Tuesday, 24 March 2015

On Labels: Pre-Augustinian and Why Sinai isn't in... er... Sinai

I don't usually write on archaeology, and this is possibly a one-off.  The purpose of this is twofold.  I'll explain later.  But for now, sit comfortably and hopefully enjoy.

The Egyptian tourist industry won't thank me for this post.

If you have a set of maps at the back of your Bible, they probably look a bit like this:

There will probably be a set of lines showing you the route of the Israelites through this area.  There's Sinai, the triangular wedge of land between Egypt and Israel, right?

A bit of an issue here is that what we call the Red Sea could consist of either the body of water that now forms the Suez Canal on the left half of the map above or it could mean the body of water that ends with Aqaba on the right side.  When the Israelites crossed the Red Sea, it could have been either branch.  This is a list of reasons why I believe it was the Gulf of Aqaba, not the Gulf of Suez.

Here are my reasons:
  1. It is accepted that Midian, where Jethro lived is on the right of the above map, where it says 'Saudi Arabia'.  Why did Moses wander 100-200 miles to pasture his sheep, all the way to where it says 'Mount Moses' above?  Would this make any sense?  See Exodus 3:1-12.
  2. Outside of the account of the Israelite crossing, the only other passages in the Bible that refer to the Red Sea, specifically refer to the Gulf of Aqaba.  See 1Kings 7:26, Jeremiah 49:21.
  3. The topography of the narrative suits an Aqaba crossing.  See for Example, Exodus 14:3.
  4. Strong evidence that what we call Sinai was a part of Egypt in the Bible.  Firstly, it is easy to get to.  Much of the water is shallow.  Trading routes to Egypt cross this area.  Why would the Israelites feel safe there, for a full 40 years?  Secondly, the Biblical 'River of Egypt' is in the North of what we call Sinai, near Canaan, suggests Egyptian control.  See Numbers 34:5, Joshua 15:4, 47.
  5. No archaeological evidence for the Israelites having spent any significant time in the area.  No burial sites for the 1 million+ Israelites who died during the 40 years wandering.
  6. The meeting with Jethro in Exodus 18:5-12 suggests they were in or near Midian, east of the Gulf of Aqaba.
  7. Galatians 4:25 specifically states that Sinai is in Arabia.  In scripture, Arabia is always east of Aqaba.
  8. The existence of a land bridge across the Gulf of Aqaba that fits the narrative with the remains of chariot wheels at the bottom of the Gulf.
To me, the scriptural evidence is completely compelling.

So why do our Bible maps put Mount Sinai where they do?  And why is modern Sinai called Sinai?  Tradition tells us that it dates back to a dream the Emperor Constantine had, which became church teaching.  In those days, the institutional church had control over the education system and the training of church leaders.  So it was widely taken that Sinai was where the above map says, in spite of the scriptural and archaeological problems.  There is no evidence, no tradition within Judaism to back the churches claims.  As simple as that really.  And our Bible maps and tourist firms stick to the traditional line to this day.

Let's think through the implication of this.

  • Somebody who has an important position in the church 1,500-1,600 years ago says something incorrect.
  • Everybody listens to them for the following few centuries due to the control the church has over the education system.
  • Believers to this day don't question it, because it is enshrined in church tradition.
  • Unbelievers pour scorn on Christianity because they hold a view that cannot be sustained by the evidence.
The above is not an isolated example.  I'll give you two more.
  1. BC and AD.  A monk called Dennis the Little (should we call him Dennis the Menace?) invented this dating system based on when Christ was born.  The thing is.... he was born a few years earlier than that - maybe 4 BC.  But the dating system (first popularised by Jarrow's most famous son, the Venerable Bede) has stayed.
  2. The dating of Egypt's history is based on 1Kings 19:25 which says that Shishak, king of Egypt attacked and plundered Jerusalem.  It has been assumed since the early 1800s that this was the Pharaoh Shoshenq I.  It has enabled many academics to dismiss the Bible as myth because (for example) it leaves Solomon reigning in Israel during a time of deep poverty rather than prosperity.  A secular British archaeologist, David Rohl (I highly recommend his books and videos) has argued persuasively that the conventional dating is out by over 300 years and that it was actually Rameses II who attacked Jerusalem.  This dating system is far more in line with the Biblical evidence and Rohl has made a number of startling discoveries based on his dating which would confirm the accuracy of scripture (evidence for Joseph in Goshen, the Egyptian palace Solomon built for his wife the daughter of Pharaoh, the thick walls of Jericho destroyed during Joshua's campaign etc).  A simple misreading of names has led to the Bible being dismissed as inaccurate.
So can the kind of situation described above apply to theology too?  Suppose an important church leader teaches something that is incorrect and not backed up by the Bible.  Then it becomes widely accepted, but... wrong.  Can that happen, and can it damage the church for centuries afterwards?

You bet it can!

Watch this space.