Monday, September 26, 2016

Happy retirement, Roger Sanders!

My friend and colleague Roger Sanders retired this year and just recently moved back home to Arkansas.  I am sad to see him go, but I'm very happy he'll be continuing to work with Core Academy and the Creation Biology Society.

In honor of his retirement, the Journal of Creation Theology and Science has published a special issue with two new research papers from him and a special editorial.  I hope you'll read all about it at the link below.

Check out the announcement from Core Academy as well.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Friday, September 23, 2016

A spectacular scientific reading of the Bible!

New technology allows researchers to read "unreadable" ancient Bible scrolls!  A burned scroll from the synagogue of En Gedi (where David hid from Saul for a while in 1 Samuel) turned out to be a copy of the opening of the book of Leviticus.

In the 1970s, excavations at En Gedi turned up the remnants of a "Holy Ark," the container where the Torah scrolls are kept.  The En Gedi synagogue was in use for centuries but destroyed and burned in A.D. 600.  What made this particular Holy Ark special was the burnt remnants of scrolls found in it.  The image above shows one of these remnants, a tiny burned fragment of an animal-skin scroll that could not be unrolled or read.

Until now.

Using extremely high resolution micro-CT scanning, researchers were able to reconstruct a digital model of the interior of the burned scroll.  Even with the digital scan, the scroll needed to be unrolled in order to be read.  Thanks to software developed by William Seales at the University of Kentucky, that limitation has now been overcome.  Seales's lab has developed a series of computational methods that allowed the scroll to be unrolled digitally.  The resulting image was so good that Torah scholars were able to read the scroll.  It records parts of the first two chapters of Leviticus, 1:1-9 and 2:1-11.  The results of their analyses are published in two papers, one in Science Advances describing the technique and one in Textus describing the scroll itself.

The Science Advances paper shows the digital reconstruction in the true blackened color of the scroll, but I think it's a bit more striking for a reader when you invert the color, as shown above.  Either way, the results are exquisite!  These researchers have read Leviticus from a bit of charcoal!

Why should we be excited about a copy of Leviticus from the En Gedi synagogue?  Let me remind everyone again that I'm not an Old Testament scholar, but I know enough "to be dangerous" as they say.  So here's my understanding of things:

The text that we use today to translate the Old Testament is a Hebrew text from the medieval period.  It's called the Masoretic text, and the oldest complete version of it is the Leningrad Codex, which dates from A.D. 1008.  This is considerably later than the original authorship of the O.T., and scholars want to know about the history of the Bible text before the Leningrad Codex.  How did we get the version of the Bible that we have today?

The Dead Sea Scrolls, which date to the centuries around the time of Jesus, provide one extensive witness to the Bible, but there we find some textual variations from the later Masoretic Text.  Still, there are texts in the Dead Sea Scrolls that closely resemble the later Masoretic Text, which implies that the medieval text has a long and stable history.

The En Gedi scroll has been carbon dated to about A.D. 300, which is later than the Dead Sea Scrolls (the latest of which is first century A.D.) but still much earlier than the Leningrad Codex (Masoretic Text).  The handwriting on the text resembles writing common to the first century, which would make it roughly contemporary with the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus' apostles.  Either way you go, the En Gedi scroll is a very early version of Leviticus.

The text itself is Masoretic, once again supporting the long and stable history of the Masoretic text.  The text that we currently use to study and translate the Old Testament has not undergone drastic changes at least since the time of Jesus.  The textual variations found in the Dead Sea scrolls still need an explanation, since some of them are quite dramatic.  For example, there is a version of Jeremiah that is substantially shorter than the Masoretic and organized differently.  But even with the variations, we can be pretty sure that the text of the Old Testament that we have today has been around for at least 2000 years.

Read all about it in the original papers:

Seales et al. 2016. From damage to discovery via virtual unwrapping: Reading the scroll from En-Gedi. Science Advances 2(9):e1601247.

Segal et al. 2016. An Early Leviticus Scroll from En-Gedi: Preliminary Publication. Textus 26:1-20. PDF

All photos in this blog post come from Seales et al. 2016.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Noel Weeks and the Ancient Near East

Esarhaddon, son of Sennacharib
Photo: Pixabay
For those of you who have followed the trends in evangelical Old Testament studies over the past decade or so already know that things are substantially different than they used to be.  When I was an undergrad, my O.T. profs taught that Moses was the author of the Pentateuch and that he intended to record history in Genesis.  The alternative perspective was built on higher criticism, which as I understood it then did not accept the authority or inspiration of the Bible.  Higher criticism was bad, and the traditional understanding of the composition and chronology of the Bible is good.  That's drastically oversimplified, but that was certainly the sense I got.

As I said, things are different now.  There are a great number of evangelical O.T. scholars who appear to have made their peace with higher criticism to a greater or lesser extent.  Particularly when it comes to Genesis, I continually hear rather bold assertions about what the original author or authors intended to communicate.  We are told that the author(s) never meant Genesis 1-11 to be understood as history.  Instead, the primeval stories of Genesis are sophisticated theological commentaries and refutations of myths of the surrounding nations.  How do we know?  Because we have stories and records from the Ancient Near East - places like ancient Egypt or Babylon - that show us striking similarities with stories in the Bible.  Being aware of these parallel stories allows us to see the truth about Genesis 1-11.  These passages teach us truth about the one true God Jehovah by using parables that people at the time would have recognized as parables.  The truth is not in the stories themselves but the "moral" behind the stories.  (Again, this is vastly oversimplified, but I only have so much room in a blog post...)

For obvious reasons (I'm a creationist), I disagree with these assessments, but I have been reticent to join the discussion too publicly, since this is not my field.  I have, however, asked various individuals personally about my concerns, and I haven't received many satisfying answers.  So I have remained quietly annoyed and bothered by these bold claims that essentially say that I just don't know how to read the Bible.

The latest issue of the Westminster Theologicl Journal has an article from Noel K. Weeks, an honorary associate in the department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney in Australia.  The article "The Bible and the 'universal' ancient world: a critique of John Walton" mentioned an earlier article in WTJ also by Weeks entitled "The ambiguity of biblical 'background.'"  Having read both of these articles, I am immensely relieved to see that there is at least one scholar in the field who shares some of my skepticism.

For one, I have always wondered whether this or that 'parallel' was really anything to be excited about.  My own study of protein evolution as a biochemist has given me some peculiar insight on this problem.  I know how to measure the similarity of two proteins, but I also know that not all similarity is really significant.  Short protein sequences often share surprising similarity simply by chance.

Weeks discusses several specific examples of past claims of parallels with the Bible that really turned out to be not important at all.  I'll let you read his "Biblical 'background'" article for the technical details, but his conclusion there struck a chord with me:
In each case the claimed parallels, and hence the elucidating background, were not what they seemed.  I doubt that anybody will, in the abstract, question that accidental parallels can occur and seeming parallels and thus background could arise from many different circumstances and mechanisms.  That should imply that one needs to be very careful to understand the whole situation of the specific data from one culture that is being compared to specific data from another culture.  My observation is that this kind of careful consideration is generally lacking in the biblical field.
That was my impression as well.  The zeal for finding parallels between Genesis and other stories from the Ancient Near East leads scholars to make big lists, where the majority of similarities are, quite frankly, lame.  As a person trained to recognize significant similarity, I was not recognizing it in this field.  I thought it might just be me, but Weeks agrees.  People are seizing on similarities that are just accidental.

For example (my own example here, and apologies if I get this wrong), several stories from the Ancient Near East depict the creation of humans from clay, which I am told is a striking parallel to the creation of Adam from dust in Genesis 2.  But when I read the rest of the stories in full, the dissimilarities are so overwhelming, I'm left wondering if the 'parallel' is anything other than an accident.  I'm especially suspicious when I remember that some of these cultures are using clay tablets for writing and are obviously very familiar with making things out of clay.  So why should these minor details in otherwise very dissimilar texts be anything other than coincidence?

A second issue that I think is far more crucial is the level of confidence that we should have about these ancient cultures.  To listen to some of these modern O.T. scholars, the answer of how to read Genesis is just obvious.  They've read all the ancient mythology, see, and they are just sure that they know what the ancient cultures thought about things and what the ancient Bible author thought.  That sort of attitude just strikes me as arrogant.  How could we possibly know what a culture 3000 or 4000 years removed from our own really thought, when we are effectively picking through their trash to learn about them?

Weeks argues that the sources from the Ancient Near East are very skewed due to the inevitable quirks of preservation bias.  In other words, the written records we have from that part of the world are a weird and random sample of a larger set of writings and ideas that we don't really have access to.  How can we say that the sample that we now have faithfully represents what an entire culture actually thought or believed?  He has this to say in his "Critique of John Walton:"
Walton is critical of people who read modern assumptions back into ancient texts, but has he escaped the trap himself? Does one have to be an expert in the ancient world to read the Bible properly? How can one establish what was the uniform view of the ANE, given the partial and skewed nature of our sources?
Again, let me remind my readers that I am neither trained nor skilled in the study of the Old Testament.  I am at best an afficionado, and I'm not really qualified to evaluate the work of Weeks.  Nevertheless, I found his articles especially eye-opening and worthy of consideration.  I am happy to recommend them:

Weeks, N.K.  2010.  The ambiguity of biblical 'background.'  WTJ 72:219-236.
Weeks, N.K.  2016.  The Bible and the 'universal' ancient world: a critique of John Walton WTJ 78:1-28.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Lab meeting 2: Behind the scenes with created kinds

For those just joining us, the "lab meeting" series describes the latest research results from Core Academy of science researchers and student interns.

If you've read this blog for any length of time, you probably know that I'm keenly interested in created kinds.  The idea of the created kind has a long history in Western thought, but I won't rehearse that history here (read this paper if you're interested).  What is a created kind?  Well, that turns out to be a difficult question.  It's easier to describe than define, so watch this video if you haven't before:

Now the question that nags at my brain is whether any of this created kind stuff is meaningful or just wishful thinking.  On the one hand I can think of good reasons to believe that what we think of as species are malleable and temporary, but on the other, I can think of good reasons why there is and must be stability to God's living creation.  But how do I go about testing whether this or that group of species represents a created kind?

That's what we're trying to do this year at Core Academy.  We've collected information on more than 200 mammal groups, and we're going to try to analyze those groups using the same method in the video above.  When we get done, we'll ask whether or not our results are consistent.

What will that tell us?  If we can see a consistent pattern among the mammals, then we can be more confident that what we discover is real and not just some mathematical accident.  That will increase our confidence that creationist research really is on the right track.  I think that's a pretty good payoff.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Lab meeting 1: The semester begins

I've been inspired lately by the open science movement, wherein scientific research is done out in the open where anyone can check it out.  I love being able to learn about other people's work on twitter or blogs and to read their manuscripts before they're published.  I think these are great ways to draw the public into the actual inner workings of scientific research and to show people what it's really like working on a research project, especially working through social media.

On the other hand, I'm also kind of a traditionalist, and I like to share my research mostly when I have a nice project that makes sense, with a beginning and ending.  I can tell the story of its significance and the work that I did and what I found.  But as I said, I'm becoming more and more enamored with the idea of drawing more people into my world of research and giving them a sense of what it's like to be a creationist researcher.

So I've decided to try out a virtual "lab meeting" that will summarize my weekly lab meetings with our Core Academy interns.  This is supposed to be mostly understandable to the general public, so if you can't follow it, let me know please.  I'm really trying here to translate our work, including all the weird wrong turns we make, so that you can understand.  I don't know how frequently I'll be able to post, since I'm very busy, but I'm going to make an effort to keep people up to date.

This semester I've got two intern projects I'm working on.  The first involves the created kinds of mammals.  I'll talk more about that in a future lab meeting post.  Here, I want to catch you up on the trillium project, which I've mentioned before.  Currently, we're trying to discover the genetic basis for flower appearance in trilliums.  In the picture above, you can see a mutant form of erect trillium.  Usually, erect trillium flowers have a deep red color, but this mutant is cream colored.  So what makes it do that?  Why is it not red like other erect trilliums?  That's what we want to find out.

This week, I had our intern look up different known genes from trilliums and compare them.  We found that most trillium genes (rbcL, ndhF, and matK, for those in the know) are nearly identical when you look at genes from different species.  That's pretty remarkable, because most trillium species look quite different when they flower.  The large-flowered trillium has big white petals, while the yellow trillium that blooms here on the Cumberland plateau has little yellow petals that barely open up at all.  How can these different species have such different flowers when the genes we've looked at are so similar?

We think the answer lies in the way the genes are used by the plants.  This is the standard story in this kind of research: When you have different species with very similar DNA, then the differences must be in the regulatory sequences, the parts of the genome that tell the plant cells when and where to turn on certain genes.  So we need to find not only the flower genes but also the regulatory parts of the genome that control when and where those flower genes get activated (or deactivated).

That's a bit of a different project than what we originally envisioned, and we talked during our real life lab meeting about how we can go about doing that on a limited budget.  We also discussed the possibility of just sequencing a trillium genome, but then we realized that the genome is HUGE (about 17 times bigger than the human genome).  That would require a bigger investment than we can make right now.  So we're going to try some lab tricks (with PCR in case you wondered) to try to find some genomic flower genes.  If this works, we'll be the first to sequence these genes, and that's very exciting!

Our job this week is to gather all the necessary materials to get started on the DNA extraction.  I'll do the ordering, but I've assigned our intern the job of telling me what to buy.  It'll be a good learning experience for her.

I definitely want to thank all the donors to Core Academy of Science.  Your contributions support this work, and our student interns greatly appreciate that support.  If you would like to help support our student scientists, please click on that donate button at the end of this post.

Feedback? Email me at toddcharleswood [at] gmail [dot] com. If you enjoyed this article, please consider a contribution to Core Academy of Science. Thank you.