Friday, March 17, 2006

Five theories

If you don't really care about long-dead kings, you might as well skip this entry...

One of the joys of the Bible is its errors. It seems a funny thing for a fundamentalist to say, for we're supposed to believe that the Bible as we have it today (or at least as it was in the original manuscripts) is without error. Perhaps it was, yet it is a fact that every manuscript upon which our bibles are based contains differences from every other, and there is a complete discipline, lower textual criticism, that compares passages in one copy to the passages in the others to discover what the original said. As a result the "final final" text of the Bible always has a bit of uncertainty. Not much, but some.

Does that bother me? Not particularly. I believe that the Bible is authoritative, whether 'perfect' in the version I have or not. And the odds are higher that I will misinterpret some passage - either through translation issues or misunderstanding of culture or context - that is well-attested than that I will come across in insoluble moral dilemma in the few percent of biblical passages that are in question. For all intents and purposes, I take is as read. But there are still issues, especially where several passages cover the same material and seem to disagree. It's the old problem with watches: a man with one watch always knows the time; a man with two is never sure. That uncertainty provides no end of subjects upon which an anal-retentive wannabe historian like me can spend his Friday nights.

2Chron 22:2 and 2Kings 8:26 are one of those problems, for in the first, King Ahaziah is said to begin his one-year reign at 42, yet in the latter, it's said to be 22. As is often the case, there are a multitude of possible solutions, one of them being that there is a genuine copyist error here.

There are some 5 theories that I've located thus far that attempt to explain the discrepancy:

1) That some copyist made an error, since the Hebrew letters representing the numbers ‘22’ and ‘42’ are very similar. This is supported by the fact that a lot of manuscripts say '22' instead of '42.'

2) ‘42’ is the age of Ahaziah’s mother, Athaliah, since she was the power behind his throne.

3) ‘Began to reign’ refers not to his actual ascension to the kingship, but to an earlier annointing, so he was annointed at 22, but began to reign at 42, his reign lasting a single year.

4) There were 2 Ahaziahs, one twenty years older than the other, who was the son of a previous marriage of Athaliah.

5) That ‘42 years’ here refers to the House of Omri, not the actual age of Ahaziah.

We shall deal with each of these in turn:

Copyist error: it is possible, given the nature of the Hebrew numbering system, that the original Chron passage has been corrupted in some manuscripts. This, however, should be an answer of last resort, given the existence of other ‘strange’ numbers (e.g. 2Chron 16:1, which I'll address below) which have inconsistencies on the surface, but which can be understood with a little digging. Secondly, the fact that many mss have ‘22’ instead of ‘42’ is just as easily explained as a ‘fix’ to bring the Chronicles passage into conformity with the Kings one as they are a true witness to the original reading.

Ahaziah's mother: This is the view held by Poole, and is also possible, since the Hebrew phrase literally says Ahaziah is ‘the son of forty two years’. So what is ‘forty two years’ but his mother mentioned in the same passage? I find it unlikely, for lack of other verses which follow this pattern, but it does illustrate the difficulties inherent in translation from one culture to another.

Annointed at 22, King at 42: This can be thrown right out, as is it ignores the fact that both versions plainly say he reigned one year. If he was annointed at 22 and died at 43, he should have reigned 21 years. Furthermore, the text says nothing about annointing, but in both passages simply that ‘he began to reign’. If Ahaziah did begin to reign at 42 after being annointed at 21, then he was 2 years older than his father Jehoram who was ‘thirty two years old when he began to reign, and reigned in Jerusalem eight years’ (2Chron 21:20), dying at the age of forty. Clearly, 42 cannot be the age at which he was made king.

2 Ahaziahs: This theory is created to get around the obvious problem, with a strange twist: it is promoted by a few KJV-only people, who cannot (from their understanding that the KJV is ‘inpired in translation’) understand the 42 to be anything other than Ahaziah’s actual age, since the KJV says ‘Forty and two years old was Ahaziah’. The argument is that the Kings passage talks about one Ahaziah, and the Chron passage talks about his older half-brother. The problem is, of course, that both passages are obviously talking about the same person, unless we believe that there are two kings in Jerusalem with the same name, the same parents, who go to battle with the same ally in the same battle, and both visit that ally when he is wounded. These kings are also both killed by the same man (Jehu) in the same place at the same time, yet neither of the Kings/Chronicles authors mentions the other. I think this theory can be discounted on the grounds that these passages and history (e.g. Josephus, ‘Antiquities’ IX/vi/2-3) both only mention one Ahaziah, and the contortions we need to go through to justify it are unsubstantiated in the text and history.

House of Omri: This theory goes to the Hebrew to discover that the phrase which troubles us is an ambiguous one, that Ahaziah was ‘the son of forty two years’ (as mentioned above). Now, looking at the house of Omri, from whom he was descended through his mother, we find that Omri reigned 6 years (1King 16:23), Ahab his son 22 years (1Kings 16:29), Ahaziah his son 2 years (1Kings 22:51), and Joram his son 12 years (2Kings 3:1), for a total of 42 years (6+22+2+12). So a ‘son of 42 years’ could easily mean ‘a son of the dynasty 42 years old’, i.e. Omri, which he proves in verse three where Ahaziah ‘walked in the ways of the house of Ahab’ (who was the son of Omri). A clue to this is that his mother is called ‘the daughter of Omri’ in 22:2, though given the fact that Omri is dead almost 40 years, she is probably his granddaughter. Ahaziah, then, is called a true son of Omri, not only in descent but in morality, and the forty-two years here belong to that house, not his own life.

Now, as you might have noticed from my treatment of Abram's genealogy below, when I find an issue, I find it helpful to see if there is a parallel passage that has the same issue. In this case, like that case, there is: 2Chron 16:1, which states: "In the six and thirtieth year of the reign of Asa Baasha king of Israel came up against Judah, and built Ramah, to the intent that he might let none go out or come in to Asa king of Judah."

However, that gives us a problem, for "In the third year of Asa king of Judah began Baasha the son of Ahijah to reign over all Israel in Tirzah, twenty and four years." — 1Kings 15:33

and "In the twenty and sixth year of Asa king of Judah began Elah the son of Baasha to reign over Israel in Tirzah, two years". — 1Kings 16:6

So if Baasha began to reign in the third year of Asa and reigned 24 years, then he was dead and his son Elah took his place in Asa’s 26th year, how then did Baasha come against Asa 10 years later?

The answer is, he didn’t. 2Chron 16:1 says 36 years, which is made up of the ’Kingdom of Asa’, which is the Kingdom of Judah counting from the time of the division. Rehoboam reigned 17 years (2Chron 12:13), Abijah 3 years (2Chron 13:2), and Asa 15 (2Chron 15:10), making 35 years (17+3+15). In Asa’s 15th year (15:10), Asa entered into a covenant with God (15:12), and in the next year, Baasha declared war on him ‘that he might let none go out or come in to Asa’ (16:1). Therefore, the ‘thirty sixth year’ of Asa is counted as the thirty sixth year of his family’s rule, not of his personal rule.

Frankly, I think that the final solution is the correct one, and the author of Chronicles, having a more 'long-term' and 'theological' approach than the drier approach of the author of Kings, approaches his numbering to illustrates dynasties more heavily than individuals. Such is not evident from a newspaper reading, of course, but it does provide a chance to wrestle with the hidden treasures that can be found in God's word.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

There's no reply at all

The Skeptic's Annotated Bible notes a contradiction:
Acts 7:4 says that Abram didn't leave Haran until after his father died.

Gen.11:26 says that Abram's father was 70 years old when Abram was born, and Abram's father lived to be 205 (11:32). Clearly, then, Abram was at least 135 when he left Haran.

Yet Gen.12:4 says he left Haran when he was only 75.
Most interesting is their note that they have "Christian Responses (none yet)". Allow me to provide one.

SAB correctly notes an issue that bothered me when I first studied the genealogies of Genesis. Yes, a straight-forward newspaper reading of Genesis gives us an issue to deal with.

Before I deal with it, let me say that there is the possibility that Stephen, whose speech is quoted in Acts 7:4, is just flat out wrong in his rendering of Jewish history. Luke, the author of Acts, is recording for posterity a speech given by Stephen, and as a recorder is only responsible for ensuring that the recording is accurate, not that the original material is. A parallel example might be the New York Times reporting that a politician said something that turns out to be incorrect. Does that make the NYT wrong? Not at all. So long as their recording of the statement is accurate, then the NYT is not in error. Such a politician DID say such a thing, and it's the politician, not the NYT, on the hook when that statement turns out incorrect. Same for Acts. There are no guarantees that every statement recorded is accurate. But I do expect that Luke has accurately recorded what happened and what was said. I'll let the others work out that theology.

Now I don't believe that Stephen is wrong; it's just a possibility that must be admitted before we start.

But here's what I think is really going on here:

The SAB misquotes (or at least truncates) Gen 11:26 when they say that "And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram." with a period at the end. What it actually says is that "And Terah lived seventy years, and begat Abram, Nahor, and Haran." That might seem a small thing, but I think the existence of the other names in the genealogy is significant because it parallels another passage with a similar problem (Gen 5:32) which I'll examine first and then back therefrom into my solution. Though the vast majority of the genealogies name one son (at age x, y fathered z), these two both allege (on the surface) triplets. We shall see that beneath the surface we have clues that explain what's happening.

Gen 5:31 says that, "And Noah was five hundred years old: and Noah begat Shem, Ham, and Japheth," leading us to think that he had triplets that year. But such is not the case. Ham is noted as the youngest (Gen 9:24) and Japeth as the eldest (Gen 10:21) and that might be fine for triplets, except for this:

"Shem was an hundred years old, and begat Arphaxad two years after the flood" -- Gen 11:10.

If Shem celebrated his centennial 2 years after the flood, then he was 97 when the flood came. Yet Noah is said to have fathered Shem at 500 with the flood at 600 (Gen 7:6) so Shem should have been 100, not 97, when it came. The fact that Shem is not the eldest give us the possibility that the 100 years was the age of the elder brother only, and that the author did not bother to give us as much detail as we'd like.

We have a similar pattern in Abram's case: Abram, Nahor, and and Haran all born in the same year (from a straightforward reading). Yet it's likely that Haran is older than Nahor, since Nahor marries Haran's daughter (Gen 11:29). If, as Josephus alleges, Abram's wife Sarai is also Haran's daughter, then Haran is likely older than Abram as well.

In each case we have these similarities:
  • An allegation of triplets.
  • The person in the main Jewish line is named first.
  • The person named first is not the eldest
  • The person named first has demonstrable chronology problems if alleged to be the eldest.
So the simple solution is this: the author of Genesis, in cases where only one son is part of the story (c.f. Gen 5:4-28 for a whole busload of them) the age "at birth" is the age of the father when that specific son was born and the others are subsumed under a note that he had "other sons and daughters". In the two cases where multiple sons come into the story they are named together, but the age "at birth" is the age of the father at the birth of the eldest of the three.

Applied to Abe, that means Abe probably left Haran at 75, meaning he was born when Terah was 130, the 70 referring to the birth of Abe's brother Haran, Terah's firstborn.

Is it the correct solution? I don't know. Does it fit the data? I think it does. Does it resolve the contradiction? Yes. If it is a correct reading then Genesis is not in error, we have simply failed to understand the method of the author. I think that's very likely, and in a lot more cases than just genealogies. There are many, many passages where we are assuming that a newspaper-like reading explains everything even as it gives us seemingly insurmountable problems.

But those are a speculation for another day.

Friday, March 10, 2006

Still Looking

Live Science reports on a habit that dies hard:

High on Mt. Ararat in eastern Turkey, there is a baffling mountainside "anomaly," a feature that one researcher claims may be something of biblical proportions.

Images taken by aircraft, intelligence-gathering satellites and commercial remote-sensing spacecraft are fueling an intensive study of the intriguing oddity.

But whether the anomaly is some geological quirk of nature, playful shadows, a human-made structure of some sort, or simply nothing at all—that remains to be seen.


Whatever it is, the anomaly of interest rests at 15,300 feet (4,663 meters) on the northwest corner of Mt. Ararat, and is nearly submerged in glacial ice.

It would be easy to call it merely a strange rock formation.
But at least one man wonders if it could be the remains of Noah's Ark—a vessel said to have been built to save people and selected animals from the Great Flood, the 40 days and 40 nights of deluge as detailed in the Book of Genesis...
Whatever the anomaly is (and obviously I don't know - that's what scientists are for) the current search is simply the latest in a very long line of people looking for the most famous boat in history. Many claims (like sightings by locals, Russian Pilots, and seemingly a squillion others) but very little evidence have been brought down from Ararat, which may or may not even be the correct mountain to be looking on. Every couple years Noah's Ark makes the news cycle; it even makes National Geographic on occasion.

The search, of course, is nothing new. 2000 years ago, Flavius Josephus (Antiquities, Book I, Ch. 3) had the following to say:

After this, the ark rested on the top of a certain mountain in Armenia... the Armenians call this place, The Place of Descent; for the ark being saved in that place, its remains are shown there by the inhabitants to this day.

Now all the writers of barbarian histories make mention of this flood, and of this ark; among whom is Berosus the Chaldean. For when he is describing the circumstances of the flood, he goes on thus: "It is said there is still some part of this ship in Armenia, at the mountain of the Cordyaeans; and that some people carry off pieces of the bitumen, which they take away, and use chiefly as amulets for the averting of mischiefs."

Hieronymus the Egyptian also, who wrote the Phoenician Antiquities, and Mnaseas, and a great many more, make mention of the same.

Nay, Nicolaus of Damascus, in his ninety-sixth book, hath a particular relation about them; where he speaks thus: "There is a great mountain in Armenia, over Minyas, called Baris, upon which it is reported that many who fled at the time of the Deluge were saved; and that one who was carried in an ark came on shore upon the top of it; and that the remains of the timber were a great while preserved. This might be the man about whom Moses the legislator of the Jews wrote."
Of course, it's just like mankind to cut the boat up into pieces for good luck charms, and even several thousand years ago it had the feel of myth (not 'untrue' myth, but 'long ago and far away' myth). Given that even the ancients found the existence of the ark the stuff of myth and legends, I would be very surprised if the baffling mountaintop anomaly under study turns out to be something other than a strange rock formation.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

Dating the Acts of the Apostles

Those of you who have been here a bit have no doubt noticed that while I'm not a big fan of theology, I'm quite tempted toward historical speculation concerning the scriptures. I make no pretentions that I have stumbled upon "long lost truths" or am able to reveal the final word on what has been argued for centries; I simply do it because that's my preferred way to study the scriptures, especially the historical ones.

If there is an historical book in the Bible, certainly the Acts of the Apostles is it. For those of you who are not familiar with Luke's second book, I'll give a quick intro, though I have to warn you that what follows will probably be of little interest to you.

The Acts recounts the first 30 or so years of Church history. Beginning with Jesus' assumption into Heaven, it follows the spread of Christianity from its origins as a 150-member strong sect of Judaism in Jerusalem to the Apostle Paul awaiting trial in Rome ca. 62 ad. It recounts how Christianity expanded to include Samaritans (half-Jews) and eventually welcomed into its arms the gentiles who would eventually take it over in a very real sense. Looking back from today, Acts is something of a baton handoff in history, a bridge between where Christianity had its Jewish roots to where it laid down the European roots that would eventually bring Europe back from the dark ages that followed the collapse of the Roman Empire.

Acts is a sequel to Luke's Gospel - both being dedicated to the same man, Theophilus, and both obviously the work of the same hand - and is famous for its careful treatment of places, titles, and especially pronouns. And while having been occasionally accused of inaccuracy, Acts has actually been the foundantion of many archaeological discoveries and has always been shown to be precise when the chips are down. It's no wonder archaeologist Sir William Ramsay called the author of Luke/Acts "an historican of the first rank," for whenever digging in the ground has been able to answer questions about Luke's nomenclature, it has consistently resolved them in Luke's favor. If there's one book upon which I base my belief in the historical accuracy of the Bible, Acts is it. Or at least Acts is the starting point.

But when was it written? Asking anyone that date will reveal more about the answerer than the book: dates are given from the mid 70s ad to the mid second century, because it is not mentioned by name in any of the extant chuch fathers until about 177. But the plethora of answers and reasons simply illustrate that no one knows for certain. And while the answer may not have any theological import, I think it has historical import.

But I am inspired by the character of Sidney Wang, the Charlie Chan ripoff character from Neil Simon's 1996 masterpiece movie "Murder by Death." When a moose head on the wall gives three detectives a significant clue, Milo Perrier (based on Christie's Hercule Poirot) responds that he does not like it one bit.

"I like it," replies Wang. "But do not understand it."

And it's the "not understanding" that drives me to a date of Acts far earlier than most biblical scholars.

Studying Luke is a lesson in precision. For example, Luke says explicitly that the cities of Lystra and Derbe were in Lycaonia, contradicting both Pliny and Cicero. Yet Luke was proven correct once the cities were excavated. He has also been proven correct in unusual Roman titles, and several sites have excavated exact places he spoke of (e.g. the theatre at Ephesus.) It is that kind of precision that I expect from Luke, and yet when I do not find it, I conclude there must be a reason why. And I like it, though I do not understand it.

Up to Acts 12, Peter has been the main mover in Acts, if not in the Church itself. He is the first to baptize non-Jews and must answer for it to a church full of Jews who never expected things to get that far. Eventually he is imprisoned by King Herod and miraculously escapes. Luke says of that (in Acts 12:17) that Peter "left and went to another place." Certainly there is not a more purposefully vague sentence in all of historical literature. It may be exactly this that dates Acts for us, and I'll return to the reason later.

Once Peter disappears from Acts, the book is dedicated to the three missionary journeys of Paul, with whom Luke travels. The fact that Luke was an eyewitness to many of these events has served as sufficient reason for many scholars to ignore what happened to Peter.

Yet Peter is around. He appears once in Jerusalem, when the first Christian council decided that gentile Christians need not embrace the Mosaic law (Acts 15). He appears in Antioch, in a faceoff with Paul over the same issue (Gal 2). And he is eventually crucified in Rome (ca. 64 ad) under the same Neronian persecution that takes Paul's life, after serving as - by Christian "tradition" (not quite the same as history) - the first bishop of Rome, later promoted to and as the first Pope. Why is he not mentioned? And why does Acts end with Paul preaching the gospel rather than suffering the same martyrdom that he visited on Stephen in Acts 7?

I think the reason that he is not mentioned is the same reason Luke says (otherwise inexplicably) that Peter "went to another place." Peter is, due to his escape from prison, a fugitive. He is on the lam. In Peter's first epistle, he says to his fellow believers that "she who is in Babylon greets you," though there has long been a question of whether Peter was in the literal Babylon (unlikely, since it had been mostly destroyed) or in someplace named a spiritual Babylon, with Rome being most likely location. In other words, Peter remained vitally important to the growth of the church, yet his actual location was a closely guarded secret.

Take that back to Acts. Peter and Paul had met on several occasions, the last of which was not mentioned by Luke. Peter was in Rome, the very place that Paul was headed, yet he is not mentioned by Luke. Peter is not mentioned in the last 10 years' worth of territory covered by Acts. Paul does not greet Peter in his epistle to the Romans, though he mentiones a whole chapter of others. The probable reason? Peter's location was a carefully guarded secret.

Now if we accept that as a fact, then certain things fall into place. Peter may have been a fugitive, but after his death in 64 in Rome, his prior movements would not have demanded secrecy. In fact, if it were written after 64 ad, there would be every reason to show how Peter, who in Luke's Gospel denies Christ, paid the ultimate price for his rediscovered faith. If it were written after 64 ad, there would be every reason to show how Paul, who persecuted the Church in Acts 7-8, eventually gave his life for what he had previously denied. Both would have been a valuable witness to Theophilus, the recipient of the Acts. In other words, Acts was written the way it was, hiding the location and activities of its original main character, Peter, because it was still important that his location remain a secret, therefore it was written before 64 ad.

If it was written before 64ad, there's no reason not to conclude that it was written in 61ad, right when the book ends, and that Luke completed it and sent it off at the very time he placed Paul for "two full years in his own rented quarters" in Rome. What happened in 64 ad, that the pillars of the church to whom were assigned both the Jews and Gentiles (Gal 2:7) were both martyred in the same city, was not mentioned because by that time the Acts of the Apostles had already assumed its final form and was circulating among the churches.

I like it, but do not understand it fully, though I'm happy to make a preliminary theory, taking into account that Sidney Wang was also apt to speak before thinking things through completely.