Tuesday, February 15, 2011

If You Don't Know, Don't Pretend You Do

I recently got into an argument with a Christian on YouTube who accused me of lying and called me an anti-christ for saying what he thought was intentional misinformation. The discussion was on Psalm 22 and why it is not a prophecy of Jesus. There is one particular verse (16) that some Christians believe refers to crucifixion centuries before it was invented. To make a long story short, the meaning of the Hebrew in Psalm 22:16 is disputed by many, with numerous different translations suggested. A Christian had attempted to argue that ancient manuscripts found at a site called Nahal Hever provide evidence for the crucifixion interpretation. What I said that so incensed this other Christian was that these documents are only dated as early as the mid-2nd century, leaving plenty of time after Jesus' death for a revised and misleading translation to come into use.

This Christian objected to my proposed dating on the assertion that all of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS henceforth) were written prior to 70 AD; "there is no excuse for lying to the audience who knows not of biblical history," he said. He went on to assure me that he has studied the DSS for "many years," and even secular historical sites agree with his claim. Indeed it is true that the DSS are widely thought to have been composed before 70 AD, but this may be due more to a pet theory of the archaeologist Roland de Vaux than any hard evidence, as the range of dates for various manuscripts extends well into the 2nd century [1]. Still, something else amused me about this Christian's claim, which is the reason I write this blog entry.

I mentioned that my source on the late dating for the manuscript at Nahal Hever is none other than Geza Vermes (from his book, "An Introduction to the Complete Dead Sea Scrolls"), one of the leading authorities on the DSS. Rather than look into this, the Christian reminded me that he has spent years researching the DSS, and he knows they were hidden in the caves just prior to 70 AD so that they would escape the destruction of the Jewish temple. If he wanted to challenge the opinion of Mr. Vermes, I would have considered his argument seriously, because even renowned scholars are known to make mistakes and cling to fragile theories, but this reassurance of his general knowledge, without making an actual argument, just made me cringe.

The DSS come primarily from a region called Qumran, which you may not be surprised to learn is near the Dead Sea. Nearly 900 scrolls were found in 11 caves from 1947 to 1956, and archaeologists like Roland de Vaux have surmised that the scrolls were owned by a community of Essenes (a fundamentalist sect of Judaism) who stashed them in the caves where they were preserved from destruction during the First Jewish Revolt. There is a manuscript of Psalm 22 from Qumran, yet the text is too damaged to be legible, and the manuscript I was discussing with these Christians is from Nahal Hever, not Qumran. But could this still be part of the collection that was hidden away before the war?

Have a look at the map to the right. Qumran, as you'll see, is quite a ways north of Nahal Hever, to say the least. As the map also illustrates, the site is one of the areas where the Jewish revolutionary Simon Bar Kokhba camped during the Second Jewish Revolt, which lasted from 132-136 AD. Perhaps these are some of the reasons why one of the leading experts on the DSS dated the Nahal Hever manuscripts to the mid-2nd century... or maybe he's a lying anti-christ too.

I pointed out all of this to our Christian friend, because, as a self-professed DSS expert, he should be aware of simple details like what sites are associated with what time frame and which sites have the majority of DSS manuscripts. His response was to immediately drop discussion of Psalm 22 and move on to Isaiah 53, telling me I'm "in denial" of that passage's supposedly true meaning. I followed up by asking if he would admit that he was mistaken about the Nahal Hever dating, and I've since gotten no reply. It's much more fun to accuse people of deceiving others and working for the devil than it is to own up to your own errors, especially when you've beat your chest so vigorously in promotion of your expertise.

What really disturbs me about all of this, though, is that this person could have avoided the mistake by doing a 5 second fact check on Google or Wiki. If I'm not so knowledgeable on a certain subject I'm debating, I'll definitely do a fact check, especially if I'm completely unfamiliar with it. When I mentioned Nahal Hever and Geza Vermes, typing those words into either Google or Wiki would've gotten this Christian pretty far, if not all the way to an accurate understanding. I don't get what is so hard about doing a brief fact check - it's not as if I was expecting some uninterested layperson to know this stuff. When you claim to have done extensive research and study into a subject, you should really have something to show for it. I've only been diving much into the DSS for about a year now, and somehow I know more than someone who has researched them for "many years". At the bare minimum, be honest about it when you're not that familiar with something.

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