Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Literalism at its Finest

I read a number of articles today about Birkat HaChamah, the "Blessing of the Sun" - a ritual that happens once every 28 years on the vernal equinox, celebrating the Sun returning to the spot on the very day when God created the earth some 5600 years ago. The first thing you might notice is that the vernal equinox was more than 2 weeks ago. That's because this calculation of dates was apparently by a 3rd century Jewish scholar who was no better at his job than the Romans at theirs. The Julian Calendar is gradually falling behind with too many leap years. We have been on the Gregorian Calendar in the English-speaking world since 1752, which required skipping 10 days in the Calendar. There was no such revision of the Jewish calendar, however. So you have to add 10 days. For the same reason, Orthodox Christmas is on January 7th. (Orthodox Easter is another whole kettle of fish).

The next thing you might notice is the supposed Jewish belief that God created earth on the vernal equinox. Bishop Ussher, Anglican bishop of Armagh in the 16th century famously calculated that earth was created on October 23, 4004 BC. Yet the Washington Post blithely repeats that the "Old Testament" says the world was created on the vernal equinox. Obviously the Old Testament (or Torah) doesn't say that in so many words, or the good Bishop would have noticed.

Why October? Apparently the bishop put the date of creation on the first Sunday after the autumnal equinox. Hmmm. The autumnal equinox is September 21, more or less, but again you have to add those 10 days. That still doesn't get you to October 23. But Bishop Ussher cleverly (?) realized that to calculate the date in the Gregorian calendar, you had to add those pesky extra days also for the 4008 years before the regular addition of leap years began. Hence October 23, 4004.

Why 4004 BC? Well, Ussher agreed that Jesus had to have been born during the reign of Herod the Great, who died in 4 BC. So he believed that the earth was created 4000 years before Jesus' birth, more or less.

Why the autumn? Ussher assumed that the year had to begin in autumn because that is when the Jewish New Year takes place. For some reason, this reasoning escaped Jewish scholars. One gets the impression Ussher never asked any of them.

Ussher also believed that earth was created "in the evening" of that date - he means October 23, 4004BC as if it were in the Jewish calendar, starting at sundown. OK, sundown... where? And was that with or without Daylight Saving Time?

There's only one reasonable reading of the biblical injunction by God for us to count to seven, then take a break:As a species, we're terrible at math.


Dr. Strangelove said...

Even though poking fun at Bishop Ussher has been a popular pastime for many years, this is the most amusing exposition of his folly I have read. The astronomy (or lack thereof) behind the "Blessing of the Sun" festival is also humorous. It's great that people celebrate something... I just hope they do so with an appropriate air of levity about the whole "5600 years" business. I mean, really.

Raised By Republicans said...

I think there is a short scene in "Inherit the Wind" about this. The "Clarence Darrow" character asks the "William Jennings Bryan" character - "Was that standard time or daylight savings time?" In response to the "Bryan" character's rather exact assertion of the moment of the creation.

I mention this because I know that adding Daylight Savings Time to this would only make LTG laugh at it even more!

Dr. Strangelove said...

Nice, RbR. I have to see that movie! And I think LTG may have been alluding to that scene when he wrote, "OK, sundown... where? And was that with or without Daylight Saving Time?"

The Law Talking Guy said...

I wasn't alluding to that scene, but it's just too obvious a joke to make.

It bothers me that the Washington Post reports the Birkat HaChamah story in a very different tone than they would treat a similar celebration held by creationists on October 23rd annually. It shouldn't be only okay to poke fun at literalist Christians, but not at similar idiocy in other religions.

It also bothers me to read "the Old Testament says..." in some authoritative tone. The Bible, to quote Reverend Lovejoy, says a lot of things.

Raised By Republicans said...

"It shouldn't be only okay to poke fun at literalist Christians, but not at similar idiocy in other religions."


The Law Talking Guy said...

When conservative Christians claim victimhood status, which is a totally bogus and nasty argument, they usually point to things like this as their "evidence." Because there is exactly one way in which Christians are put upon in our society, that it is okay to make fun of certain kinds of Christians, but not okay to make fun of Jews, Muslims, Hindus, etc. It is okay to make film after film about children being molested by Roman Catholic priests, but try the same with a rabbi and see what happens.

Now, this phenomenon is hardly an indication of victimhood - rather, it is the badge of being in the dominant majority! This is the same reason why it is acceptable for black comedians to make fun of white people, but not the other way around. You can't marginalize the majority, by definition.

Still, I disagree with the notion that one can only poke fun at the majority group or religion. It sounds unfair when you say it, and it provides ammo to conservative christians to claim victimhood, which is false and obnoxious.

I can't wait for the day when conservative christians are, like the Amish, small groups that we tolerate and find quaint although they are sexist and homophobic.

Raised By Republicans said...

This is why I liked the movie "Religalous." It was an equal opportunity satire. It focussed mainly on monotheists but there were plenty of people being lampooned by the Maher and it was clear the goal was not to single any one denomination out.

If only fundamentalist Christians of the type we're talking about here were like the Amish. The Amish and Old Order Mennonites have a strict, legalistic and judgmental interpretation of the bible but they keep to themselves and make little if any attempt to impose their life styles on anyone else. I have to admit a soft spot for the Amish and Old Order Mennonites.

I see the problem with the Religious right to be fundamentally a political one rather than a theological one. If they would not insist on imposing their views on me, I have no problem with them believing whatever the heck they want.

Granted, the theological and political are often tightly intermeshed but this was not always so with this community in the US. For a long time, they made a point of avoiding politics because it was seen as too worldly. That changed in the 1970s largely in reaction to the Civil Rights movements for African Americans and Women along with the Republican Party's adoption of the "Southern Strategy."