Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Revising Egyptian Chronologies

Recently, I got an email from a religious individual, who goes by the name Bentzi, pointing me towards a series of blog posts he wrote to attempt to answer the questions raised by the famous Letter to my Rabbi by Naftali Zeligman. I wanted to respond to the author, but as I started composing my response, I realized that it might be best to make my resposne public. I obtained permission from the blog author to link to his creation, which is here. Before I begin, I do certainly appreciate that Bentzi has given his time and consideration to Zeligman's questions. And while I don't agree with his conclusions, I appreciate the tone of the discussion.

I won't be discussing the entirety of the blog, most of which I admittedly only skimmed. Instead I will focus on one specific section that discusses the Egyptian Exodus and the historical problems of the biblical account. Both Zeligman's questions and Bentzi's responses can be found in this post. If you want, you can read it in full, but I'll summarize it below. I read this post in full several times, figuring it's better to deal with one thing carefully than many things sloppily. However, in thinking about my response, I decided against providing a refutation, which would require several trips back to the library, and instead provide a reason why Bentzi's explanation in this topic is not convincing to me. Perhaps, more useful, I will provide examples of how I could be convinced. It's always worthwhile to be open to new information and ideas, so I'll outline what information I would need to reach the conclusion that Bentzi's hypothesis is reasonable.

Summary of Discussion

Zeligman's question is regarding that the Exodus account in the Torah doesn't appear to align with our current reconstruction of Egyptian history. This raises a problem regarding the historicity of the biblical event, something that I discussed in one of my more popular posts here. Before I get to Bentzi's answer, I will take a brief detour to describe some of the more common apologetic answers to this problem.

One approach is to simply ignore the contradictory evidence. Assume or state that no contradictions exist between the Biblical account and modern scholarship. This is an approach that is used by less scrupulous organizations who assume that their audience doesn't have enough information to know otherwise. Of course this does not work once the contradictory information is known, so after reading Zeligman's section, or any other section, this type of approach is inadequate.

Another common apologetic path is to call into question the historical consensus. The apologist attempts to discredit the entire field of Egyptology and Ancient Near East studies. Often this will include quote-mining of individuals describing the difficulty or even uselessness of archaeology. Sometimes it will even call into question scientific methodology altogether. I discussed this tendency in one of my previous posts. This approach is very strongly on display in this response to Zeligman by Meir Goldberg. (Of course notice the strong hypocrisy of Meir. In one section he derides archaeology as useless to discount contradictory issues, and then in the next is not shy about using archaeological results as supporting evidence in other areas.) Thankfully Bentzi does not go this route, so I don't need to respond, although I am considering a post on stuff like Carbon Dating analysis, which as a physicist I understand well.

A third option resolves the contradiction by morphing the Torah to fit into the historical framework. This is the approach favored by religious academics who trust in the consensus view of Egyptian history. For example, one common way they dodge the historical problems is to argue for a reduction of the numbers involved in the historical Exodus, something I discussed here. The main argument I have with this approach is on textual grounds. But Bentzi doesn't go this route either.

What Bentzi does do is an attempt to "correct" the historical consensus. He attempts to find one piece of information that the historians missed that when applied fixes the discrepancies. The correction Bentzi proposes is with regards to the calendar system used in the historical reconstruction. He proposes a factor of two difference between the Egyptian recorded history and the Biblical recorded history, allowing one to find parallels between Biblical stories and Egyptian records.

Alternate Historical Timelines

Anyone who's spent time reading about ancient history in some depth knows about the difficulties of reconstructing a timeline. The most detailed ways of reconstructing a chronology, from king's lists and various ledgers and inscriptions are sometimes shaky. Often we can cross-reference using information from other kingdoms. So if the Egyptian king mentions a Hittite king, and we see some similar information in Hittite records, we can gain some confidence that those two chronologies sync at that point. Of course difficulties arise when kings have the same name, or when the syncing points don't quite agree with each other. Therefore there's some suspicion regarding details of reconstructions.

Despite these difficulties, historians have come up with a standard chronology for the various Ancient Near East kingdoms (Egypt, Hatti, Assyria, Sumeria, Greece and Babylon). These chronologies have uncertainties due to the events above, but typically these differences are in the order of 30-50 years. These problems have often prompted people to claim that the entire chronological records are useless and we should instead look at large scale revisions to the chronology. Typically, these revisions should serve to harmonize problems in the internal Egyptian chronology relative to some other chronology (like say the Hittites or Assyrians). Bentzi and others attempt to revise the Egyptian chronology with the sole goal of harmonizing with the Biblical chronology.

Bentzi's revision is new to me, however there is a more common one used in the evangelical Christian world (which Bentzi references as justification.) The chronology is offered by Rohl in his book "Pharaohs and Kings" and popularized by the Christian film "Patterns of Evidence." The claim is that large sections of the Egyptian timeline need to be shifted so that the Exodus aligns with the Hyksos event. This requires about a 350 year shift, which is then fixed on the other end by smashing a bunch of Egyptian dynasties (20th through 25th) into rival co-regencies.

Bentzi offers something a bit different, he proposes that all the Egyptian chronologies are actually off by a multiplicative factor before about 400-450 BCE. He places the Exodus way back in Egyptian chronology, into the 6th Dynasty (conventionally around 2200 BCE). This revision is much more drastic than Rohl's and anyone should be very skeptical about it. So in that sense, I will say now some of the reasons for my skepticism, and how I could be convinced.

Does it Actually Fix More Problems than it Creates?

This is probably the most important question. For example of a problem. Egyptian, Babylonian and the Tanach (Jer. 46:26) record the campaign of Nebuchadnezzar against Egypt. Jeremiah prophesizes that Nebuchadnezzar will win, but he does not succeed in conquering Egypt. Historically, Nebuchadnezzar's second campaign against Egypt occurs in 573 BCE. According to Bentzi's timeline, this should appear in the Egyptian records at 500 BCE, which is after the Persian occupation at 532 BCE. In the revised timeline this event now disagrees with all three sources.

There are numerous other events, that now get skewed badly by the revised chronology. We have lots of correspondences between Egypt and Hatti, the two major powers in the Middle Bronze Age. In particular, we have lots of descriptions between dynastic marriages between rulers. We know of one princess that went from Hatti to Egypt right before Hattusa was destroyed. An event described by Egyptian and Hittite records.

These are just two examples, there are many more problems that arise in the relative chronologies that are far worse than the problems in the conventional chronologies. This is unsurprising, because a lot of the conventional chronologies purpose is to minimize these discrepancies. So, in order to convince me that an alternate chronology is better, I would need a demonstration that either the relative chronologies between Egypt, Hatti, Assyria and Babylon all align better with any new chronology, or at least an explanation for why I shouldn't worry about the new worse discrepancies.

Carbon Dating Analysis

There is yet another reference point besides relative chronological comparisons. That is carbon dating. Carbon dating gives an absolute date for an event. There are, of course uncertainties, and depending on the time of the event, these uncertainties can range up to around plus or minus 100 years. Therefore, overall, it is difficult to resolve some of the discrepancies in the conventional chronology. However, many of the predictions of Bentzi (or even Rohl's) chronologies differ by amounts that carbon dating can separate. Just a few examples are necessary here.

The Hyksos capital at Avaris, current day Tel-el-Daba has had numerous excavations, mostly by Bietak. Kutschera, Bietak and others have summarized the radio-carbon analysis in their paper, "A Chronology of Tel el Daba." In this paper they argue that there is indeed a discrepancy between the carbon analysis and the Egyptian Chronology. But this discrepancy is roughly 120 years.

Similar issues arise with radio carbon dating from one of the major geological events of this time period, the eruption of the Thera volcano. Again, we see a discrepancy of about 100 years. But in this case, as in Avaris, the results indicate that the standard chronology does indeed fit better than either Rohl's or Bentzi's revised efforts. One of the experts on the Thera explosion, Manning states the following, possibly referencing Rohl:
High-quality radiocarbon dating also offers the independent means to test and reject the several publications of the last decade which have argued that conventional Egyptian (and wider ancient Near Eastern) historical chronology is incorrect. (source, hat-tip to reddit user Flubb for this reference)
So, in order for an alternate chronology to be convincing, it needs to produce an honest treatment of radiocarbon analysis and show that the new chronology produces a better match. Also, personally I know enough about radio-carbon dating, it's strengths and limitations, that I don't find the broad critiques of it in Meir Goldberg's post to be convincing in the least. Nevertheless, if you can convincingly show that radiocarbon analysis, at least in this region, should not be trusted at all, that could nullify this point. This is a very high bar though, and I would not expect success on this avenue.

Other Fixed Points

Fixed points in archaeology are hard to come by, yet there are a few. The most obvious being records of celestial phenomena, like solar and lunar eclipses which we can determine absolute dates for via astronomy. Records of eclipses are rare in Egypt, so this path is not so fruitful. Nevertheless, there are records in Babylon, Greece and Assyria that can be used to sync those chronologies together. If the revision of the Egyptian chronology also requires revising the chronology of one of these nations, then proper reckoning of these fixed points is necessary.

Justification for the Adjustment

Rohl's sole justification for his correction is to align with the Biblical account. Bentzi's main justification is the same, yet he offers some speculation behind why the multiplicative factor of two is used.  Quoting directly:
For example, it could be that ancient kings had multiple names, and the historians compiling their lists understood the different names to represent different and separate kings. Or another possibility is that we/they misunderstood the term ‘king’; in later societies, there was only one king at a time and the second-in-command had a different title. It could be that in ancient Egypt, both the Ruler and his second-in-command were referred to, and recorded, as ‘King’. In which case, the ‘kings’ didn’t rule consecutively, but rather co-currently – which would again, divide the given times by half.
Both of these points need some substantiation before I can even buy the premise that they are reasonable. Do we have any indication that kings had multiple names? Or that Egyptians valued the second in command? Do these ideas fit in the structure of the kings lists or monumental inscriptions? Rohl explains the discrepancies via co-regencies to compress many rival dynasties together, and there at least is some justification for that behavior. Concurrent dynasties are proposed in the conventional chronology as well, although not to the same extent. What is the justification for these speculations? Any supporting evidence would make the argument stronger. Without the evidence though, the argument is exceedingly unconvincing to me.

Support Among Egyptologists

The tasks I laid out are probably impossible for any layman, and certainly impossible for a Rabbinical student studying for Smicha. The time and knowledge required are tremendous. However, this problem can be short-circuited by finding support for this proposal among Egyptologists, people that have spent their lives worrying about these exact chronologies. Indeed, in my mind this is one of the biggest weaknesses of Rohl's proposed chronologies. No other Egyptologist takes it seriously. It is a huge problem for him that Kitchen, one of the Egyptologists who has high regard for the historicity of the Bible, disagrees strongly with Rohl.

This is the first time I've ever heard of Bentzi's argument. I don't know whether he came up with it himself, in which case, it is very clever of him. Cleverness does not equal truth though. In order for the argument to really have legs, it needs to gain at least a foothold of acceptance among the people who know Egyptian history the best. Absent that, even if Bentzi can deflect all my layman critiques, I still would have difficulty finding it convincing. If the argument is one of those, "if the Egyptologists only thought of it, of course they'd accept it" then indeed there will be some who actually do accept it. Right now there doesn't seem to be much appetite for a wide scale alteration to the chronology for the reasons I specified above. But if it changes, then I will surely change my view along with the consensus. 

Bentzi's Response

Bentzi asked that I post this response sent to me via email. Here it is unedited.

It is has often struck me, in historical research and other areas, the importance of even the minor details, and the strong influence they can have in shaping the conclusions that one reaches.

A good example of this, is with regard to the date usually given to the death of Alexander the Great, 323 BCE – a date so well established that it is often used as a reference point to establish the correct date of other historical events. 

As I’ve mentioned in another area of my blog, there is a well known story, mentioned in Bavli, Yerushalmi, and Midrash Hagadol, as well as in Josephus' works written a few centuries earlier, about the meeting between Shimon Hatzaddik and Alexander the Great. Part of that story is that Shimon Hatzaddik made two promises to Alexander: the first, that the Kohanim would name their male children born in the next year after him, which essentially turned Alexander into a Jewish name that is still used until today, and secondly, that the Jewish nation would start counting the date which they would use to date their documents, from the date of this meeting – Minyan Shtarot. And this became Jewish practice as well, although this practice was slowly dropped by different communities over time, usually as a result of suffering persecution, until our times where there are no communities that still keep it (to the best of my knowledge).

The main problem with this story from a historical perspective, is the date given to it. This episode is dated to the year 312 BCE in Jewish sources, while it is currently accepted that Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE, nine years earlier – which would lead most people to reject at least the Jewish date attributed to it, if not the entirety of that story.

But the reason why I don't, is because of what R’ Yosef Kapach writes in his edition of Mishneh Torah L’HaRambam, (Volume 6, page 43, end of footnote 49), that: “this year, meaning 5747 (which is when he wrote his commentary), is the 2298th year of shtarot (1986/7 minus 2298 is 312/11 BCE) … and we, those exiled to Yemen, remain the only ones who are faithful to the covenant of our forefathers, and their promise, and we were accustomed in Ketubot, in Gittin, in contracts and in letters to each other, to only write the date of the shtarot.”

And I personally find this to be a very strong proof for the correct date, as there are present here the combination of two advantageous points: firstly, that this date was used in such important documents as Gittin, where if the incorrect date is written, it invalidates the Get (מדרבנן), so the Rabbis involved would have been exceedingly careful that they used the correct date, and secondly, that this dating system was also used in regular letters and correspondence, which then means that it was also used on a frequent basis, unlike Gittin which may have only occurred a handful of times in a generation.
The reason why I am mentioning the above, is for two reasons:

Firstly, this illustrates why I can find it acceptable (and obviously only in certain cases) if the historical communities’ conclusions are somewhat different than mine. I think that it is completely false to charge these experts as being stupid, or untrustworthy or have evil intentions etc. and on the contrary, I hold them in high regard, but being that they are only human and not infallible, it can happen in certain cases that I may stumble over certain details that the wider community does not have access to, which then will allow me to come to a different conclusion than them. After all, how many Greek historians ever heard of R’ Yosef Kapach and his works? And even if there are some that have, how many of them would have come across this bit of information tucked into a footnote in the sixth volume?

And the above point is very relevant to this topic of Egyptian history as well, as although I haven’t mentioned this clearly on my blog yet, the main reason why I have found the historicity problem so troubling is more from a logical perspective than a religious one (although the religious angle is definitely a factor). Namely, that once I have been exposed to great religious figures in our generation - as I have detailed in an earlier section on my blog - whom, among their many other admirable traits, exhibited a great devotion to, and sacrificed greatly for, the value of truth, and once I additionally extrapolate that the religious figures of previous times were at least as great, if not greater, than them (in line with religious tradition), why is it that the books that should be the most truthful and honest, are precisely some of the most ahistorical and false books about those times ever to be written?

The approach that I have suggested gives me an answer to this, but the reason why it doesn’t bother me that the historical community hasn’t come up with this particular answer yet themselves, is because, in addition to my having access to certain works that they may not have access to (and even if they do have access to them, there are reasons why I take such works more seriously than they do), I am also coming from a different angle and have a different respect for the Biblical sources, for reasons that are simply not well known to the historical community.

Secondly, the above also explains why I agree with basically everything you have written. Since in order to reach the truth, one must take into account and explain all of the details, and cannot ignore them or dismiss them without having a really good reason to do so, it remains my responsibility to see if my approach fits with the many details and facts that are related to it.
I find it encouraging that so far, in the narrower context of Egyptian history, my approach answers a number of historical puzzles, such as: the dating of the Ipuwer Papyrus (not that I am trying to say that it is an account of the Ten Plagues, but at least, it isn’t dated to the wrong era); the cryptic statement of Manetho about seventy kings ruling within seventy days; the migration of the Amorites out of Israel at that time; the appearance of the origins of the Hebrew alphabet, Ktav Ivri, at that time; the similarity of so many Ancient Canaanite customs with Jewish ones, as the people who we currently call Ancient Canaanites were really Israelites; the similarity of the Torah to the Code of Hammurabi, not that we copied it from him, but he copied it from us; the reference to the Hapiru in the Amarna letters, which reflects the actions described in Nach at the time of King David, as well as the Biblical references that the term that was used by the surrounding nations to refer to the Jews at that time was 'Ivrim', among others (Ramses II, Hittite wars, Israel Stele etc).

However, the real test of my approach will be to apply it to the wider Mesopotamian history, as you have rightly pointed out, and see if it manages to answer many more questions than it creates, especially as when currently there is the very significant issue of carbon dating that does not fit with my approach. And as you’ve pointed out, this is a very complex issue, not only because there are the different “strands” of chronologies from neighboring nations that depend on, and intersect with each other, but there is also the additional issue of the disagreement of Jewish sources and others with regard to Persian history, which is related to the dates given to the reign of Nebuchadnezzar, which is one of the two remaining major questions in Naftali’s letter that I still do not know the answer to (the other being shafan/arnevet).

But since many people feel uncomfortable with the idea of accepting something that the wider scientific/historical community does not, which equally applies to some other topics that I have written about, I am planning to take a number of steps to deal with that, and even in my assessment, the place for me to start would be here, in the subject of Biblical vs. Egyptian history. I have no issue at all if a reader would like to forward this idea to an Egyptologist, but I think that I first have to flesh-it-out a bit more, and go considerably deeper, before I do that myself. But it will take me some time to do so, especially if I wish to research this with the thoroughness that I prefer, but if I end up publishing something in this regard, I will, G-d willing, let you know.

Finally, if it turns out that my approach does hold up with regard to the wider Mesopotamian history, it would create an interesting question of whether dates derived from historical records should be given more weight than those derived from carbon dating or vice versa. But I guess that we’ll get to discuss that when, and if, we come to cross that bridge.


I won't respond to this in full. The back in forth will go on forever. I'll just point out that the Rabbi he's referring to as the "great religious figure in our generation" is the Lubavitcher Rebbe. I thought about adding that in, but decided that would be undue tampering with his response. I add it here for the purpose of context.

If Bentzi continues working on this approach, I would encourage he start with two areas. On the one side, the radiocarbon results need to be dealt with, which we both agree on. But this is very difficult for an outsider who does not have access to the samples, radiocarbon testing labs, the complex Bayesian fitting models like "Oxcal," or the expertise (presumably) to evaluate all these things. Therefore, we are forced to deal with the results as published, which are going to be heavily problematic for Bentzi's approach as far as I can see. But maybe he can find a way forward.

The  second approach is more practical and accessible and might be a better starting point. It is possible for find translations for all of the Amarna letters, and while Bentzi says they agree better with the time of David than a pre-Israelite time, I am skeptical about that claim. Nevertheless, he should certainly take the time to read through all of them (they're short and formulaic, so you can do it in a few hours) and point out the ones that fit better with his proposed chronology rather than the conventional one.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Why I Don't Believe in Judaism (part 3: What Would it Take)

Shortly after I left Judaism, I came up with the following metaphor to capture my disillusionment with the religion. Imagine there exists a large building. From the outside the building looks enormous and impressive. It is covered in beautiful artwork, stained glass windows, the works. The building is also constantly being worked on, but in a strange way. Every time some facet goes out of style, or is damaged, instead of fixing it, the workers just build another structure out over it, covering the unsightly or passe parts and leaving a new one. However, despite this constant work on the outside, no one ever works on the internals. The foundation is crumbling, the old art, since covered over, is fading. To me this building represented Judaism, and unlike most people I wasn't content in walking around the outside admiring the beautiful new works. I went inside, and made the mistake of testing the foundations. I kicked a couple support beams, and before I knew it, the entire building came crashing down.

When I want to describe, as succinctly as possible why I don't believe in Judaism, it makes sense to highlight the difference in how Judaism decides on what is true and how science does. Judaism has a concept, which I've mentioned before, called Yeridat HaDorot which means the descent of generations. The idea is that each generation is farther away from the Sinai revelation, and thus is less capable of making decisions on what is religiously appropriate. The result is that older decisions that are based on faulty information are impossible to overturn. Religious precepts that by today's standards look immoral cannot be removed. Like the building metaphor, a painting can never be removed, it can just be covered over with something less offensive, with the exhortation to please not look behind the new painting.

I've already provided some examples of practices that are immoral by today's standards, such as the laws of Agunah, which has not been overturned despite nearly every modern Rabbi agreeing that the current halachic law is unfair to women. There are countless examples of halachic decisions made on wrong information that are now inscribed in Jewish law. I will talk a little bit about one of them.

When I was in high school, I once asked my Rabbi why we can't use electricity on Shabbat. Previously, I assumed this was a extension of lo teva'aru aish (do not light a fire). This makes sense for things like incandescent light bulbs. But as I learned what electricity actually is, I realized this is untenable for most appliances. What does turning on the AC have to do with lighting fires? My Rabbi actually had a book on the topic which he lent me, and the explanations were pretty much the same as can be found on Wikipedia today.

What I learned is that the original halachic ruling on electricity was that one could not use it because electrical circuits create sparks, which are equivalent to lighting fires. This explanation was based off of a 19th century layman's understanding of electricity and was highly problematic. For one, electric circuitry today does not create any sparks, as the switching is done mainly through semi-conductor transistors. Furthermore, you make more sparks when you put on a sweater, yet that is not forbidden.

In the years that followed, Rabbis learned more about electricity and realized that the original ruling was wrong. However since electricity was forbidden on Shabbat, it was impossible to reverse this decision. Instead, they tried to justify the ban on electricity with other reasons. One said that you were "building" a circuit, another that you were applying the "final hammer blow" and turning something non-functional into something functional. But these answers ring hollow. It's obvious the real reason electricity is not used, because some Rabbi didn't understand the science behind it and made a decision on wrong information. Judaism cannot correct it. They can't tear down the old painting, they have to paint over it.

When we compare the arc of Jewish development to that of science we see something very different. Science continually replaces anything faulty with corrections when they become available. However, because it does this so effectively, you are actually left with a very similar structure compared to what you started with. Just the incorrect things have been updated. Again, using this analogy, science doesn't make a new painting to cover up a faded one, it instead updates the old painting so that it looks new again. Here's a concrete example: the physics we use to calculate the motion of balls or bullets is exactly the same as the expressions postulated by Newton some 300+ years ago. However, when you get to very fast moving objects, like electrons in accelerators, then those laws break down. Instead a new calculation emerges. And the new expression shows very clearly that the old way of calculating balls and bullets is accurate enough. Of course it couldn't be otherwise, because if it was wrong now, it would have been wrong then too and never adopted.

Science is self-correcting, Judaism is not. When I looked at how I should figure out whether something is true or not, science didn't just have an advantage, it blew Judaism out of the water.

But of course, a scientific approach updates with new information. It's very much worth looking at what possible new information might change my opinion on certain matters relating to Judaism. This is what I'll spend the rest of the post talking about.

Divinity of the Torah

Last week I talked about why I didn't believe in the Torah's divinity. But it's worth reiterating what would cause me to believe that there's something to it. An easy way, would be if someone where to use the Torah to forward predict a piece of knowledge. For example, if someone were to use various passages of the Torah to accurately name something like new superconducting materials (which are constantly being discovered in a sort of scattershot approach), then I would take notice.

It of course doesn't have to be superconducting materials, anything will do. The point is that the prediction needs to be forward and not backward. Generally, when people try to square the Torah with science, they do so by accepting the scientific explanation learned from elsewhere and trying to fit the Torah to it. That's not good enough, I want the Torah to give us something definitively new.

This isn't the only thing that would make me believe in the divinity of the Torah, but I'm not going to outline every possibility. One is enough for these cases.

Judaism's Oral Tradition

Another big part of Rabbinic Judaism is the claim of an oral tradition stemming from Sinai to the present day. There are a lot of ways this can be proven, but a very simple one would be by applying the exact same criteria I outlined for the divinity of the Torah to the Oral Torah and seeing if it satisfies any of them. Based on the parts I have studied (which is not complete) it did not seem divinely inspired, but maybe select parts of it do?

Also, just like the Tanakh itself, if you can use the Gemara to forward predict information then that would greatly bolster its claims of divine inspiration.

Historicity of Genesis 1-10

The evidence here is overwhelming that these chapters are ahistorical. It's actually nearly impossible for me to figure out how to change my view on this matter as it would entail a complete upheaval of pretty much everything we know about science. So, I guess to be convinced of this, I'd need to be convinced that pretty much everything we know about geology, biology, and physics is wrong. That's a high bar. Luckily, many people still manage to believe in Judaism without interpreting these chapters literally.

Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives

Many of the individual details of the patriarchal narratives are beyond what we expect to measure. There's no reason to ever expect some independent verification that, say, some guy named Avraham (Abraham) tried to slaughter his son Yitzchak (Isaac). However, many of the external details of the world do fit into the measurable realm. Unfortunately for the Torah, these descriptions of the world are not accurate. But let's see what could be reasonably discovered that would lend credence to the historical treatment of this era.

1) Indications of a pre-bronze era collapse civilization that called themselves Plishtim, or similar either from on site excavations, or from foreign records from Hattusa, Ugarit, Egypt, Assyria or somewhere else. This would lend credence that the encounters of Avraham and Yitzchak with Avimelech the Philistine king were not anachronisms.

2) Proof of a large scale geological disturbance in the vicinity of the dead sea. This would provide evidence that the cities of S'dom and Amorrah (Sodom and Gemorah) were not wholly fictitious creations.

3) Evidence of kings named Chedarlaomer or Amraphel in Elamite and Babylonian kings lists respectively. Currently, these names have not been found in any of the fairly extensive kings lists, but that doesn't mean that they won't be yet. This would provide evidence that the war of 4 kings against 5 has some historical backing. (Although it's still problematic unless the previous point is resolved, since the five king side appears to be completely fictitious)

4) Of course, even though it's not expected, any independent verification of any of the people mentioned in these stories would make a strong case that at least something here belongs in the world of fact and not the world of myth.

Historicity of the Exodus

The main way of squaring away the biblical account with modern day archaeological knowledge is to reduce the scope of the biblical story to a much smaller scale. This is fine by me and many of the resulting ideas regarding the various exoduses are plausible. However, none of them resemble the Torah in anything but a few details. They certainly don't have the grand sweep of the biblical statement in Deut 4:34
Or hath God assayed to go and take Him a nation from the midst of another nation, by trials, by signs, and by wonders, and by war, and by a mighty hand, and by an outstretched arm, and by great terrors, according to all that the LORD your God did for you in Egypt before thine eyes?
To believe in the Jewish narrative, I would need some hard evidence. For example, I would accept evidence of a significant drop in Egyptian population that could be plausibly related to both the plagues and a departure of a large nation. The discovery of an Israelite encampment (as large as the largest city in the world) at an expected site like Kadesh Barnea or any other  would do as well. I'd even take a well attested conquest of the territory of Israel by outsiders, again numbering roughly what the Torah attests, and allow the extrapolation backwards under the assumption that the Torah does contain true history here. There's nothing like this currently, despite numerous archaeological excavations. But maybe new stuff will be found? That could change my opinion.

Efficacy of Prayer

This is actually a topic that has had much scientific inquiry. The main approach is to have people pray for ill individuals without their knowledge and compare that to an unprayed for control group. A clear result showing the effectiveness of prayer has never been shown. It's pretty easy to describe what would change my mind here, a highly reproducible study showing the effectiveness of prayer.

What has been shown is that people do get an improvement if they believe in prayer and they know someone is praying for them. So if it makes my family feel better, I will tell them that I'll pray for them, fully aware that the prayer does nothing, but the comfort they get from knowing I'm praying is effective.


This is another gimme. The Jewish Messiah (or Moshiach) has as one of his conditions that the entire world will believe in Judaism. So obviously, if someone comes around and establishes Judaism as the world religion, then I will believe. But probably not before.

Existence of Souls

This is trickier. It's already fairly definitive that "souls" if they do exist, do not deal with the laws of physics as we know them. This is already a huge mark against them, and is enough to assert the null hypothesis, souls do not exist, as the most likely. Obviously, I will change my belief if there can be demonstrable physics evidence of the existence of the soul, but assuming that this cannot be done, there may be ways to determine the existence of souls.

One possible approach would be to show some function of cognition or decision making is impossible to influence by affecting the (very physical) brain. This article does a great job of showing how many things normally attributed to souls can be manipulated by altering the brain. It is very difficult to prove that something cannot be affected by changing the brain, but in the absence of any actual physical evidence, this is the high bar that needs to be met.

Paranormal Capabilities of a Rabbi

Sometimes, people will base their belief on Judaism (or really any religion) based on what they claim is witnessing firsthand some miraculous performance of an individual. It is impossible for me to deal with these claims individually. Thankfully there exists a group dedicated to testing all paranormal claims, namely the James Randi foundation has a one million dollar challenge for anyone who claims the capability of paranormal behavior. I will accept any successful completion of the trial as evidence of whatever paranormal phenomenon is being tested. If the trial participant is a Rabbi promoting his use of ruach hakodesh then so be it.


As hopefully I've made clear, what I'm always interested in is trying to figure out what is real and what is fake, myth and legend. If I've been misled, I'd like to determine that and alter my beliefs accordingly. When I was religious, I often found that it was the religious people that often provided specious or incorrect information, and this gave them a black mark on their credibility. However, if they were and are correct, I sure would like to know!

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Why I don't believe in Judaism (part 2: The Divinity of the Torah)

Constructing a Litmus Test

In the final chapter of "How to Read the Bible", where James Kugel describes the way he reconciles the preponderance of evidence that suggests that the Torah was written by different groups of people at different times with his Orthodox Jewish beliefs, he states the following.
How can you distinguish the word of God from other, ordinary human words in Scripture? I do not know of any litmus test that can be used. I suppose I have my suspicions about this verse or that one, but I really do not believe it is my business to try to second-guess the text's divine inspiration.
He is correct, but only in so much that he refuses to make a litmus test and then subject the Torah to it. He spends the next to paragraphs explaining why he doesn't feel inclined to do so.

The same sentiment appears at the end of Friedman's "Who wrote the Bible." He writes:
The question all along was not "Who inspired the Bible?" or "Who revealed the Bible?" The question was only which human beings actually composed it. Whether they did so at divine direction, dictation, or inspiration was always a matter of faith.
After spending the entire book explaining how this section was written by this group of priests with their own propaganda motives, this section was written by another group, and this part added in by a redactor. He states that there's no way to determine if any or all of it is divinely inspired.

To me, both Kugel and Friedman are providing cop-out answers. If the Torah was divine, or divinely inspired, it would be of prime importance to determine that it was so, and if it was edited or corrupted, it is absolutely necessary to find out which parts were problematic. They both throw up their hands and say, "I can't do it" perhaps as a way to justify their own beliefs or mollify their statements to any believers who happen to read them.

Naturally, whether the Torah was divine or not was a question of great importance to me at one time in my past.  I was already well on my way to a career in the sciences, and like other questions about the world, I approached this one in a scientifically sound manner.  I will reproduce this exercise in this post.  I will set out the various criteria I would expect a divinely authored text to fulfill, and then see if the Torah meets those criteria. I will create my own "litmus test" that Kugel says doesn't exist, and then subject the Torah to it. You may of course disagree with the specific criteria I have chosen, and that's fine. I would be interested in seeing your criteria.  However, if you are unwilling to offer any criteria, like Kugel, I would find any claims that the Torah or any other text of your choice (Koran, Bhagavad Gita, Book of Mormon) is divine to be unworthy of consideration.  The word has no meaning.

While it is impossible for me to recreate entirely my thought process from 15 years ago, I will try as best as I can to be true to my knowledge at that state. Therefore, in the following tests, very little of the information contained in this blog, namely results from biblical archaeology and textual criticism, will be discussed below.

A Divine Text is Self Evident

If given a purportedly divine text, a critical reader should be able to determine that it is divine based on examination of that text alone, provided of course, one understands the language it is written in.  This is the first criterion, but it is more of a meta-criterion, since all the others depend on it.  One could argue that a text meets all the other criteria that I will soon lay out, but it requires many commentaries and exegeses to bring out the divine nature.  I reject that outright.  The only way I would interpret exegeses would be if they were universally agreed upon.  However, when you have numerous contradictory commentaries, then how are you to choose which one is correct?  Furthermore, how can you be certain that it's not the exegesis that is divinely inspired instead of the text?  A divine text would not admit this possibility, it would be obviously divine to a reader of the text itself. 

One could add an additional criteria that the text would be understandable to any reader regardless of their language.  It would be written in mathematical symbols that would be self-derivable.  I do not impose this restriction.

The following criteria will all be presented under assumption that a divine text is self-evident. We will list the other criteria, subject the Torah to each one, and see if it passes the litmus test. Then, at the end we will discuss this meta-criteria.

The Criteria

In the following paragraphs I will outline the various criteria.  Each one will look like, "A divine text may have X but certainly will not have Y."  In these cases at least one of the Xs, for one of the criteria will need to be true, but not necessarily all.  However, the existence of Ys will make any divine claim suspect.  So here are the criteria

A divine text may reveal information not known at the time, but it certainly will not make factual errors with any revelatory information that come to light with further knowledge.

A divine text may describe universal morality, but it certainly will not include moral statements reflective of the society in which it was written that later are unanimously considered immoral.

A divine text may be pan-cultural, but it certainly will not be reflective of a single culture.

A divine text may be dense, but it certainly will not be repetitive.

To these I add one more Y.

A divine text will not contain contradictions.

We will now look at each of the criteria in turn. I'll note that my decision that the Torah was not divine hinged almost entirely on the first two criteria. The others were just icing on the cake, so to speak.

Is the Torah Revelatory, and if so, is it Correct?

The first question is whether the Torah contains revelatory information that could be used to determine whether it is the product of supernatural forces or not. This information could range from mathematical truths like Fermat's Last Theorem, something that was only proved over 300 years after it was first suggested. Or it could take the form of statements about the physical world, whether locally relevant to us, such as the existence of Uranus and Neptune, or to more general physical truths such as the existence of protons, electrons and the fundamental properties of elements. There is a near limitless amount of knowledge that we have gained about the world, and there's also knowledge that we don't yet know. Any of this could be known to a supernatural being and these statements, which could be easily verified given enough time, would lend credence to claims of divinity.

The Torah is indeed revelatory, containing information that could not be known to the ancient Israelites, or indeed any nation at that time. The information includes statements about the creation of the world, and the events in distant history. All of Genesis 1-10 fit in this category of revelatory information. Unfortunately, the claims of Genesis 1-10 are completely at odds with what we have learned about the world. It's revelatory, but the revelations are false. They include such incorrect statements as claiming that plants existed before the sun, and that angiosperms existed before the insects to pollinate them. It describes a global flood that kills all but a meager few animals, which is an easy statement to check in the geological and fossil record, and checking that record tells us that the biblical story is fictionarl. It describes the proliferation of languages, specifically claiming that there existed such a time when all nations spoke the same language. It's clear that the Egyptian and Sumerian nations, which were already leaving written records during this time period, were already speaking different languages.  

Therefore it fails the second half, the Y, it contains false revelatory information. Not only that, it's hard pressed to come up with any true revelatory information that is objectively testable. In all honesty, the failure of this statement was enough to cause big questions about the Torah's divinity, or at least, I surmised that these sections could not be the product of a supernatural being.  But, I will take a moment to examine the common objections offered by religious believers.

The first objection is that the science is wrong, and the Torah is correct. People will mention that science changes its results, so there's no good reason that it won't change its claims about the early history of the world to align with the Torah. This argument is appealing only to people who haven't spent the time learning enough to understand exactly why these claims about the early world is made, and what the supporting evidences for them are. To cast doubt on claims such as the fictionality of the flood is equivalent to casting doubt on all scientifically acquired knowledge in general. That solution was not appealing to me.

The more interesting objection is that the purpose of Genesis 1-10 is not to provide us with historical information or knowledge of the physical world at all, but rather to provide a moral or spiritual lesson. The stories are "allegorical" and only a simplistic reading would think they were literal. Therefore, the claim is that the Torah is actually not revelatory, at least in any objectively testable way. However, this is not a convincing argument. Surely, a divine being could create a story with the same moral and spiritual lessons but without the factual inaccuracies. Even moreso, if the moral and spiritual lessons are important, then why is it not obvious what those lessons are? There is no single explanation in the Talmud as to the moral/spiritual purposes of these chapters (nor, for that matter, any indication that they treated them as anything but descriptions of the physical world).

Is the Torah Moral or Immoral?

The second question deals with the morality of the Torah.  The Torah certainly does make rulings that appear to deal with morality.  For example, it includes its version of the golden rule, "love your neighbor as yourself." A fine moral lesson, provided you aren't a masochist.  There are very few people who would disagree that the Torah makes moral rulings.  However, to be considered divine, those statements must be universal both in space (i.e. obvious to many cultures) and time (i.e. just as valid then as today).  They should represent the best morality available.

When applying this universal constraint on biblical morality we run into serious problems.  Even in the time of the Gemara, various laws were viewed as problematic.  The infamous lex talionis, "an eye for an eye," was considered barbaric by the Talmudic Rabbis, and they proposed that it should really be the price of an eye for an eye.  Similarly, laws like the rebellious son 21:18-23 were thought by Chazal to have never been performed (Sanhedrin 71a). 

When we read through the biblical laws, we are not presented with a description of an ideal society, but rather we are presented with laws you might very well expect from an iron age kingdom.  Granted, there are good laws like leaving agricultural excess the poor, and concerns to look after widows and orphans.  But the Torah also countenances slavery, including eternal slavery for non-Jews and the option to break up families by selling off children and wives.  It condemns homosexuality in the strongest terms.  It treats women as second class citizens or worse.  And, finally, it commands the Jews to commit genocide on the Canaanite nations. Surely these commandments, could not be representative of a moral society. Or, in other words, if they did represent the divinely sanctioned ideal society, it is not one in which I would want any part in, and would actively oppose.

And if this isn't bad enough for claims of divinity, many of these commandments exist in near identical form in various other Ancient Near East law codes.  The most famous of these is the Code of Hammurabi, which dates to the 18th century BCE, prior to the claimed revelation of Sinai by any reckoning.  It should be noted, that this law code and others like it were claimed to be product of divine revelation as well. Why does the true divine law code bear such striking similarities to these other imposter law codes?

It is very hard to argue that the Torah is divine based on its moral message.  There are fine moral messages in it, but there are also awful ones. It fails the Y, and does so spectacularly. It appears no different in this manner than any other Ancient Near East text, or indeed, any text from other cultures as well.

Is the Torah pan-cultural or representative of a single culture? 

This one is tough to characterize.  Indeed when one looks at the story of the Exodus from Egypt, one finds a narrative that has resonated with many different cultures throughout history. However, other stories fall flat when removed from the Ancient Near East culture that they first appeared in. Nevertheless, there are many examples of the Torah about cultural elements unique to the region of the Israelites, for example that of Levirate marriage, and there are no examples of cultural elements unique to say, the Chinese, or the Native Americans. It appears that the Torah is more a product of a single culture, that happened to hit on some universal themes (as other cultures did), rather than a representation of every culture.

Why is this important? Because, in my conception, a supernatural being would want every nation to be able to relate to the divine document. The Torah would be God's gift to humanity, not God's gift to the small desert wandering Israelites. This is not possible if it clearly meant to resonate with a single culture.  Nevertheless, I expect many people to disagree with this criteria.

Is the Torah Dense or Unnecessarily Repetitive?

This criterion is probably the one which is most directly derived from my Jewish upbringing. Had I grown up in a different culture, I'm not sure I would have held much stock in it. Yet when one is presented with statements like the one where Rabbi Akiva derived laws from even the crowns on top of the letters (Menachot 29b) it's easy to come away with the idea that there's a level of complexity and density to the Torah. (As an aside, these explanations of the crowns were never recorded.)

Even without this cultural background it may be reasonable to assume that given a text of finite length a divine creature would want to make sure it contains as much detail as possible. That seems like a reasonable assumption. And indeed, if one looks at the numerous written works in the Talmud, and later commentaries, one is given the appearance of a significant amount of density.

And yet, the commentaries are not uniformly distributed. You will find that certain overly repetitive sections of the text are commentary-free. They repeat the same thing, in the exact same words, multiple times. Other stories appear to be repeated, like the stories of a patriarch going to a foreign land and having the foreign king abduct his wife. These kind of repetitive structures look a lot more like what you'd find in formulaic iron age writings and inscriptions than what would appear in a divine book.

Then you wonder if the Torah is actually dense or artificially dense? Can this even be objectively determined? If you compared the Torah to something like the US Constitution, would it be more or less dense? I don't have an answer to this specific question, mainly because it was pretty clear to me that the Y, failed here, so there wasn't much need to verify whether the X was satisfied.

Does the Torah Contain Contradictions?

This last criterion is probably where many people begin in criticizing the divinity of the Torah. But to me, it was far less important. The question is answered in an obvious yes, at least if you rephrase it to "does the Torah contain apparent contradictions." No one disputes that. The difference is that traditionally Judaism (and any other religion with a defining text) uses these internal contradictions as a means of achieving density. The contradictions require a clever explanation, and therefore deeper messages can be hidden in the text. After all, no author would be dumb enough to blatantly contradict themselves. (Aside: Interestingly, people that argue for single authorship in academic circles use the argument that Ancient Near East authors were tolerant of internal contradictions.)

When I was religious these ad-hoc exegetical explanations were satisfactory. As I became less convinced of the divinity of the Torah, I still found many of them reasonable. However, that was because I didn't have any better explanations myself. Now, with the knowledge I have gained from academic investigations, I have found much better explanations for various inconsistencies in the Torah.

How Can the Torah's Divinity be Believed in?

If you objectively look at the Torah, and subject it to reasonable criteria, whether they be those listed above or some other set of your choosing, the Torah fails the test of being self-evidently divine. The failure is obvious when noting that a wide swath of the population disagrees with the divinity of the book, whereas is the book was self-evidently divine, they would convert to the religion in droves. So, if the Torah itself can't be used as proof of its own divinity, is there any other reason to believe that it was given to humankind by God? Jews who believe in the divinity usually offer one of two explanations, and we'll look at them now.

The first explanation is less common. It would look something like, "I believe in Judaism because my parents believe in Judaism, and it was what I was brought up to believe." An individual who says this generally has a less fundamentalist relationship with the religion, and views Judaism more as a culture than a philosophy. To this individual, I have no real way to make a rational argument, because the defense is inherently irrational. The individual says essentially, "I believe because I believe." Such an individual isn't terribly interested in objective tests whether the religion is correct or not. They might even believe in some kind of religious plurality in which all religions, even contradictory ones, can be simultaneously correct.

It is the second common defense that is much more interesting. The individual believes in the divinity of the Torah, and Judaism itself, not because of the self-evidency of the text, but because, "Judaism maintains a long tradition (mesorah) of the divinity of the text." Often the believer will invoke arguments like the Modern Kuzari to defend their text. In other words, we believe the Torah is divine because we have a link to a direct witness of God giving the Torah to the Jews.

Without getting into the flaws of the specific modern Kuzari argument, of which there are many, it's possible to reject this line of thinking outright. If your belief in the divinely inspired nature of Judaism rests only on the claim of divine transmission, and if it can't be determined objectively by examination of its holy texts and ordinances, then we must conclude that the divine creature who gave it, is one who values obedience over reason. Humanity's greatest feat, our ability to think and reason, should be suspended. The quote from Galileo to the Grand Duchess Christina is appropriate here:
I do not feel obliged to believe that that same God who has endowed us with senses, reason, and intellect has intended to forgo their use and by some other means to give us knowledge which we can attain by them.
The god that wants us to ignore our own abilities to reason and instead rely solely on the claims of previous generations, is not a god worth worshiping.

There I must conclude where I started. If Judaism represents the divine will, and if the Torah represents a divinely inspired document, then it must be identifiable by design by inspection of the document itself. Since inspection of the Torah reveals that it has no clear indication of anything that sets it apart from any other text, and looks entirely to be a product of human invention in the Iron Age of the Near East, then there is no compelling reason to assume it is divinely inspired.