User:Inquisitor/Scientific errors in the Bible

From RationalWiki
Jump to: navigation, search
Light iron-age reading
The Bible
Icon bible.svg
Gabbin' with God
Analysis
Woo
Figures

This is a work in progress...

To its critics, the Holy Bible is a stew of scientific error, poor arithmetic, geographical inaccuracies and historical anachronisms all steeped in a broth of myth and folklore. To its fans, the Bible is the exact opposite. This article contains a list of the most common objections raised by critics along with a representative of apologist rebuttals.

Biological[edit]

Anatomy of insects[edit]

In Leviticus 11:20-23, the Bible admonishes the reader from eating certain types of flying insects stating "...all other flying creeping things, which have four feet, shall be an abomination unto you."[1] Skeptics maintain that the Bible is implying that there are species of flying insects that are lacking the customary set of six legs. This is clearly an error as there are no known species of flying insect with only four legs. Defenders of biblical inerrancy typically attempt to explain away this error by quibbling over the definition of "feet" and "legs". Apologist J.P. Holding provides the following example:


Quite simply, the big back legs on the locust, etc. were not counted as "legs" in the same sense as the other legs. Let's use an illustration from our popular literature, George Orwell's Animal Farm. In this story, Snowball the pig invented the slogan, "Four legs good, two legs bad" so as to exclude humans from Animal Farm society. The geese and other fowl objected, because they had only two legs. Snowball explained (more clearly in the book than in the movie) that in animal terms, the birds' wings counted as legs because they were limbs of propulsion, not manipulation, as a human's arms and hands were.

Now note the differentiation in Leviticus above -- referring to "legs above the feet" for leaping. The "feet" are being differentiated from the "legs above the feet" because of their difference in function. They are legs, but in a different sense than the "four" legs which are just called "feet." We are being told of two types of legs: The "on all four" legs (which are nowhere called legs; they are only called "feet" [v. 23]), and the "leaping legs." It is clear that the Hebrews regarded the two large, hopping hindlimbs of the locust and the other insects of the same type, which are the only types of insects mentioned here (we now translate "beetle" as "cricket"), as something different than the other four limbs - perhaps because they were used primarily for vertical propulsion, whereas the other limbs were for scurrying around. (Shifts of terminology like this happen even today; check this proposal to redefine "planet".)[2]

The error with the proposed rebuttal above by J.P Holding is a double standard. To claim that birds or fowl by having wings have four legs, then the same is to be applied to insects giving them a total of eight legs, rebutting his own argument by internal inconsistency. It should be taken as a good example of a theist attempting to make an argument that appears intelligent, but in fact is poorly thought out and constructed.

Cud chewing rabbits[edit]

The rabbit, though it chews the cud, does not have a divided hoof; it is unclean for you.
—Leviticus 11:6, NIV

Chewing cud is when an animal regurgitates semi-digested food back into its mouth to be chewed a second time. Such animals like cows, goats, sheep and so forth are known as ruminant animals. Rabbits are not presently, nor ever have been, ruminant animals. This is simply an error on the part of the biblical authors. Since the Bible tends to operate under the assumption that a blunder worth making once is worth repeating, the same claim is repeated again in Deuteronomy 14:7.

Despite being obviously factually inaccurate, this has not deterred biblicists from making quixotic attempts at defending non-existent cud chewing rabbits[3][4][5]. Even the noted quote mining engineer and Conservapedia contributor Ken DeMyer has taken a swipe at this one. With predictably comical results. Even more respectable defenders of biblical inerrancy have struggled with an acceptable explanation. The well-regarded, conservative, and very much evangelical, Wycliffe Bible Encyclopedia bungled their entry on this one:

While not a true ruminant according to modern classification in that it does not have a four-chambered stomach, the hare does rechew its food. There is a process of partial regurgitation of material that is too hard for little cells in the stomach to absorb initially; thus the hare actually chews food previously swallowed.[6]

It is true that rabbits and hares may be said to "chew food previously swallowed". That is if you wish to define "swallowed" as having passed through the animal's entire gastrointestinal system, and "food" as fecal material. Rabbits are coprophagous. They eat their own poop. They don't rechew regurgitated food, unless of course you want to consider "regurgitate" and "defecate" to be synonymous. Sadly, folks like J.P. Holding try to do precisely that.

Two issues are at hand: the definition of "cud" and that of "chewing." Let's take a closer look at the Hebrew version of both. Here is the word for "cud" according to Strong's:

gerah, the cud (as scraping the throat): cud.

There are a few factors we need to keep in mind here. First, this word is used nowhere in the Old Testament besides these verses in Leviticus and Deuteronomy. We have only this context to help us decide what it means in terms of the Mosaic law.

Second, refection is a process whereby these animals pass pellets of partially digested food, which they chew on (along with the waste material) in order to give their stomachs another go at getting the nutrients out. It is not just "dung" that the hares are eating, which is probably why the Hebrew word for "dung" was not used here.

[...]

So then: partially digested food is a common element here. We therefore suggest that the Hebrew word simply refers to any partially digested food -- the process is not the issue, just the object.[7]

When pressed on the issue, some bible defenders will resort to an argument that can be boiled down to "Well, it looks like rabbits chew cud[8]." Which is a valid point. How was the bronze-aged author, alleged to be Moses, to know this wasn't the case? It's not like he had access to an omniscient being or anything.

Genetic inheritance[edit]

Then he placed the peeled branches in all the watering troughs, so that they would be directly in front of the flocks when they came to drink. When the flocks were in heat and came to drink, they mated in front of the branches. And they bore young that were streaked or speckled or spotted.
—Genesis 30:38-39

In the book of Genesis 30:25-42 the character of Jacob agrees to tend to another man's flock of sheep and goats for a price. That price being that Jacob be allowed to keep all of the spotted, speckled or striped young that were born. Not being fettered by honesty, Jacob cooks up a plan to increase his wages. He places a bunch of striped sticks in front of the mating animals, which causes them to conceive streaked, spotted, or speckled offspring. Now obviously, even a person with only a nodding acquaintance of animal husbandry would realize that this is patently absurd. In fact, Christian apologists don't even make a serious attempt at defending this passage. As exampled by:

This verse seems to show Jacob engaging in some kind of superstitious form of magic while breeding his cattle. Indeed it was superstitious and Jacob was engaging in magical arts. However, the Bible does not condone this act. It's a factual part of the story. As you read on you learn that it wasn't the rods and Jacob's superstition that produced ringstraked, speckled, and spotted cattle. It was God's intervention. He intervened to prevent Rachel and Leah's father from cheating Jacob again. Jacob admits that it was God's intervention and not creative genetic engineering that brought him this result. See Genesis 31:9[9]

Bat classification[edit]

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: the eagle, and the ossifrage, and the ospray, and the vulture, and the kite after his kind; every raven after his kind; and the owl, and the night hawk, and the cuckow, and the hawk after his kind, and the little owl, and the cormorant, and the great owl, and the swan, and the pelican, and the gier eagle, and the stork, the heron after her kind, and the lapwing, and the bat.
—Leviticus 11:13-19, KJV

This is a favorite amongst biblical skeptics because it appears that the Bible classifies a bat as a bird, which it quite clearly is not. Interestingly enough, this also is a favorite amongst Christian apologists as well. Mostly because it's an easy one for them to knock out of the park. Apologists will extricate themselves from this one by appealing to Hebrew etymology, translation issues, or cultural differences. If the apologist is really good, they'll use all three:

First, linean classification was not available when Leviticus and Deuteronomy were written, nor did a specific scientific definition for what a bird was exist. The classification of animals was made by function and form. This can be seen in the definition of words used to describe animals in the Old Testament. For example, the word here that we render "fowl" comes from the Hebrew word owph which means flying creatures, to include birds, winged insects, and any animal that owns a wing. It comes from a root word that means to cover or to fly. This verse could rightly be interpreted, "And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among flying creatures....". The King James Version seems to call the bat a fowl, but when you understand the times in which it was written, and the meaning of the original Hebrew, it's obvious there is no error here.[10]

In fairness, biblical Hebrew does have a relatively limited vocabulary and does indeed use the word owph[11] as a catch-all term for any winged animal. At first glance this would appear to be an effective rebuttal. Score one for the apologists, right? Well, not so fast.

The authors of the Bible had the annoying habit of telling the same stories twice, and so it is in this case as well. The list of unclean birds appears again in Deuteronomy 14:11-18. Yet again our pal the bat is included amongst his feathered friends. Unfortunately for apologists the word owph wasn't used to group them this time. Instead the word tsippowr[12] is used. Which specifically is the Hebrew word for bird.

Mathematical[edit]

Errors in basic addition[edit]

And this is the number of them: thirty platters of gold, a thousand platters of silver, nine and twenty knives, thirty bowls of gold, silver bowls of a second sort four hundred and ten, and other vessels a thousand. All the vessels of gold and of silver were five thousand and four hundred.
—Ezra 1:9-11 ASV

Skeptics often note the errors in basic arithmetic that appear throughout the Bible. In the above example the items listed total 2,499, not 5,400. There are numerous other cases of the Bible incorrectly totaling the number of persons or items listed[13]. So how do Christians react when presented with such obvious mistakes? One way they have dealt with such inconvenient inconsistencies is to go back and change the text of the Bible itself. The editors of the Revised Standard Version simply changed the numbers in their inerrant scripture to match the actual sum[14].

However, most Christians meet such accusations with an apathetic yawn. Pointing out that the skeptic is being needlessly "nitpicky", or that the biblical authors were fond of using "round numbers", or it simply is a translation/scribal error. This may be an adequate response to some, but does nothing to allay the underlying criticism which is: if the Bible can not be trusted on such trivial matters as basic counting, why should it be trusted on any other matters?

The value of π (pi)[edit]

Then he made the molten sea; it was round, ten cubits from brim to brim, and five cubits high. A line of thirty cubits would encircle it completely.
—1 Kings 7:23

This is one the most common errors cited by Bible skeptics. The mathematical number π is the ratio of a circle's diameter to its circumference. The value of π truncated at 10 digits is 3.141592653.[15] The bible itself gives us a different value of π in 1 Kings 7:23

In 1 Kings 7:23 and again in 2 Chronicles 4:2, the Bible describes a round object with a diameter of 10 units and a circumference of 30 units. From this skeptics infer that the Bible is stating that pi is 3.0, which of course is an incorrect value. Apologists have attempted to come up with many novel solutions to this problem. One tactic is to use the "close enough" defense, as illustrated by Robert H. Mounce in his book Answers to Questions About the Bible:

The rough measurements of antiquity do not have to conform to space age requirements. In the culture of that day the measurement was not only adequate, but also inerrant. In our determination of what constitutes an error we must judge the accuracy of Scripture according to the prevailing standards of the time.

It goes without saying that critics find this to be a less than compelling argument. Partially because more accurate approximations of pi were known to both the ancient Egyptian and Babylonian civilizations at the time. And largely because the precise value of pi would have definitely been known to an allegedly omniscient being. The very same being who inspired and co-authored said passages.

In the end the utility of pointing out this error is limited, since the apologist has many plausible excuses at their disposal. Common explanations are to claim that the vessel wasn't perfectly round, that the brim was larger than the body, or that the cubit isn't a precise unit of measurement. Zondervan's Encyclopedia of Bible Difficulties trots this one out for the reader's consideration:

If the rod used to mark out a length of five cubits (approximately ninety inches) for the radius were used to measure the inside circumference of the same bowl-shaped vessel here described, then it would take exactly six of those five-cubit measures to complete the circumference. Let the skeptic try it and see![16]

Hear that skeptics? You've just been burned. Everyone knows that when you want to know the circumference of an object you measure it from the inside, duh!

Astronomical[edit]

Firmament[edit]

The "firmament" is claimed to be a solid "roof" over the world.[17] This is obviously untrue, unless all those satellites in orbit are a hoax. Considering the views of flat earthers, someone, somewhere probably thinks this is true.

Illumination[edit]

In Genesis, the moon is referred to as a "light" ("lesser light" actually). The moon is merely a reflector of the sun's light, and produces no visible light, although it does shine in different wavelengths not perceivable to the human eye, such as the infrareds. Of course, when talking to tribal nomads and other desert-dwellers, the concept of referring to the moon as a light was commonplace.

Stars[edit]

The Bible makes it clear that stars are tiny objects in the sky that will fall down when Jesus comes back:

Revelation 8:10
And the third angel sounded, and there fell a great star from heaven, burning as it were a lamp, and it fell upon the third part of the rivers, and upon the fountains of waters;

However, other verses in the book of Revelation clearly use "stars" in a figurative sense (for example, see Rev. 9:1 and Rev. 12:3, 4), so it is possible that the writer did not intend to make a statement about literal celestial bodies in 8:10 either. Indeed, given the highly allegorical and symbolic nature of apocalyptic literature in general, any literal understanding of Revelation is generally ill-advised until taking into consideration the idea that this is supposedly divine inspiration to which laws, societies and lives are proposed to be based upon.

Planetary formation[edit]

But they deliberately forget that long ago by God’s word the heavens came into being and the earth was formed out of water and by water.
—2 Peter 3:5

Footnotes[edit]