiracy theories about Yaweh (or Baal, etc.) testing us by concocting a fantastic lie some validation.

    So far as Judaism goes, its claims are not addressed by this piece of evidence. Rabbinic Judaism does not strongly expect a lucid, true, or accurate narrative and is not overly disconcerted by its absence.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Brian,

    Thanks for commenting. We agree on much, but I'm afraid I can't go along with your idea that (if I understand you correctly) modern hypotheses of biblical authorship and development don't address the claims of Rabbinic Judaism.

    But I suspect I don't really have the gist of your argument. If you are interested, I am happy to read your explanation of what Rabbinic Judaism's claims are and why these claims remain unaffected by what modern scholarship has discovered about the original meaning of biblical texts.

    ReplyDelete
  5. "...modern hypotheses of biblical authorship and development [do] address the claims of Rabbinic Judaism."

    Step 1: Wake up.
    Step 2: Pee
    Step 3: Scratch
    Step 4: Toast frozen waffles
    Step 5: Begin eating breakfast: toasted frozen waffles with walnuts and maple syrup.
    Step 6: Wonder where my maple syrup comes from. The bottle says "100% Pure", so probably New England or Canada. It could be fake Aunt Jemima chemicals from New Jersey, but it tastes real, and is labeled real and was sold in a major store under American jurisdiction. Maybe it's from Venus?
    Step 7: Postulate the syrup comes from a Russian factory where it was left unlabeled to boost sales in America, after which it remained unlabeled unto now.
    Step 8: Postulate that two dimensional termite-like aliens inhabiting an invisible planet between Venus and Earth extracted the maple syrup from the tears of enslaved, tortured unicorns indigenous to Earth but extinct here since Noah's flood, and that as part of one country's national sport of beaming around bottled liquids with writing in unicorn language on it teleported it to Earth.
    Step 9: Analyze the bottle. The label says "100% Made in Vermont", so it was probably made in Vermont! It could have gotten mixed up with a batch from Canada without someone noticing, but the overwhelming probability is that it was made in Vermont.
    Step 10: Conclude that it was probably made in Vermont from trees.
    Step 11: Wonder if this conclusion addresses my both of my original hypotheses.
    Step 12: Conclude that it does!
    Step 13: Wonder if the label falsifies my first hypothesis.
    Step 14: Conclude that it does!
    Step 15: Wonder if the label falsifies or renders unlikely my second hypothesis, which had not predicted on the bottle labeled "100% Pure" the presence of an origin tag saying "Made in Vermont".
    Step 16: Conclude that it does not.
    Step 17: Turn on TV.
    Step 18: Hear a Protestant talk about the Bible as the word of God and a message to all believers from God.
    Step 19: Change channel.
    Step 20: Hear a Jew talk about the Bible as the word of God which is only explicable through the Jewish tradition, which has a methodology that derives laws from aspects of the Torah as small as the absence of a single otherwise expected letter.
    Step 21: Change channel
    Step 22: Hear atheist talk about the Bible as the product of several authors, explaining when each author probably lived and how many there probably were.
    Step 23: Turn off TV.
    Step 24: Finish breakfast.
    Step 25: Check for a reply from Larry Tanner.
    Step 26: Reply to Larry Tanner.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Step 27: Lather.
    Step 28: Rinse.
    Step 29: Oh look, a squirrel!

    ReplyDelete
  7. FWIW, I wonder if steps 1-3 ought to be re-done:

    Step 1a: Scratch
    Step 2: Wake up.
    Step 1b: Scratch
    Step 3: Pee
    Step 1c: Scratch

    ReplyDelete
  8. I get on the subway and start reading my book, a translation of Infantry Attacks by Erwin Rommel. Three girls sit across from me. One looks Jewish, one African American, and one Turkish. All are smoking hot.

    "I wrote that book" the first one says to me. I look back up. She's obviously hitting on me...or she actually translated it...or she's insane. I had thought it odd no translator was credited anywhere.

    "You translated it?" I asked.

    J: "No, I didn't translate it, I wrote it."

    I give a half smile, indicating she should transition to the next step, whatever it is. Simple, sane conversation is off the table.

    J: "It's going to be a hit. Millions of copies used around the world. Microsoft Word rendered obsolete!"

    Unfortunately, she's apparently crazy. However, that doesn't mean she's not hitting on me.

    B: "Microsoft Word?"

    J: "Yes, Infantry Attacks is the word processing program I wrote for my OS style program "Talmud" that runs off Linux. Only the beta is out now, but it's nearly perfect."

    B: "Your word processing program's code is identical to the text of a translation of a 1930's guide to infantry warfare? And coincidentally it happens to work running on an OS you wrote? What kind of OS is it?"

    J: "Well..."work" might be an overstatement. But it runs. Sort of. Look, first I wrote the "Talmud". The code is several times as long as Windows 7's. Then I wrote Infantry Attacks, but it's still a beta really...quite buggy. It must be errors in the "Talmud". However, once it's running I can show you how each sentence and character in Infantry Attacks" is needed for it to run properly (such as it does) on the "Talmud".

    Her insanity is enough to distract me from her body, at least for the moment.

    B: "Have you ever considered changing Infantry Attacks? I mean, if no matter how many times you add exceptions and code to the "Talmud" it keeps failing..."

    J: "I can't do that because that would ruin its perfect record. Every problem is the "Talmud's" fault."

    B: "From my perspective, doesn't it make more sense to think that you found the book and are only later trying to make it work as a program? Especially since I have a plausible alternative origin for this book?"

    She points to the book in the hands of the guy next to me. It's missing it's cover and at least its first and last few pages.

    J: "You're telling me that you are more willing to believe that that random book over there without a cover whose origin you know nothing about is my home-coded image editor than that Infantry Attacks is my word processor just because you have a backstory for yours and not his? Even when I can show thst both run equally well (and poorly) on my OS?"

    B: "I guess I'm not."

    "That's all preposterous" chimes in the black girl. Maybe this one will show some sense.

    AA: "Infantry Attacks" is the prequel to Scooby-Doo."

    Apparently not.

    B: "Scooby-Doo? On TV?"

    AA: "Both were orchestrated by superintelligent aliens to foster environmentalism. Infantry Attacks used to be a word processing program, but now that we don't have a functioning Talmud..."

    The first girl glares at her.

    "...it's an environmentalist tract, like Scooby-Doo!"

    I wonder which girl is crazier.

    ReplyDelete
  9. B: "So long as you're assigning a cartoon to share an environmentalist message with Infantry Attacks when it has nothing to do with environmentalism and they have nothing in common, why not at least pick Captain Planet and say that Infantry Attacks is the prequel to that in an environmentalist series?"

    AA: "It's impossible to foster values with a cartoon. Captain Planet is just a Cartoon. Scooby-Doo is a documentary. About the environment! Just like Infantry Attacks!"

    Well, that decides it. This one is definitely crazier.

    "Besides, Erwin Rommel, Shaggy, and Scooby are clearly the same character."

    In spades.

    "Scooby-Doo is clearly a cartoon," the third one said. This must be the sane one.

    T: "You can tell by looking at it. That's the same methodology that you used to determine that Infantry Attacks is a perfect book that could only be written by a superintelligent alien!"

    Again with the aliens.

    B: "How can you, with your regular intelligence, know simply by reading something that it had to be written by a super-intelligence and that no human could have written it? Particularly as humans copy it perfectly well? That's a worthless methodology regardless."

    "Regular intelligence" is probably fair...that doesn't quite seem to be the problem with these three. Mental disorders, yes, stupidity, no.

    AA: "That's not how I did it at all. That "worthless methodology" is entirely hers!"

    An accusatory finger was thrust at the Turkish girl. Things were beginning to get heated. Unfortunately, not in a sexual way.

    B: "What methodology did you use then?"

    AA "I didn't use any methodology. I faithed it!"

    Her eyes skipped around the car triumphantly, and her statement echoed unchallenged except by the slaps of palms meeting foreheads.

    T: "Annnnnnnnyway, if you would just read the German original and not that translation, it would be obvious to you that aliens dictated it."

    B: "Your friend said she wrote it..."

    T: "Lies! The aliens told her what to write but she corrupted it!"

    B: "..and I don't need to learn German and read the book and compare it with contemporary military tracts to find that there is nothing especially unique about it. It's not even necessary for me to know which German officer wrote it to know that some human wrote it..."

    T: "As solid evidence that aliens were with Rommel, we have proof that they assisted him during the Meuse-Argonne offensive when his company ran out of ammunition. He instructed his men to stand on top of their trenches, face the rear, drop their pants, and split their moon up into two before the French. The Aliens produced an advanced energy shield that caught rifle and hundred-pound enemy artillery shells in their butt cracks and forced it to fall unexploded. Rommel's men were unharmed. He was then able to continue the fight with the French ammunition after telling his men, "Bear witness to this." We have reliable witnesses."

    I shift my gaze up in incredulity. I'm still staring at her, only now it's at her face. She seems serious.

    T: "The strongest proof that you have to believe as I say is that if you don't agree, my people will-"

    J: "That's our stop!"

    AA: "Let's go! We're late already!"

    Without addendum I can say I love to watch them leave. What a trio. But there's only so much of that one can take.

    ReplyDelete
  10. Uh-oh. It turns out that J. did not, in fact, write Talmud (the first program).

    Infantry Attacks may run properly (such as it does) on Talmud, but it doesn't work. If another word processing program and OS can run better and "work," then both Talmud and IA are interesting--perhaps even admirable--but most useful as museum pieces.

    I imagine some hardcore fans will refuse to admit that Talmud has any errors at all. Some other might say the same about IA. But these folks all think that J. wrote both and that J. is authoritative. Once we have evidence that makes J.'s role in the production of both questionable, well, we ought to ask what are motivations really are in adopting an OS and WPP.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I guess a better analogy would be that she says the aliens showed her the code for Windows 13, and she wrote the program to run on Windows 13, and is trying to reverse-engineer Windows 13 from that.

    "If another word processing program and OS can run better and "work," then both Talmud and IA are interesting--perhaps even admirable--but most useful as museum pieces."

    You know the system has a problem because its engineers change the OS rather than the program. Healthy systems have far more code turnover at the program level than the OS level.

    The Torah being best explicable as a human artifact is like a program that works perfectly as a video editor for a Mac as against the claim that the program is a word processor supposedly built for Windows 13, a future OS for a non-binary computer. The system's problem is not that the program is (identical to) a program that works on a totally different OS than the one it was supposedly designed for. Discovering that it is a video editor for Mac does not change the odds of what it is likely to do on Windows 13. Someone who thinks the Jews went out of Egypt with signs and wonders, etc. will not and should not be bothered by its functionality on a modern Mac/the Torah's scientific explicability. The insight and technology required to make the program makes the Mac feature trivial. On the other hand, those who thought the program was designed as an antivirus for Macs should be humbled by the fact it only edits videos.

    "I imagine some hardcore fans will refuse to admit that Talmud has any errors at all."

    The Talmud represents the best available "transmission" of the Oral Torah that comprises the majority of the "given" Torah. The large number of unresolved debates in the Talmud is an admission that the Torah we have is not fully functional. The time between the supposed Mt. Sinai event and the present is an innocuous, even welcome culprit to pin logical errors on, as these factors make a perfect Oral Torah theoretically possible despite flaws in what we have today.

    The task of the Talmud is to restore/retain the law by applying known rules to the one Torah and the memorized Mishnaic laws and text code. The rules for the laws' creation/maintenance do depend heavily on the Torah's text.

    It is true that hardcore fans say that the many conclusions reached in the Talmud are infallible, or presumptively valid and no evidence against them could possibly be valid, etc. However, the Teiku's"/unresolved disputes within are a naked admission that what we have is imperfect.

    There is no religious or other reason to pretend copies of copies of the Talmud are perfectly accurate because it is universally known to be man-written. This is mostly in contrast to Christianity and Islam and their difficulties over differing transcriptions, interpolations, etc. because their holy books are supposedly divinely intended word for word.

    "Once we have evidence that makes J.'s role in the production of both questionable..."

    To the best of my ability, I have explained why I do not think the subject matter that is the main thrust* of Evid3nc3's video 3.3.3 is evidence that makes J.'s role in the production of both questionable.

    *His main thrust is to explain Israelites' history, such as the graph at 0:36 and 3:15 to the end, and to argue that this makes Christianity less likely to be true. 1:15 to 3:14 and facts like that expressed at 12:38 are a (fungible) part of general human religious history, some amount of which is necessary background knowledge.

    I hope it's all clear.

    ReplyDelete
  12. "To the best of my ability, I have explained why I do not think the subject matter that is the main thrust* of Evid3nc3's video 3.3.3 is evidence that makes J.'s role in the production of both questionable.

    *His main thrust is to explain Israelites' history, such as the graph at 0:36 and 3:15 to the end, and to argue that this makes Christianity less likely to be true. 1:15 to 3:14 and facts like that expressed at 12:38 are a (fungible) part of general human religious history, some amount of which is necessary background knowledge."

    Yes, this is all clear and I agree with you for the most part. Yet I still think that the same evidence provides a basis from which to question Judaism's claims to truth.

    Forgive me for not elaborating on my opinion. I'm rather tired this morning and fairly bogged down at work.

    Nevertheless, I love the OS/WP analogy and have found this to be the most enjoyable online discussion I've had in a long time.

    ReplyDelete
  13. Pithily: believing that the Bible has naturalistic origins because science has a persuasive explanation of how it happened is like believing you aren't a sea turtle because you found your birth certificate.

    ReplyDelete
  14. Like Dylan said: You gotta serve somebody.

    ReplyDelete

Feel free to comment if you have something substantial and substantiated to say.