Notes on the Problem of Evil

For the purposes of this post I shall define God as an omnipotent, omniscient creator being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings. This definition includes, but is not limited to the Judeo-Christian God.

Why is it important that I begin by pointing out these characteristics of God? Because a God with these characteristics necessitates the problem of evil. An omnipotent being can do anything to stop evil, an omniscient being knows the details of all the evil that is happening at all times, and how to stop it, and a being with a vested interest in mankind and the individual welfare of human beings should be stopping evil. The attribute of creator is also important because God created conditions in which evil can exist in the first place.

These divine characteristics are not uncommonly attributed to God. In fact I’d posit that the God of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam necessarily has these characteristics. The problem of evil asks; given these attributes why isn’t God doing anything to stop evil?

The standard theistic response to this is called the free-will defence. This states that moral evils are caused by the actions of free agents—a trait that God gave to us thus meaning we are responsible for our action rather than him. If we grant this, I shall argue that it does not do much to get around the problem of evil. So for the time being I shall grant that the evils committed by moral agents are not in God’s control because he gave us the free will to decide whether to be good or bad.

Lets look first at what makes someone a moral agent. I put forth that it requires at least two things; understanding of the potential harm or benefit of one’s action or inaction, and then acting (or not acting) deliberately, having considered these things. What we consider morally good actions are those in which the actor has considered the harm and benefit of their actions and deliberately acted in a way that is beneficial. Morally evil actions would be the same but with the actor deliberately deciding to act in a harmful way.

Where we arrive at a separate facet of the problem of evil is when we apply this criteria of moral agency to God. The act of creation by an omniscient being is a moral action because he already knew all of the potential harm caused by his creating the universe. Being omnipotent allows us to contend that God could have created a universe with no suffering, but chose not to, so we cannot posit that God had no choice but to create a world with suffering. Everything that happens in this universe could either have been prevented from the start, or stopped from occurring (excluding for the sake of this argument the free actions of human beings). This means that God decided to create a universe in which earthquakes, drought, disease, viruses, parasites, cancer, and so on can occur, and then failed to prevent them from occurring. This is the heart of the problem of evil. It’s not necessarily about human evil, it’s about a God who allows his creation to harm and inflict suffering on innocent people, and doesn’t do anything to stop it—in fact he created the universe in such a way that it happens regularly. The atheist has a difficult time making this fit with the idea of a loving God that has an interest in the individual welfare of human beings. It seems to be yet another problem that occurs from the application of inherently contradictory attributes to a being.

These kind of issues are often dealt with by positing that these horrible sufferings occur with some greater purpose in mind. The problem still stands though. God can do anything. Therefore he can arrive at any outcome without suffering. So he still has no morally acceptable reason to allow these things to happen. It is also worth pointing out that God having a plan with a predetermined outcome is in contradiction with the idea of us having free will. Free will entails that all our actions are entirely our own, that they are not presided over by someone tweaking things and manipulating history towards a particular end. If we have free will then God’s plan could fail. But why would God put the universe in such weird jeopardy? At this point it is worth stepping back and realising what we are positing here. A being who created us and gave us free will is engaged in trying to steer history towards his desired outcome in spite of the fact that he could have just had his desired outcome from the start, and he certainly could achieve it without any suffering. It turns our universe into a strange battleground between our free will and God’s ultimate plan. A battle in which suffering and pain—though preventable—are inevitable. Why would God create this scenario? Even if we don’t have free will and everything happens according to his plan, why is God playing weird vanity games with sentient life? It’s all rather unnecessary and it creates a sinister picture of God—which is a problem when you claim that he is unconditionally loving of all beings.

This is the problem of evil. If God exists—no matter how you look at it—the existence of pain and suffering in the world is preventable. The only reason it can persist is if God is not loving, or if God is impotent. This conclusion is true regardless of whether or not we include human free will. In my opinion this is the strongest argument against the Judeo-Christian God. If anybody thinks that I have made any mistakes in my case, has any criticism, or wishes to rebut anything I’ve said feel free to post in the comment thread.


Know Your Bones: January 2016

Well, last month no one took a guess at the challenge. I am chocking that up to the up-tick in activity the blog has had recently and the holidays. Because of that and the fact that I am feeling very lazy, I am just going to repost the same challenge for this month.


 photo 2013-12-27110604_zps44be6f46.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Good luck again to everyone that plays and have a happy 2016 everyone!

A Response to Islamophobia

Let’s first begin with a definition of the term Islamophobia. I posit that Islamophobia is the irrational prejudice against Muslims, often revolving around an idea that Islam as a whole is violent in nature due to the occurrence of terrorism among a minority of Muslims.

There are some who posit that this is just a made up word that is used to discourage any kind of criticism of Islam. The first thing to point out is that all words are made up, it is what tends to be done when a new thing occurs that needs a concise description. To say a word is made up and therefore cannot be describing something real makes no sense. Secondly it’s not true that it was invented to discourage criticism of Islam, it is meant to discourage criticisms based off a bigoted and prejudiced view of Islam. No secular person is going to have a problem with you putting forth a well reasoned argument as to why you think the Qu’ran is not divinely inspired. The problem is when people like Sam Harris advocate that we profile people who ‘look Muslim’ (whatever that means) at airports because being Muslim inherently makes you suspect according to him.

Of course as with any word it is going to get misapplied and misused, but this does not negate the fact that Islamophobia is a very real phenomena, and is becoming increasingly prevalent in society. If you are not convinced that the above definition relates to an actual phenomena, take a look at the following examples:

This list is by no means exhaustive. Anti-Muslim hate crime is rampant across the Europe and the US. In the face of these facts you cannot deny that there is an irrational hatred and fear of Muslims that is aptly described by the term Islamophobia. Obviously it is not just something that is expressed in violent crime and abuse. By far the most pervasive form of Islamophobia is in it’s rhetoric. With people like Sam Harris insisting that Islam is somehow an existential threat to civilization or Donald Trump advocating for a ban on Muslims from entering the US.

In my opinion perhaps the main issue that aids the growth of Islamophobia is the mainstream media, and what it chooses to report. We only ever hear about Islamic terror attacks, thus it is easy for us to develop a misguided belief that this is a characteristic of Islam rather than an anomaly. This, combined with a lack of education on Islam provides fertile ground for the development of Islamophobic views. One thing that is often said is that moderate Muslims do not do enough to speak out against terror. This is demonstrably untrue:

(Again, not an exhaustive list)*

Muslims do more than enough to speak out against terrorism. Failure to do elemental research before making a claim is a characteristic of bigotry. Having said all that, why should they have to speak out in order to prove that your assumptions about them are incorrect? They have no more obligation to condemn it than your average Christian has to condemn the Westboro Baptist Church. They might want to of their own accord, but they shouldn’t have to just to educate ignorant morons who can’t be bothered to do elemental research. If someone says “all Christians are like the Westboro Baptist Church” does that mean all Christians are obligated to now speak out against the WBC in order to prove this moron wrong? Of course not. In the case of Islam people are speaking out, all the time, and it still doesn’t change people’s views.

As with Christianity, Islam is incredibly diverse. A brief glance at this Wiki page will demonstrate just how diverse. Extremely conservative sects such as Salafism are prone to extremist interpretations, but it is important to note that this is but one of many diverse sects. It is also worth adding as a side note that an ally of the West; Saudi Arabia uses it’s extreme wealth (a lot of which comes from us) to export Wahhabism (the strict Saudi form of Salafism) across the world—a contributing factor to the rise of ISIS. Politics aside however, the point is that Islam contains a wide variety of interpretations, only a very small subset of which promote extremism.

It is for this reason that pulling quotes out of the Qu’ran doesn’t prove anything. You can find horrendous abhorrent things in the Bible, but you’d be hard pressed to find many Christians that believe it, or act upon it—many won’t even know it’s in there. The same goes for the Qu’ran. Just because you can find something in there that appears to condone violence, it doesn’t necessarily follow that all Muslims believe it. Religions are complex things, we can appreciate this when we talk about Christianity, why is it so difficult to accept when it comes to Islam?

Islam is a religion, not a race is a catchphrase you hear a lot in this debate. I don’t see how that is relevant though, all it really suggests is that Islamophobes are bigoted in a different way than racists are. Well done! Although in many instances this is not true—hence why attacks on Sikhs have risen along with the rise of Islamophobia. If you have brown skin, a beard and a turban you must be Muslim according to some. Demonstrating a link between racist views and Islamophobia.

It is often asserted that the left are inventing the term Islamophobia in order to limit the free expression of those who are just out there to criticise ideas. This not true. Criticise ideas all you want, no one is going to call you an Islamophobe if you want to write an article about how you don’t think that Muhammad was divinely inspired (assuming it doesn’t make broad generalizations about all Muslims or insults them unnecessarily). If, however, you are going to advocate social policies that are inherently discriminatory against Muslims, or ramble about how moderate Muslims do not do enough to condemn terrorism (despite this being demonstrably false) thereby implying that all Muslims are terrorist sympathisers then you are an Islamophobe and you deserve to be called out on it.

Of course Islamic terrorism is evil, and should be condemned in the strongest possible terms, but we shouldn’t allow it to fill us with so much hatred and fear that we completely abandon our critical faculties. Sadly it seems many already have. This is not a case of uber-left-wing people pandering to extremists through fear of reprisals if they so much as venture the slightest criticism of Islam. It’s simply reasonable people trying to tell those who are caught in an epidemic of scaremongering that they have blown things out of proportion and should think before they make sweeping generalizations. Islamophobia is a real and very disturbing phenomena and it needs to be spoken out against.


* I realise that I appear to contradict my assertion that we only hear about Islamic terror attacks in the news by posting a list of news sources that report Muslims speaking out against terror, however I do not believe these stories are as widely spread, or given as much time as stories about terror attacks. Terror attacks are always front page news, these stories aren’t.

A Quest For The Historical Jesus Part 2: A Review of Richard Carrier’s On The Historicity Of Jesus

In my last post in this series I described how in my opinion the best argument I had heard for the historicity of Jesus did not stand up to scrutiny. The next step in my quest I had decided was to read what has been hailed to be the best case for mythicism that has so far been put out there, to see whether it was convincing. That case being On the Historicity of Jesus by Dr. Richard Carrier. In this post I shall review his book and summarize where I now stand on the issue of whether or not Jesus was a historical being after having read it.

On the Historicity of Jesus is a peer reviewed scholarly work with extensive footnotes and references to the latest literature. Do not let that put you off however, I had little to no prior knowledge of the subjects covered before starting and I found it easy to follow. That being said this is not a casual bedtime read, it requires concentration, but no more so than any book containing lots of information.

Carrier begins by positing a hypothesis of minimal historicity and a hypothesis of minimal myth. ‘Minimal’ meaning the basic tenets that if shown to be false would collapse the entire hypothesis. Minimal historicity is that there was a man named Jesus who gained devout followers during his life, these followers continued to expound his teachings and theology beyond Jesus’s execution at the hands of the authorities. Eventually some of his followers began to worship Jesus as a God. Minimal myth posits that Jesus began as a celestial entity who endured incarnation, suffering and death in a supernatural realm (as did the gods of many pagan mystery cults at the time). Jesus communicated with his followers via visions, dreams etc. At some point Christians began to create allegorical myths about Jesus as a historical entity. These were eventually believed to be accounts of a real earthly person.

The remainder of the book sets out to use Bayes Theorem (described in his previous book Proving History) as a method to analyse the background knowledge and evidence in terms of its likelihood to exist on each hypothesis. This is done first by analysing the background evidence, that is; all of the cultural, religious, political knowledge that pertains to the origins of Christianity. In these sections we learn about the dying and rising saviour gods that were prevalent in many cultures around the time that Christianity emerged. We also learn that a suffering Messiah was not actually anathema to the Jews, and that Christianity was a perfect response to the Roman occupation of Judea and the corruption of the Jewish temple cult. There is a heck of a lot of information in these sections, all of it fascinating and enlightening. The information is divided into numbered elements which make for easy reference when anything is bought up later on in the book, something that made it very easy for me to follow.

The analysis of the background data concludes with an unusual fact, that Jesus scores very highly on the Rank-Raglan list. This is essentially a list of qualities that were common to a lot of mythical entities. Carrier notes that there are no known historical people who score over half of the items on the list, Jesus scores 20 out of 22. The odds that a historical person would also be a Rank-Raglan hero are therefore very low.

We are then taken on a tour of the evidence in the following order. Extra-Biblical evidence – of which there is nothing that confirms Jesus as a historical figure (excluding interpolations such as those in Josephus), at best the mentions of Jesus in extra-Biblical sources are not independent of the Gospels and are therefore not usable evidence. Acts – which is shown to be largely historical fiction, with some oddities that may be better explained on mythicism than historicism. The Gospels – which are repeatedly shown to be allegorical fiction and therefore we are unable to derive any useful historical information from them even if there is any contained therein. Then finally the Epistles – which are curiously lacking in any historical details about Jesus as an earthly person.

All throughout his analysis Carrier is granting as favourable odds towards historicism as he feels able. Arguing a fortiori as he calls it. Even given this overly generous approach historicism does not come out well when the figures are punched in to the Bayes equation.

This method, of arguing a fortiori is what sealed the deal for me. Even if we bend over backwards to allow for extremely generous odds in favour of historicism, it still doesn’t come out on top. I can safely say that this book has pushed me from the agnostic camp to the mythicist. That being said, I am not in a position to check all of Carrier’s source material, or look up any of the scholarship that might argue against his points. What this book desperately needs is a rebuttal, with the best case for historicism yet. Preferably in a similar accessible style so lay people can assess both. As things stand though On The Historicity Of Jesus is pretty damning of any case for the existence of a historical Jesus. Until such a time comes that someone puts out a sound rebuttal to it, I must say I am firmly with Carrier in his conclusion: Jesus probably did not exist.

On the Historicity of Jesus is precisely what mythicism needed in order to be taken seriously. One can only hope that it will be treated with the respect that it truly deserves. When I dived into the book I was expecting, or hoping to find some weak links in his case, but I really didn’t. The only arguments that I was unsure about were treated in favour of historicity as far as the probabilities went (this being the possibility that the Epistles mentioned Jesus’s brother), and the case for historicity did not triumph because of it. All in all, whether you are a staunch historicist, an agnostic on the matter, or a curious mythicist I would definitely recommend this book.

I really cannot fault this book, and therefore score it:



Know Your Bones: December 2015

Last month’s challenge brought out a few good guesses and two that were correct. However, like so many other times, only one person was the most correct. Last month that happened to be our resident paleontologist Isotelus with the more correct answer.


A phytosaur; I know there’s some reassigning going on, so Pseudopalatus/Machaeroprosopus? I don’t know species names, at least not for this genus.


This critter is indeed Machaeroprosopus buceros formally known as Pseudopalatus buceros. Red identified the wrong species name and I was unaware when I picked the critter that its genus had changed. Thus, Isotelus should get extra kudos. Honestly, I picked this obscure critter mainly so WarK would not get a third victory in a row.


 photo 2015-11-13 10.17.46_zpssyixbclr.jpg

(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


M. buceros lived during the late Triassic 205 million years ago and is found only in New Mexico. However, Machaeroprosopus species are found through out the southwest of the U.S. M. buceros grew to 3-4 meters as adults. M. buceros was an aquatic predator that would have lived its life much like a modern crocodilian, which is catching fish or ambushing prey at the shoreline. During the late Triassic, a giant swamp covered most of what is now the modern southwest of the U.S. Several different species of aquatic predator are found throughout this area and time range.


 photo 2014-01-10095114_zps1f2ad95b.jpg

(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Even though it looked very similar to modern crocodilians, M. buceros was a phytosaur, which are only distantly related to crocodiles, making this a classic case of convergent evolution. One of the easiest ways to tell the difference between a crocodilian and a phytosaur is where the nasal aperture is located. On a phytosaur, the nasal aperture is located on the back of the head near the eyes, while a crocodilian’s nasal aperture is located on the tip of their snouts. The specimens of M. buceros show sexual dimorphism in the skulls. There is a robust morph believed to be male and a gracile morph believed to be female. This is mainly based on our observations of crocodilians and their sexual dimorphism in which the males are the larger of the two.


Moving on to next month’s challenge:


 photo 2013-12-27110604_zps44be6f46.jpg

(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Good luck to everyone that plays.

Why Atheism Should Be Taught In Religious Studies

This week we had news that secular views being left out of GSCE Religious Studies was a mistake. Of course this has got some conservative commentators backs up. Why should we teach non-religion in classes about religion? To answer that first we should ask why we are teaching children about religions in the first place. Clearly, or at least hopefully we don’t teach Religious Studies in order that children can decide which is the right one, or be told what to believe. We do it to encourage harmony and understanding. So we don’t remain ignorant and all become massive Islamophobes (although I’m not sure that is working out so well).

In light of this, it is very important to educate people about those who have no religion at all. To complete our set of understanding. No one is advocating that Religious Studies classes teach kids that God is imaginary, just that people are made aware of what atheists are all about and why. To neglect this is to leave people open to all sorts of nonsense that gets said about atheists by the religious. That atheists have no morals for example, or that atheists believe in nothing. The only way to counter such misinformation is to educate people. If Religious Studies has a purpose at all, it is to nurture understanding between faiths and beyond to the irreligious. Otherwise there is really no use in teaching it.

I also think that it should not be called Religious Studies, but rather Philosophy and Ethics or some more inclusive title. Again not to marginalize religion, but to encourage an understanding of world views that extend beyond religion and the broader context in which religions and philosophies interplay and relate to each other. Just teaching kids what each different religion believes is not truly insightful. It would serve us all well to learn about the cultural context in which these beliefs evolved. It doesn’t undermine belief in Christianity to learn about Jewish Messianism and the Roman occupation of Judea (and subsequent corruption or perceived corruption of the Jewish temple authorities), but it surely teaches us something about humanity, our history and how we cope with change. We would all do better if we were educated on all different kinds of Philosophies and their cultural and historical heritage, a vital part of that is those who have rejected religious belief in favour of a rational and empirical world view.

This is not a case of sneering liberals wanting to turn your children into God-hating communists. Its about giving the next generation the best possible understanding of what it is to be human, our struggles, and cultural heritage in the hope that it will iron out any prejudice and tribalism. Really, including atheism in Religious Studies should be the first in a step towards teaching a broader humanities subject. Not because we want to remove religion from your children’s lives, but because religion doesn’t have the monopoly on things humans believe and should therefore only comprise a part of their education on the subject.

UPDATE 04/12/2015 – It has been pointed out to me that I was perhaps unclear about my usage of the term atheism. To be clear I do refer to the wider definition that is probably better defined as Secular Humanism that simply atheism—which could apply to religions such as Buddhism. So whenever I use the term atheism in the context of it being taught as part of a Religious Studies syllabus, I mean Secular Humanist views, not just lack of belief in God.

Chemostratigraphy shows the geologic column is no flood deposit

The one thing that bugs me about creationism is they rarely put forth any real research (and what they do make is usually revealed to be crap based on shoddy data). They love to point out anomalies such as soft tissue remnants in fossils and claim that it’s flat out impossible for it to be there if the fossils are ancient. There’s no good reason to think this, as the processes which form the rock are far better established than long term tissue decay rates in dinosaur fossils.

But what I consistently notice is they’ll use things like soft tissue to try and advocate their position must be right by default. I mean, how else would you explain these discoveries???

I don’t know. Scientists are only just beginning to find out what mechanisms may play a role in preserving tissue remnants over long periods of time. But what needs to be made absolutely clear, and that creationists just can’t seem to get, is that even if we don’t know how these anomalies came to be, that does not prove their global flood at all. The simple fact is their global flood idea has been falsified over and over, and over, and over again. A falsified model, which I will show as conclusively falsified below, is not the answer.

Now then, how do we know, conclusively, that a global flood as advocated by YECs never happened? It’s all due to this lovely branch of geology known as Chemostratigraphy.

Chemostratigraphy is the study of the chemical variations within sedimentary sequences to determine stratigraphic relationships.(1.) This obscure subdiscipline in geology completely undermined every young-Earth interpretation of the geologic column. Before reading any further, I’d highly advise reading the crash course on chemostratigraphy at AgeofRocks.

To sum it up, Chemostratigraphers can use the ratios of certain stable isotopes, such as Carbon 12 or 13, to determine the chemical make ups of rocks and graph them stratigraphically. Often this is because the isotope ratios will record certain events from the time periods when the rocks were laid down, such as the carbon levels in the ocean.

Here’s the analogy from AgeofRocks:

Perhaps the best way to illustrate isotopes of carbon in the ocean is with a bowl of red and green M&M’s, where each color corresponds to a different stable isotope of carbon. For the sake of discussion, this bowl contains precisely 50% green M&M’s (light carbon) and 50% red M&M’s (heavy carbon), for a ratio of 1:1. Now, imagine you leave the room and return later to find that the ratio has shifted to 0.9:1.1, meaning the bowl has been enriched in red M&M’s. There are two possibilities that could explain the shift: either someone added a sample containing more than 50% red M&M’s, or someone removed a sample containing less than 50% red M&M’s. Perhaps you have a child, therefore, who prefers one color to the other, so every handful he takes is biased to that color. This process will leave the bowl preferentially enriched in the other color. If every handful contained precisely half green and half red M&M’s, then the ratio of green to red in the bowl would never change. Likewise, any process that removes carbon from the ocean will change the δ13C value of oceanic carbon, so long as the isotopic ratio of the sample differs from that in the bulk ocean.

Typically, we can use index fossils and radiometric dating alongside stratigraphy to determine that, for example, a rock layer in Nevada is the same age as a rock layer in southern China (perhaps they both contain a unique assemblage of Cambrian-aged trilobites). According to a flood geologist, these layers were deposited in a single year around 5000 years ago. However, they were not necessarily deposited [i]simultaneously[/i]. So, if the fossils are in the same order, it has to be due to hydrological sorting or ecological zonation. Regardless of how the order arose, one thing is certain: if these marine organisms were all buried in a global flood, then all of them made their shells from the [i]same ocean and the same reservoir of carbon with approximately the same isotopic ratio.[/i] So when fossilized shells of trilobites, brachiopods, mollusks, etc. are analyzed across the Phanerozoic (542 Ma – Present) for carbon isotopes, flood geology would predict that the levels of carbon found in all of these animals, regardless of where in the column, should have an equal amount of the same isotopes.

But this is not what we see. (3.) Instead, what we see are patterns of fluctuating isotopes. This is best illustrated by the graph from Veizer et al.,

The graph shows that the carbon-isotope ratio in carbonate fossils—and therefore the ocean itself—varied substantially over the past 500 million years. This is in direct conflict with what one would expect had these fossils all been laid down by a single flood. Because the carbon reservoir in the ocean is so large (today, about 39,000 billion tons of carbon), the color of this bowl of M&M’s does not change appreciably on a whim—certainly not in the space of a 370 days. It takes time. Thus, chemostratigraphy leaves the creationist idea of a global flood dead in the water.

To be through, I’ll use the possible immediate objections to chemostratigraphy here, with refutations:

The flood caused wild variation in carbon isotopes!

Variations in the carbon-isotope ratios of fossils are far too great to be explained by shifting ocean chemistry within a single year, meaning these organisms could not have lived in the same ocean at the same time. See the attached graphic above. There would also need to be a mechanism for the addition and removal of massive amounts of carbon isotopes (2.), making the idea even less likely.

What’s more, the pattern of carbon-isotope variations from Cambrian to Quaternary is the same across the entire globe. Whether you’re sampling rocks from Texas or Tanzania, layers of limestone determined to be the same age according to their fossil content also exhibit the same pattern of δ13C values over time. These values are invariably high for Permian-aged carbonates and invariably low for Ordovician-aged carbonates.Consider the fact that in order to increase the oceanic δ13C value by only 5‰ requires a sustained doubling in the rate of organic carbon burial for about 1 million years. There is no reason for any proposed fluctuations in the flood to have been spread out evenly across these deposits all over the globe, especially not if all the sediment (and any carbon by extension) was getting mixed up prior to deposition. The values should be highly variable, not identical across the globe.

The animals in these areas prior to the flood lived in unique basins with different carbon ratios. Therefore, seeing their values varied like this should be expected.

If variations between one part of the ocean and another could account for trends in carbon isotopes, then we shouldn’t find the same temporal trends in different parts of the world (e.g. China vs. North America vs. Australia). Also, we find carbon isotope values changing significantly within the lifetime of single species (e.g. of Cambrian trilobites (4.) ), so one couldn’t claim that all those trilobites just lived in a unique basin prior to the flood. In every environment, the relative change in carbon isotopes correlates well from one site to the next. Finally, we can examine both carbon and strontium isotope trends to ensure that carbon variations weren’t limited to a unique environment (strontium isotopes don’t vary from one basin to the next). (2.)

Chemostratigraphy provides the final falsification of a global flood depositing all of the geologic column. It instead provided a wonderful opportunity to examine the chemical environment of Earth’s past and is a testament to an ancient world.






The Quest for the Historical Jesus Part 1: Awkward Facts or Overambitious Tales?

Several months ago, before I really cared that much about the issue I would have conceded that there more than likely was a historical figure behind Christianity. Recently though, in one of those YouTube suggested video clicking journeys I winded up on a talk by Richard Carrier* who rather eloquently put forth the argument that Jesus was a mythical figure who was later written into history (euhemerism). I originally dismissed this idea because the field is so fully of quackery and conspiracy (see Zeitgeist), but Carrier highlighted another more scholarly and well reasoned side of the movement. I am far from having made my mind up on the issue, and I have a lot of reading to do, but something about the question has piqued my interest and I wanted to share with you my findings on the quest for the historical Jesus as they arise and the conclusions that I draw from them in a series of blog posts on the subject.


If you were to have asked me previously why I thought that Jesus was a historical figure I would have probably paraphrased the argument that the late Christopher Hitchens made in God Is Not Great:

“[…] the jumbled “Old” Testament prophecies indicate that the Messiah will be born in the city of David, which seems indeed to have been Bethlehem. However, Jesus’s parents were apparently from Nazareth and if they had a child he was most probably delivered in that town. Thus a huge amount of fabrication—concerning Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius—is involved in confecting the census tale and moving the nativity scene to Bethlehem (where, by the way, no “stable” is ever mentioned). But why do this at all, since a much easier fabrication would have had him born in Bethlehem in the first place, without any needless to-do? The very attempts to bend and stretch the story may be inverse proof that someone of later significance was indeed born, so that in retrospect, and to fulfil the prophecies, the evidence had to be massaged to some extent.”

God Is Not Great page 114-115

This does at first glance seem rather convincing. Why on Earth would both Matthew and Luke go to great lengths to get Jesus of Nazareth to Bethlehem? A plausible explanation is that it was a response to criticism, that people looked at the scriptures and noted that if Jesus—a known Nazarene—was the Messiah he would have been born in Bethlehem not Nazareth. From this we can derive the conclusion that Jesus was a historical individual. For the interests of clarity I shall henceforth refer to this as the Nazarene argument. 

Before discussing this further let us establish some facts that pertain to this argument. With one fact in particular that impacts how we perceive the conclusion of the argument.

Matthew refers to a prophecy about Nazareth

Matthew 2:23 states:

 and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene.


Scholars are unsure as to which prophecy this refers

Though there are plausible contenders (of which one I shall posit is a likely explanation) there is no definitive agreement as to which (if any) prophecy the above verse refers.

Matthew mentions a prophecy with regards to Jesus being a Nazarene, but we have no idea to what he is referring, though there are some candidates. This is all we can legitimately say that we know with regards to the term being applied to Jesus in the notoriously unreliable Gospels. Although the term is used in Mark which pre-dates Matthew, Matthew is heavily derivative of Mark and it could be that Mark used to term assuming that the reader already knew the prophecy to which Matthew refers.


Let’s now look at hypotheses as to why Matthew refers to a prophecy about Nazareth in light of the fact that people can’t seem to agree on what he is referring to:

1. Matthew could simply be fraudulently claiming there to be a prophecy that did not exist.

This is plausible, but it is unlikely considering the motive ascribed by the Nazarene argument. If the author of Matthew was addressing criticism about a Messiah claim not fulfilling prophecy, this critique is likely to have been delivered by people who were aware of scripture and prophecy. Thus we are required to believe that Matthew boldly claimed there was a prophecy when his critics would easily have retorted that there wasn’t. If there was no prophecy and Matthew knew this, there is no motive for making it up (at least in the context of addressing a criticism) he might simply have said “he was born in Bethlehem as spoken by the prophets, then he lived in a town called Nazareth which is why he is known as a Nazarene.” I don’t think this completely rules out this possibility, Matthew may have been extremely bold, or fabricated it with a different motive. However, I find this an unconvincing hypothesis as any criticism would be sufficiently addressed by the narrative without a fabricated prophecy, if anything a fabricated prophecy would make his case weaker (if we assume that the Nazarene argument is true).

This hypothesis explains the lack of consensus as to where this supposed prophecy lies, but it ignores the complications associated with positing a fraudulent claim.

2. Matthew was referring to a known prophecy

As mentioned previously there are possible candidates for verses that were interpreted as a prophecy about Nazareth. He may have been referencing a line in Isaiah 11:1 which in English reads as:

“Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit.”

In Hebrew the word for branch is ne-tzer . Hebrew, being a consonantal language—with vowels not being indicated in ancient text—it may have been possible to read this word in Greek as Nazarene. The significance of this being that the branch (Nazarene) was symbolic of being descended from Jesse, father of David. Indeed the prophecy was popular in the New Testament era, being referenced by both Romans 15:12 and Revelation 5:5. We also know that it was popular for Jews to look for hidden messages and prophecy in their texts in this manner, so it is not beyond question that at the time the author of Matthew was writing this passage in Isaiah was interpreted as a prophecy.

Given the aforementioned popularity of the Isaiah verse, and the propensity in Jewish culture to look in their texts for coded messages, I think that this is a very plausible candidate for the prophecy that Matthew was referring to. Not only does it hint at a geographical location, but it also hints towards a lineage that goes back to David, a double whammy that I can imagine would have been viewed as being significant.

I cannot see any other relevant reasons as to why Matthew would refer to a prophecy in the text, although I am open to suggestions in the comments, and will amend this article accordingly. I sincerely apologise if it seems that I am positing a false dilemma.


I would posit, given the facts that 1 is less likely that 2, but neither is entirely conclusive. Thus we are led to more than one possible outcome. Either the Nazarene argument is true and there was a historical Jesus and the Gospels contrive a story to fix fact with prophecy. Matthew either conveniently discovered that Jesus was actually from one of the places mentioned by the prophets (unlikely), or he fabricated a prophecy to make his case seem a bit more legit (plausible, but questionable). It is either that or Matthew was not drawing on a historical figure at all (or if he was the actual historical facts did not factor into the story), and was simply contriving a mythical story that would hit as many prophecies as possible. This is supported by the fact that Matthew has Jesus et al go to Egypt until Herod died (Matt 2:15) (to avoid a massacre that never happened) just to get another ding on the prophecy-o-meter. In fact the whole first couple of chapters in Matthew read very much in this fashion with prophecies being reeled off here there and everywhere.

In this instance I have to say that I changed my mind. I am no longer convinced that the Nazarene argument provides a convincing case for the historicity of Jesus. The idea of Nazarene being symbolic of a descendent of David and also interpreted as a reference to a Galilean town seems plausible to me. If the Gospels are allegorical myths, full of references to the Old Testament, this is exactly the kind of multi-layered reference we would expect to find.  This makes sense when you look at the parallels that Matthew so clearly makes to Exodus with the slaughter of the innocents in his nativity story. It works when you look at it like that. It might not make narrative sense, and it may seem highly contrived, but that’s kind of the point; it is.

On the other hand the Nazarene argument would have us believe that either Matthew fabricated a prophecy—when it didn’t make a great deal of sense to do so—to bolster the claim that it was totally fine for the Messiah to be from Nazareth and Bethlehem. Or Jesus was actually born in a town that happened to possibly be the subject of a multi-layered prophetic reference to his Davidic heritage and Matthew capitalized on this, but decided it wasn’t enough and wanted him to get to Bethlehem as well.  The latter seems highly improbable, and the former is plausible, but in my opinion doesn’t work as well because it raises questions as to what his motives for lying were.


I couldn’t say with certainty that this is evidence of a mythical Jesus, but I do not see it as evidence for a historical Jesus. It might be the case that the Gospels were heavily mythologised but there still was a figurehead behind it all—about whom very little in the gospels accurately portrays. It may also be the case that the Nazarene argument is true, but I believe it would require some corroborative evidence to back it up.


* Note: I apologize, but I forget the exact video that I saw, however I can recommend searching his name in YouTube as much of his talks cover the same topics and are all equally fascinating.

Know Your Bones: November 2015

I have to say, I am surprised it took so long for anyone to take a stab at guessing this iconic fossil. By the trepidation of our winner and the following guesser, perhaps the readership of this blog finds me to be a trickster. With that said what critter once owned the skull from last month’s challenge?


Something tells me this is too easy to be correct.


Nope WarK, I was not trying to trick anyone. This critter is indeed the tyrant king of the dinosaurs, Tyrannosaurus rex.


 photo IMAG0555_zpsa92a2380.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)

T. rex lived during the late Cretaceous 68 to 65 million years ago; it also happened to be one of the last non-avian dinosaurs that we know about. It ranged across western North America, with its fossils (mostly teeth) found from Alaska down to Mexico. T. rex could grow as large as ~4 meters at the hip, 43 meters long and weigh between 5.5 to 6.8 tons. This makes T. rex one of the largest predatory dinosaurs and one of the largest predators to ever walk the earth. Full-grown animals had a skull ~1.5 meters in length. The teeth of T. rex ranged from 30 cm long (including the root) to 13 cm long (including the root) in adults. The teeth would have been continuously replaced during life and were re-curved with ridges on the surface. T. rex famously has small arms (about the length of an adult human’s arm) with only two fingers. However, the arms appear very muscular, leading paleontologists to speculate that the arm could have been used for something (e.g. assisting in lifting the animal up when it sat down) instead of just a vestigial structure.


 photo 2013-10-04111227_zps27b761c7.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Over 30 specimens of T. rex have been discovered to date, making T. rex a very well studied dinosaur. T. rex is a theropod, but within that clade, it is closer in relation to dromaeosaurs than it is to other giant carnivores, such as Allosaurus. Because of this, and fossil finds of earlier relatives, it is possible that T. rex could have had feathers. However, a few skin impressions has only shown scales, which leads some to speculate that  T. rex could have had full body feathering as a hatchling, but later sparse to no feathering as an adult due to its large size.


 photo 2015-10-30 09.59.06_zpsabkivlad.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Two possible footprints have been found of T. rex, one of which was found in New Mexico. It measures 83 cm by 71 cm and possesses a “heel” print plus the print of the dewclaw-like forth digit found on the feet of T. rex. T. rex is also famous for being the first dinosaur found with soft tissue associated with it. In 2005, Dr. Mary Schweitzer published her discovery of it, since than several more finds have been made of soft tissue. Dr. Schweitzer and others have found trace soft tissues, and when they are analyzed and compared to living organisms, it shows that T. rex’s closest living relatives are birds. These findings align with the conclusions paleontologists were making for decades based on morphology.


Moving on to next month’s challenge:


 photo Dayatthemuseum015_zps0c57051f.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Good luck to all that play.

Know Your Bones: October 2015

There were only two guesses for last month’s challenge, both correct, but one being more correct. I have a feeling that the reason only two people guessed is because this one was such an easy specimen. So, who won, who was the more correct of the two?




It turned out to be WarK, because the other guesser gave the wrong species name. The critter from last month is Camarasaurus supremus.


 photo 2014-01-10111738_zps5a90e232.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Camarasaurus lived during the late Jurassic 155 to 145 million years ago. It ranged across most of North America and is an extremely common dinosaur in the Morrison Formation. Camarasaurus had an average length of 18 meters and weighed up to 18 tons. Remarkably, several complete skeletons of Camarasaurus have been discovered in Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. Based on their fossil abundance it is assumed that they roamed around North America in large numbers during the late Jurassic and may have had one of the largest populations of sauropods, if not dinosaurs, known thus far.


Camarasaurus means “chambered lizard;” it most likely got this name from the hollow bones that make up much of the vertebra or the many fenestrae found on the skull. Camarasaurus had chisels shaped teeth that were 19 cm long. The shape of the teeth and strength of the skull suggest that Camarasaurus specialized in eating coarser plant matter. This is different from other sauropods, thus Camarasaurus most likely inhabited a different environment then its cousins that also lived during this time. Camarasaurus remains are found together in a lot of sites, suggesting that they lived and died in herds.


Moving on to this month’s challenge:


 photo 2013-10-18105402_zps59c3c2eb.jpg
(Taken at the New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science)


Here we have a terrifying critter, which is appropriate for this month. Thanks for playing and good luck.