Wednesday, January 17, 2018

The Bible and the “Laws” of Physics

There are many narratives in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament and the New Testament, which demand a willing suspension of disbelief on the part of a twenty-first century person. Educated persons would admit that certain narratives reflect physical impossibilities, and hence they clash with the way things usually work in the world.  For example, in the cycle of stories about the acts of Elisha in Second Kings (chapters 2-13) one finds, among other stories of the same sort, the story of an iron axe head that floated after falling into the Jordan River (6:1-7). Elisha, described as "the man of God," reputedly caused the axe head to rise to the surface by tossing a stick into the water. The claim in the narrative that the axe head floated violates the buoyancy principle of Archimedes of Syracuse (third century BCE) that states: an object will float if it is equal to or less than the amount of water it displaces (that is why aircraft carriers float). The weight of an iron axe head is not equal to or less than the weight of the water it displaces and hence it will not float. And common sense tells us that a stick tossed into the water would have no influence on what is essentially a law of physics.1 In order to think that the narrative describes something that actually happened, readers must suspend disbelief.

Another narrative requiring a suspension of disbelief is the tradition of Joshua causing the sun to stand still in the sky to allow the Israelites to slay all their enemies, the Amorites, at Gibeon (Josh 10:6-14).

And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies. Is this not written in the Book of Jashar? The sun stayed in the midst of heaven, and did not hasten to go down for about a whole day. There has been no day like it before or since (Josh 10:13-14, RSV).

The belief that the sun rises in the east, moves across the sky, and sets in the west, is an ancient superstition, shared by the biblical writers.2 This belief was proven incorrect only in the sixteenth century CE.3 Until that time it was believed that the sun and the planets circled the earth, which held a position in the center of the solar system. In other words they believed that the earth did not move, but today it is common knowledge that the earth moves in an elliptical movement around the sun.

The New Testament also has narratives defying reason, logic, and explanation as an actual historical event. For example, Jesus is represented as feeding five thousand people with five loaves and two fish; the account appears in all four canonical gospels (Mark 6:32-44; Matt 14:13-21; Luke 9:10-17; John 6:1-15). In the narrative everyone eats their fill and twelve baskets of food fragments are left over. The story depicts two logical impossibilities. While five loaves and two fish can each be divided into amounts tiny enough to pass out to five thousand people, it is physically impossible that every person would be satiated from eating the tiny amount that they would have received (Mark 6:42; Matt 14:20; Luke 9:17; John 6:12) or that there would be twelve baskets full of fragments left over after the feeding (Mark 6:43; Matt 14:20; Luke 9:17; 6:13).4

Narratives like these, which require a suspension of disbelief by most of us, are nevertheless accepted as a normal part of reality by the deeply pious; they have a high degree of confidence in the Bible and simply dismiss the idea that the event could not have happened by asserting: the Bible says it; I believe it; that settles it—as if the story about how we came by the Bible5 has no impact on the relative value of its ideas. Others offer a slightly more sophisticated theory to explain away some of the problems: God is in control of the universe; therefore God can do whatever God chooses in the universe. This latter statement disregards how the universe is thought to work in secular society; those who live by this statement are simply changing "reality" to correspond to their religious faith. A third way of handling problems  in biblical narratives requiring a suspension of disbelief rejects the "laws" of physics by arguing the universe is not a closed system but rather an open system. Hence in the view of those who believe in miracles physical "laws" are only general rules that are sometimes suspended leaving open the possibility that miracles can occur.

Was Archimedes wrong and Jesus really did walk on the water?

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica, "Archimedes' Principle":

2For example, Gen 15:12; Exod 17:12; Jdg 14:18; 2 Chron 18:34; Matt 5:45; Mark 16:2; Eph 4:26.

3George Abell, Exploration of the Universe, 34-53.

4Compare similar stories about Elijah and Elisha in 1 Kgs 17: 8-16 (the jar of meal and the cruse of oil) and 2 Kgs 4:1-7 (the jar of oil). Each story contrasts limited amounts at the beginning and the abundant residue at the end exceeding that with which the story began.

5The Bible is a product of modern biblical scholarship. See the two brief descriptions of the science of textual criticism, which is basic to all critical approaches to the Bible: Fuller, "Text Criticism, OT," NIDB, 531-34; Holmes, "Text Criticism, NT" NIDB, 529-31.

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Superstition, Magic, and the Bible

There is an unusual statement in Acts 19:11-12. It is no more than a brief aside having little connection with the narrative in which it is embedded:

And God did extraordinary miracles (dunameis) by the hands of Paul so that handkerchiefs or aprons were carried away from his body to the sick, and diseases left them and the evil spirits came out of them (Acts 19:11-12, RSV).

The statement immediately plunges the reader into the occult world of ancient magic, superstition, and religious fetishes. The author that scholars call Luke1 describes God as performing extraordinary deeds through the hands of Paul, so that handkerchiefs (soudaria) or aprons (simikinthia) that touched his body (chrōtos) were taken to the sick and demon possessed. As a result of contact with the cloth objects that had touched Paul, these people were healed and purged of evil spirits (Acts 19:12).

            The principle involved in the account seems to be that of healing and exorcism from a distance by "miraculous" power from the objects themselves rather than by an exorcist or healer or intervention by a supernatural deity. Thus it wasn't Paul who healed and exorcised. It was rather a power transferred from Paul's body that came to reside in the cloths that effectuated the cures and the exorcisms. The power, originating with God and working through Paul, passed from Paul to the cloths. The healings and exorcisms are thus not described as healing acts directly from God or from Paul, but rather from what appear to be religious fetishes having miraculous power in themselves.

            The account in Acts nineteen is similar to the woman's belief in Matt 9:20-21. She is described as believing that if she could only "touch the fringe of [Jesus'] garment," she could be made well. That is to say, she is represented as thinking that the garment touching the body of Jesus possessed that same power by which Jesus is credited with performing his mighty deeds. In this same way the author of Acts appears to believe that healing power also resided in things Paul touched. The transfer of power in the Acts account is similar to Paul's idea that holiness can be transferred from a believing partner to an unbelieving partner in a marriage, so that the children would not be "unclean" (1 Cor 7:13-14; compare 1 Cor 6:15-16 where the transference seems to work the other way).

            A kind of primitive supernatural power is described as being at work in the Acts account. Anthropologists have adopted the term mana, a Melanesian term (there are others), "as a convenient designation for the widespread belief in occult force or indwelling power as such, independent of either persons or spirits…Taken together all such terms refer to the experienced presence of a powerful but silent force in things, especially any occult force which is believed to act of itself, as an addition to the forces naturally or usually present in a thing…It is a force that is thought to be transmissible from objects in nature to man, from one person to another, or again from persons to things."2

            Broadly speaking the brief aside in Acts 19:11-12 suggests the operation of a kind of primitive magic in which the objects taken from the body of Paul themselves become the source of a supernatural power, which cures diseases and drives out evil spirits.3 Magic is defined as:

the use of means (as ceremonies, charms, spells) that are believed to have supernatural power to cause a supernatural being to produce or prevent a particular result (as rain, death, healing) considered not obtainable by natural means and that also contain the arts of divination, incantation, sympathetic magic, and thaumaturgy: control of natural forces by the typically direct action of rites, objects, materials or words considered supernaturally potent.4

This brief narrative aside appears to document the practice of a primitive magic in the early Jesus gatherings. If the early followers of Jesus did practice a kind of primitive magic in their communities that negatively affects the relevance of the Bible's beliefs for the modern world, and creates the problem of sorting out in a formal way the Bible's relevant ideas from the irrelevant.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

1This is because Acts is believed to have been written by the same author that wrote Luke.
2Noss, Man's Religions, 16. A belief in mana is one of fourteen common features of primitive religions (pages 14-31).
3Magic was pervasive in antiquity; see Betz, Greek Magical Papyri; and Meyer and Smith, Ancient Christian Magic.
4Webster's Third International Dictionary, s. v., "magic."