Monday, October 31, 2005

Testable Propositions

My old friend Ernie was kind enough to weigh in with some comments on my last post, and I would like to respond in a little more detail to something he said:

"While I find the Bible generally useful in an 'illustrative' way, I've become more concerned about finding 'testable propositions' that I can validate empirically, vs. attacking (or defending) historical accuracy."
I definitely appreciate the importance of testable propositions. As I struggled to figure out whether I believed what Christianity teaches, one issue that came up is really the whole question of how we know anything, or why we should believe something. The scientific method, with its demand that explanations must be falsifiable (testable), has been the foundation for remarkable progress in science. There seems to be very little comparable to that in Judeo-Christian theology; I offer the vast (and increasing) diversity of Christian theologies as evidence that Christians do not generally have a method of deciding what is false.

At one point I concluded that there are truths about the world that cannot be proven, and further that this was the place for faith. It struck me as a significant insight at the time, and it protected my faith for a time. But I think now that there are at least two problems with that, or rather one problem and one limitation.The problem is that there are any number of unprovable truths that one could choose to believe. How do you decide among them? What are the consequences of the beliefs? That depends on what is true; the consequences are no more knowable than the truth of the beliefs themselves. We see this diversity of beliefs throughout history and it continues today.

The limitation is that, while there may be true things that cannot be proven, not everything can be true. There are some things that can be proven false. So when we examine our beliefs, while we may not be able to prove them right, we can seek to prove them wrong.

Additionally, when we do choose to believe something, we need to reserve some skepticism, and the amount of skepticism should correspond with how little evidence we have for those beliefs. Christianity, on the other hand, specifically encourages belief in the absence of evidence: "Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." (Hebrews 11:1) Talk about confirmation bias! This is a recipe for believing untruth.

I do need to get back to Ernie's statement. He contrasted empirically testable propositions with attacking (and defending) historical accuracy. I am a bit confused by this because I think that historical accuracy is a testable proposition. Surely there is uncertainty, and history is not repeatedly testable in the same way that many science experiments can be replicated. But historians do consider not only what was recorded earlier, but also the biases of those reporting the events, the physical evidence that corroborates or conflicts with those reports, later better-understood events that would depend on earlier events, and so on. We can conclude, in some cases, that some particular account is very likely ahistorical.

It's getting late, and I am losing focus a bit. Did any of that help? And Ernie (or anybody else), I would be curious what kind of empirically verifiable, testable propositions you have in mind.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

Solomon's Temple

Let us consider the building of Solomon's temple. This is described both in I Kings and in I and II Chronicles. Both state the dimensions of the temple as 60 cubits long, 20 cubits wide and 30 cubits high. A cubit is 17.5 inches, or about 0.45 meter. So, all told, the temple occupied 36,000 cubic cubits (say that three times fast) or 3280 cubic meters. I Chronicles 22:14 says that David prepared a hundred thousand talents of gold and a million talents of silver, plus so much bronze and iron that it could not be weighed, plus timber and stone. A talent is about 75 lbs, or 34.5 kg, so we have 3,450,000 kg of gold and 34,500,000 kg of silver.

That is quite a bit of gold and silver. Let's get a better idea of how much that is. Gold has a density of 19.3 g/cc and silver has a density of 10.5 g/cc. To convert to kilograms per cubic meter, we have to multiple by 1000 (since there are 1,000,000 cc per cubic meter, and 1000 g per kg). So, we have 19,300 kg/m3 for gold and 10,500 kg/m3 for silver. So if we divide the weights by the densities, we get volumes of gold and silver, specifically 179 m3 of gold and 3286 m3 of silver. That's a total of 3465 cubic meters of gold and silver. The whole temple was only 3280 cubic meters. And remember that there was bronze and iron beyond measure. If 34,500,000 kg of silver was not beyond measure, the amount of bronze and iron must have been at least that much again. Iron is less dense even then silver, at 7874 kg/m3 and bronze is only slightly denser at 8300 kg/m3, so we can at least double the volume required for the metals.

But Solomon didn't stop there. There was also stone and wood. I Kings 5:14 says that Solomon rotated three groups of 10,000 people, one group per month, to bring wood back from Lebanon. If each person brought back only 100 lbs of wood per month, that would be one million pounds (455,000 kg) of wood coming every month. I cannot find a place where it says how long this went on, although I Kings 5:11 does say that Solomon gave wheat and oil as payment "year by year." Wood is (of course) less dense even than water. The value I found for Western Red Cedar is 0.35 g/cc, or 350 kg/m3, about one thirtieth the density of silver. So, as a very rough first approximation, we have half as much volume of wood coming in every month as there was silver in total, so that fills in another temple's worth of volume every two months. Even with the inevitable waste during the construction process, that is a lot of wood!

And then there were the 80,000 stone hewers and the 70,000 transporters bringing in rock. Stone is probably harder to quarry than trees are to cut, but there fifteen times as many people working on that.

One possible way to escape this dilemma is to note that Solomon was also building a palace for himself. But I Kings 7:2 says his palace was only 100 cubits by 50 cubits by 30 cubits, or 150,000 cubic cubits, about four times the volume of the temple itself. With the precious metals we filled one temple, with bronze and iron at least one more, with wood a minimum of 1.5 more (three months of wood at two months per temple equivalent), plus the stone. And all of the gold and silver was explicitly set aside for the temple, not the palace.

But perhaps there is another explanation. Maybe the Bible is not an accurate record of what really happened. Maybe somebody wanted people to think that Israel had been something more than it was.

What do you think?

Matthew, Part III

This is the last of a three-part look at the Book of Matthew. Here I will look at some curious features of Matthew's account of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. The four gospels each include versions of these events, and the versions are not entirely consistent. But of particular interest here are a number of events that are included only by Matthew.

Matthew includes in his account, not one but two earthquakes, one when Jesus died and one on Sunday morning when the angel rolled the stone away from the tomb. Earthquakes and eclipses and other such natural phenomena were widely regarded as signs or portents in those days, and it is unusual that none of the other gospel writers thought to mention such significant events. In fact, there were Roman scholars of that time period (e.g., Pliny the Elder and Seneca the Younger) that collected reports of such events. No earthquakes at all, let alone two so close together or associated with an unnatural three hour darkness were reported by anybody else in any of years that Jesus is thought to have died.

Matthew states as well that as a result of the first earthquake tombs were opened in Jerusalem and the bodies of dead saints were raised, entering the city and appearing to many people. This is another magnificent event that somehow escaped the notice of everybody but Matthew. None of the other gospel writers mention it. No contemporary or near contemporary historians like Josephus mention it. This would be a tremendous sign, but nobody else even hints of its occurrence. Like the supposed fulfillments of prophecy, it appears instead to be a fabrication.

The next curious set of events relate to the chief priests. Again it is only Matthew who records the meeting of priests and Pharisees with Pilate, who authorizes them to place a guard at the tomb. Some people, notably Josh McDowell, make a big deal about how the Roman soldiers were such disciplined, quality soldiers that would not have fallen asleep, and so on, but note that in Matthew 27:65 Pilate says "You have a guard, go and make it as secure as you know how." The guard, if there was one at all, was a temple guard, not soldiers from the Roman legions.

But I don't think there really was a guard. I think that fragment of the story is there to prepare for a later fragment, found in Matthew 28:11-15. There, Matthew claims that the guards return to the chief priests to tell them what happened, and the chief priests bribe them to say that the disciples came in the night and stole Jesus' body while the guards were sleeping. And Matthew concludes this little scene with the comment: "... and this story was widely spread among the Jews, and is to this day."

So there were stories going around that the disciples stole the body. You can imagine the dialog going something like this:

"Jesus rose from the dead."

"No he didn't - the disciples stole his body."

"They couldn't steal his body. See, the priests expected the disciples would steal the body, so they posted a guard."

"Well, yeah, I've heard that, but the guards could have fallen asleep. In fact, some people say the guards told people later they did fall asleep."

"Yeah, but what you don't know was that there was this secret meeting between the chief priests and the guards where the priests bribed the guards to say that."

How was it exactly that Matthew knew about this secret meeting? I hardly think the priests invited him. No, Matthew's purpose here is to try and defuse some of the rumors then in circulation by inventing an explanation.

Is it possible that there really were two earthquakes, and a supernatural darkness, and zombies, and bribed guards, and that nobody else mentioned them (except for the darkness mentioned by other gospel writers), and that Matthew (or whoever it was that wrote the Book of Matthew) learned of a secret meeting? Yes, it is possible. But the more likely answer is that these things were not reported by anybody else because they never happened. Matthew has already demonstrated a willingness to exaggerate and fabricate, and these are just more of the same.

Let me return to my thesis: If God is going to punish people eternally for unbelief, then reasonable disbelief should not be possible. While I don't pretend to have absolutely proven the falsehood of significant elements of Matthew, I do claim that the weight of evidence is against Matthew, and that disbelief is therefore entirely reasonable.

Matthew, Part II

The fulfillment of messianic prophecy in Jesus is sometimes advanced as strong evidence of his divinity. People have "calculated" the odds that a single man would fulfill all of these prophecies by chance alone, and of course their calculations show that it it ridiculously improbable, so Jesus must be God, etc. I am not going to critique those calculations today. I am going to examine some of the so-called prophecies that are included in Matthew. (And I'll speak of the author of the book of Matthew as Matthew, for simplicity, even though I don't think he wrote it.)

The first fulfillment of prophecy found in Matthew can be found in chapter 1, verses 22-23. These verses reference Isaiah 7:14: "Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel". Take a look at the original passage. Start at the beginning of chapter 7 and read through 8:4. Pay special attention starting at 7:10. The nation of Judah is in trouble, and God tells Ahaz, the king, that everything will turn out fine. He tells Ahaz to ask for a sign that this is true. Ahaz refuses to ask, but God does it anyway: he says in verse 14 the words quoted above. Note that the context for this prophecy are intended for a specific place and time, and that they have nothing to do with a messiah. The son that is born is not in any way a savior, be it political, spiritual, military or anything else; he is merely the sign. And this prophecy is fulfilled in 8:3, though hardly miraculously, since Isaiah himself "approached" the prophetess so that she conceived and gave birth to a son. I should also say here that the word has been translated "virgin" does not really mean anything more than young woman. Certainly in the case of the prophetess that Isaiah "approached" it did not mean "virgin". To claim that Jesus fulfills a prophecy that was clearly not a messianic prophecy is dishonest.

In Matthew 2:5-6, the Matthew misquotes Micah 5:2. Matthew say "And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, ... out of you shall come forth a ruler...". The original text in Micah says "But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah... from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel." The difference being that the original text references a clan. Bethlehem was an Old Testament character, a descendent of a woman named Ephrathah, the second wife of Caleb. While not a certainty, it seems more likely that the town of Bethlehem was not intended here.

In Matthew 2:16, Matthew claims that Herod had all the male children two years and younger slain in and around Bethlehem. In verses 17-18 he references Jeremiah 31:15: "A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and she refused to be comforted, because they were no more. But again, look at the context in Jeremiah 31. Jeremiah is talking about Jews being taken into captivity. In verse 16 (immediately following the quoted "prophecy") it says "... and they [the children] shall return from the land of the enemy". This is not a prophecy about the messiah, and it does not describe the slaughter of children. The "fulfillment" found in Matthew is non-sensical: the event it describes does not fulfill the prophecy at all.

There are a couple of additional reasons to find this fulfillment suspect. This is the only reference to such an event ever occurring. Nowhere else is it mentioned in the Bible, and neither do any contemporary secular writers describe it, despite describing less atrocious acts by Herod. So it appears that Matthew made up the event in order to have a fulfillment to a prophecy that did not apply anyway. Why would he make up a story like that? That kind of story was, in fact, associated with many other mythological figures. Farrell Till writes

To say that history is silent about Herod's massacre of the innocents is not to say that the story is at all unusual. Parallel versions of it are so common in the folklore of ancient societies that mythologists have even assigned a name to the story and call it the dangerous-child myth. Space won't allow a review of all these myths, but the Hindu version is worth looking at, because it is strikingly parallel to Matthew's story. According to Hindu literature, Krishna, the eighth incarnation of the god Vishnu, was born to the virgin Devaki in fulfillment of prophecy and was visited by wise men who had been guided to him by a star. Angels also announced the birth to herdsmen in the nearby countryside. When King Kansa heard about the miraculous birth of this child, he sent men to "kill all the infants in the neighboring places," but a "heavenly voice" whispered to the foster father of Krishna (who, incidentally, was a carpenter) and warned him to take the child and flee across the Jumna river.
Matthew 2:23 says that Jesus came with his familty to live in Nazareth, and that this was to fulfill the prophecy which stated "He shall be called a Nazarene." Now the interesting thing is that there is no prophecy stating that he would be called a Nazarene. There is Judges 13:5 which describes Samson being a Nazarite, but a Nazarite is not somebody from Nazareth, which did not even exist at the time of Samson. The words Nazareth or Nazarene don't occur in the Old Testament. (Archeologic evidence suggests that even at the time of Christ it was only a tiny village.) One more "fulfilled prophecy" that turns out not to be anything of the sort.

Finally, Matthew 27:9-10 claims that Jeremiah prophesied about the thirty pieces of silver being used to buy the potter's field. It wasn't actually Jeremiah that said that. It was Zechariah. And even then, the actual text in Zechariah 11:12-13 does not really match Matthew's rendering, either in words or meaning. Worse yet, only Matthew even mentions the thirty pieces of silver. So again we have what appears to be a not a fulfillment, but a fabrication, and not really a very good one.

To summarize, in order to support Jesus being the Messiah, Matthew claims that he fulfills a number of Old Testament prophecies, but these claims are weak and speak more of Matthew's dishonesty than anything else. Yesterday we saw Matthew improving Jesus' miracles. Today we saw Matthew fabricating prophetic fulfillments. Next we will examine Matthew's account of the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus.

For further reading about biblical prophecies, here are a few web pages to consider: Prophecies: Imaginary and Unfulfilled, The Fabulous Prophecies of the Messiah and Prophecy Fulfillment: An Unprovable Claim.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Matthew, Part I

I ended the last post with some questions about the Bible. Now I would like to begin to give some answers. As you read this post and the ones that follow, remember my claim that in order to justify eternal punishment for disbelief, there should be no cause for reasonable disbelief. I intend to demonstrate that there are in fact very good reasons to doubt the authenticity and authority of the Bible as a book of divine origins.

The Gospel of Matthew is where I would like to start. Perhaps later I will address some of the reasons that the authorship of this book and others is in doubt and what implications that has. For now, I want simply to look at features of the text itself.

Matthew is one of the synoptic gospels, along with Mark and Luke. They are called synoptic because they have a substantial amount of parallel content, often told using the same or very similar words. Most scholars believe that Mark was the first one written, and Matthew and Luke were based on Mark as well (possibly) on a now lost document termed "Q". Mark is the shortest of the three; the others add details that Mark lacks, including the story of Jesus' birth as well as details that follow Jesus' supposed resurrection.

Today I would like to examine some differences between Matthew and Mark. Although the harmony of the gospels is usually stressed by Christians, there are differences among the accounts, and I had long been a bit uncomfortable with how those differences mesh with the idea of divinely inspired, inerrant scripture. It is all well and good to say that the differences lie in the authors' humanity and imperfect recollections, but as soon as you open that door, how do you know which statements have divine authority and which ones are merely "close" because of the role of the fallible human authors. I think that is a real problem.

But the specific differences I will address here relate to the accounts of miracles that are present in both Matthew and Mark. If the accounts are entirely and perfectly true, these accounts should not be incompatible. If they are not completely compatible simply because of the influence of fallible human authorship, then I propose that the differences should be of a nature that reflects honest, "disinterested" failed recollection. But that is not what we will find.

Consider the Gadarene demoniac. Or was it demoniacs? Mark 5:1-20 says there was a single demoniac. Matthew 8:28-34 says there were two.

How about the raising of Jairus's daughter in Matthew 9:18-19, 23-26 and Mark 5:22-24, 35-43. In Mark's account, Jairus comes to Jesus and tells him that his daughter is at the point of death (but not dead yet). Later, while Jesus is on his way there, someone comes to tell him that the daughter has died and he shouldn't bother to come anymore. In Matthew's account, on the other hand, Jairus comes and says that his daughter has already died, but Jesus should come and he will be able to bring her back to life.

In Mark 6:45-52, Jesus walks on water. When Matthew tells the story, though, Jesus walking on water is not enough; Peter does it as well.

In Mark 9:14-29, Jesus helps a demon-possessed boy. The father describes how the demon causes convulsions and foaming at the mouth and a number of other symptoms that sound pretty much like some sort of epilepsy. When Jesus tells the demon to come out, the demon throws the boy and causes some convulsions, and the boy eventually becomes "like a corpse" and the father thinks he has died. Jesus takes him by the hand, though, and he gets up. In Matthew 17:14-18, though, when Jesus rebukes the demon, the demon came out and the boy was cured at once with no reported ill effects.

How about Bartimaeus, the blind man by the road in Jericho? Actually, only Mark names him as Bartimaeus. But then, in Mark, there is only one blind man. Matthew reports two blind men that were both healed at the same time.

Then there is the cursing of the fig tree in Mark 11:12-14 and 20 and in Matthew 21:18-19. Never mind the logic in cursing a fig tree that wasn't bearing fruit even though it wasn't the season for figs. (Why curse a fig tree at all?) In Mark's account, Jesus curses the tree and when they pass by the following day they see that the tree has withered. Apparently, that took too long for Matthew's taste, because in his version the tree withers immediately.

Now, those are not all of the miracles described by both Mark and Matthew, but all the other accounts are substantially in agreement. These are the only ones that appear to me to have incompatible differences. In every case, it is Matthew's account that is more miraculous. And Matthew was written later. The stories are growing over time. That is the fingerprint not of simple mis-recollection by Matthew (if he was even the author), but of legend. We will see this same kind of growth in the next two posts as we look at the fulfillment of messianic prophecies and the story of the death, burial and resurrection as reported by Matthew. Taken by themselves, the discrepancies in the miracle stories are troubling, but perhaps not fatal. When considered along with other problems with Matthew, serious doubts about the honesty of the author will need to be raised.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

Would You Believe It?

Just about every time that I have talked to somebody about my deconversion, the place that I start is with the observation that no matter what is true, most people deeply believe things that are false. Whether Christian, Jewish, Moslem, Hindu, Buddhist, Mormon, or whatever, the choices are pretty much mutually exclusive. They cannot all be true. Even under the umbrella of Christianity are a variety of theologies and doctrines that are incompatible. Perhaps if there were no consequences to a belief, these differences would not matter. But if there were no consequences, there would be little point in holding to any belief at all. What are the consequences of the religious beliefs that we choose to hold? The ultimate consequences will depend on which (if any) are right. In particular, if Christianity is true, the ultimate consequence of belief is eternity in heaven, and the consequence of disbelief is eternity in hell. With so much (supposedly) riding on our beliefs, we ought to do all that we can to figure out what is true.

But how will we decide? What can we do to determine if a belief (system) is worth holding? How can we “know” anything? I am sure philosophers have gone over this ground far more completely than I have, but all I can give you is my answers.

First, a set of beliefs should be internally consistent. It should not contradict itself. It simply makes no sense to believe contradictory statements. Of course, sometimes what appear to be contradictions may not be, so we should not be too quick to abandon our beliefs when apparent contradictions surface. But neither should we continue to hold them long after the contradictions are firmly established.

Second, a set of beliefs should be relatively consistent with what we are able to observe with our senses, either directly or indirectly. We do need to be aware of our own imperfect ability to observe accurately, but we cannot abandon observation either. Pure logic is insufficient to discover the truth.

Third, our commitment to beliefs ought to be consistent with the evidence supporting those beliefs. When evidence and reason is insufficient, we should delay commitment. When supporting evidence is found, strengthen commitment. When contrary evidence is found, commitment must weaken. When commitment to belief exists apart from evidence and reason, we cease to be rational, and we will very likely end up believing falsehood. (In support of this I offer as evidence the aforementioned multitude of incompatible beliefs.)

The idea of internal consistency has a consequence that needs to be explored more fully. A belief system may be evaluated based on the interrelationship of its component beliefs without necessarily establishing the truth of any individual beliefs. We can accept the beliefs for the sake of argument and search for contradictions. If we find contradictions among the beliefs then the entire belief system (taken as a whole) cannot be valid, even if we don’t know which of the component beliefs is false. We can remove beliefs from the belief system until the contradiction disappears, but the mere presence of a contradiction does not tell us what beliefs to remove. There will always be at least two ways to remove the contradiction, and quite possibly more.

Christianity (and especially fundamentalist or conservative Christianity) makes some pretty strong claims. This is fortunate for someone searching for inconsistency. It seems clear that stronger claims should be easier to disprove than weaker ones. If we can find an inconsistency in the stronger claims, we must remove some claims, thereby weakening the system as a whole.

So what kind of claims or beliefs does Christianity make or entail? One of the most important has already been mentioned: that one’s belief has consequences of the most extreme nature. Eternal torture waits for those that do not choose correctly. This is not just annihilation, not an end to existence, but rather perpetual existence in a state of pain and anguish, with "wailing and gnashing of teeth." Indeed, this consequence is made necessary, we are told, by the perfectly just nature of God, who cannot abide any kind of imperfection, and who cannot be satisfied by the mere destruction of that which is imperfect, but who must rather torment it forever.

I hope that you will consider how such an arrangement could be considered “just”. Personally, I do not believe that any beliefs held or actions undertaken by finite, mortal men can justify eternal torture. But at the very least, for such a consequence to be considered just, the standard of evidence to which this system of beliefs should be held will be very high. In other words, if there is reasonable doubt as to the veracity of Christianity, God would not be justified in imposing such stringent consequences for disbelief.

So, if we examine what Christianity claims, particularly by examining what is written in the Bible, what do we find? Clear evidence of divine authorship? Lack of internal contradiction? Harmony with observable features of the world? Or do we find evidence of imperfect human authorship and contradictions both internally and with the world?

Stay tuned.


The name I chose for this blog, "Little Endian", is a computer term referring to the ordering of bytes within a larger multi-byte number. In a "little-endian" architecture, the least significant binary digits (the little end) are stored "first". But that has nothing particular to do with anything I intend to write about here. I just needed a title and "Little Endian" seemed a slightly whimsical title that ties in with my being a programmer.

My purpose in writing here is to communicate with others (family, friends and whoever may come across it) how in the past couple years I have decided to reject Christianity and its god as untrue. This was not a quick nor painless decision. I have written two essays that cover some of the same ground that I hope to cover here, but I hope that a blog will permit a sort of monologue (and dialogue) that can continue, live and grow rather than being simply a snapshot.

So that is my beginning. Welcome.