More Nonsense about Sodom and Gomorrah

1 May 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

I already blogged about Sodom and Gomorah: people are looking for it at the bottom of the Dead Sea, although the Bible is quite explicit that the remains were visible on the land (Zephaniah 2.9). When you write about Antiquity, the sources are the thing you can ignore, of course.

Or, if you have actually read the sources and haven’t found what you need, you just invent it: Archimedes’ Heat Ray, Herodotus’ visit to Babylon, or Octavian calling himself Octavian – just three examples of things not mentioned in our sources, reproduced by professional historians, employed by universities. Sources are only there to be either ignored or expanded with the stuff you need.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell of Bristol University are exceptional, because they are capable of making both mistakes simultaneously, if I am to believe this article. They have written a book called A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels’ Impact Event, in which they argue that a cuneiform tablet now in the British Museum contains a description of a Sumerian observation of a very large meteor – actually an asteroid over a kilometre in diameter – that impacted a place in Austria called Köfels. They can date it to June 29, 3123 BCE.

So far, so good. I wonder if there were Sumerian astronomical records that long ago, but for argument’s sake, I assume they are right. Now if the article I linked to refers to their own words, they also assume that a piece of this meteor destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, the Bible refers to a terrible shower, and does not mention anything similar to a meteor:

Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven (Genesis 19.24).

In other words, Bond and Hempsell are adding something to their source that simply isn’t there. It’s the same approach of texts that I discussed here: if an ancient text says that the Nile has converted into blood, you think “blood is red”, and because algae can be red too, you read the Biblical account as a description of algae. A meteor is destructive and falls out of heaven; the rain of the Lord is destructive and falls out of heaven; hence, a meteor is the rain of the lord. Textbook examples of the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

But even when we accept that Genesis describes a meteor impact, there remains another problem. Bond and Hempsell have decided to accept the story in Genesis as sufficiently trustworthy to be studied. So, why don’t they accept the chronology of Genesis as well? Even if we accept the longlevity of the Biblical patriarchs, there is no way to date the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to the twenty-first century BCE.

Bond and Hempsell want to have it both ways: they want to accept the Biblical story about the destruction of the cities, but don’t want to accept the dates implied in the Bible. That is possible. Historical criticism is intended to help you establish why you can use which parts of the same text, and why some parts are more reliable than others. And fortunately, historians have been looking at the stories of the Abraham cycle. Although the consensus is not uncontested, many scholars will date Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age, let’s say in the seventeenth century. Again, this cannot be combined with a meteor impact in late fourth millennium. (I won’t discuss the theory – very likely, in my view – that the Abraham cycle is not historical at all.)

Bond and Hempsell ought to have stuck to reading the tablet itself. Their proposal is sufficiently interesting. As it now stands, they are adding a meteor to the Bible that is not mentioned and ignore a chronology that is. I hope that the journalist of the article I linked to, messed up things, but I am not sure.


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