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Quack “Scholars” play to the Christian Gallery over Talpiot Tombs and Ossuaries

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Original Sketch Jonah Ossuary

Professor James D Tabor, professor and chair of religious studies at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, has inspected by robotic camera an apparently undisturbed first century tomb in Jerusalem. It contains limestone Jewish ossuaries, boxes into which the bones of the dead were placed after their flesh had decayed from them. Greek inscriptions and in some cases images suggested to Tabor that the tombs were Christian. Thus a four line Greek inscription on one ossuary speaks of God “raising up” someone, and a carved image on another ossuary could be a fish with a human stick figure in its mouth, an image evoking the biblical story of Jonah.

Sign of Jonah

The sign of Jonah, as mentioned by Jesus—according to Matthew and Luke but not Mark, the earliest gospel—is interpreted as his resurrection. Jonah images in later Christian art, such as images found in the Roman catacombs, are the most common motif found on tombs pesumed to be symbolizing the Christian resurrection hope. Jonah is not depicted in any first century Jewish art, and iconographic images on ossuaries are extremely rare, given the prohibition within Judaism of making images of people or animals.

This ossuary with the speculative Jonah image has other puzzling engravings, believed to be linked with resurrection. On one side is the tail of a fish disappearing off the edge of the box, as if it is diving into the water, although the lower half is not obscured by any symbolic water but merely because it is obscured by some other object in the tomb! There are more small similar “fish” images around its border on the front facing, and on the other side is the image of a cross like gate or entrance, which Tabor interprets as the notion of entering the “bars” of death, which are mentioned in the Jonah story in the Bible. Tabor remarked:

This Jonah ossuary is most fascinating. It seems to represent a pictorial story with the fish diving under the water on one end, the bars or gates of death, the bones inside, and the image of the great fish spitting out a man representing, based on the words of Jesus, the sign of Jonah—the sign that he would escape the bonds of death.

Jonah's Fish Swam Head Down. Is it a Miracle? Or an Amphora?

Among the approximately 2000 ossuaries that have been recovered by the Israel Antiquities Authority, only 650 have any inscriptions on them, and none have inscriptions comparable to those on ossuaries 5 and 6. Less than a dozen ossuaries from the period have epitaphs but, according to Tabor, these inscribed messages usually have to do with warnings not to disturb the bones of the dead. In contrast, though the epitaph’s full translation is uncertain, he concludes:

This inscription has something to do with resurrection of the dead, either of the deceased in the ossuary, or perhaps, given the Jonah image nearby, an expression of faith in Jesus’ resurrection.

The first three lines are clear, but the last line, consisting of three Greek letters, is not clear. It could be:

  • O Divine Jehovah, raise up, raise up
  • The Divine Jehovah raises up to the Holy Place
  • The Divine Jehovah raises up from [the dead]

Beyond the possible Christian connection, Tabor noted that the tomb’s assemblage of ossuaries stands out as clearly extraordinary in the context of other previously explored tombs in Jerusalem:

Everything in this tomb seems unusual when contrasted with what one normally finds inscribed on ossuaries in Jewish tombs of this period. Of the seven ossuaries remaining in the tomb, four of them have unusual features.

There are engravings on five of the seven ossuaries inspected:

  1. an enigmatic symbol on ossuary 2, possibly stylized Greek or Hebrew letters reading Yod Heh Vav Heh or YHWH, though interpretation is speculative
  2. an inscription reading MARA in Greek letters on ossuary 3, which Tabor translates as the Aramaic feminine form of “Lord” or “Master”, in other words Lady or Mistress
  3. an indecipherable word in Greek letters on ossuary 4, possibly a name beginning with JO…
  4. a four line Greek inscription on ossuary 5
  5. a series of images on ossuary 6, including the large image of a fish with the stickman supposedly emerging from its mouth.

Talpiot Tombs

The tomb itself is dated before 70 AD, on the assumption that ossuary use in Jerusalem ceased then when Romans destroyed the city. Accordingly, if the markings are Christian, they are the earliest archaeological record of Christians ever found by several centuries. They must have been made by some of Jesus’s earliest followers, within decades of his death and predate the writing of the gospels. Tabor said:

If anyone had claimed to find either a statement about resurrection or a Jonah image in a Jewish tomb of this period, I would have said impossible, until now. Our team was in a kind of ecstatic disbelief, but the evidence was clearly before our eyes, causing us to revise our prior assumptions.

The discovery is published in The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity, which Tabor has co-authored with the sensationalist film maker for The Discovery Channel, and now somehow, professor of religion, Simcha Jacobovici, as Tabor’s gushing enthusiasm shows. Simcha Jacobovici has made several pseudo-historical pot-boiling books and films before, including the Jesus Family Tomb, but none of them pass muster. He has been compared with Dan Brown, author of the novel, The Da Vinci Code, the significant difference being that Brown claims only to be a novelist. That Jacobovici approves of the comparison must mean something, but Jacobovoci seems to have fooled people who should know better He is the “Naked Archaeologist”, a self publicist and opportunist, not a scholar.

Most proper scholars are skeptical of any Christian archaeological remains from so early a period. Moreover, this tomb is close to the tomb that Jacobovici sold to those willing to buy it as “The Jesus Family Tomb”. It too had in it inscribed ossuaries that had some of the names of Jesus’s associates or family, including one that reads “Jesus, son of Joseph”. These were common names at the time.

The tomb containing the new discoveries is a modest sized, carefully carved rock cut cave tomb typical of Jerusalem in the period from 20 BC until 70 AD. It was revealed in 1981 by builders, and is now several meters under the basement level of a modern condominium building in East Talpiot, a neighborhood of Jerusalem less than two miles south of the Old City. Archaeologists at the time were able to examine it and its ossuaries only briefly, to take preliminary photographs, and to remove one pot and an ossuary, before they were forced to leave by Orthodox religious groups who oppose excavation of Jewish tombs. Tabor points out:

Context is everything in archaeology. These two tombs, less than 200 feet apart, were part of an ancient estate, likely related to a rich family of the time. We chose to investigate this tomb because of its proximity to the so-called Jesus tomb, not knowing if it would yield anything unusual.

The ossuary taken, that of a child, is now in the Israel State Collection. It is decorated but has no inscriptions. The archaeologists mention two Greek names but did not notice either the newly discovered Greek inscription or the Jonah image before they had to leave. The tomb was re-sealed and buried beneath the condominium complex on what is now Don Gruner Street in East Talpiot.

The adjacent “Jesus tomb”, was uncovered by the same construction company in 1980, just one year earlier. It was thoroughly excavated and its contents removed by the Israel Antiquities Authority. This tomb’s controversial ossuaries with their cluster of names, seemingly gospel, are now part of the Israel State Collection and have been on display in various venues, including the Israel Museum.

In 2009 and 2010, Tabor and Rami Arav, professor of archaeology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, working together with Jacobovici, obtained a license to excavate the current tomb from the Israel Antiquities Authority under the academic sponsorship of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Because of its physical location under a modern building, making direct access nearly impossible, along with the threat of Orthodox Jewish groups that would protest any such excavation, Tabor’s team determined to employ a minimally invasive procedure in examining the tomb.

Jacobovici’s team at the Toronto based Associated Producers used a robotic arm with high definition cameras, donated by General Electric. The robotic arm and a second “snake” camera were inserted through two drill holes in the basement floor of the building above the tomb. The team reached the ossuaries and photographed them on all sides, revealing the inscriptions. The Discovery Channel/Vision Television/Associated Producers provided funding.

More Likely Interpretations

Fish or Foul, an Amphora

Needless to say, the speculation that these objects and their interpretation, even if it is correct, pertains to Christianity just a few decades after the supposed crucifixion is rejected by most rational scholars. Mark Goodacre blogs critically about these Discovery Channel sideshows. Another critical website is Tom Verenna’s. The possibility of such a connexion is more likely if the crucifixion was earlier, say around 21 AD, and it is even more likely if the allusions reflect the beliefs extant among Essenes. All this is discussed at the Askwhy! website.

Model Fish? Judaea

Do Christians think that God is trying to trick them?

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Just what is it in the Christian mentality that makes them believe not just impossible things but things for which there is not a germ of reliable evidence, often not a germ of evidence at all other than hearsay? And why do they speak of Christian scholars when they will not take a blind bit of notice of what the scholars say, unless it matches what they have always believed. The askwhy webpages at: Read the rest of this entry »

Written by mikemagee

14 July, 2011 at 9:10 pm

The Essence of Morality

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Ultimately how do you judge what is moral? If morals are supernatural gifts from God, when we are faced with a novel dilemma, we have no way of judging what is the moral way to act. Either God has given us the gift of moral judgement, or He has not—we are good or we are wicked through the grace of God, and our choices depend on that. If, on the other hand, morality is devised by humans living together to provide individual security, then the moral act is the one that causes least harm, or does more good, for other people. A terrorist throws a bomb into a restaurant. He is plainly immoral. He is harming innocent people for his own personal reasons. A waiter falls on to the bomb, smothering the blast with his own body. He dies but saves twenty others. He is a hero. It is an obvious and extreme case, but the morality of it is that, though the waiter lost his own life, he saved all those others. The most extreme such case is that of Christ, whom Christians say died to save the whole of humanity! So, morality is the welfare of other people in society. The instinct is to preserve oneself. That is what a solitary animal would do. The moral animal tries to save others, tries to be a Christ!


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Written by mikemagee

22 June, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Is Religion or Morality the Exaptation?

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Francisco Ayala, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California, Irvine, is reported to have proposed how human morality might have evolved. Ayala is a former Dominican who left the order as soon as he had been ordained and instead studied evolution, becoming an eminent professor. Combining his religious with his science has recently won a lucrative Templeton prize for showing religion and science are compatible.

Now it seems he wants to claim credit for notions of the evolution of morality that have been gaining ground for about two decades, if not between one and two centuries, and which have been extensively covered on the AskWhy! pages. Darwin, in his book The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex, published in 1871, singled out “the moral sense or conscience” as the important difference between humans and other animals.

Along with many zoologists and evolutionary psychologists, Ayala defines moral or ethical behavior as being a human manifestation of empathy, a characteristic of vertebrates from mice to humans—“the actions of a person who takes into account in a sympathetic way the impact the actions have on others”. But Ayala sees morality as consisting of two parts:

  1. the capacity for ethics
  2. the specific moral codes that we follow.

He proposes that, while ethical capacity is a product of biological evolution, moral codes are products of cultural evolution. This more complex theory of morality’s origins is close to Darwin’s perspective.

Many biologists, including sociobiologists, argue that morality is a biologically determined trait. Most philosophers and theologians see morality as a product of cultural evolution and/or religious faith. I distinguish between “the capacity for ethics”, ’ which is biologically determined as a result of biological evolution, and “the moral codes or ethical norms”, which are largely outcomes of cultural evolution, including religious beliefs.

F Ayala

The capacity for moral behavior is not adaptive in itself, but it is a consequence of a higher intellectual ability that is adaptive, being directly promoted through natural selection due to its ability to improve survival rates, such as by allowing us to construct tools, develop hunting strategies, etc. Ayala identifies three abilities as necessary for moral behavior that could have evolved with intelligence:

  1. anticipating the consequences of our actions
  2. evaluating such consequences
  3. choosing accordingly how to act.

While overall intellectual capacities evolved gradually, the three necessary conditions for moral behavior only came about after crossing an evolutionary threshold, as they require abilities such as the formation of abstract concepts. And only after humans possessed all three abilities could we possess a moral capacity.

Morality is therefore not an adaptation but an exaptation, which is when a trait evolves because it served one particular function, but later comes to serve another function, which was not originally the target of natural selection. Once morality evolved as a by product of higher intelligence, it influenced individuals to behave in ways that increased co-operation, benefiting the social group and providing an evolutionary advantage, so that it eventually became an adaptation in and of itself.

Although a kind of natural selection, called group selection, is generally not considered an evolutionary stable strategy, Darwin argued that, unlike other animals, humans can understand the benefits of morality, co-operation, and altruistic behavior. It has inspired us to create laws that enforce the moral codes that benefit our society. The cultural evolution that drives these moral codes is a more effective and faster form of evolution compared with biological evolution, and also explains the diversity of moral codes in different cultures.

If human morality originated both biologically and culturally, it seems unlikely that other animals evolved the same degree of morality in the same way, if at all. Because morality relies on several evolutionary prerequisites that themselves seem unique to humans, it might even be considered one of the human traits that is furthest from the other animals, in accordance with Darwin’s original suggestion. Perhaps, this distinctively human trait could even provide a solution to a distinctively human problem, as Ayala quotes the prominent psychologist Steven Pinker:

Morality is not just any old topic in psychology, but close to our connection of the meaning of life. Moral goodness is what gives each of us the sense that we are worthy human beings.

Morality is a unique human trait, one of the most important and most distinctive traits that characterize humanity. Obviously, it is also overwhelmingly important in determining the welfare of human societies. The distinction I use in characterizing morality—behavior versus norms—can be largely extended to other distinctive human attributes, like religion. We are concerned about the meaning and purpose of life, as a consequence of our exalted intelligence, which came about by biological evolution and allows us to anticipate the future and to know that we will die. But the diversity of religions comes about as the result of cultural—not biological—evolution.

F Ayala

Maybe there is something missing in such a summary of Ayala’s novel contribution, but it is certainly confusing. Pascal Boyer wrote a book about religion that convered most of this ground in some detail from the evolutionary psychological viewpoint, eight years ago (Explaining Religion, 2002), and other scholars (Scott Atran, Jonathan Haight, and others) have also gone into it.

Morality is indeed an adaptation, not an exaptation, but one which supports human sociality, not toolmaking or hunting except insofar as these are improved by our social nature. Sociality, though, has benefits before we get to toolmaking and so on. There is no doubt that social animals generally have the “capacity for ethics”, for the same reason that humans have it. It is true that animals as far removed from us as mice are distressed by another mouse’s distress. That is empathy, and is the basis of morality, the capacity for morality!

Certainly once we were intelligent enough to wonder about our sense of morality, our feelings of guilt or gratitude, we began to rationalize them, and to devise different ways of upholding moral behavior. Religion was one way and law was another. Different cultures have somewhat different approaches. So Ayala is right that culture continues in the case of moral behavior where evolution left off. But there is nothing very profound in that. Religion is the exaption, not morality.

Several pages at the main AskWhy pages cover this, the latest being Religion: a Spandrel…. Original story reported in

Written by mikemagee

8 July, 2010 at 8:58 pm

Listen You Christians!

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You Christians question why I call Christians liars, but you cannot show me why what you say is true… any of it. It is all considered self evident, even though it is rather incoherent. Why should I believe any of it? You want to assure me it is true, but you are Christians, and Christians are liars. Unless you can show me why all this should be believed, then you are a liar. You are telling me that something you do not know is true and cannot show is true is true!

You say Christians are innocent of being liars because they do as their pastors tell them. Why is that an excuse for lying. Are their pastors lying? In my view, if pastors are teaching Christians wrongly, then it is either out of their own ignorance, or it is deliberate. if the latter, they are then lying. If Christians are meant to search and study to find out what is true, then they should do it. What stops them?

How do you know that I haven’t searched and studied but found out that it is all nonsense? You assume that by searching and studying we shall find out that all your stream of fantasy is true, but search and study is more likely to show us that it is all wrong. That is why pastors and priests are liars. They know that anyone who seriously searches and studies will find out that Christianity is lies. Nothing upholds it other than the determination to believe it whatever else might be true. That is considered utterly praiseworthy by the Christian liars, the priests and pastors, because they know it is an absolute barrier to proper searching and studying. Faith means that whatever the searching and studying finds out will be rejected unless it matches the tenets of a preconceived faith.

You Christians like to list things as being unequivocally true, but how do you know they are true? Are you God? You are simply relating something that you read in a book, or perhaps only heard from a priest or pastor. How do you know it is true unless you are God Himself? You do not know. The book might have been written by a devil, but you believe what someone, priest, pastor or parent told you, and they had themselves learnt it from the same types of people. So, none of you know what you are telling others is true. You believe it is true. You have faith it is true, but you do not know it is true. You are all therefore liars. You will see that I try to explain why I call Christians liars, but you cannot tell me why they are not. You cannot give me any sound assurance that your stream of assertions is true. If any of it is, then it is purely by accident that you are telling the truth about those bits, but you have no idea which are the true bits of your assertions and which are false. It is better in such circumstances to take it as all false.

You Christians politely offer to explain what you say I cannot understand. What would be the point of my asking you questions about your falsehoods. All I will get is more falsehoods. You seem certain that God will punish me, and you will be rewarded. What makes you so sure about that? Any God worth His salt will never accept lies or those who tell them. The very basis of goodness is truth and honesty. Christians cannot be relied upon to be either, and they certainly cannot be so relied upon in their own beliefs, because that is all they are… beliefs… unfounded beliefs, simply accepted as being true to justify yourselves. Yet the Devil has all the best tunes, the old saying has it, and you have no idea you are not singing them for him. Hatred can be no part of a good God, but your God hates Jews, and so do you. You may deny it, but Christianity has always thought so.

People might relate untruth simply because they are ignorant, but it is no reason to believe them in their assertions. And no Christian will be corrected. They are ignorant, but are certain from their faith that they are right. They therefore remain liars, and your defence of them is again false. You say Christ was God but do not say why you are so certain, simply giving interminable quotes from the book you take to be true without examination. The book could as easily, more easily, be false than true, and could more easily have been written by wicked men than by God. Such considerations do not impress you, but to ignore them is again to be spreading lies, spreading stories that you simply do not know are true, and that are more likely to be false, as if they were unquestionably true.

Repeatedly you say things are so as if you were God Himself, for only a God could know it. You are presumptious, are you not, to assert what only God knows. Then you tell blatant lies, depending on other people’s trust in you as a supposedly honest Christian and their ignorance of the bible, to say that the scripture affirms that Jesus was not a false prophet, when the scripture does the exact opposite. The false prophet prophesies that which is not true, that which does not happen, and that, the scripture plainly tells us, is what a false prophet is. Jesus said the kingdom of God would happen within a generation, and that then he would return at his parousia. It did not happen, and it does not suffice to say that it will yet happen when it was prophesied two thousand years ago. Plainly God in the Old Testament said that the false prophet would be judged in his own lifetime because they would know within that lifetime the man was a fake, and could punish him. Jesus was a fake. He said he would return. He has not returned. He is a false prophet according to Deuteronomy. That is one reason why Jews will not accept him as their messiah.

You even make your own God into a liar by distinguishing what God said in the Jewish scripture and what he allegedly said as Christ in the Christian scripture. In one of these scriptures, God must be a liar Himself. If Jesus is not a false prophet then an omnipotent God is a liar for defining a false prophet in a way that includes Jesus. If God appeared as a man claiming to be God, then God was lying when He said over and over again in Isaiah that He alone was the saviour. Why would he have been so insistent in Isaiah that He alone could save and claim to be the saviour? Obviously because dishonest and deranged men often claim to be God—they still do! All such men were not the saviour, were not God, and only God could save. Men who claimed otherwise were dangerous crooks or madmen. It is surely obvious, but not to Christians who would rather make out that God was an idiot ignoring His own words and appeared on earth as a man, Jesus, claiming to be a messiah, a son of God.

You tell us God made the ultimate sacrifice, meaning that he allowed Himself to be killed on the cross. But only the human form of God was killed. God was never in any such danger, was He? So how was this charade an ultimate sacrifice? If God really was the ultimate sacrifice, then He is now dead! In fact, a man died for claiming to be a king of the Jews. The Jews thought only God was their king, so this man was claiming to be God. He was doing what God had forbidden, so could not have been God, could he? Jews rejected the claim, but Christians accepted it. You Christians claim you are right, making God a liar, while boasting you tell the truth. Why should I believe you contrary to the evidence? I should not, unless I were an idiot. Christians are liars, but there are a lot of idiots around. They become a new generation of Christians.

Thanks for offering to teach me, but, for me, adding lies to lies cannot make a truth. Try reading the AskWhy! pages. They might help you to see sense, but I cannot imagine you ever will.

Written by mikemagee

24 April, 2010 at 1:25 am