Sodom and Gomorrah? They Will Never Find It

22 March 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

When you look for the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, the obvious book to ignore is the Bible. Just like evangelical explorers looking for Noah’s Ark investigate everything except for the text that helps to identify the location of the object they’re looking for, searchers for Sodom and Gomorrah simply forget to read.

Here‘s a pretty shocking article that Russia and Jordan have signed an agreement to search the bottom of the Dead Sea for the remains of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah”. The project apparently receives state support from Jordan, after Israel had already sent out a submarine. Unfortunately, wherever the remains of the destroyed cities were seen in Antiquity, they were not at the bottom of the Dead Sea. The Bible is quite explicit:

Sodom and Gomorrah — covered with thornbushes (Zephaniah 2.9)

If there are thornbushes, Zephaniah must have seen the ruins on the land. Looking for the remains of the destroyed cities in the sea is just stupid. QED.

The Stupidity of the Quest for Noah’s Ark

27 April 2010

A modern replica of the Ark

Stupidity is immune to facts. We all know this. Yet, we can still be surprised, even shocked by people’s lack of understanding. Today’s example can be found in this article, about evangelical explorers who claim to have found Noah’s Ark. I will not be argueing that you cannot find what never existed; the historicity of the Great Flood is a matter of belief, and therefore a subject about which I postpone judgment.

But even if we assume that there was a flood, as our evangelical explorers do, and if we assume that there was an ark and that we can find it, even then they are guilty of some very, very grave errors.

“The team say they recovered wooden specimens from a structure on Mount Ararat in eastern Turkey that carbon dating proved was 4800 years old…”

So, what does this prove? About nothing, I’d say. What are the facts?

  • The Bible does not mention a mountain named Ararat. It says that “the ark rested … upon the mountains of Ararat” (Gen 8.4).
  • This Ararat is the Hebrew version of Urartu, an ancient name for Armenia.
  • When the Bible was translated into Latin, some versions correctly translated “super montes Armeniae” (Vulgate), others referred to “super montes Ararat”.
  • Western explorers like Marco Polo have read this second version and were the first ones to call the volcano known as Ağri Daği “Mount Ararat”.
  • Eastern believers – whether Christians or Muslims or Jews – have never accepted this identification. Instead, they claim that the summit must be near Cizre, which happens to be the site referred to in the Mesopotamian literature.

Those are the facts to which the stupidity of these “evangelical explorers” is immune. I am shocked that it is possible to be so ignorant. Had they read the original Hebrew, they would have known; and most translations make no mistake at this point. The King James Version has translated this correctly, the American Standard Versian has translated this correctly, the World English Bible has translated this correctly. The French Louis Segond, the Dutch Statenvertaling, Luther’s German translation, they all have translated this correctly.

It is pure stupidity, the refusal to read the actual source, not even in a modern translation, that explains why these people went to eastern Turkey. But they are not the only fools. What to think of the foundation that financed this expedition, “Noah’s Ark Ministries International”? What to think of the journalist who wrote down the crap, and gave it additional credibility? What to think of the “Local Turkish officials [who] will ask the central government in Ankara to apply for UNESCO World Heritage status”? I hope they are immune to this stupidity, but I am afraid that they won’t.

Simmons, Peoples of the New Testament World

22 March 2009

What is worse: six hours of claustrophobia in an Airbus 319 or five hours of exposure to Heathrow Airport? As I recently traveled from Tehran to London and Amsterdam, I might have been able to solve one of the greatest scientific problems of our age, but unfortunately, I was too distracted by the final chapters of William A. Simmons’ Peoples of the New Testament World. An Illustrated Guide (2008). It is a book that I can sincerely recommend.

In twenty chapters, the author introduces the reader to, for example, Pharisees, Sadducees, tax collectors, Herodians, centurions, and scribes. Sometimes, the book becomes a social history of ancient society: among the peoples of the New Testament world are trade guilds, slaves and freedmen, clients and patrons too – the chapters devoted to these classes are particularly strong.

Like biblioblogger Jim West, who recommended this book, I was especially impressed by Simmons’ chapter on the sinners: they were not, as I always thought, people who were unable to live up to Pharisaic standards, but “moral profligates who had, by their lifestyle, effectively rejected their religious lifestyle” (p.108).

It may be helpful here to refer to the vulgar professions listed by Cicero (De officiis 1.150): he sums up all kinds of people who have forfeited claims to respect – people like tax collectors, prostitutes, and gladiator. In Rome, these people were kept at some distance: in the theater, amphitheater, and circus they were to sit on the highest tiers, far away from the spectacle and the senators on the first ranks. In ancient Judaea, the sinners were equally excluded, and Jesus’ sharing a meal with them in the name of God must have shocked Jewish sensitivities as much as the emperor Commodus shocked Roman sensitivities when he presented himself as a gladiator.

Time and again, Simmons stresses the importance of the Babylonian capture of Jerusalem, the Exile, and the return in the Persian period. He presents this traumatic experience as the background of the emergence of groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Personally, I would have started the book with the Maccabaean revolt, but Simmons has convincing arguments, although he is aware that the names of those groups do not occur in our sources at this early stage and uses careful expressions like “proto-Pharisees”.

Unfortunately, the book suffers from poor editing. On page 182-183, a part of the text appears to be missing; on pages 36-37, a substantial part is printed twice; the little state Chalcis is consistently called Chalsis, adrogation becomes androgation; Cyrus repeatedly captures the city of Babylon in 538 instead of 539; of the seventeen buildings mentioned on the map of ancient Rome on page 226, fifteen were built after the youngest part of the New Testament was written.

Worse is the unnecessary chapter on Roman emperors, in which I counted dozens of factual errors, some of them especially painful in a book on peoples from the New Testament: e.g., the Colosseum was not financed from assets seized by the emperor Titus, but from the silver and gold captured in Jerusalem. I hope that this chapter will be completely rewritten when this book is reprinted.

A reprint, yes. In spite of the disastrous treatment of the Roman emperors, Peoples of the New Testament World deserves to be reprinted, and it may, with a bit more care, become a handbook used on many schools.