Exodus 22 doesn’t tell us to sacrifice our first sons to God

An interesting development came about in my recent research and conversations, as I was talking with others and the accusation of child sacrifice in the Bible popped up again (see here where I showed earlier that the Old Testament rejects this). This new argument was based off a passage that I hadn’t considered, and all of a sudden it was being used to show that the Old Testament commands us to sacrifice our firstborn son to God on the altar.

Exodus 22:29-30: You shall not delay to make offerings from the fullness of your harvest and from the outflow of your presses. The firstborn of your sons you shall give to me. 30 You shall do the same with your oxen and with your sheep: seven days it shall remain with its mother; on the eighth day you shall give it to me.

This text is talking about sacrificing all firstborn sons of our livestock and our sons to God. There’s no doubt that sacrifice is the topic of the verse. So, to figure this all out, I googled it. And so appeared a useful article titled God Didn’t Command Child Sacrifice by some Christian named Amy Hall (which also pokes many holes into the attempt to twist Ezekiel 20:25-26 into supporting some sort of child sacrifice interpretation of Exodus). As Hall points out, in Exodus 13:12-13, and later, in Exodus 34:19-20, God also stipulates about the sacrifice of the firstborn sons to God.

Exodus 13:12-13: you shall set apart to the Lord all that first opens the womb. All the firstborn of your livestock that are males shall be the Lord’s. 13 But every firstborn donkey you shall redeem with a sheep; if you do not redeem it, you must break its neck. Every firstborn male among your children you shall redeem.

Exodus 34:19-20: All that first opens the womb is mine, all your male livestock, the firstborn of cow and sheep. 20 The firstborn of a donkey you shall redeem with a lamb, or if you will not redeem it you shall break its neck. All the firstborn of your sons you shall redeem. No one shall appear before me empty-handed.

These two passages say that all the firstborn males of our livestock, cow and sheep, are sacrificed to God. But then it mentions donkeys, and suddenly an option appears. We have the option to, instead of sacrificing the firstborn male donkeys, instead redeem them by substituting a lamb instead. But we also have the option to not redeem it and break its neck. But then the passage says we must redeem our firstborn son, without any other options available. So that topic is closed, the Israelite’s don’t have to sacrifice their children during the time of the Old Testament, because their sacrifice is made up for through substitution.

The debate didn’t end there, though. I was reminded of something in a condescending way — that it was laughable to “assume” the “univocality” of Exodus — the point being that the Book of Exodus was not a single text in the beginning, rather it was a weaving together of several different sources (i.e. the documentary hypothesis). And it is the case that, like the Psalms, the Exodus is composed of different sources by different authors that were gathered together later on that we now consider one document. So, was it possible that Exodus 13:12-13 and 34:19-20 are simply later texts that sought to explain away 22:29-30, the earlier command of child sacrifice, someone suggested to me? Well, no. I grabbed my copy of Richard Elliott Friedman’s The Exodus (2017) since I knew he had a nice summary of only a few pages at the end of the book where he explained which parts of the Torah belong to which source of the four source documents (known as J, E, P or D). Both Exodus 13:12-13 and 22:29-20 belong to the E document, whereas 34:19-20 belonged to the J document — even earlier than E. So there was no getting around these verses.

And yet, it wasn’t over yet. The person I was talking to had a PhD in Theology and Religion and wasn’t about to fall over. Catching me off guard yet again, I was reminded that Friedman himself points out that Exodus 22:29-30 is part of a larger text known to scholars of the Old Testament as the Covenant Code, which spans  Exodus 20:22-23:19. And the Covenant Code is an earlier text, in fact, one of the earliest parts of the entire Old Testament. — predating any of our documentary source documents. Of course, our PhD friend was still wrong since I pointed out that Exodus 34:19-20 itself is part of an earlier text, the Ritual Decalogue (one of the three sections where the Torah lists the Ten Commandments, the other two being in Exodus 20:1-21 and Deuteronomy 5:4-21). The Ritual Decalogue is also one of the earliest texts in Israelite history and, in fact, many scholars think that the Covenant Code either developed in parallel with it or that it was actually an expansion of the Ritual Decalogue itself (see Michael Coogan’s The Ten Commandments: A Short History of an Ancient Text, pp. 45-47 and John Van Seters’ A Law Book for the Diaspora: Revision in the Study of the Covenant Code, pg. 9).

So there’s simply no way to get around the fact that the Old Testament nowhere advocates for child sacrifice, our PhD friend certainly had to submit the argument. Once again, see my other article on this topic where I look at the topic of child sacrifice in the rest of the Old Testament.

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Tolerance of Christianity in the Middle Ages

This will be a quick post. I was reading Clifford Backman’s The Worlds of Medieval Europe (Oxford 2003) and I came across a quite stunning quote from Pope Gregory the Great, one of the most influential figures of the medieval period. The medieval period is imaginatively thought of as a period of barbarism in our society, and the tremendous progress that happened in it is never appreciated or otherwise completely unknown. During kinesiology in high school, as the teacher was briefly going over the history of the subject, he skipped right over the entire middle ages suggesting that nothing medically important happened in this period. Such a stunning fiction can be cleared up with a quick check on Wikipedia (not that this is a reliable source anyways) with people who advanced medicine on their own as much as any Greek on the level of Hippocrates or Galen, such as with little-known figures like Hildegard. Apparently, tolerance must also have been an imaginary thing in this period.

And yet, as I was reading through Backman’s book, a stunning quotation from Pope Gregory was provided regarding his method on converting pagans on pp. 65-66. It’s good to quote it in full.

I have decided that the peoples’ temples to their false gods should not be destroyed, not on any account. The idols within them should be destroyed, but the temples themselves you should simply purify with holy water; moreover, you should set up [Christian] altars in them and place sacred relics in them. If the temples are solidly built, they should be purified from demon worship and re-dedicated to the service of the true God. This way, I hope, the people, seeing that we have not destroyed their holy sites, may abandon their erring ways: by continuing to congregate regularly in their accustomed site, therefore, they might come to know and adore the true God. Since they now have the tradition of regularly sacrificing numbers of oxen to their false gods, let some other ritual be substituted in its place—a Day of Dedication, perhaps, or a feast of the holy martyrs whose relics are enshrined there…. They should no longer sacrifice their oxen to devils, but they certainly may kill them for food, to the praise of God, and thank the Giver of all gifts for the bounty they are thus enjoying. In this way, if we allow the people some worldly pleasures they will more readily come to desire the joys of the spirit. For indeed, it is not possible to erase all errors from stubborn human minds at a single stroke, and if anyone wishes to reach the top of a mountain he must advance step by step instead of in a single leap.

Wow! You’ll never hear anything like this from Christians mentioned by those who detest basic history that may perhaps suggest Christianity was not bad at all overall, but rather fundamental to the progress of modern civilization. Remember, Pope Gregory the Great was as important to the middle ages as almost any other legendary thinker from this period and is singularly most responsible than any other person for the authentic conversion of the Germanic pagans to Christianity. I’ll certainly write about this topic more fully in the future. This is not to say persecution of various sorts was not rife throughout the Middle Ages, though it’s always little mentioned how the witch hunts and inquisition met their heights during the 16th century, a glorious time we call the “Renaissance” (well, not historians) or how whatever violence happened during the Middle Ages certainly was no weaker throughout the Roman era.

Let’s not forget the great thinkers of our Christian history, lest we let the surely unbiased unbelievers concoct the rest for us.

Hitchens’s Razor

Christopher Hitchens was quite a famous atheist until he died, and a form of nostalgia for his activity remains in atheist circles constantly decrying how much they miss the guy. In the first decade of the 2000’s, a slew of atheist books were getting launched and reaching incredible amounts of people and sales, among Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennet and, of course, Christopher Hitchens. In a way, you can consider these guys (and many others alongside them) as the “fathers” of the activist-type movement we call ‘New Atheism’. One of them, our dear Hitchens, is often attributed a quote that’s more well known than any others among the ‘New Atheists’ — “that which is asserted without evidence can be dismissed without evidence.” It’s perfectly accurate and even has it’s own Wikipedia page with the title ‘Hitchens’s Razor’. Unfortunately, though, Hitchens never came up with it. He probably got it from the Latin proverb well-known in the 19th century, quod grātīs asseritur, grātīs negātur (“what is freely asserted, is freely dismissed”). Some atheist website has even found a use of this principle as early as 1704 by theologian Johann Georg Pritius in his work title Introductio in lectionem Novi Testamenti (Introduction to the New Testament) arguing against a non-trinitarian 3rd century theologian.

How can you prove it, Artemon? Because you asserted it without cause, therefore also it may be denied without cause.

Very interesting to see that such a quote may well have originated from the field of theology. So too does the more popular razor, Occam’s Razor, which states that the simplest rational explanation should always be accepted (so we shouldn’t accept tangled explanations if much more concise, self-explanatory ones are at hand). Occam’s Razor comes from William of Ockham, a brilliant theologian and philosopher living in the 13th and 14th centuries. So ideas and principles like this certainly don’t have any foundation in the current air of atheism. Though placed on a pedestal by people who appreciate breathing in the air, these principles are often not acted out in practice. Christopher Hitchens was, of course, a promoter of conspiracy theories like the idea that Constantine, the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, didn’t really convert to Christianity, despite the fact that, well … Constantine, once he defeated Maxentius in the Battle of Milvian Bridge in 312, the very next year he produced the Edict of Milan which promulgated freedom of religion, with an emphasis on Christians being able to practice their Christianity without the persecutions of the past, and demanded the return of confiscated Christian property that largely took place during Diocletian’s rule. Constantine took away taxes that clergy members had to pay, raised Christians to the highest levels of government, composed an entire speech spanning hundreds of pages long in book form defending monotheism and Christianity that was collected by Eusebius in his Oration of Constantine and now, for half a century of scholarship, has not been questioned by scholarship in authenticity. After Constantine defeated Licinius in 324 and became the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, the very next year under his reign Christians banned the practice of gladiatorship and Constantine called the Council of Nicaea to resolve the internal disputes of the church. Constantine also built the city of Constantinople over the site of Byzantium (hence why the later empire emerging out of the east of the formative Roman Empire is known as the Byzantine Empire), and this city, though not incorporating a total absence of paganism, was overwhelmingly Christian. Adrian Goldsworthy writes;

Christian claims that there was no trace of pagan cults in the city were exaggerated. There was a large nude statue of Constantine as the sun god on top of what is now known as the Burnt Column, and there were a few temples, mostly on existing foundations. Yet it is fair to say that it was an overtly and overwhelmingly Christian city. (Goldsworthy, Adrian Keith. How Rome fell: Death of a superpower. Yale University Press, 2009, 186)

Constantine commissioned the production of over fifty highly expensive Bible’s and constructed churches at an unprecedented rate. In fact, some of the greatest Christian sites in the world to this day have their roots in Constantine’s religious reforms. Constantine’s mother, Helena, is responsible for the construction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, built over where she believed was the burial site of Jesus Christ, and this church remains the most popular Christian pilgrimage site in the world to this day. Constantine also built Old St. Peter’s Basilica in what is today Vatican City, which was demolished in the 16th century and over it built the new St. Peter’s Basilica which is the largest church in the world and one of the greatest representations of Renaissance Architecture. Constantine is also responsible for the great Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

Constantine did all this for his personal, Christianity. Just like common Christian practice of his day, he waited until the end of his life to get baptized in the Jordan River (the same place Jesus was baptized), and he made his Christian move despite it being perhaps the best thing he could have done to commit political suicide. At the time, only between 5-10% of the Roman population was Christian, including virtually no one in the aristocracy and no Senators. This is common information amongst modern Roman historians, and the fact that there is even the myth of Constantine converting for political reasons is concerning when it comes to how abrogated the popular understanding of history is in our society. Hitchens, never having read a shred of evidence for this conspiracy theory, asserted it nonetheless. Hitchens’ ignorance of history was something disproportionately atrocious to his other, well, blunders. David Bentley Hart in an excellent review of his book God is Not Great writes;

To appreciate the true spirit of the New Atheism, however, and to take proper measure of its intellectual depth, one really has to turn to Christopher Hitchens. Admittedly, he is the most egregiously slapdash of the New Atheists, as well as (not coincidentally) the most entertaining, but I take this as proof that he is also the least self-deluding. His God Is Not Great shows no sign whatsoever that he ever intended anything other than a rollicking burlesque, without so much as a pretense of logical order or scholarly rigor. His sporadic forays into philosophical argument suggest not only that he has sailed into unfamiliar waters, but also that he is simply not very interested in any of it. His occasional observations on Hume and Kant make it obvious that he has not really read either very closely. He apparently believes that Nietzsche, in announcing the death of God, literally meant to suggest that the supreme being named God had somehow met his demise. The title of one of the chapters in God Is Not Great is “The Metaphysical Claims of Religion Are False,” but nowhere in that chapter does Hitchens actually say what those claims or their flaws are.

Hart then goes to list off numerous clumsy historical errors Hitchens makes that even a student of historiography could have avoided, including conflating the first and fourth crusades, repeating the historical fantasy myth that Christians burned the Greek works of Aristotle or Lucretius or ever really engaged in some form of widespread pagan book-burning (in fact, it was Christian arguments by those like Augustine and Origen that lead to their preservation of today). Hart just continues listing them …

He speaks of the traditional hostility of “religion” (whatever that may be) to medicine, despite the monastic origins of the modern hospital and the involvement of Christian missions in medical research and medical care from the fourth century to the present. He tells us that countless lives were lost in the early centuries of the Church over disputes regarding which gospels were legitimate (the actual number of lives lost is zero). He asserts that Myles Coverdale and John Wycliffe were burned alive at the stake, although both men died of natural causes. He knows that the last twelve verses of Mark 16 are a late addition to the text, but he imagines this means that the entire account of the Resurrection is as well. He informs us that it is well known that Augustine was fond of the myth of the Wandering Jew, though Augustine died eight centuries before the legend was invented. And so on and so on (and so on).

Not a problem at all. Someone will definitely inform me that it’s not productive to castigate the work of a dead man like Hitchens, although that argument might hold more credibly if Hitchens didn’t continue exerting such influence and, well, he was the master of such an art himself, spending half his career attacking the post-mortem Mother Teresa. It all eventually ended in perhaps one of the most unfortunate ways. Hitchens, after a long-life of drinking and smoking, he was hospitalized after contracting esophageal cancer and then contracted hospital-acquired pneumonia, dying in 2011.

Hitchens, in one way, is an embodiment of modern new atheism (but perhaps not quite the archetype of Richard Dawkins). A few years before meeting his demise, he was totally demolished in debate on the topic of religion by William Lane Craig in perhaps Craig’s most famous performance — a debating opportunity he almost didn’t take up because he thought Hitchens was so ignorant of the issues, but did so anyways because of his popularity. Especially good is this video where William Lane Craig demolishes Hitchens’ attempts to use evolution to thwart Christianity, something Hitchens didn’t respond to in the rest of the debate since … he couldn’t (in fact, Hitchens even ended up conceding his concluding speech at the end).

I can go on but I think I’ll have to conclude here. In the end of the day, Hitchens’s anti-theistic career is shredded by Hitchens’s Razor.

How Matthew 5 Doesn’t Prove We Should Continue Following the Old Testament

The title isn’t perfectly accurate — Christians should continue following the Old Testament, so long as the message hasn’t been superseded in the New Testament. Everything that has been superseded, however, is no longer something that needs to be practiced. Jesus was the final and absolute sacrifice for our sins, which means the Old Covenant practice of sacrificing animals and certain crops has been self-evidently superseded, and no memory of such a practice anywhere in the New Testament is provided.

Nevertheless, Matthew 5:17-18 has often been cited by, you guessed it, atheists, to claim that Christians have really just gotten it all wrong for the last several thousand years and that the original biblical message in the New Testament clearly puts it out that the Old Covenant should be continuously followed! In this video of Sam Harris’s dialogue with Hugh Hewitt (timestamp 10:30-40) these verses get pulled out from under the rug as a proof of the sheer cruelty of Christianity. Of course, Sam has a long history of misconstruing the Bible whenever he gets a chance, so just a few seconds after saying this he claims Paul calls for the execution of homosexuals in Romans, something that only happened in his imagination. He’s claimed that Jesus says in Luke 19:27 that unbelievers should be slain before him, which resulted in David Wood wiping the floor with him (the verse is just in a parable where a king says this), and other misrepresentations of his (like claiming so many times that Jesus says slaves should obey their masters, a verse nowhere in the Gospels at all but in Ephesians 6 — how Harris bungled this up is anyone’s guess). This is not to totally discredit Harris, though, I highly enjoyed his two live debates with Jordan Peterson. Anyways, back to the point. Here’s what Matthew 5:17-18 says.

Matthew 5:17-18: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.

So Jesus did not come to abolish the law or prophets, rather, to fulfill their meaning in its maximum extent. Heaven and earth would pass away, but these two elements will sustain. There was a problem, of course. I was well aware of verses in the Bible like Mark 7:18-19 abolishing the dietary Torah law;

Mark 7:18-19: He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, 19 since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)

Paul also argues repeatedly that the Torah law of circumcision, for example, is not necessary to be followed (such as in Galatians 5:2). Paul has a conflict with Jews keeping the law in Galatians 2 (Christianity was originally a sect in Judaism like the Pharisees and Sadducees but ended up slowly diverging from Judaism in later decades), but a consensus eventually is reached in Acts 15 that Paul was right. So what’s going on in Matthew? Does Matthew think we should keep circumcision, the dietary laws and sacrifice? Well, to find the solution, I checked what the academic literature has to say on this topic — something very useful to do when you don’t understand something in the Bible. Here, I found Douglas Hare’s paper How Jewish is the Gospel of Matthew (CBQ 2000) incredibly helpful.

Hare writes;

The primary text is Matt 5:19, “Whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” This verse is one of a complex of four sayings which together constitute the programmatic introduction to the Sermon on the Mount. The preceding verse, which proclaims the continuing validity of every letter of the Torah, must not be interpreted as one requiring the literal observance of every precept of the Law. Such affirmations of the sanctity of scripture were accompanied by many departures in practice in all forms of first-century Judaism known to us. Jesus himself is represented a few verses later (5:31-32) “loosing” the provisions for divorce in Deut 24:1. Like modern fundamentalists, Jews and Christians could conscientiously affirm the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture while at the same time supporting significant departures from its literal requirements by means of interpretation. (pg. 270)

Jesus declaring the preservation of the iotas clearly needs to be understood in the context of the loosing of the provisions of divorce in Deuteronomy 24, and the fact that in Matthew 5, Jesus goes on to completely reinterpret many of the iotas, since this is the chapter with many of the famous “You have heard it was said … but I say to you …” sayings of Jesus. As Hare continues to explain, it’s unlikely that Matthew believed in an even more literal observance of the Torah, and on pg. 271 even notes Jesus essentially breaking a purity law by touching a leper (v. 8:3) (see n. 28). Then, Hare notes another important paper by Mark Allan Powell (Do and Keep What Moses Says (Matthew 23:2-7), JBL 1995) who argues for the claim that Matthew 23:2-3 commands not against the teaching authority of the scribes but refers to the public reading of the Torah (reading the paper is quite important).

In Matthew 24:20, Jesus says “Pray that your flight may not be in winter or on a Sabbath”. This doesn’t mean that no travel is allowed on the Sabbath. Hare points out on pg. 272 that it means we should, even though we may still travel on the Sabbath day, hope our travels don’t actually fall on it (for the self-evident reason that it could otherwise be devoted to God). In fact, Matthew even subordinates the Sabbath to Jesus by calling Him the “Lord of the Sabbath” in Matthew 12:8. Hare also points out that some scholars have argued that Matthew believed in the literal interpretation of all the iotas based on Matthew 15:10-11, which is Matthew’s parallel to Mark 7:

Matthew 15:10-11: Then he called the crowd to him and said to them, “Listen and understand: 11 it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but it is what comes out of the mouth that defiles.”

Did you catch it? Matthew, who was using Mark as his source for this narrative of Jesus, omits the part where Mark says that Jesus, therefore, declared all foods to be clean! Which means Matthew disagreed! Not exactly, as Hare shows (pg. 273), the implications of the verse is still that foods don’t defile, and in fact it is Matthew who draws attention to this implication by saying that the Pharisees were totally shocked by what Jesus said (Matt. 15:12). Now what could have possibly shocked them? As Hare shows in his paper with the abundance of evidence, it’s absolutely clear that Matthew believed the Torah should not be observed literally, but as it is interpreted by Jesus, which puts everything in the Gospel into perspective — Jesus reinterpreting the iotas, saying that you can still travel on the Sabbath though it isn’t preferable, Matthew drawing attention to the implications of Jesus’ saying that all foods are now clean, Jesus touching the leper and loosening the provisions on divorce from Deuteronomy. So we Christians were right after all. Coincidence?

A Critique of Ben Bassett and Polytheism’s Progress

For the first time, I think, Quillette has published an article that I substantially disagree with by Ben Basset, which is titled Progress and Polytheism: Could an Ethical West Exist Without Christianity? Here, Bassett argues that Christianity did not represent a moral schism from the entire realm of prior Greco-Roman morality and that people who claim so tend to turn the Greco-Roman world into a monolithic entity by which they gloss over the moral progress made by some Greco-Romans, which, if was allowed to continue developing and hadn’t been cut off by the Christianity’s rise, may have brought about significant moral progress on its own. I think the evidence he cites for this claim are dubious and selective, and I hope to make some progress in refuting his thesis here.

Imagine a Europe that resembles India. In Germany, France and England, in place of Romanesque or Gothic cathedrals stand temples devoted to a kaleidoscopic pantheon of local and state-sanctioned gods… India is a provocative analogue for this alternate history because its temples remain open and enthusiastically attended; its ancient religions, though much evolved, are still practiced; there is a continuity, however vivisected, between the present and the deep past. By comparison, Europe’s Christian character represents a historical schism, between new and old, of unfathomable proportion: The ancient pre-Christian world of the west, though spectacular in its achievements, is a cultural enigma to us.

India, we are told, represents a historical analog by which Europe may have looked like today, hadn’t Europe left the mythologies and sacred practices and priority of the pre-Christian pagans. This may seem impressive to many if considered, despite India’s current situation, it ranks one of the strongest and most rapidly growing economies today, and just this year India no longer ranked as the country with the most people in poverty in the world (that place has been taken by Nigeria), and may even be third in the world by the end of this year (with Ethiopia also potentially surpassing it). Luminary figures and achievements in the 20th century like Gandhi and the banning of the caste system perhaps stand behind this proclamation, surely signs of immense progress that show an alternate history of how we could have been (when I say ‘we’, I mean Europe, and that technically excludes myself anyways).

However, it’s not clear at all whether or not modern India would represent an analogous history to how we would have developed without Christianity. For one, it isn’t clear just how similar Indian polytheism is to the beliefs of the Greek and Roman mythologies, nor is it clear just how much the system and government of modern India has been influenced by Western ideals and contributions, such as technology, the precepts of equality, modern democracy (contrasting to ancient Greek democracy which was, though an improvement, not the ideal it’s made out to be), architecture and construction (the British did wreak much havoc, but some good things also came out of their lengthy occupation). In fact, given these facts, it seems to me that the modern state of India couldn’t possibly represent an analog to the development to the West because it is entirely (well, not entirely) predicated on a Western predecessor, which does have Judeo-Christian roots (as we’ll find out soon enough, in contrast to Bassett’s following claim that as revolutionary as Christianity seems, its moral precepts were not unknown).

Bassett quickly admits that the ancient pagan world was full of horrid atrocities and that this was the norm. However, he adds, this was not absolute, and that the Roman world was full of self-criticism. Really? He cites Tacitus, the 2nd-century Roman historian and his critiques of imperialism and Romanisation of the Roman government, but however unique these critiques were to Tacitus (‘they create desolation, and call it peace’), Tacitus still was an imperialist. He critiqued some of the emperors for their failure to implement expansionist policies and claimed that prolonged peace had broken the spirits of the people of Italy, among other things (see Iiro Kajanto’s “Tacitus’ attitude to war and the soldier.” Latomus (1970): 699-718). Not to mention, since Christianity is on the topic, Tacitus seems to have been more then pleased with the persecution of Christians during the reign of Nero (described as a class hated for their abominations with a hatred against mankind, with Nero’s persecution of them as a “check for the moment” of the “mischevious superstition”, see Tacitus’s Annals 15.44). Perhaps Bassett will update us with a better example.

Bassett goes on and tries to provide another source for incredible moral progress that shows Christianity was not unique by speaking of the Stoic philosophies;

For example, the second century Stoic Hierocles posited an early form of “cosmopolitanism,” whereby the ego, the ‘I’ at the centre of our ethical life, was enfolded by concentric circles of moral concern. The closer the circle to the centre, to the I, the more demanding on our affections its subjects tend to be. The family was closest, and eventually one would reach all humankind in the outermost circle… It is true that these insights did not lead the Stoics to condemn slavery—even if, in a general sense, the ethical universalism explicit in Stoic philosophy theoretically encompassed all human beings regardless of status or creed. And in this failing, the Stoics were morally deficient. But then again, the early Christians didn’t condemn slavery either. In its pure ethical form, Stoicism actually expresses a less contingent attitude toward the object of ethical concern than does Christianity. As the scholar Runar Thorsteinsson has argued, the ethical character of early Christianity as expressed through the writings of Paul and in 1 Peter are best conceived as urging obedience and toleration toward non-Christian society, but advise a more generous ethical dispensation only toward fellow believers. The point here is not that early Christianity was particularly morally deficient—merely that it was not extraordinary in the context of the ethical beliefs and arguments known to educated people in the first, second and third centuries CE.

There’s a lot to address here. Firstly, as I’ve recently explained, while Christianity did not condemn slavery as a concept, the scholar Murray Vaser has shown that the New Testament clearly condemns the contemporary slave trade, especially by contrasting in Revelation how slaves are treated by Babylon (which represents Rome) to how they’re treated in New Jerusalem — in Babylon, the slaves are sold alongside animals, whereas in New Jerusalem the (God’s) slaves reign eternally as His friends in eternal happiness. On top of Vaser’s argument, a reference to 1 Timothy 1:9-10 can be added, where slave traders themselves are condemned alongside those who kill their parents, the sexually immoral and those who practice “whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine.” Slavery almost completely ended in the European continent during the Middle Ages (the slavery we’re familiar with now is a product of the Atlantic Slave Trade which originated during the 16th century) because Christians believed it was immoral to enslave fellow Christians and, as the pagan numbers dried out as all turned to Christianity, slavery (though not serfdom) almost vanished in medieval Christian Europe. In total contrast, Stoics not only were completely fine with slave trading, but thought that being enslaved was the result of divine providence (just like everything else) and it was completely fine since the slave could still act virtuously. Really?

Secondly, for all the philosophical and abstract talk of the Stoics about this kind of morality, it looks like the Stoics completely failed to apply these principles in practice at all — in fact, one Bassett’s prize Stoics is the philosopher-emperor Marcus Aurelius who reigned between AD 161-180, and under whom the greatest persecution against Christianity by any emperor up until his time (see Paul Keresztes, Marcus Aurelius a Persecutor?, 321-341; Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, pg. 38, 569) took place. After championing Stoicism, Bassett asks us a very kind rhetorical question that he goes on to defend by citation of Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker.

Can it be said that Christianity improved upon this world? Did its spiritual consolations somehow spur society toward a more ethical future, or did they kill the impulse toward truth telling at the heart of Greco-Roman Stoicism, and thereby further derange a society that, by the fourth century, would become worn out by war, pestilence and almost complete political collapse? In championing the latter view, psychologist Steven Pinker has argued that true ethical progress has been a recent historical phenomenon, ultimately resulting from the triumph of rational ethical doctrine over the Catholic and then Calvinist superstitions of Christian dogma that held sway during the Enlightenment. In Pinker’s view of history, the Christian period was one of moral and political stagnation, thanks in part to its reliance on superstitious “revelation.”

Unfortunately, though, it appears that the response of historians to Steven Pinker, who is not a historian by any means, is fatally devastating. Just a few months ago, in the March of 2018, the academic journal Historical Reflections published a full issue of twelve renowned historians and their responses to Pinker’s thesis. Mark Micale, Professor of History at the University of Illinois, and Philip Dwyer, Professor of History and founding Director of the Centre for the History of Violence at the University of Newcastle, scathingly conclude the following in the introductory paper.

Not all of the scholars included in this journal agree on everything, but the overall verdict is that Pinker’s thesis, for all the stimulus it may have given to discussions around violence, is seriously, if not fatally, flawed. The problems that come up time and again are: the failure to genuinely engage with historical methodologies; the unquestioning use of dubious sources; the tendency to exaggerate the violence of the past in order to contrast it with the supposed peacefulness of the modern era; the creation of a number of straw men, which Pinker then goes on to debunk; and its extraordinarily Western-centric, not to say Whiggish, view of the world. (pg. 4)

I would seriously push Bassett to read all twelve essays (I’m not including the introductory paper in these twelve), as they reveal just how seriously dubious much of Pinker’s claims and ‘evidence’ are, especially when it comes to piling all this onto Enlightenment thinking. In other words, Bassett’s citation for his claim is dead wrong and he is either ignoring, downplaying or just blissfully unaware of what the consensus of historians is on the validity of Pinker’s thesis in the actual literature. It doesn’t get any better.

On the other hand, it is also true that while Christianity did codify much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought, it also cast a damnatio memoriae— condemnation of memory—over the rigorously open “pensive gaze” of Marcus Aurelius. In doing so, it closed the gates of history on one of the most creative and morally experimental periods in philosophy. The Roman emperor Justinian took this process to its end point in 529 CE, when he shuttered the Academy in Athens, making the cultural conquest of Christianity complete.

Bassett’s claim that Christianity simply “codif[ied] much of the ethical insight provided by ancient Greek thought” is dead wrong. The majority of scholars for about a generation now think that Christianity is to be strictly identified in its ancient Jewish, not Hellenistic, context. A few scholars, mostly inside the Jesus Seminar, proposed that Jesus was influenced by Cynic philosophers though at this point it’s an essentially refuted hypothesis. I must wonder whether Basset is aware of the (almost) pioneering work of Geza Vermes on establishing Christianity within a strict Jewish context and, as time goes on, the evidence for this continues to stack and the arguments for Hellenistic influence become more and more dubious. For example, the Dead Sea Scroll 4Q521 was only published in the early 1980’s and provides an incredibly close verbal parallel to the messianic expectations of the Jews and what the Gospels say Jesus came to do (see this excellent article on this connection by James Tabor, a Professor of Christian Origins and Ancient Judaism at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte). Just yesterday, I read a recently published paper titled Praising Christ the King: Royal Discourse and Ideology in Revelation 5 in the journal Novum Testamentum, and it demonstrates how the Book of Revelation actually inverts Hellenistic/Roman morality, regarding how Hellenistic monarchs claimed their right to rule through their conquest and the blood they spilled to acquire their power (something the Stoics also probably considered another element of divine providence), whereas Jesus assumes the right to rule through the blood He spilled on the cross. Surely, Richard B. Hays has shown in his paradigm shifting monograph Echoes of Scripture in the Letters of Paul that Christianity, including Paul, operated on a fundamentally Jewish level.


I’ll interrupt in an edit here. Bassett wrote a response to his critics on his blog (which was essentially a response to the comment I wrote under the Quillette article), and he makes a fair point where he makes his claim more clear;

Nevertheless I ought to have drawn a clearer a distinction between Stoic thought and Greco-Roman culture (in the last few centuries BCE and the first few CE) in general, which indeed permitted particular practices that today we rightly condemn and find abhorrent… Still, recent scholarship has shown the indebtedness of early Christian thought to Stoicism, so I don’t believe my position is ridiculous on its face. If I compose a second response, I might try to delve deeper into this topic.

When he claims that recent scholarship has “shown” Christianity is indebted to Stoic thought, I assume he’s referring to Runar Thorsteinsson’s Roman Christianity and Roman Stoicism: A Comparative Study of Ancient Morality (Oxford 2010). However, scholarship has not shown this at all — at the very least, Thorsteinsson’s thesis reopens the debate but this is far from any consensus at this point. I admit to not having read this book yet, though I will not this critical review of the book in Themelios which makes some good points, at least assuming that the author isn’t wholly misrepresenting Thorsteinsson. If at least, I’ll give Bassett that his position isn’t ridiculous on its face.


Bassett also cites Justinian’s closing of Plato’s Academy in the 6th century AD as completing “the cultural conquest of Christianity”. Of course, Bassett seems to leave out the fact that the Plato’s Academy that Justinian closed never went back to Plato at all, rather that Platonic academy was closed when the pagan Romans invaded Athens in the 2nd century BC, and the one Justinian closed was actually just reopened later as a neo-Platonic school for “espousing the mystical doctrines of Plotinus and and Proclus”, as historian James Hannam explains. In fact, it seems to me that if anything, the Hellenistic monarchs were much better at conquering their own culture, since Bassett doesn’t ever mention the fact that, besides the Romans closing down Plato’s Academy in the 2nd century BC, Pharaoh Ptolemy VII Psychon also expelled all scholars out of Alexandria in the 2nd century BC, and as a further insult to education, the last pagan emperor of Rome Julian banned all Christians from being able to teach in the public schools in the 4th century BC. Nor does Bassett mention that the reason why Justinian closed down the Academy was because it was espousing anti-Christian doctrines that was being paid for out of the public purse (see again James Hannam’s article). All this seems, at least to me, to be especially relevant and besides not seeming like a “cultural conquest”, it appears that, with the decline of Greco-Roman paganism, their institutions would have inevitably passed away anyways (not to mention that their philosophies were all so dead wrong about physics that the Condemnations of 1277 of Aristotle’s work at the Arts Faculty in the University of Paris actually had the effect of helping science progress; see Edward Grant, Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Ages, pp. 78–83, 147–48). It’s hard to see an extinction of Greco-Roman culture in the 6th century when this was the same century that Boethius wrote his Consolation of Philosophy, one of the most important and influential treatises of the Middle Ages. What makes Bassett’s claim even more dubious that this was some kind of conquest is the fact that so many of the church fathers in the classical period praised and even applied Greek learning (Origen, Clement of Alexandria, John Damascene, etc) such as that, for example, the most learned Christian of the 3rd century Origen of Alexandria used Platonic terminology to describe the Trinity. The philosophers died, but philosophy lived on. What’s so bad about that?

Is it so hard to imagine that this world could have come into being without the cultural dominance of Christianity? I submit that it is not. The ancient world contained within it the possibility for moral change. But the ancient experiment was aborted because it was eventually deemed unacceptable to practice any doctrine except that espoused by Peter and Paul.

I wonder how the Aristotelian scholars during the 12th century European Renaissance would have felt had Bassett told them that all doctrines other than those espoused by Peter and Paul weren’t permitted to be practiced. Anyways, there’s a whole slew of immediate and enormous steps towards moral progress made immediately when Christianity took precedent that Bassett either considers too unimportant to mention or, at the very least, not conducive to the advancement of his thesis. Once Christians first came into power, gladiator battles and crucifixion were almost immediately banned. The practice of exposing infants, where you would simply dispose of your newborn if you didn’t like them (read this academic paper if you want to know how horrid and widespread this practice was) was rapidly diminished by the Christian people and within a few decades of Christianity becoming the religion of the emperor, it was made illegal (though, like all wicked practices in the ancient world, did not cease from existence).

At around the same time that child exposure was made illegal, the great Christian Basil of Caesarea established the first modern hospital (in contrast to the ancient model), an event which has an importance that cannot be overstated. Albert Jonson, in his monograph A Short History of Medical Ethics (Oxford 2000) writes that the “second great sweep of medical history begins at the end of the fourth century, with the founding of the first Christian hospital at Caesarea in Cappadocia” (pg. 13). In the final paragraph of Bassett’s article, he writes “To posit that the ancient world, deprived of Christianity, contained within it no moral prospect is to deny history.” But to claim that anyone has argued that no moral prospect existed in the pagan world is a strawman. Though Bassett likes to tell us about Stoicism, which certainly was much better than any other moral system among the pagans at the time, in its over 600 years of existence since Zeno of Elea founded it in the 3rd century BC to the time Constantine became emperor, it seems to have failed to change the system in any way at all. In contrast, as we’ve seen, the effects Christianity had on the world were immediate, even if we didn’t get to the present level of tolerance and sophistication until a long time. Interestingly enough, the final pagan emperor Julian himself shows us the moral schism between Christian and pagan morality. Julian, unable to comprehend why, chastised his fellow pagans to become more generous, as the Christians simply were far outpacing them in donations and help to those in need. There certainly was a moral schism, and Bassett should stop trying to downplay it and, like Tom Holland (a fellow non-believer he targets in the article, perhaps Bassett should have at least let Holland publish the book he’s working on when it comes to this topic instead of trying to stomp around on an argument he doesn’t yet know), should start trying to be very grateful for this schism. We are heirs of Christ, rather than Caesar. And thank God for that.

Government of the Roman Republic, Explained

OK, I’m going to write a quick post (mostly for myself, also for others) on how the government of the Roman Republic functioned, in the most simple way that I can. If you’re looking for the ins and outs of this highly complex entity with its reforms inlined with a detailed explanation of the Conflict of the Orders, then this article is not going to help you — it is a very, very short summary considering the sheer vastness of this topic. If you are looking for the ins and outs, something that’ll work much better for you is Andrew Lintott’s The constitution of the Roman Republic (Oxford 1999). If you know how to download things for free from Scribd without buying a subscription by uploading your own files to the website, you can easily download the book from here. Anyways, the following is a pretty dense summary of the basic functioning of the government of the Roman Republic followed by a long quote from David Gwynn’s The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford 2012) that gives some more depth to these things. I’ve already created this summary, and I’ve been slowly expanding it ever since (so there’s a good chance I’ll continue updating it, though it’ll never become an essay). Quick note before you read * in ancient Rome, patricians were the elite families, whereas the plebs (plebeians) were everyone else (as long as they were a citizen). Anyways, here ya go;

The government of the Roman Republic. There were, at the top, the elected magistrates (the ranks being consuls, praetors, aediles, and quaestors in that order [plebs could only first become consuls in the 360s and ensured one consulship in 342] plus censors) and the Senate (who served as advisors to the consul). When someone completed their term as a magistrate, they would enter the Senate for the rest of their lives.

The government also had four assemblies — three comitia, and one council. With the exception of the Curia, these assemblies engaged in legislation. There was the Centuriate Assembly, dividing the citizens by centuries (193 in the Servian organization from 509-241 BC, 373 in the organization of 241-27 BC) and the Centuriate Assembly elected praetors, consuls, and censors. It approved laws and made declarations of war. There was the Tribal Assembly, dividing the citizens by 35 tribes (31 urban, 4 rural) and electing quaestors, aediles, and tribunes. The final one was the Curiate Assembly, which originally elected consuls in the Roman Kingdom (the only elected magistrate at the time), but when the Republic was created, most of its power went to the Centuriate and Tribal assemblies, and later only conferred elected magistrates their imperium (authority) and authorized adoptions. Next, there was the council, the Plebeian Council which elected the Tribunes of the Plebs. Whereas a comitia was open to all Roman citizens, only specific groups could join a council. In terms of the Plebeian Council, only plebs could join (thus excluding patricians).

The final part of the Republican Roman government was the Tribunes. The most important tribunes were the Tribune of the Plebs and the military tribunes. The Tribune of the Plebs could veto the decisions of consuls and other magistrates that had to do with the plebs, and any attack on the person of the Tribune of the Plebs was illegal. The Tribune of the Plebs could propose plebiscites (referendums) which the Plebeian Council would vote on, binding on the population. The Tribune of the Plebs along with the Centuriate Assembly essentially had sovereign power, but in practice almost always followed the guidance of the Senate.

“The magistrates were the officials elected annually from the nobility to run the daily business of government. First and foremost were two consuls who held the imperium (executive power) once wielded by the king. During their year in office, the consuls were the political and military heads of the state. They presided over the Senate, proposed laws if required, and commanded armies in the field. The consulship was usually the pinnacle of a Roman noble’s career, and the Roman calendar dated each year by the names of those who held this highest office. The hatred of autocracy that had inspired the expulsion of Tarquin Superbus, however, remained strong. The election of two consuls prevented any one man from having too much power, and the consulship was held only for a single year. Below the consuls were lesser magistrates, again elected annually. The major offices were those of praetor, aedile, quaestor, and tribune of the plebs. The praetor was the only magistrate apart from the consul to hold imperium, the right to command armies and preside over the Senate. The authority of the praetor was inferior to that of the consul, and the praetor’s main role was civil and later provincial jurisdiction. Below the praetors were the aediles, who were responsible for the urban maintenance of Rome, including roads, water supply, food, and games. The most junior magistrates were the quaestors, who performed financial and legal duties. The exact roles and numbes of these three lesser magistracies expanded over time as the growth of Roman power increased the burden on the Roman state. Tribunes of the plebs differed somewhat from the other magistrates. The office of tribune appeared after the First Secession of the Plebs in 494 BC and was originally the only office open to wealthy plebeians. Ten tribunes were elected each year, and their intended role was to defend plebeians from unjust actions by patrician magistrates. For this reason the tribunes held considerable powers, including the right to intervene in support of a citizen being arrested by a magistrate, the right to veto the action of another magistrate, and the right to propose legislation in the Concilium Plebis. In theory the person of a tribune was sacrosanct, although this did not always protect those who used the office to pursue radical policies, most famously the Gracchi brothers of the 2nd century. The other slightly unusual office was that of censor. Two censors were elected approximately every five years, but they held office only until they had completed their functions and never for longer than 18 months. Their primary role was to revise the list of citizens and assess both their property and their morality. This duty included a review of the Senate, into which they could enroll new members and remove any found guilty of improper behaviour. The censorship was therefore a prestigious office and was almost invariably held by ex-consuls. The most notorious censor of the Republican period was Cato the Elder (also known as Cato the Censor), who held the office in 184 BC. Cato strongly believed that the Republic of his day was declining from the moral standards of the early Romans. As censor he expelled from the Senate those whom he regarded as flouting traditional Roman behaviour, condemning one senator who had embraced his wife by daylight in the presence of their daughter. These offices together formed the cursus honorum, the sequence of magistracies that a leading Roman noble might hold. In a conventional career, a man held his first office as a quaestor at a minimum age of around 28. He then became either an aedile or a tribune of the plebs, before seeking election as praetor. Those of sufficient renown could then aspire to the consulship and later perhaps stand as censor. A gap of two years was expected between the possession of each office, and in the 1st century, when age requirements were imposed for the major magistracies, they were set at 39 for praetor and 42 for consul. These expectations could not always be enforced.” (David Gwynn, The Roman Republic: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press 2012), 20-22)

Is the Bible wrong about bats being birds?

This is going to be a short post, but it’s interesting to me and easily captures how easy it is to address some of the ‘challenges’ to the veracity of the Bible. Apparently, one scientific error in the Bible is describing bats as birds, even though today, we understand that bats are mammals and that these are two separate taxonomic classifications. Modern science suggests bats aren’t birds.

Leviticus 11:13-19: These you shall regard as detestable among the birds. They shall not be eaten; they are an abomination: the eagle, the vulture, the osprey, 14 the buzzard, the kite of any kind; 15 every raven of any kind; 16 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 17 the little owl, the cormorant, the great owl, 18 the water hen, the desert owl, the carrion vulture, 19 the stork, the heron of any kind, the hoopoe, and the bat.

Is the Bible wrong? Well, I’ll leave the answer to this up to a user on the Hermeneutics Stackexchange website where this question was raised named Mark Edward.

The Hebrew word [for birds] was used for winged creatures that weren’t insects. Applying ‘modern science’ to an ancient culture’s classifications of the world is anachronistic.

The Tyndale Bible Dictionary reads:

Modern scientists classify organisms on the basis of internal and external structure, but the biblical writers generally classified organisms according to habitat.1


1 Editors: Walter A. Elwell, Philip Wesley Comfort, Tyndale Bible Dictionary, p.215.

That was easy. Ancients called bats birds because they classified animals with a different system than we use. Another “error” is just a classification difference between our current world and the world of the ancients (like the supposed biblical error on insects having four legs).

 

Revelation 18 Condemns the Slave Trade?

Just two months ago in June the most recent issue of the journal New Testament Studies an interesting paper appeared titled Bodies and Souls: The Case for Reading Revelation 18.13 as a Critique of the Slave Trade by the scholar Murray Vaser. Now, this paper isn’t arguing that Revelation or the Bible condemns slavery as a concept, it’s clear that the Bible considers it possible for slaves to be treated in a way that wouldn’t be immoral. I, myself, will probably write out a fuller post on slavery eventually and its relationship to the Bible (far more complicated than the secularists believe, as everything about religion usually is). At multiple points in past scholarship, many scholars have suggested that this verse (Rev. 18:13) contains a critique of the slave trade, though this paper is the first full defense and articulation of such a position. Vaser quotes earlier scholars who’ve postulated this position, writing;

As Richard Bauckham explains, ‘[John] is pointing out that slaves are not mere animal carcasses to be bought and sold as property but are human beings’. Pierre Prigent adds: ‘Our author obviously sees in this [i.e. the slave trade] the height of the capital’s sinfulness’ (pp. 397-398).

Vaser argues that Revelation 18:13 criticizes the slave trade of Rome (being represented as Babylon in Revelation). Here’s what the text says;

Revelation 18:11-13: “The merchants of the earth will weep and mourn over her because no one buys their cargoes anymore— 12 cargoes of gold, silver, precious stones and pearls; fine linen, purple, silk and scarlet cloth; every sort of citron wood, and articles of every kind made of ivory, costly wood, bronze, iron and marble; 13 cargoes of cinnamon and spice, of incense, myrrh and frankincense, of wine and olive oil, of fine flour and wheat; cattle and sheep; horses and carriages; and human beings sold as slaves.

The Greek translated as “human beings sold as slaves” (σωμάτων καὶ ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων) in the Greek reads “bodies and souls” — since these bodies and souls are being sold as cargoes to Babylon, the text is clearly referring to the slave trade (which is why current translations translate it as such). The phrase “bodies and souls”, as Vaser shows, refers to a single item, not two separate items, and was a common idiom at the time for a human being — bodies and souls are a reference to the material and immaterial components of a person (my body, the physical part of me, and my soul, my non-physical part). Revelation is emphasizing the final item on the list with a double-expression, which signifies that Babylon is not only selling bodies but the souls of people (Craig Koester, Roman Slave Trade, pp. 771-2). Vaser notes that the only time that this phrase refers to the slave trade in Greek literature elsewhere is in the context of a criticism of it. Vaser writes;

Consider the only passage in the LCL where the notion of selling the ‘souls of persons’ is entertained. In the biography by Philostratus, Apollonius recounts his ‘noblest’ deed as the captain of a merchant vessel. While docked in port, Apollonius was approached by Phoenician pirates who offered him 10,000 drachmas if he would enable them to take the ship. They promised they would spare his life and the life of any of his friends. Apollonius agreed and even made the pirates swear in a temple to keep their end of the bargain. That night, however, he secretly set sail and escaped to sea. At this point, Apollonius’ interlocutor objects: ‘Why, Apollonius, do you consider those to be acts of justice?’ Apollonius replies: ‘Yes, and of humanity too, for I think it a combination of many virtues not to sell human souls [μὴἀποδόσθαι ψυχὰς ἀνθρώπων], not to barter away merchants’ property and to show yourself above money when you are a sailor’ (Philostratus, Vit. Apoll. 3.21.1–24.3; trans. Jones, LCL). These words, which have been overlooked in the discussion of Rev 18.13, demonstrate that even in ancient times an author could expect his audience to recognise the act of selling ψυχαὶἀνθρώπων as an obvious evil. (pp. 402-404)

Vaser points out that scholars have shown that Babylon in Revelation represents an antithetical and counterbalance to New Jerusalem in Revelation. He notes Gordon Campbell, another scholar that has listed twenty-three antitheticals in Revelation between Babylon and New Jerusalem in almost all of its structures, but Vaser notes that there’s just one more antithetical that Campbell left out — the treatment between slaves in Babylon and New Jerusalem. “In Babylon, slaves are sold alongside sheep and horses (Rev. 18:13); in the New Jerusalem, slaves reign as kings and friends of God” (pp. 405-6).

Vaser takes important note of the critique of Babylon’s extensive luxuries and commerce in Revelation 17-18, such as its abundance of gold and silver, pearls, linen, silk, metals, spices, and food. He notes this in context of the writings of Philo of Alexandria in the mid 1st century AD, a Jewish philosopher, and his description of the Essenes living at Qumran — while describing their rejection of all luxuries of society in favor of a moral natural subsistence and way of life, he mentions that slavery is also rejected as one of the luxuries components. The following is Philo of Alexandria’s description of Essene society in his writing Every Good Man is Free;

They do not hoard gold and silver or acquire great slices of land because they desire the revenues therefrom, but provide what is needed for the necessary requirements of life … They judge frugality with contentment to be, as indeed it is, an abundance of wealth. As for darts, javelins, daggers, or the helmet, breastplate or shield, you could not find a single manufacturer of them, nor, in general, any person making weapons or engines or plying any industry concerned with war, nor, indeed, any of the peaceful kind, which easily lapse into vice, for they have not the vaguest idea of commerce either wholesale or retail or marine, but pack the inducements to covetousness off in disgrace. Not a single slave is to be found among them, but all are free, exchanging services with each other, and they denounce the owners of slaves, not merely for their injustice in outraging the law of equality, but also for their impiety in annulling the statute of Nature, who mother-like has born and reared all men alike, and created them genuine brothers, not in mere name, but in very reality, though this kinship has been put to confusion by the triumph of malignant covetousness, which has wrought estrangement instead of affinity and enmity instead of friendship. (quoted in Vaser, pg. 406)

On pg. 407, Vaser does an excellent job at further highlighting the relationship between luxury and covetousness to slavery in the ancient world, such as, for example, the mythic prehistoric Golden Age described in Greek literature at a time where no commerce or luxury yet existed, but all possessions were held in common and all men were held as equals without slaves or masters, similar to the idealistic state of New Jerusalem where people will no longer be sold as slaves to other humans, and all humans will be treated with eternal dignity of solely belonging to God.

Overall, I found the paper very interesting and convincing as well. Vaser provides a note before beginning his analysis about his biases — he’s a Protestant that would be pleased to see a critique of slavery in the Bible — and rather from detracting from his credibility, I find this is intellectually honest and allows anyone reading the paper to see and evaluate his evidence on its own merits. Definitely a recommended read, and provides an interesting addition to the scholarship and understanding of the biblical conception of slavery.

BibViz Bible Contradictions Debunked

So there’s a website called bibviz.com, a popular website among atheists that gets displayed by people such as Sam Harris in some of their talks that provides an interactive display of some 492 biblical contradictions (and a few scientific and moral crimes on the side). Of course, I’ve viewed this resource and it seems to be a joke among theist circles due to the high frequency of mistakes it makes. I’ve been increasingly looking at this website and I think I can provide the most accurate summary to date on the problems in the methodology of bibviz. The only proposition I’m setting forth here is that it makes so many errors so that the mere citation of this resource must be invalid in any serious conversation on the Bible itself. Here’s the summary I’ve produced of why this resource is indefensible. I expect to update this page in the future.

1. Bibviz verses all display the KJV Bible translation from the year 1611. Assuming that the people who created bibviz aren’t KJV onlyists, it’s strange to display the verses of the KJV instead of another translation of the Bible that isn’t hundreds of years old, based on faulty manuscripts and an inferior knowledge of the Greek and Hebrew languages (the KJV was translated before Koine Greek, the dialect of the NT was even discovered in the late 19th century — scholars used to think the New Testament was written in “Holy Ghost Greek”). See here for an article by Daniel B. Wallace, one of the leading textual critics of the Bible, on the problems with the KJV translation. The reason why bibviz doesn’t display alternative translations is because this would compromise a number of its contradictions, like whether God repents (contradiction 363). The verses that say God does repent are translated very differently in more modern, scholarly translations — the original Hebrew word translated as repent is נָחַם, which has a variety of meanings, such as being pitied, sorrowed, consoling oneself, having compassion, feeling sorry, or repenting. Better translations like the NIV and NRSV don’t translate the text to say God repented at all, calling into question the existence of this contradiction. The same is with the contradiction on God creating evil (154), better translations simply use more accurate translations like God creates, not evil, but ‘destruction’. Unless you’re a KJV onlyist, relax.

2. The list is mostly the product of the bibviz authors defunct understanding of the biblical text. The vast majority of these contradictions are sheerly misrepresentations of what the text says, ignorance of context, ignorance of a whole slew of scenarios where the two verses can be correct at the same time (since a contradiction is merely when two things cannot be true at the same time). One obvious example is the contradiction on how many sons Absalom had (9), one verse saying three, the other having Absalom decrying the fact that he will die with no sons to carry his name. And yet, it could easily be the case that Absalom’s children simply all died, a flat obvious possibility in an age of extremely high child mortality, disease, violence, etc. A second example, which simply makes no sense, is this one on whether or not Haman is an Agagite (17). One verse says yes. The other verse says absolutely nothing about Haman or Agagites and simply says the Amalekites were ordered to be killed. What this has to do with Haman or the Agagites (an unknown group never mentioned outside of their association with Haman in Esther 3:1) is anyones guess. It even bungles up on killing, claiming that God commands against generically killing in the Bible, when in fact the commandment is about murder. In an academic article, scholar Don Garlington writes “Originally and literally, the sixth commandment forbade the unlawful taking of human life, as confirmed by the Hebrew and Greek of these parent texts, לא תרצח and οὐ ϕονεύσεις, both of which denote homicide rather than the generic taking of life” (“”You Fool!” Matthew 5: 22.” Bulletin for Biblical Research (2010): 63).

3. Literal vs. non-literal texts are another big chunk. One supposed contradiction is whether or not man (221) was created before or after animals based on Genesis 1 and 2. But scholars have known for a long time now that Genesis 1-11, the primeval history is (despite how uncomfortable it might make you feel) an allegorical, archetypal account that portrays Israel’s understandings of God, man and sin, and this is true regardless of anyones personal feelings on whether or not they’re literal, Christian or otherwise. Hence, this supposed contradiction, and all others that require any material from Genesis 1-11 (which make up a number of them) are irrelevant. To this, we can add virtually any contradiction adduced from the books of Job, Revelation and possibly Daniel, the two (three?) other metaphorical biblical books (in fact, Revelation is so bluntly the most metaphorical text in the entire Bible yet bibviz is enough of a dolt to think the mention of dragons in Revelation is literal). Indeed, the author simply seems to be flat unaware that these aren’t literal texts. To this, we can add all allegorical verses outside of Genesis 1-11, Job and Revelation also counted as contradictory.

4. Playing off of the previous point a little, I just want to mention how many people have already shattered so many of the supposed contradictions of bibviz. One great example is contradictingbiblecontradictions.com. If anyone gives you a link to bibviz, just post a link to this website in response. I don’t agree with all the refutations it makes, but it literally contains a rebuttal to all 492 supposed contradictions and for the majority of them, they get taken down. Amusingly enough, many of the contradictions on the bibviz website are actually taken down in their own comment sections (make sure to give the comments a check on any of the bibviz contradictions to see if someone has already refuted it there).

5. The last criticism I’ll point out is that some of these contradictions actually come from texts that aren’t in the Bible at all, only the Apocrypha, such as how Antiochus died (33) based on verses from 1 and 2 Maccabees, which I certainly wouldn’t recognize in the canon. Maybe a Catholic would, since the Catholic canon has an additional six apocryphal books, though this quickly becomes irrelevant for someone whose, say, a Protestant, Evangelical or just plain non-denominational (who now make up 1 in 6 Americans) like myself where books like these aren’t part of the canon of the Bible at all.

Did Christians Build a DEATH CAMP at Scythopolis?

So I was having a conversation the other day about religion and peace throughout history, and the dude essentially brought my eyes to a laundry list of supposed heinous crimes of Christianity after the Constantine converted to the religion, a list which I was able to find on the sprawling chaos that is jesusneverexisted.com. The laundry list, which you can read here, was almost immediately high on my suspicions given the fact that the website promoting it is a paragon of historical incompetence. After some more research, I found that the list from the jesusneverexisted website actually comes from a book titled Demolish Them by Vlasis Rassias. This book is so obscure that I can’t even find it on Amazon, Google Books or even its publisher. It appears to have been self-published in the Greek language in 1994. Anyways, since some of the claims are so wrong and it’s good to have available refutations of these kinds of claims, I’ve decided to write this post about some of the incredible falsehoods promulgated by the article.

The first crime it lists is, apparently, Christians denouncing pagan worship. The author then quickly reveals his approval for the internet myth that the Council of Nicaea of AD 325 established the divinity of Christ (it didn’t, what came out of this council was a creed, 20 canons and a letter to the Church of Alexandria, all of which you can read here). This, however, is where the stakes elevate. Very soon, Rassias claims the following;

359 In Skythopolis, Syria, the Christians organise the first death camps for the torture and executions of the arrested non-Christians from all around the empire. [bold not mine]

That’s right, during the reign of Constantius II (r. AD 337-361), Christians established a death camp for anyone who wasn’t a Christian (presumably Rassias wants us thinking of the communist gulags and Nazi concentration camps at this point). This, of course, is pure fiction. I tracked down the source for the events at Scythopolis in AD 359 and the account is described by Ammianus Marcellinus, a 4th century soldier and historian in his Res Gestae, 19.12.1-20 (Book 19, Chapter 12, Sections 1-20). The account is too long to quote in its entirety (you can read it here), but thankfully, the first two sections are enough to rule out the preposterous claim that a death camp was established here for non-Chrsitians. In fact, it was a tribunal established by the Roman secretary Paulus on the direction of Constantius II to try people for treason against the emperor. Ammianus writes;

Yet in the midst of these anxieties, as if it were prescribed by some ancient custom, in place of civil wars the trumpets sounded for alleged cases of high treason; and to investigate and punish these there was sent that notorious state-secretary Paulus, often called Tartareus. He was skilled in the. work of bloodshed, and just as a trainer of gladiators seeks profit and emolument from the traffic in funerals and festivals, so did he from the rack or the executioner. [2] Therefore, as his determination to do harm was fixed and obstinate, he did not refrain from secret fraud, devising fatal charges against innocent persons, provided only he might continue his pernicious traffic. (Res Gestae 19.12.1-2)

Paulus was actually given the epithet “the chain” in his time for his renowned brutality and history of fabricating evidence in order to convict innocent persons. Not only isn’t this a non-Christian death camp, but at one point a pagan philosopher was brought in to Scythopolis and tortured on accusations of making sacrifice to the deities in order to grant him eventual imperial power (that is, the authority of the emperor), but Paulus was eventually convinced that this wasn’t his motivation for sacrificing and so let him go.

Also Demetrius, surnamed Cythras, a philosopher of advanced years, it is true, but hardy of body and mind, being charged with offering sacrifice several times, could not deny it; he declared, however, that he had done so from early youth for the purpose of propitiating the deity, not of trying to reach a higher station by his investigations; for he did not know of anyone who had such aspirations. Therefore, after being long kept upon the rack, supported by his firm confidence he fearlessly made the same plea without variation; whereupon he was allowed to go without further harm to his native city of Alexandria. (Res Gestae, 19.12.12)

Thus, it’s self-evident that not being a Christian doesn’t earn the death penalty here. So the article is wrong. There’s a big problem with refuting the crazy laundry list of Christian atrocities that I haven’t mentioned yet, as well. It simply offers no sources for where the information is coming from. It’s possible this is because the scarcest analysis of the sources, such as what we’ve seen above, would refute the myths about Christian history that it makes claim of. For example, it claims that in 335, the emperor Constantine (r. AD 306-337 AD) ordered the crucifixion of all people who claimed to be able to do magic or tell the future (this was common among pagans back then), however the 5th century historian Sozomen (in his Ecclesiastical History I, 8.13) as well as possibly the 4th century historian Aurelius Victor (De Caesaribus, 41.4) both say that Constantine banned the practice of crucifixion. It is true that it was recorded by Ammianus that even small and harmless practices of magic were punished with death under Constantius II, but historians discount his account on this as highly unreliable since, of course, he was a pagan himself who seriously hated Constantius II and was trying to evoke the sense of a reign of terror during Constantius II’s reign. Matthew Dickie, Emeritus Professor of Classics at the University of Illinois in Chicago in an analysis of how magic and soothsaying was treated during the reigns of Constantine, Constantius II and Valens concluded that the emperors cared little for harmless acts of magic and were more concerned with pagans trying to use magic to harm others and learn of the future (which, by the way, was used to try to get prophecies for the death of the emperor) on pp. 242-247 in his book Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World (2003, you can access this section of the book here).

The list claims that on the same year of 335, Sopatrus, a pagan philosopher was “martyred”. Eunapius, a 4th century author in his Lives of the Sophists provides a a lengthy account of Sopatrus and how he met his death. Apparently, the city of Constantinople, due to its size, required enormous sums of grain in order to be sustained from the surrounding lands of Rome, including Egypt, Asia, Phoenicia and Syria. However, the city itself, so Eunapius says, is not well fitted for the arrival of ships to transport these grains unless a strong wind blows south. At one point, as Constantinople lacked these winds and it was becoming increasingly difficult for grain to arrive at Constantinople, and since the supply of food began declining to the city, Eunapius says that Constantine was no longer able to satisfy his people. Several men, envious of Sopatrus — since he was a philosopher Constantine greatly enjoyed — took this opportunity to claim that Sopatrus was using his magic to scatter the winds and reach imperial power for himself. Constantine, convinced, had Sopatrus executed. This sounds much less like pagan martyrdom (if Constantine had disliked paganism so much, it’s difficult to understand why he had Sopatrus as one of his favorite philosophers to begin with) and more to do with an insecure emperors doubts. Roman emperors, throughout their history, have a tediously lengthy record of killing anyone they suspect with defection in any form (for example, Claudius [r. AD 41-54] killed 35 senators during his reign). Once again, it’s very difficult to evaluate any of the crackpot claims on that website simply because of the fact that it offers zero sources for anything it’s saying. That, on its own, is enough to discount the list.