Monday, December 5, 2016

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 2

If you look up the entry for "Higher Criticism" in Mormon Doctrine by Bruce R. McConkie, this is what you will find: "See Apostasy, Bible, Evolution, Revelation, Scripture." That is followed by an article about higher criticism that goes on for a page and a half and concludes, "In the final analysis [the conclusions of higher criticism] are doctrines of the devil, doctrines which destroy faith and prevent acceptance of the full gospel of salvation."

So what was it about higher criticism that made Elder McConkie call it a "doctrine of the devil"?

When McConkie included a cross reference to Apostasy he was not necessarily saying that anyone who engages with higher criticism is apostatizing from the church (though that also may have been the case), but rather the conclusions of higher criticism were the effects of the great apostasy. In his brief entry McConkie lumps the conclusions of higher criticism with all other false doctrines taught in other churches. The fact that a preacher or doctor of the church would even consider the implications of the documentary hypothesis is evidence that they do not have the spirit of revelation and are blinded by the effects of the great apostasy.

So what was it about the documentary hypothesis that prompted such a strong reaction from Elder McConkie? To bolster his claim that it is a "doctrine of the devil", McConkie points to the prophetic statements of Joseph Smith, which include the Book of Moses and the Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible. Thus he is responding to the issue of authorship and authority discussed in Part 1. By highlighting the prophetic statements of Joseph Smith, McConkie is reaffirming the identity and authority of the author of the Pentateuch. He is unwilling to budge on the question of authorship, and therefore the authority of totality of the Pentateuch, and by extension the rest of the Old Testament. So McConkie rejects the documentary hypothesis on the grounds that it calls into question the authority of scripture. It is a laudable cause. He has a healthy respect for God's Word, but I find that such an uncompromising position is at odds with how God normally interacts with His children.

So how does evolution fit into all of this? Elder McConkie cross referenced evolution in his entry on higher criticism, which when you think about it is rather odd, unless you understand how the conclusions of the documentary hypothesis can potentially impact our understanding of the creation. Without that it would seem that Elder McConkie is simply applying one of the dirtiest epithets that he knows. But there is more going on here, and this brings us to the issues of Timing and Historicity.

Timing and Historicity

These two are interrelated so I will address them together. In my introduction to the documentary hypothesis I mentioned briefly the issue of when the different sources were written. Some scholars favor later dates (meaning in the range of 800-200 BC), while theologians tend to favor early dates (closer to 1200 BC). The issue with later dates is that it opens the way to first question whether the stories are accurate, and second to question whether to people in the stories really lived at all. The thinking goes, the more removed the actual writing is from the people in the stories the greater likely hood that they never lived at all. Perhaps Abraham was invented for political reasons? To justify political control of Canaan perhaps.

The example of Abraham being invented is not hypothetical. There are many scholars who consider Abraham to be an invention of the Jews to justify political control of Canaan. This view is so widely held that even the Wikipedia article on Abraham reports, "it is widely agreed that the patriarchal age [including Abraham] ... is a late literary construct that does not relate to any period in actual history." I'll lay aside the rather cavalier attitude of the Wikipedia author to the issue a historical Abraham, and just use this as an example of how the timing and historicity are linked. A late writing of the Pentateuch can easily translate (in their minds) into the patriarchs being nothing more than literary constructs (a nice way of saying fairy tales).

There are multiple issues with this view that I will not unpack here, but I will point out that the non-existence of Abraham is not based on multiple historical sources failing to mention him, or mentioning him in an entirely different context, or on hard archaeological evidence, but on a "careful" reading of the Pentateuch. It is a bit like watching Kenneth Branagh's version of Henry V and concluding that, based on a careful analysis of the dialogue, Henry was a fictional person.

A general trend I have observed is that as soon as one scholar proposes a late date for a part of the Bible, another one comes along and uses that as evidence for the non-existence one or more people in the Bible. In other words, using higher criticism there is a popular trend to systematically undermine the historicity of the Bible.

This trend manifests itself in interesting and odd ways. For example, there was an intense debate about whether or not King David was a real person. That debate has largely died down due to archaeological evidence for his existence and reign. As a more extreme example, I was part of an online discussion once where one commenter attempted to argue using higher criticism that Jeremiah was not a real person. That position is thankfully rare but there is a significant number of scholars who argue that because portions of the Bible were composed at a late date the main characters before David are nothing more than "literary constructs" at worst or fictional retellings of oral tradition at best. According to this way of thinking there may have been someone named Moses, but the exodus never happened, or it was severely limited to a few hundred priests or tribal leaders, without any miraculous occurrences.

In every field of study there is a drive to push the envelope, to be the researcher who finds the first, the highest, the newest, the strongest, the oldest, or the largest because that is what gets published and cited. In the field of Biblical scholarship the current fad of higher criticism is to show a later and later date for different parts of the Bible. For example, one Biblical scholar, David P. Wright, argued in a recent book that the Covenant Code (Exodus 20:23-23:19) was not written at an early date, but much later during the Neo-Assyrian period (740-640 BC). It may have been well argued but as one reviewer pointed out, "If the discovery of a piece of Mesopotamian law code in ... 2010 at Hazor is followed up by more such discoveries, Wright may have to do some quick backtracking on his proposed date. In fact, Wright's volume full of data can be explained better by an early date than by a Neo-Assyrian date."

In other words, a single archaeological find can overturn just about any argument based on higher criticism. It does not matter how complex, well thought out, or elegant the argument is, if evidence indicates otherwise it doesn't matter. The archaeological evidence prompted Cyrus H. Gordon, a noted Biblical scholar to declare arguments based on higher criticism to be untenable. "Though Bible scholars live in an age of unprecedented discovery, they stand in the shadow of nineteenth-century higher criticism, . . . even though archaeology has rendered it untenable." (Cyrus H. Gordon, "Higher Critics and Forbidden Fruit," Christianity Today, 4 (1959): 131).

In a drive for ever decreasing notoriety it has become fashionable to argue for later and later dates for Biblical authorship, but that has divorced many of the arguments from the archaeological record, and has increasingly relied on even more tenuous arguments about what was and was not possible three thousand years ago in Israel.

In part a major motivation for this was to remove the wondrous and miraculous as a possibility from history. If Moses never existed then you don't have to deal with whether or not he parted the sea. If Adam was nothing more than a mythological figure then arguments about the creation disappear. By undermining the historicity of the Bible the more miraculous aspects of the Bible do not have to be dealt with. Thus Elder McConkie equated higher criticism with evolution, because scholars were using higher criticism to give naturalist explanations to the Bible. This is what prompted such a visceral reaction and got it labeled a "doctrine of the devil".

But not all Mormons are ardent Biblical literalists in the vein of Elder McConkie. While the issues of when certain parts of the Bible may have a minor impact on how an LDS audience interacts with the Bible, the big issue is the question of historicity. If the J and E sources were written down 400 years after Moses it is not an insurmountable problem for Mormons, but if Moses and Abraham never existed then there will be major theological implications. As Latter-day Saints we may be willing to accept new arguments about certain events such as the Exodus, but on the basic issues of historicity we will not budge.

The question of when the Bible, as we know it, was written is of particular interest to Mormons since a major part of our faith is the Book of Mormon. As related in 1 Nephi, Nephi and Lehi carry with them the brass plates which contain "the five books of Moses.... And also a record of the Jews from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah, king of Judah; And also the prophecies of the holy prophets, from the beginning, even down to the commencement of the reign of Zedekiah; and also many prophecies which have been spoken by the mouth of Jeremiah."

If major portions of the Pentateuch were written after the Jews went into exile then it would have been impossible for the brass plates to contain those things. This would be a major anachronism for the Book of Mormon. Thus a late date, as proposed by many scholars, would invalidate the historical claims of the Book of Mormon. But there would be no problem with an early or even a middle date. As Mormons we already have a built in theological mechanism to incorporate additions, commentary and redaction made at a later date from when the events actually occurred. The Book of Mormon is an excellent example of how someone can take many different sources and splice them together into a coherent narrative several hundred years after the fact and still have it be valid as scripture. With this in mind it is not that big of a leap to accept that portions of the Bible were written much later than we supposed, and were the work of editors and redactors. Latter-day Saints would generally have no problem with most timelines for the writing of the Bible, as long as basic historicity was preserved.

Some, such as Elder McConkie, and his fan club might object, but I would think that most Latter-day Saints would have no problem as long as historicity and authoritativeness of the Bible were clearly delineated by proper authorities.

In this post I have briefly mentioned some of the difficulties Latter-day Saints will have with higher criticism and how it relates to when different parts of the Bible were potentially written and how that impacts whether or not the people involved were historical figures. In Part 3 I will point out some of the ways the Documentary Hypothesis can help Latter-day Saints understand the Book of Mormon and and give us some perspective into how scripture is written. This can help us digest how more modern scriptures came to be. Using insights from both the Documentary Hypothesis and the Book of Mormon, we can begin to understand the complex world that produced the scriptures we know and use.

In the meantime I would recommend Reflections on the Documentary Hypothesis by Kevin L. Barney. It gives a very good break down of the issues (with references) for an LDS audience.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Approaching Higher Criticism from a Faithful Perspective, Part 1

Introduction
In my previous post I introduced the Documentary Hypothesis (DH), which is the idea that the first five books of the Bible, collectively known as the Pentateuch, are actually a combination of four original source documents written at various times and places. While there has never been any direct evidence for these sources (i.e. the sources existing as separate documents) by carefully reading the text we notice certain peculiarities which are best explained by there being multiple original sources that were combined at a much later date. This method of critically analyzing the text for indications of the original sources is referred to as Higher Criticism. In its most general sense, higher criticism is a method of analyzing a text to understand who wrote it, why they wrote it, and when they wrote it. With higher criticism there is more interest in the world and society that produced the text, and what its original meaning was, than how the text is interpreted and applied today.

Since our scriptures were mostly produced in a much different society it is necessary to "translate" the concepts into terms that we can understand. In order to do this we need to understand the original context of what was written and the intent of the authors. But if a great distance in time, society and space separates us from the original context we will have a hard time understanding the scriptures. To get around this we must reconstruct the original context from any textual clues available to us. This is the basis of higher criticism.

From this perspective it would seem that higher criticism would be a natural fit with religious study, and in fact there was a point in history when higher criticism was closely aligned with religious scholarship, but over the past 200 years there has been an apparently intractable separation between the two. This has lead to intense criticism from one camp towards the other, with the sometimes bitter criticism likewise being returned. So what is the source of this disagreement?

The points of conflict generally fall under four categories:

  • Biblical Inerrancy
  • Authorship
  • Timing
  • Historicity
Underlying all of these issues is the implications for modern doctrine and religious practice. While a general survey of the conflict between religious scholarship and higher criticism would be enlightening I will only focus on how it manifests in an LDS context. Therefore I will not consider the ramifications for biblical inerrancy since that is a non-issue for Mormons.

Authorship
The question of who wrote what in the Bible is a subtly important question for an LDS audience. Mormons have a strong sense of authority when it comes to scriptures and religious writings. Who wrote what, and what authority they had to write it, are important questions for Latter-day Saints. Embedded in our understanding of scripture is a complex hierarchy of authority that determines what takes precedence over other writings, and to what degree.

For example, what is written in scripture takes precedent over the words (spoken or written) of any single apostle or prophet, with the exception that modern revelation supersedes any and all previously written words*. [*with some exceptions to the exception. I told you this was complex.] In all things the Bible and Book of Mormon are considered to be on equal footing, with the exception that if there is something from the Bible that does not mesh with our understanding, then, while not rejected outright, it is given a caveat that it may not have been "translated correctly". But if the same happens with the Book of Mormon then generally the text wins out and informs our understanding. The same holds true for the Doctrine and Covenants and the Pearl of Great Price.


All this complexity comes from our idea that the statements of a higher authority supersede the words of a lower authority. When this is applied to scripture it becomes a complex question of who said what, and with what authority. So the question of Biblical authorship poses a difficult question to many members of the Church. If the author is known, and is someone who has proper authority, then what is written can easily be placed in the hierarchy of authority. If the author is unknown then it reverts to a default level of authority which will afford it some authoritativeness by association.

This is further complicated when someone in authority compiles or edits works which may or may not have been authoritative. The authority of the compiler, perceived or actual, passes to the edited material which means that even if the original work was not authoritative, it becomes so since someone who had authority included it in the final edit. For this reason Mormon is nearly always referred to as a Prophet Historian, not not just a historian. It has the effect of elevating the authority of everything he compiled, even if the original material was not authoritative or inspired. The Joseph Smith Translation of the Bible because it both elevates portions of the text as authoritative, while demoting others*. [*Nothing is ever that simple.]

When it comes to Biblical authorship some things may seem straight forward but with the Documentary Hypothesis, Mormons are presented with an interesting conundrum. Among members of the Church, the Pentateuch is established as relatively authoritative due to the supposed source, but if Moses is not the actual author, the the authority of the author(s) would be in question. But the question may be irrelevant if, and only if, the sources were combined authoritatively, and without knowing the identity of the redactor we cannot make that judgement.

For some Mormons, the question of Biblical authorship as proposed by the DH will not produce more than passing interest, but for some it will be a major issue since it potentially undermines scriptural authority. While almost all Mormons are comfortable assessing the authoritativeness of individual passages relative to others, we are hesitant to reexamine our ingrained assumptions of the authoritativeness of whole books. For something that important we look to established structures of authority in the Church, as we should, for guidance.

But in the case of Biblical scholarship and the DH, that reassessment of authoritativeness is coming from outside the recognized structures of authority and that may lead members to automatically reject the conclusions of authorship without considering the evidence. Because it is not a small thing to reconsider the authority of certain passages of scripture, especially considering the context where it is most important, we should be hesitant when working through these questions of Biblical authorship.

I should point out that the answers to the question of Biblical authorship are not firmly established. While there may be general consensus, that consensus can be overturned by new research, or an incredible archaeological find. For these reasons I think it is advantageous that Church leaders exercise caution before speaking authoritatively or even semi-authoritatively with regards to these matters. Because of our complex hierarchies of authority if a particular viewpoint is given a veneer of authority, it will be difficult to change if the consensus shifts.

Any shifts in our understanding of Biblical authorship are not fundamentally destructive to an LDS viewpoint because we already have the framework in place to accept any modifications given enough evidence and the guidance of our structures of authority. But it is a transition that is best handled gently so as to not generate confusion and undue spiritual consternation.

For members of the Church there are some non-negotiable points to the question who authored the Pentateuch, namely that even if portions of it were written after the death of Moses, and compiled much later, portions of it must have been written by Moses, and it should depict actual historical events, even if the story has been distorted through time, there must be a kernel of truth to it. This will become important when I address the question of historicity. So even if other authors wrote portions of the Pentateuch, there needs to be some basis in fact for what they wrote, and at least some part of it containing the original writings of Moses. Unpacking the writings of Moses from those of later authors may be a difficult task, and it may add modifications to how we structure the hierarchy of authority for the different parts of the Pentateuch, but we are theologically prepared for that. If we consider these questions then it will enrich our understanding of how God has worked with His people and how He allows those in authority to have stewardship over everything given to them, including the scriptures.

For part 2 of this post I will cover the question of timing, that is, when the different parts of the Pentateuch was written, and why that generates conflict for an LDS audience. I will also address the issue of historicity. These are the two main sticking points when it comes to the conflict between current Biblical scholarship and LDS belief.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Who Wrote (The Hebrew) Bible? The Documentary Hypothesis

To some the question of who wrote the first five books of the Bible, collectively known as the the five books of Moses, is so transparently obvious that it barely registers as a question worth considering. But as we read the final chapter of Deuteronomy we note that most of what is recorded could not have been written by Moses since it details what happened after he died (or was translated). Many theologians throughout history have noted this and have cited it as proof of Moses's prophetic gift that he could write what would happen to the children of Israel after he died, while others have simply said that it was an editorial note added afterwards by Joshua or someone else.

But if we delve a little deeper we may note the addition of a few other notes most likely not added by the original author, whomever he may be. Plus, if we really pay attention we may begin to notice that the entire book of Deuteronomy is stylistically different from the other books of Moses, and in fact is stylistically closer to the Joshua and Judges, both not written by Moses, than the other books. It also covers many stories and ideas found elsewhere, as if it was written as a short condensed version of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers.

Some scholars have noted this about the book of Deuteronomy and have theorized that Deuteronomy is the "Book of the Law" found by King Josiah in the 7th century BC. If that is true then that would mean Deuteronomy was kept separate from the other four books of Moses for much of their existence, and quite possibly was written, or at least compiled, by someone other than Moses.

The duplication of stories, and the difference in style, between Deuteronomy and other parts of the Torah leads us to suppose that the "five books of Moses" were not written all at the same time, and may not have all be written by Moses. Furthermore there are some duplicated stories found in Genesis that indicate that there may be more than one original source for the text that we now know as the Bible. The presence of editorial content in Deuteronomy leads us to suppose that there may be some editorial content in the other books that we are overlooking. This poses an interesting question, because if not everything in the "five books of Moses" was written by Moses, then how much of it was, and who wrote the rest of it.

The idea that Moses did not write everything in the five books Moses is not new, in fact it has been accepted as normal among biblical scholars for more than 150 years. Even then there has been some discussion of this going back almost 2000 years if not more. But in the past 200 years scholars have applied a level or type of critical analysis to the Bible that previous generations of scholars have not. This has lead to an intense focusing on the question, "If Moses did not write everything, then who did, and what and when did they write?"

About 150 years ago a German biblical scholar named Julius Wellhausen compiled all the insights into biblical authorship that had been growing for many years and set out what would come to be known as the Documentary Hypothesis (also called JEPD, for reasons which will be explained shortly). The fundamental insight of the Documentary Hypothesis is that what we know as the five books of Moses are actually a compilation of four different parallel sources, each written at a specific point in Israel's history, either by single author or by a group of authors. The four sources are:
  • Source J: Written in Judah, the southern kingdom, sometime in the 9th or 10th century BC. This source received its name from the fact that it consistently uses YHWH (or Jehovah in both German and English, hence it is called the J source) to refer to God. In the King James Version you can identify when the name YHWH is used since the KJV renders it as "LORD". Major themes of the J source include a promotion of the tribe of Judah over the others, an anthropomorphic God with a body ("And the LORD [YHWH] spake unto Moses face to face, as a man speaketh unto his friend.") and willing to change and repent, with human emotions ("And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart"). In the J source animals can talk (i.e. the serpent in the garden, or Balaam and his talking ass). Biblical scholars posit that this version was written in the royal court as an official history of the Israelites and to highlight the role of Judah (the man) in establishing the tribe of Judah's right to rule. In the account of the flood the J source gives a much more limited scope to the extent of the flood. It is a mere local affair, though still devastating.
  • Source E: Written in Israel, the northern kingdom, sometime in the 9th century, possibly to counter the official history being promoted by the tribe of Judah (or "official" history depending on who you ask). The E source consistently uses Elohim for the name of God, and tends to highlight stories from Israel's history that occurred in the north. The E source does not mention anything before Abraham. This source also tends to have angels giving messages from God rather than God speaking directly to anyone. Source E also contains the important Covenant Code (Exodus 20:19–23:33), which is considered to be one of the earliest legal codes in existence. Some scholars argue that the Covenant Code was actually written much earlier and then incorporated into E when it was written.
  • Source P: This source receives its name from the fact that it is written to highlight priestly matters. It deals heavily with genealogies, names, dates, number, exact measurements, rituals, laws and punishments. It uses Elohim to refer to God, which is never depicted anthropomorphically. The God depicted in the P source deals with great cosmic events and is the source for much of the creation story. As one scholar put it, the God of the P source makes Heaven and Earth, the firmament and everything that is in them. The God in the J source plants a garden. The story of the flood in P deals with a great cosmic realignment, the waters which were above and below the firmament return to the earth and everything is covered. P is the source for a good portion of the second half of Exodus, 99% of Leviticus and most of Numbers. This covers all of the legal code stuff, such as the intricate washings for uncleanliness, and sacrifices. It also deals significantly with the tabernacle, including the details of construction.
  • Source D: This one is not so much a source as it is the work of a single author known as the Deuteronomist, because he wrote the book of Deuteronomy (hence the D). In the Documentary Hypothesis the Deuteronomist is seen as the author of not only Deuteronomy, but also Joshua, Judges, 1 & 2 Samuel, and 1 & 2 Kings. Consequently all those books can be seen as a complete history written with a specific purpose in mind, which is to highlight the principles of righteous leadership in Israel and to demonstrate that none of the kings in Israel or Judah managed to live according to the law as it applies to the kings (with the possible exception of Josiah). The Deuteronomist refers to God as "YHWH Eloheinu" which in English is rendered "The Lord our God". This phrase only appears a few times in Exodus, but is used heavily in Deuteronomy. The timing and identity of the Deuteronomist is a matter of debate. Wellhausen identified the Deuteronomist as Ezra, while Richard Elliott Friedman identifies the Deuteronomist as either the prophet Jeremiah (1st edition of his book Who Wrote the Bible?) or Baruch, Jeremiah's scribe (in Friedman's 2nd edition of his book). This would place the writing of the book of Deuteronomy in the second half of the 7th century BC during the reign of King Josiah, shortly before the destruction of Jerusalem and the exile into Babylon. There is some debate among scholars that the Book of the Law (i.e. Deuteronomy) "found" in the temple during the reign of Josiah was actually written to bring about a religious and political revival. The subsequent histories were written to demonstrate how the various kings, and Israel in general, had failed to live up to the Law given by Moses, until Josiah, and his priests, including Jeremiah, came and brought everyone back to the true fold and way of believing. Proper sacrifices and worship were restored to Jerusalem and all was going well and the line of David would have an eternal kingdom with Messianic kings such as Josiah to rule over Israel forever...until Josiah was killed by a stray arrow in battle. There is evidence that an editor made minor changes to the histories after the death of Josiah in an attempt to explain the failure of Josiah to establish an eternal kingdom. There are a few chapters (40-66) of Isaiah scholars assume were not actually written by Isaiah but were written later and then attributed to him. These chapters are collectively known as Deutero-Isaiah.
  • The Redactor: This is not another source, but rather a single person (or group of people depending on who you ask), known as the redactor, who edited the sources and combined them into a single text that we now know as the "five books of Moses". The work of the redactor can be found all throughout the five books weaving them together into a single coherent story. Because nothing was apparently left out this lead to multiple versions of the same stories, sometimes with minor or even major differences, such as two versions of the flood, two accounts of creation (one from the P source of a great cosmic event, the other from J on a much more limited scale where God plants a garden), Moses striking the rock and having water come out (in one version he hits the rock and water comes out, in the other he is commanded to speak a word and have water come out, but instead he hits the rock and is rebuked by God), and many other stories. Wellhausen identifies the redactor as an unknown scribe in the 2nd or 3rd century, while Friedman identifies the redactor as Ezra in the 4th century.
As you may have noticed, there is not always agreement among scholars regarding the identities of the authors or the dates of when JEPD were written, but generally there is agreement with the process. J and E were written in the Southern and Northern Kingdoms respectively sometime in the 9th or 10th century. J and E were later combined, presumably after the destruction of the Northern Kingdom, during the reign of Hezekiah, perhaps as an attempt to incorporate the refugees from the north officially into his kingdom. P has the biggest uncertainty of all the sources with estimates ranging from the 8th century all the way to the 2nd century BC. Most scholars date D to before the exile, though some date it to shortly after the exile. The dating of the redactor ranges from the 6th century all the way up to the 2nd century. The redactor could not have lived any later than the 2nd century because the Dead Sea Scrolls contain the work of the redactor.

JEPD still stands as the preeminent explanation of who wrote the first five books of the Bible despite what some critics will say. The biggest issue currently under debate is the timing of when each part was written. The current winds of biblical scholarship are currently blowing towards a late date (post exile) for most portions, but that is not universal. There is good evidence pointing towards an earlier date for certain sources, and the debate is still out for others.

Ever since Wellhausen published his work in the 1870's there has been very little change in the consensus. Basically all biblical scholarship consisted of footnotes to Wellhausen's work, until about the 1980's when scholars such as Richard Elliott Friedman started to challenge some long held assumptions. Since then there has been a flowing of biblical studies which has allowed many different ideas to be presented, not all of them bound by the documentary hypothesis. But for the better part of 110 years, if you wanted any part of biblical scholarship you had to "toe the line" and accept the work of Wellhausen as "the gospel truth" as it were. But the field is not so strict now. Still the Documentary Hypothesis is still the default position in the field.

Some elements of the Documentary Hypothesis may present problems for members of the Church and for the Book of Mormon as a historical document. Basically the Documentary Hypothesis as formalized by Wellhausen was in direct contradiction with the Book of Mormon, but since the 1980's the field has changed and some of the new ideas are not antithetical to the Book of Mormon as a historical document and I plan on addressing those issues in a future post. But this post should serve as a brief introduction . For further reading I suggest:
  • Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman (2nd edition, the correct edition is important)
  • Authoring the Old Testament: Genesis–Deuteronomy by David Bokovoy (this was written for an LDS audience)

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: TheBackyardScientist

The Backyard Scientist channel may be lean a little towards the "let's blow some stuff up because it's cool" but he does do some practical projects that are fun to watch. Now that I have a backyard I am seriously thinking about trying some of his projects out for myself.

Here are a few of the more interesting projects that the Backyard Scientist has done.

Molten aluminum in water beads.


Ping-pong steam engine (with liquid nitrogen).


Sending a GoPro to space.


Did you know molten salt explodes when it comes in contact with water?




Wood etching/burning with lightning.


There are plenty of "let's blow stuff up" channels on YouTube, but the Backyard Scientist tries to do science in the same style as the MythBusters. It may be for entertainment, but there is a commitment to be curious and to explore, and to test ideas and see what works. So it may not be publishable science, it does stay true to the idea of scientific exploration.

There are also a few cool ideas that would be fun (and safe) to try with young children. So if you need ideas for fun summer projects to help your children learn this is a good place to get a few ideas.

As a safety note: having worked with a few dangerous substances, and electricity before, the Backyard Scientists do not always take the best safety precautions. So as with anything hot, explosive, electrical, corrosive, or toxic, know the hazards and use common sense. But don't let that stop you from trying.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: Every Frame a Painting

My recommendations for educational YouTube channels are not limited to channels dedicated to history and science. I believe that there is something to be learned from any field of endeavor. In every field there are those who are good at their art because of pure talent. Then there are those who not only posses raw talent, but intentionally master their raw talent through education, training and understanding how and why their art takes the form it does.

Talent will only take you so far, and the difference between someone who is good at what they do and
someone who has mastered it, is a lot of hard work, practice and understanding how it works. All too often when it comes to videos, movies and pictures people just assume that all you have to do is point your camera and take the picture. But what differentiates a good movie from a great one is the preparation, forethought and understanding that goes into the picture.

The channel Every Frame a Painting covers the subtle aspects of cinema that make great movies. There are things that you don't even think about when watching a movie but can have a tremendous impact on your experience. Several years ago I watched the movie Seven Samurai and I remember being greatly impressed with it. At the time I didn't know that it was directed by Akira Kurosawa, one of the masters of Japanese cinema. It wasn't until years later when I watched the following video on the how Kurosawa uses movement to compose each shot that I learned that there was a reason why the movie had such an impact on me. The director was a master of his art and had intentionally composed his movies to produce strong emotional responses. He masterfully uses the art of the cinema to make experiences that his audience will not forget.

Similarly the director Michael Bay uses his craft to make engaging movies that are fun to watch. Even if you can't stand his movies, and I can't stand them, they are still very visually engaging. Understanding how he makes his movies will explain why his movies make hundreds of millions of dollars, even when the plots are full of holes and the characters annoying.

The same can be said of Buster Keaton. If you watch his movies, they are full of plot holes, the characters are annoying, but they are still fun to watch. There is a reason why Buster Keaton is still one of the best comedic geniuses in movie history.

There were a few videos on the channel Every Frame a Painting that changed the way I watched movies. I became more aware of how directors chose to compose a shot (or didn't choose, but just did the default, and therefore made a boring movie). I also learned what was possible in a movie and what I had been missing out in many american movies.






This is one channel that has changed (or maybe ruined) how I watch movies. I notice more and am aware of how the craft works.

One final note and disclaimer. Because this channel deals with Hollywood movies some of the subject matter on this channel is not for a younger audience. Some of the videos have graphic violence and the swearing is not edited out. I don't think any of the above videos has swearing, but several of the other videos do have extensive R rated swearing and violence. So if you let your teenage kids watch the videos on this channel, just screen them first.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

That it Exists: How Consciousness is Fundamental to the Cosmos

Recently I came across an article that was written as a response to a broader discussion regarding the nature of consciousness and the mind. The scientist writing the article took the position that all mental activity, and therefore all subjective experience, is just neurochemistry. That is, all thought can be reduced down to the motions of molecules in the brain.

His point was that we can trace neural pathways in the brain, and because we can do this we have discovered the source of consciousness. In making this assertion he was arguing against the possibility of consciousness being a separate entity apart from the measurable neurochemistry in the brain. His reasoning was that there was no evidence that human consciousness operated independent of the neuron activity in the brain. From a scientific stand point he has a very strong argument. There is no evidence that has ever been measured of human consciousness operating independent of a human brain. As he put it, "default hypothesis must be that brains cause consciousness." There is nothing to prove otherwise.

In making his argument that there is no evidence for consciousness independent of a functioning brain, he gave the following challenge in the form of a question.

"Where is the evidence for consciousness being fundamental to the cosmos?"

We must acknowledge that we have not yet observed free floating consciousnesses in the universe. We cannot look through a telescope, or in a particle accelerator, or in a microscope and observe a consciousness apart from the neural activity in our brains. So what evidence is there for consciousness in the universe?

That it exists.

Right now as you are reading this you are aware of your own existence. That fact alone is evidence that there is at least one consciousness, and that it is fundamental to the universe. You may also realize that you cannot observe, experience or measure my consciousness. You can observe the effects of my consciousness in how I act and talk, but you cannot directly observe my consciousness. (As a side note, if you were to insist that yours was the only consciousness in the cosmos and that everyone else were just cleaver machines then you would be slipping into the philosophy of solipsism.) So when the author of the article asked what evidence there was for consciousness being fundamental, the evidence is that it exists.

While his arguments may seem modern with their emphasis on neurochemistry, this argument is actually quite old and has been debated as far back as the ancient Greek philosophers. I can tell someone is a conscious being because of the way they act. I can observe their actions and how they react to language and conclude that they are an independent thinking being. All we have done with modern neuroscience is to do the exact same thing, but now with fancy equipment. It's a bit like inventing a car or an airplane and then concluding, "Now we have solved the puzzle of human motion! We now know how humans move!"

No, all we have done is take the same fundamental problem and wrapped it in a new shinier, more complex skin.

We have not solved the problem of consciousness. We still have not observed consciousness. We can observe the motions that result from consciousness, but we have not observed someone's self awareness. We may be closer to solving the riddle of human consciousness but we have not yet done it. Until then the idea that "brains cause consciousness" is not the "default hypothesis". To insist that "brains cause consciousness" is to assume a conclusion for which there is no evidence, while our own self-awareness is evidence that our consciousness is independent of our own neurochemistry,

Until we know what consciousness, or self-awareness, is, and not just its effects, we cannot say that we have no evidence of consciousness outside the measurable motions of neurochemistry. But we do have evidence that consciousness exists. Just think about it.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

"Correcting an Abuse of the Lord’s Supper" Understanding 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 in Context

Today I was asked to teach the lesson in Elder's Quorum on the topic of the sacrament. The lesson manual at one point used the scripture found in 1 Corinthians 11:27-29 to emphasize the importance of being worthy to partake of the sacrament. Since we use the King James Version in the Church this is what appeared in the lesson manual.
"Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body."
This is not the first time, and definitely won't be the last, that I have heard this passage used to emphasize the importance of being worthy while taking the sacrament. But if there is one thing that I have learned is that if we are understand the scriptures we must read and consider them in context. So let me give the context of that passage and see if it changes the meaning. For this I will be using the New International Version translation of the Bible since it helps make it easier to understand certain critical passages.

In the early days of the church when Jesus's apostles established churches everywhere they went they frequently did not have a formal church building where the saints would meet. Sometimes they would meet in the local synagogue, but it was more common to meet in a member's house. Many notable women are mentioned as being the spiritual center of these early house churches.

In the early church it quickly became the custom that when the members met they would have a meal together, as in a full meal. As a part of the meal they would have the sacrament of the Lord's supper in the same manner that Jesus taught his disciples before he died. As Paul explained to the members at Corinth,
For I received from the Lord what I also passed on to you: The Lord Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body, which is for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood; do this, whenever you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)
To follow the pattern set forth by Jesus the church members would have a full meal and then afterwards would have the sacrament. To understand what and why Paul was writing we have to understand the letter to the Corinthians.

Paul had traveled to Corinth and had established a church there. After he continued on his mission to other cities he received a series of letters from the saints in Corinth with some questions. They had had some contentions regarding how the church was to be run and they wrote to Paul to settle some doctrinal, procedural and administrative disputes. We do not know exactly what questions they asked, but a good portion of 1 Corinthians is Paul responding to their questions. Without this it is easy to get lost. The confusion is further compounded by the fact that occasionally Paul will quote from the letter sent by the Corinthians and his responses get mixed in with their questions. So sometimes it's hard to tell what are his responses and what are the statements he is responding to, and in some cases refuting.

It is in this context that Paul responds to the saints in Corinth in Chapter 11. We do not have their question, but obviously they had a question about the sacrament of the Lord's supper. From his response we can infer what problems they were facing.

It would appear that when the church started they had the custom of having a full meal before the sacrament. But at some point certain members started holding their own church meals (v. 21) and not inviting other members to these meals. Some members who had an abundance of food would use that fact to try to pridefully demonstrate to the other members that they had God's approval, while those who could not contribute to the communal meal did not have God's approval (v. 19). This caused divisions in the congregation (v. 18) since groups of members were having their own private "sacrament meetings" with full meals (v. 21). Thus the poor members were showing up to the meetings expecting a full meal before the sacrament and instead got nothing (v. 22). This made some members get sick, or be weak, and in some cases fall asleep in the church meetings (v. 30).

Thus the church in Corinth was having a problem with members holding their own sacrament meetings, perhaps without proper priesthood authorization, and in some cases they were having parties or meals (v. 21) and not having the sacrament afterwards (v. 20), but still calling it a church meeting. So they were misunderstanding the purpose of the Lord's supper and were calling any big meal they had "the Lord's supper." It had gotten to the point that the church meetings were doing more harm than good (v. 17).

So when Paul wrote to the Corinthians he was trying to correct these problems and make sure that there were no contentions among the members. He was also trying to correct the misconception that "the Lord's supper" was not a meal to be shared with only friends, but that when the church came together for a meal, everyone should be invited and should participate (v. 33). But to prevent the sacrament of the Lord's supper turning into nothing more than a party, or well spread meal, the members should eat in their own homes first and then gather for the sacrament (v. 34). That way there would be no confusion between a church potluck and the sacrament.

Thus Paul clearly laid out the procedure for the sacrament (vs. 23-26) and admonished the saints to follow that pattern for the sacrament, until he could come and give them further instructions (v. 34). In is in this context that Paul gives his warning about eating and drinking of the sacrament unworthily.
"So then, whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord. Everyone ought to examine themselves before they eat of the bread and drink from the cup. For those who eat and drink without discerning the body of Christ eat and drink judgment on themselves." (vs. 27-29)
In this context when Paul talks about being unworthy he is referring to the contentions and divisions (vs. 18-22) that are tearing apart the church. Church members are not taking care of the hungry and poor (v. 22) and are despising the body of the church (vs. 22, 29, 31), or the "body of Christ". When the church comes together to "partake of the Lord's supper", they are not doing the ordinance correctly, and everything else, the unimportant stuff is getting in the way of the sacrament, hence what they are doing is not the Lord's supper (v. 20). For this reason the church is under condemnation and when they are doing it in an unworthy, or unauthorized manner, they are "guilty of sinning against the body and blood of the Lord."

So in the end, the unworthiness that Paul was speaking against was the contentions and divisions in the church, and the fact that some members were not doing the ordinance correctly. Thus those members who were having their own private "sacrament meals" were eating and drinking "judgment on themselves."

In our church today verses 27-29 are frequently cited as proof that we need to be careful not to partake of the sacrament unworthily. While there are some cases where members who have committed certain sins are not allowed to take the sacrament, I think that sometimes members take those verses out of context and understand them to mean that if we have any sin or misdeed in our lives we should not take the sacrament, no matter how small. But unfortunately comes from misunderstanding the context and intent of the passage. Taking the sacrament signifies our desire to make a covenant with the Lord, it does not signify that we have personally atoned for our own sins. That is something we cannot do. Because of the misapplication of those verses some members get the idea that we must be perfect to take the sacrament. This in effect denies the atonement of Christ since it is he who atones for our sins, not us. The sacrament signifies our accepting the covenant that the Lord will cleanse from our sins, not that we have cleansed ourselves, since that is something we cannot do.

The reasons for not taking the sacrament should be when someone has committed a major sin, one that is damaging to other members and disrupts the good feeling among the members, or if there are divisions and contentions among the members. If they can't get along and be unified in the covenant then they should not take the sacrament. Also members should not try to partake of the sacrament without proper authorization from the bishop of other presiding authority. Thus members cannot have their own sacrament meeting if they happen to not like the bishop or other members in the congregation. They do not have the keys to determine when and where the sacrament should be done.

When I presented this in my lesson in Elder's Quorum, one member of the quorum commented that he had never had it explained to him like that. He said that taking the sacrament was something he had struggled with because he had never felt worthy and it was a relief to hear that it wasn't about fixing all the little sins and misdeeds before we take the sacrament, but that we take the sacrament to signify that we are unified with the body of Christ, which is the church.

Monday, August 15, 2016

What happened to Quantumleap?

So what did happen to me? Long story short, I got a job, after being unemployed for three months, and effectively homeless for one month, all while moving across the country twice.

Now the long story.

Over a year and a half ago, my cousin who lives in Australia told me about postdoc position at the University of Western Australia in Perth. It was a pretty good deal and fit exactly with my research. I worked hard on that application and put together three stellar pages explaining my research. I must have done something right since they wanted to interview me (by skype). Being confronted with the prospect of moving to literally the opposite side of the earth (Perth is pretty close to the antipode of North Carolina) was rather intimidating. Because I was still expecting to take another year to finish my PhD I didn't tell anyone that I was interviewing for a position in Perth. My wife's parents only found out about a month ago that Perth was a serious possibility for a while. I only told my parents the day before my interview.

In the end, and after much waiting, they offered the position to someone else, and they accepted (I was the alternate). That experience did turn out to be very helpful since the application material that I put together for that position formed the core of all my other job applications.

Then last fall I started looking for other postdoc positions to apply for. I looked for ones that aligned with my experience, and ultimately I was asked to interview for about half of the positions I applied for.

But my big break came in January when I traveled to the annual American Astronomical Meeting to give my dissertation completion talk. While I was there I ran into a professor who I met at a previous AAS meeting. I reintroduced myself and they remembered me and coincidentally had just been reading my paper on their laptop. They wanted to talk to me some more but didn't have time right then, so they told me to email them. I did and they extended an invitation for me to come speak to their department.

So in February they flew me out to visit and give a department colloquium. The trip was fantastic and while I was there they offered me a postdoc position there at the university. The professor offering me the position was aware that I also had interviews lined up in the next few days with other (more prestigious, by their own admission) institutions and insisted that I see how those interviews go before formally accepting the postdoc position with them. Some of the interviews were with people that that professor occasionally collaborated with so they didn't want to snipe me out from under their collaborators.

After a few more interviews in the next week, including one where I was again the alternate, I replied to the offer I had received and said that I would accept. And then I waited. And waited.

About the middle of March I finally got a reply. Someone had become ill and the funds that were intended to pay for my position had to be diverted to cover the replacement for the ill postdoc. So there would be no position for me. Sorry.

So a little more back story. In early February I had been very concerned that I would not be able to find a job and that I would not know where to move my family. I had been praying about it for some time, until in mid February I had the distinct impression that in exactly one month I would have a job offer. At the same time I had a very strong impression not to apply for a particular job. The application for that job was due March 1st, but I had a very strong impression not to apply for the job. In many ways it was an ideal job for me and fit almost perfectly with my research. I also had a connection to the professor offering the position through my advisor (they were friends and former colleagues). So if I had applied for that position I most likely would have received an offer. But I felt a very strong impression not to apply for it.

Not applying for that position didn't bother me because by the time the deadline rolled around I already had an offer so I didn't think anything of it. Exactly one month after I had my initial prompting I still technically had an offer, had accepted it, and was just waiting for a response. Two days later I received the email informing me that the offer had been retracted.

This put me in a bit of a bind because the season for postdoc position deadlines had mostly passed. There weren't a lot of positions left that were still hiring. I desperately tried applying for any and all positions I could find, but this time with a marked decrease in invites for interviews. I did have a few interviews, including one with Oxford in England (by skype, no they didn't fly me out). But nothing came through.

At that time I started applying for temporary teaching positions. Most teaching positions are advertised at the same time as the postdoc positions so I had already missed 90% of the deadlines, but during the summer a number of departments realize they don't have enough professors to cover classes for the fall (i.e. someone unexpectedly leaves the department or gets sick etc.) so they have to do a quick faculty search and hire someone to teach. I started applying for as many of those positions as I could find.

During this time I finished my dissertation, got my second paper submitted for publication and graduated. I still did not have a job. Before I had my defense my home teacher gave me a blessing and in the blessing he mentioned that in the coming months I would find employment and that I would meet collaborators for my research. I also had reassurances through the spirit that everything would work out.

After several rejection letters and still no prospects I was getting worried about not knowing where we were going to move and about getting my kids in school in the fall. As May wore on still with no prospects my worry got worse. At about that time two things happened. The first was I had two friends who work at Los Alamos National Labs and I contacted them wondering if they knew of any positions that I could apply for. They pointed me towards some possibilities that I applied for. The second thing happened as I was reading the scriptures.

As I was wondering about the promise made to me in the blessing from my home teacher I was lead to Enos 1:4-6, which reads,
4 And my soul hungered; and I kneeled down before my Maker, and I cried unto him in mighty prayer and supplication for mine own soul; and all the day long did I cry unto him; yea, and when the night came I did still raise my voice high that it reached the heavens.
5 And there came a voice unto me, saying: Enos, thy sins are forgiven thee, and thou shalt be blessed.
6 And I, Enos, knew that God could not lie; wherefore, my guilt was swept away.
That last line struck me with extreme force, "and I knew that God could not lie."

As May turned into June I still had no prospects, but my friend at Los Alamos informed me that there might be postdoc position that I could apply for and he would let me know the details when they were available. At this time I kind of had a deadline because the lease for my apartment was ending in June and I kind of wanted to know where I would be moving with my family before then.

In June I was able to go to the temple with my wife. While we were in the Celestial Room I had a special experience that let me know that God was going to take care of me and that by August I would have a job. At the time I wondered if the job at Los Alamos would pull through since my friend had told me that if I got the job I would start in August.

Near the end of June, about a week before we had to move out of our apartment, I was thinking about possible jobs and I was thinking a lot about the possibility of working at Los Alamos. I knew that it would be an interesting job. but I also knew that a significant portion of my time would involve simulating nuclear weapons.

While thinking about this and wondering if the possible job at Los Alamos was where I was supposed to be, I was lead to a passage in the scriptures in Alma 24. In that chapter we find the story of the Anti-Nephi-Lehis and how they buried their weapons of war for peace. Usually when people are lead to certain passages in the scriptures, Alma 24 is not the place they are lead to. But at the time that chapter was intended for me. While I was reading it I had a very strong impression that I should not take the job at Los Alamos, even if I was offered one. I was not meant to work on anything related to nuclear weapons. I struggled with that one since at the time Los Alamos was the only place that I had the possibility for a job at that time. Also I knew that my friend was working to get me there. In many ways I would be an ideal job for me, and it would make applying for jobs in the future easier.

At the end of June we had to move, and with nowhere to go we put most of our stuff in storage, put the rest in our car, and began the long drive across the US from North Carolina to Utah. I had no plan other than "Find a job." We hoped that some of the places I applied to would work out, or I could apply for jobs in Utah. Our plan was to live with family until we figured out something more permanent.

On our drive out to Utah we stopped in Nauvoo and while we were there I checked my email (something I had been unable to do for a few days) and I had received an email from Augusta University in Georgia wondering if I was available for an interview. I tried responding to set a time, but I couldn't talk to them by phone since Nauvoo has terrible cell phone reception. So I responded to see if we could arrange a time to talk when I had reception. Unfortunately they said that they wanted to get everything done as soon as possible and make a decision before the 4th of July weekend. So, sorry.

We continued on to Utah and I started looking at places to work. I had one interview that went well with a company in Raleigh (I JUST came from there!) and they were making moves like they wanted to offer me a job. But then July 7th I got an email from Augusta again saying that they were still interested in talking to me. I set up a time, we talked and everything went well. Then I got an email from the chair of the department saying that he wanted to talk to me. When we finally connected by phone it was the 12th and he offered me a job(!). The same day my friend from Los Alamos emailed me and said that the postdoc position was going through and could I give him some information so that he could have some talking points to make the case for hiring me. Even though I was very thankful that my friend was doing that, I told him that I had just received and offer. Thanks, but sorry. It's still nice to know that I had a friend who would do that for me.

So when the dust settled and I had accepted the offer it was the middle of the month, and oh, by the way classes start on the 17th of August and I have to be there by the 8th. So we had less than a month to plan our move across the country (again) find a house and get our kids in school (oh, and by the way, public schools start on the 8th, and you need several documents proving residency to get your kids registered for school). So we drew upon the social capital of the Church, got in touch with the bishops in the area, got some information and got a recommendation for a realtor (two bishops independently recommended the same one).

We were looking into different options, whether to buy or to rent and considering our options when my sister offered to watch our kids so we could go to the temple. While I was there waiting for the session to start I was prompted, very clearly, to look up D&C 48:3. I did so, and this is what it said,
3 And inasmuch as ye have not lands, let them buy for the present time in those regions round about, as seemeth them good, for it must needs be necessary that they have places to live for the present time.
That was perhaps a very unique answer to our question. So we decided to buy a house.

Then after the 24th of July holiday we started driving back across the country to move to Georgia. Before we left we had arranged for a temporary apartment and were planning on buying a house as soon as possible. Along the way we stayed with family and friends, and on the 28th of July we rolled into town about noon, got checked into our temporary apartment, and then went to meet our realtor. We spent all afternoon looking at houses. I won't bore you with the details (as if I haven't already), but over the next week we drove to North Carolina to get some essentials from storage, considered our options and made an offer on a house. The seller responded positively to our offer, and we were able to use the offer letter and a document from Georgia Power to go get our kids registered for school. Four days later they started school. Now in three days I start school as a physics professor at Augusta University. I ended up driving 5,000 miles to end up moving three hours away from where I started.

So if it seems like I dropped off the face of the planet and wasn't keeping up with my blog, you will have to excuse me because I wrote my dissertation, submitted a paper, applied for jobs, moved across the country twice, was homeless for a month, bought a house, and now I have to prepare lessons for a class that I found out a month ago I would be teaching. So I've been busy.

So, what have I learned from this? If anybody asks me, "Do you have evidence of God's existence?" I can honestly say, "Yes. Yes I do. But I don't get to pick the nature of the evidence. I must accept the evidence as it is."

Friday, July 1, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: engineerguy

Just a few weeks ago I came across an excellent channel on YouTube called engineerguy, run by Bill Hammack, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of Illinois. There are plenty of videos on YouTube that show how some cool machine works, and a few that explain the science and history behind it, but typically they are one off videos and the maker never posts more. Or they have a channel filled with fluff, and only or two good videos.

The engineerguy channel has videos about topics like the alignment optical telescope used on the Apollo missions, that allowed them to fly to the moon.
What makes his videos stand out from other "how it works" videos is how he packs in so much depth into a short video in such a way that even someone with a PhD in physics can feel like they have learned something. When he explains something the insights shared can have applications far beyond the immediate topic, which is why his videos are unlike others on YouTube.

While I am a fan of engineering videos, especially "How It's Made", the engineerguy videos help me appreciate the complexity and ingenuity that went into some designs that we may take for granted.

Just to warn you, sometimes he will be explaining how something works and he will go into fill engineer mode, using technical language that most people will not understand. If there are things he mentions that you don't get, don't worry, just keep watching, it's only something that people with a PhD in a scientific field will care about. You can still pick up on what he is talking about without understanding everything. Just don't be intimidated by technical language.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: Mark Rober

Mark Rober started his YouTube channel to show off a Halloween costume that he made. Since then he has made many more interesting videos including one about his time as a NASA engineer working on the Curiosity Rover. What I like about his channel is that he works through ideas and shows proper ways of doing simple home based experiments. The topics of his videos are geared towards a general audience. Some of his videos have gone massively viral, including one where he explained how to "skin a watermelon".

Below is one of his videos that my nephews used to win their Cub Scout pack Pinewood Derby.


If you want to win an egg drop competition then this one will help you out.




There are many other interesting videos on his channel and there will be even more interesting videos to come.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: NurdRage

There are plenty of random YouTube channels out there that specialize in just about everything imaginable, including channels dedicated to blowing things up. NurdRage is one of those channels. But what makes NurdRage different from many of the other blow things up channels is they actually explain and demonstrate how to synthesize various chemicals. And they do not always do the cool, or popular chemicals either, such as thermite. The have videos about things like how to recycle copper chloride, and how to make chloroform. The reactions and processes are more applicable to college level chemistry than high school chemistry.

What I like about this channel is that because they do not focus on the common or popular chemical reactions, they tend to show things that you do not find on many other YouTube channels. They also occasionally get into the weeds of different processes and reactions to test different ways of producing the same product. Some of these processes are used in industry for making chemicals also used in other processes and manufacturing.

This channel won't be for everyone. Some may find it incredibly boring, because let's face it, most people will not be interested in watching a 10 minute video about making propionic acid. But for anyone who has an interest in chemistry beyond explosions and the iodine clock reaction, then this is the channel for you.

I saw this video and instantly went out and found a laser and a jar of peanut butter to test this. It really works.


Friday, June 10, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: The Bible Project

Over a year ago one of the artists for a web comic that I read mentioned that they were doing artwork for something called The Bible Project. Since then I have been following their channel and watching their videos and I can honestly say that their work and explanations of the Bible are top notch. There are many channels on YouTube that attempt to discuss religious topics, but there are very few that manage to do it without either being over critical of religion, being so blindingly faith promoting to the point of churning out kitsch, or being so academic that they could raise the dead, just so the dead could be put to sleep out of boredom.

On The Bible Project channel they manage to hit the sweet spot with explanations that both the highly educated and novices would find interesting. Last year they produced a video on Holiness which I enjoyed greatly, so I took concepts from it and incorporated into an Elder's Quorum lesson. I think I got more comments, compliments and questions from that lesson than any other.

What makes these videos so valuable is they cover the history surrounding the Bible as a history of a faith, and a history and the development of a theology. It places all the parts of the Bible into a faith context while not losing the broader historical, cultural and social context in which the Bible was produced. I highly recommend this channel both for personal enrichment and for ideas of how to better teach about the Bible.



Friday, June 3, 2016

Educational YouTube Channels: The Great War

Telling the history of World War I is a rather ambitious undertaking, but producing videos every week explaining the war as it happened is a truly monumental task. The premise of the channel The Great War, is to tell the history of WWI a week at a time, exactly 100 years after it happened. To explain the channel here is an NPR interview with the creator Indy Neidell.

Currently they are half way through the war, but you can still catch up (here is the complete, week by week, list of episodes in chronological order). The episodes are generally only a few minutes long, but very informative. What really sets this series apart from all the other documentary series is you get a sense of how the war progressed from the perspective of someone who only has the small day to day, week to week, details. Usually history documentaries focus on topics, or single events or important series of events such as a battle or campaign. But this series by covering the war a week at a time immerses us in the true scope of the war and how it would be perceived by someone who lived it.

Indy Neidell also covers topics or events generally ignored in most history classes, because he has the time to address the small things and to build a narrative around them. For example he had an episode about Poland in WWI, which isn't talked about much because Poland wasn't an independent country at the time. Or his episode on South Africa and their involvement with the war. On the channel they also put out special episodes to cover specific topics such as Lawrence of Arabia, or Shell Shock.

This series is both an incredible introduction to WWI, and a great resource for learning about the war in depth. Most educational video series only serve as a good introduction to a subject, but this series goes beyond that into a great academic resource. It is not something that should be missed.

As a note, this series deals entirely with WWI, and as such may not be appropriate for small children. The series uses historical footage from news reels which occasionally includes the aftermath of battles.

Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Two Versions of the Flood in the Bible

Most people may not know this, but there are two versions of the story of Noah and the flood in the Bible. Using the text of the KJV below I give the two different versions of the flood found in the Bible. See if you can spot the similarities and differences. To make reading things easier I have removed verse numbering and chapter divisions. (I would highly recommend not picking up a Bible until you have read both versions. At the end I'll tell you where both versions are and you can check for yourself.)

Version 1
     And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And it repented the Lord that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him at his heart. And the Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord.
     And the Lord said unto Noah, Come thou and all thy house into the ark; for thee have I seen righteous before me in this generation. Of every clean beast thou shalt take to thee by sevens, the male and his female: and of beasts that are not clean by two, the male and his female. Of fowls also of the air by sevens, the male and the female; to keep seed alive upon the face of all the earth. For yet seven days, and I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth. And Noah did according unto all that the Lord commanded him.
     And Noah went in, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him, into the ark, because of the waters of the flood. And it came to pass after seven days, that the waters of the flood were upon the earth, and the Lord shut him in. And the rain was upon the earth forty days and forty nights.
     And the flood was forty days upon the earth; and the waters increased, and bare up the ark, and it was lift up above the earth. And the waters prevailed, and were increased greatly upon the earth; and the ark went upon the face of the waters. And the waters prevailed exceedingly upon the earth; and all the high hills, that were under the whole heaven, were covered. Fifteen cubits upward did the waters prevail; and the mountains were covered. All in whose nostrils was the breath of life, of all that was in the dry land, died. And every living substance was destroyed which was upon the face of the ground, both man, and cattle, and the creeping things, and the fowl of the heaven; and they were destroyed from the earth: and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.
     And the rain from heaven was restrained. And the waters returned from off the earth continually.
     And it came to pass at the end of forty days, that Noah opened the window of the ark which he had made: Also he sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground; But the dove found no rest for the sole of her foot, and she returned unto him into the ark, for the waters were on the face of the whole earth: then he put forth his hand, and took her, and pulled her in unto him into the ark. And he stayed yet other seven days; and again he sent forth the dove out of the ark; And the dove came in to him in the evening; and, lo, in her mouth was an olive leaf plucked off: so Noah knew that the waters were abated from off the earth. And he stayed yet other seven days; and sent forth the dove; which returned not again unto him any more. And Noah removed the covering of the ark, and looked, and, behold, the face of the ground was dry.
     And Noah builded an altar unto the Lord; and took of every clean beast, and of every clean fowl, and offered burnt offerings on the altar. And the Lord smelled a sweet savour; and the Lord said in his heart, I will not again curse the ground any more for man’s sake; for the imagination of man’s heart is evil from his youth; neither will I again smite any more every thing living, as I have done. While the earth remaineth, seedtime and harvest, and cold and heat, and summer and winter, and day and night shall not cease.
    And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan. These are the three sons of Noah: and of them was the whole earth overspread.
Sound familiar? Was anything missing? Now read the other version.

Version 2
     These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God. And Noah begat three sons, Shem, Ham, and Japheth. The earth also was corrupt before God, and the earth was filled with violence. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted his way upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, The end of all flesh is come before me; for the earth is filled with violence through them; and, behold, I will destroy them with the earth.
     Make thee an ark of gopher wood; rooms shalt thou make in the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is the fashion which thou shalt make it of: The length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits. A window shalt thou make to the ark, and in a cubit shalt thou finish it above; and the door of the ark shalt thou set in the side thereof; with lower, second, and third stories shalt thou make it. And, behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth, to destroy all flesh, wherein is the breath of life, from under heaven; and every thing that is in the earth shall die. But with thee will I establish my covenant; and thou shalt come into the ark, thou, and thy sons, and thy wife, and thy sons’ wives with thee. And of every living thing of all flesh, two of every sort shalt thou bring into the ark, to keep them alive with thee; they shall be male and female. Of fowls after their kind, and of cattle after their kind, of every creeping thing of the earth after his kind, two of every sort shall come unto thee, to keep them alive. And take thou unto thee of all food that is eaten, and thou shalt gather it to thee; and it shall be for food for thee, and for them. Thus did Noah; according to all that God commanded him, so did he.
     Of clean beasts, and of beasts that are not clean, and of fowls, and of every thing that creepeth upon the earth. There went in two and two unto Noah into the ark, the male and the female, as God had commanded Noah.
     In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, the seventeenth day of the month, the same day were all the fountains of the great deep broken up, and the windows of heaven were opened. In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark. They, and every beast after his kind, and all the cattle after their kind, and every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth after his kind, and every fowl after his kind, every bird of every sort. And they went in unto Noah into the ark, two and two of all flesh, wherein is the breath of life. And they that went in, went in male and female of all flesh, as God had commanded him.
     And all flesh died that moved upon the earth, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of beast, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth, and every man. And the waters prevailed upon the earth an hundred and fifty days.
     And God remembered Noah, and every living thing, and all the cattle that was with him in the ark: and God made a wind to pass over the earth, and the waters assuaged. The fountains also of the deep and the windows of heaven were stopped, and after the end of the hundred and fifty days the waters were abated. And the ark rested in the seventh month, on the seventeenth day of the month, upon the mountains of Ararat. And the waters decreased continually until the tenth month: in the tenth month, on the first day of the month, were the tops of the mountains seen. And he sent forth a raven, which went forth to and fro, until the waters were dried up from off the earth.
     And it came to pass in the six hundredth and first year, in the first month, the first day of the month, the waters were dried up from off the earth. And in the second month, on the seven and twentieth day of the month, was the earth dried.
     And God spake unto Noah, saying, Go forth of the ark, thou, and thy wife, and thy sons, and thy sons’ wives with thee. Bring forth with thee every living thing that is with thee, of all flesh, both of fowl, and of cattle, and of every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth; that they may breed abundantly in the earth, and be fruitful, and multiply upon the earth. And Noah went forth, and his sons, and his wife, and his sons’ wives with him: Every beast, every creeping thing, and every fowl, and whatsoever creepeth upon the earth, after their kinds, went forth out of the ark.
    And God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth. And the fear of you and the dread of you shall be upon every beast of the earth, and upon every fowl of the air, upon all that moveth upon the earth, and upon all the fishes of the sea; into your hand are they delivered. Every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you; even as the green herb have I given you all things. But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat. And surely your blood of your lives will I require; at the hand of every beast will I require it, and at the hand of man; at the hand of every man’s brother will I require the life of man. Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. And you, be ye fruitful, and multiply; bring forth abundantly in the earth, and multiply therein.
     And God spake unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying, And I, behold, I establish my covenant with you, and with your seed after you; And with every living creature that is with you, of the fowl, of the cattle, and of every beast of the earth with you; from all that go out of the ark, to every beast of the earth. And I will establish my covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of a flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth. And God said, This is the token of the covenant which I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations: I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth. And God said unto Noah, This is the token of the covenant, which I have established between me and all flesh that is upon the earth.
Explanation
You may be surprised to read these two complete stories of the flood in the Book of Genesis. Each one is complete by itself, and each one has unique details not found in the other. So how is it that you have read these two versions and never noticed? Most people might say, "Well the Bible, especially the Old Testament, tends to repeat itself a lot."

Except when you separate the two versions they can stand alone, and that is when we realize that there is a reason why the Bible keeps repeating itself, there were different versions that were joined together in order to have a single coherent story. In Biblical scholarship the two versions are referred to as J and P respectively. They make up two of the four sources for what are now the first five books of the Bible (the other two sources are called E and D).

Below I give a breakdown of the two different flood stories, including the chapter and verses in Genesis where they are found. The chapter and verse listing I got from the book Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman.

Version 1: J Version 2: P

6:5-8;
7:1-5, 7, 10, 12, 16b-20, 22-23;
8:2b-3a, 6, 8-12, 13b, 20-22;
9: 18-19

6:9-22;
7:8-9, 11, 13-16a, 21, 24;
8:1-2a, 3b-5, 7, 13a, 14-19;
9:1-17


  • Uses "Jehovah" to refer to God.
  • Rains for 40 days.
  • Noah sends out a dove to test if the water has abated.
  • Noah collects two of all unclean animals, and seven of all clean animals.


  • Uses "Elohim" to refer to God.
  • The water above the firmament and below the earth covers the earth for 150 days.
  • Noah sends out a raven to test if the water has abated.
  • Noah collects two of every animal.

One of the major differences comes in how the two authors refer to God. The author of J always uses "Jehovah" to refer to God (hence the J for the name), which is usually translated into English as "Lord". While the author of P always uses "Elohim" to refer to God, which is usually translated into English as "God". Try looking at the stories again with that in mind.

The other major difference is that in J it just rains for 40 days and nights, and the flood covers everything, while in the P version there is a cosmic event and the water above the firmament comes down, and the water below the earth breaks through the earth and covers everything. The P version is much more catastrophic, and more of an event on the cosmic scale. If you recall the creation story from Genesis 1, the waters were divided into two parts, the water above the firmament and the water below. Genesis 1 was also written by P, so the P version of the flood builds on the structure of the cosmos described in the beginning. Thus in the P version of the flood, the very structure of the cosmos was changed. The J version is much more modest, it floods the whole earth and covers the mountains, but the cosmos remain unchanged.

There are other subtle differences, such as P is more interested in ages, dates, dimensions, and genealogy. In the J version, Noah's sons are not named until after the flood story and the narrative is transitioning into the next story.

What other differences can you find between the two stories? What were the two authors trying to show with their versions of the story? How does this change how you might read the old testament?

If you want to learn more, I would suggest reading Who Wrote the Bible? by Richard Elliott Friedman. It's an excellent introduction to the different authors of the Bible.