Saturday, February 18, 2017

"If Calvinism is true, the gays are right!"

I was referred to this video:

Normally I wouldn't bother commenting on Leighton Flowers or Steve Gaines because that's low-hanging fruit. Out of fairness, I generally critique high-level proponents of a position rather than popularizers. However, it's possible to be too high-minded for one's own good. Most freewill theists aren't getting their freewill theism from sophisticates like Alvin Plantinga, Richard Swinburne, Alexander Pruss, and Peter van Inwagen, but from popularizers like Flowers, so there's some value in commenting on Flowers. Flowers says wants to hear how a Calvinist would respond to the challenge. We'll see about that.

I didn't listen to the clips he played of White. That doesn't interest me. I'll begin by quoting from the video:

Do homosexuals have a point when they say I was born like this? I was born with these desires. I was born with same-sex attraction. God made me like this. If what the Calvinists teaches is true with regard to total inability and meticulous determinism, then are they correct in their defense? Do they truly have that excuse? Is it true that God has ultimately determined which choices they will make and the desires that will ultimately determine their choices? And thus I'm not really responsible for my choices. I can't really resist this temptation. I can't stop being homosexual because this is the way God made me. I want to hear what a Calvinist would say in defense of that. If you believe that God is responsible for everything that happens…you can't have it both ways. If God predestined it then God is responsible. 

That's rife with confusions:

i) Calvinism has a doctrine of absolute predestination, and Calvinism has a doctrine of meticulous providence.

Calvinism per se doesn't have a theory of the will, or human psychology. Calvinism doesn't imply that our desires ultimately determine our choices. That may or may not be true, but it's not an implication of Calvinism. Calvinism doesn't have a theory of causation. 

ii) Calvinism doesn't imply that our choices are determined by our nature, genetics, or hormones. Calvinism is neutral on physical determinism and genetic determinism. Those are not theological positions.

According to Calvinism, a human agent can never think, choose, or act contrary to how he was predestined to think, choose, or act. A human agent is never "contra-causally" free in that regard.

But Calvinism is neutral on whether a human agent is free to resist his hormones, genetic programming, social conditioning, environmental controls, &c. Those are not theological positions. Rather, those are philosophical or scientific positions. According to Calvinism, most events come to pass through ordinary providential means, but Calvinism doesn't specify what those means are. 

iii) Flowers seems to be using idiosyncratic terminology. In standard Reformed usage, we talk about total depravity and spiritual inability, not "total inability". In the classic formulation of the Westminster Confession, fallen man has "wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation; so as a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto" (WCT 9.3). 

That's not equivalent to "total inability". 

iv) What does it even mean to say a homosexual was born with homosexual impulses? The sex drive doesn't kick in until adolescence.

Perhaps that's a clumsy way of saying homosexuals were born with a genetic program that will cause them to develop homosexual impulses with the onset of adolescence. Some people are hardwired to experience homosexual propensities when they hit puberty. Maybe that's what he means. But as it stands, the way Flowers has framed the issue is nonsensical.

v) I daresay most homosexual are atheists. So they don't think God made them that way. I daresay most of them say that just to put Christians on the spot, and not because that's what they really believe.

vi) I'd say that according to Calvinism, God is responsible for everything that happens. But that doesn't mean God is solely responsible. And that doesn't mean God is culpable. 

vii) Predestination doesn't entail that homosexual impulses are immutable. According to Calvinism, if you're a teenage homosexual, that's because God predestined you to be a teenage homosexual. But that doesn't imply that you will be a twenty-something homosexual, a middle-aged homosexual, or lifelong homosexual. What God has predestined you to be at present doesn't predict for what God has predestined you to be in the future. 

To take a comparison, if you were predestined to be a teenage atheist, that doesn't entail that you were predestined to be a twenty-something atheist, a middle-aged atheist, or lifelong atheist. Some people change–because God predestines change. 

viii) Likewise, if you succumb to temptation, that's because God predestined you to succumb to temptation. But by the same token, if you resist temptation, that's because God predestined you to resist temptation. Predestination in general doesn't imply that you can't resist temptation. Rather, it depends on what God predestined in any particular situation.

Calvinism does not imply that a sinner can't act contrary to his sinful impulses. Rather, Calvinism takes the position that a sinner can't act contrary to whatever he was predestined to do. 

So why not just create a bunch of people who want to worship him from the beginning and do away with all the pain and suffering and heartache and millions upon millions of people eternally burning in hell…There's no reason for the suffering unless there's true contra-causal freedom. 

i) It doesn't occur to Flowers that a fallen and redeemed world has distinctive goods that can't occur in an unfallen world. Take soul building virtues. Those are second-order goods. They presuppose the existence of natural and moral evil.

ii) Likewise, an unfallen world won't have the same bunch of people as a redeemed world. The alternative which Flowers proposes eliminates pain and suffering at the cost of eliminating many individuals, including heavenbound individuals, whose existence depends on a world history where pain and suffering exist. Absent the Fall, Flowers wouldn't exist–or his parents and grandparents. He's the end-result of chains events that include pain and suffering. So there are tradeoffs. 

God unchangeably determines man's desire and circumstances so that he cannot refrain from acting out in his homosexual tendencies and desires as was ordained by God.

That's confused. According to Calvinism, God unchangeably predetermines whatever happens. But that doesn't mean God predetermines that nothing changes. To the contrary, God predestined change. God predestined the timeline. Events happen, things change, according to God's antemundane plan.

When you remove choice, when you remove freedom, you ultimately have God redeeming his own determinations, which certainly doesn't make any sense.

Some people make statements that seem self-evidently true to them because they don't consider obvious counterexamples. For instance, drama is typically defined in terms of conflict and conflict resolution. A novelist or dramatist or screenwriter or director first creates a dramatic situation in order to then relieve the dramatic tension. There's nothing counterintuitive about a creative agent who intentionally causes a problem in order to solve the problem. That's because the problem is a source of dramatic potential. And the resolution leads to enlightenment. The characters undergo a transformative experience that raises them to a higher plane than before the crisis. 

I'd like to make a final observation. If Arminians like Leighton Flowers and Steve Gaines believe in liberty of indifference, then they presumably think human agents are constantly poised a knife-edge between good and evil. You can be humanitarian one moment, and a serial killer the next. You can flip at any moment as you teeter on the precarious balance between good and evil. Nothing causes your will, so your morality is chronically unstable. 

That would make social relationships incredibly hazardous. That would make Flowers and Gaines incredibly dangerous to be around. Dare not turn your back on them. 

Yet in general, people exhibit a certain fixity of character. How do Arminians like Gaines and Flowers account for that stability if the will is uncaused? 

The Coming Flood

Earthquakes and rainbows

13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. 14 When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds…15 I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh. And the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh (Gen (9:13-15).

i) From time to time I defend both the global and local flood interpretation. Gen 9:13-15 is a strong prima facie prooftext for the global extent of the flood. The argument is that since local floods recur throughout history, this must refer to something categorically different. How, if at all, might a local flood interpreter respond?

ii) Perhaps he'd say that while there's nothing exceptional about local floods, per se, Noah's flood was the most massive flood in the history of the ANE. Or that it was the most destructive to human life, given the concentration of humans in the ANE at that time. Even a local flood can be unexampled. 

iii) But here's another consideration. Let's take a comparison:

the world is established; it shall never be moved (Ps 93:1). 

the world is established; it shall never be moved (Ps 96:10).

He set the earth on its foundations, so that it should never be moved (Ps 104:5).

the world is established; it shall never be moved (1 Chron 16:30).

That's a recurring motif in Scripture. Some take it to be prooftexts for geocentrism. However, there's no evidence that OT Jews shared the Greeks' theoretical interest in celestial mechanics. Moreover, these passages say nothing about the earth in relation to the motion of the sun and planets. So geocentrism just isn't in view.

But what, then, does it refer to? I think it's using seismic imagery. Palestine is a seismically active region. So the claim is that God will protect his people from catastrophic earthquakes. For further corroboration of the seismic interpretation, consider these passages:

who shakes the earth out of its place, and its pillars tremble (Job 9:6).

when he rises to shake the earth (Isa 2:19,21).

Then the earth reeled and rocked; the foundations also of the mountains trembled and quaked, because he was angry (Ps 18:7).

It's the same stock imagery. Among natural disasters, earthquakes may be uniquely terrifying, because humans are land animals, so there's no escape from an earthquake. People can sometimes dodge floods by building on high ground or repairing to high ground as flood waters mount. They can sometimes outrun wildfires. They can take refuge inside during storms. Volcanoes tend to give warning signs of impending eruption. But earthquakes are sudden, and there's nowhere to go. 

iv) However, it might be objected that God hasn't protected his people from catastrophic earthquakes. But I take that to mean the imagery is figurative and hyperbolic. Yet if Scripture makes hyperbolic and figurative use of seismic imagery to symbolize providential protection, Scripture could just as well make hyperbolic and figurative use of meteorological imagery (e.g. rainbows) to symbolize providential protection. 

v) So what do promises of divine protection mean? What do they amount to? It's clear, both in Bible history and church history, that God often allows his people to suffer horrendous harm. 

In terms of life on earth, it may have a corporate rather than individualistic meaning. God preserves a people-group. God preserves a remnant. He doesn't allow the Jews to be exterminated. He doesn't allow Christians to be exterminated. He extends enough protection to keep the faith alive from one generation to the next, until the Parousia.

And it may also refer to eschatological protection. God will shield his people from the final judgment that awaits the wicked. 

Friday, February 17, 2017

What do we know about refugees?

Van Til's enduring value

Cornelius Van Til was a controversial figure in his lifetime, and he remains controversial. Much of the controversy swirls around the correct interpretation of his views. What, if anything, is the enduring value of his work?

i) Both believers and unbelievers take many truths for granted. It's useful, especially in apologetics, to consider all the other things that must be true for any particular thing to be true. What must reality be like for your fundamental beliefs about the possibility of morality, modality, knowledge, induction, human significance, &c., to be warranted?  

For instance, apostates commonly lose their Christian faith, but retain many residual beliefs that are inconsistent with atheism. They didn't stop to consider how many of their fundamental beliefs were implicitly grounded in God's existence. They fail to ask what's a necessary condition for their belief to be possible. 

Or they do it backwards. They begin by rejecting God. Then cast about for some alternative to ground their fundamental beliefs. But if they don't have the answers in advance, then their apostasy was intellectually premature. 

ii) It's possible not only to argue for Christian theology, but to argue from Christian theology. That's not viciously circular, because some Christian doctrines have independent explanatory value. It's not necessarily an argument from biblical authority to appeal to Christian doctrine. Rather, you can show how some Christian doctrines make better sense of what we must believe than secular alternatives. 

iii) Apropos (ii), philosophy and theology overlap. It's a mistake to separate the two.

iv) In apologetics we attempt to find common ground with the unbeliever. But sometimes it's necessary to challenge their tendentious or arbitrary rules of evidence (e.g. methodological atheism).

v) If Christian theism is true, then mind is prior to matter. Reality is ultimately personal rather than impersonal. And that has greater explanatory value than physicalism. 

vi) Van Til's rationalist/irrationalist square of opposition is useful. 

Snakes in Malta

28 After we were brought safely through, we then learned that the island was called Malta. 2 The native peopleshowed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold. 3 When Paul had gathered a bundle of sticks and put them on the fire, a viper came out because of the heat and fastened on his hand. 4 When the native people saw the creature hanging from his hand, they said to one another, “No doubt this man is a murderer. Though he has escaped from the sea, Justice[b] has not allowed him to live.” 5 He, however, shook off the creature into the fire and suffered no harm. 6 They were waiting for him to swell up or suddenly fall down dead. But when they had waited a long time and saw no misfortune come to him, they changed their minds and said that he was a god (Acts 28:1-6).

Critics say Luke is mistaken, since there are no venomous snakes on Malta. But that raises a raft of issues:

i) If it wasn't recorded in the Bible, and if critics didn't think this was an account of a miracle, I doubt you'd have their knee-jerk skepticism. Rather, they'd regard this as historical evidence that possibly venomous snakes used to inhabit Malta.

ii) It isn't all that clear that the snake is venomous. Ancient writers didn't have our detailed taxonomic designations. 

iii) Some scholars think it's a viper, but it doesn't behave like a viper. I'm not a herpetologist, but to my knowledge, vipers typically have a rapid strike and release technique. They inject their prey with retractable hypodermic fangs. 

By contrast, venomous snakes with fixed fangs are more likely to fasten onto their prey, to aid the process of envenomation. So I wouldn't expect a viper to cling to Paul's hand. 

A critic might say Luke's description is inaccurate, but that poses a dilemma for the critic, since he depends on Luke's account to impugn the accuracy of Luke's account, so he can't have it both ways.

iv) It isn't necessary the case that the snake is indigenous to Malta. Snakes can be introduced into foreign habitant. For instance, ancient ships attract rats, which attract snakes. Some snakes are stowaways. 

v) To my knowledge, Malta has been deforested over the centuries. That leads to loss of habitat for snakes. 

vi) Many people kill venomous snakes on sight. If you live in an area that's infested with venomous snakes (e.g. jungle), it isn't possible to begin to kill them all, because there are too many, and they are too well camouflaged. However, not only would deforestation automatically reduce the snake population, but with fewer snakes and hiding places, it would be easier to exterminate the remaining venomous snakes. All the more so considering that Malta is a small island. 

vii) Humans sometimes introduce animals into foreign habitat that threaten snakes. 

viii) The account is basically told from the viewpoint of the natives. It relates their reaction. They thought the snake was venomous.

I've seen nature shows in which a white guy had to explain to natives the difference between the venomous and nonvenomous species in their area. It seems a bit paradoxical that an outsider would know the difference, while the natives wouldn't. Perhaps, though, the natives are so afraid of snakes in general that they just assume the worst. They don't wish to find out the hard way which species are venomous and nonvenomous. So even though you might suppose they'd know by experience which is which, and even though it would be in their self-interest to know the difference, they don't seem to be that attentive or discriminating where snakes are concerned. 

In that event, the natives of Malta might assume the snake that bit Paul was venomous–whether or not that's actually the case. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Black Robe

Martin Scorsese's film Silence has gotten a lot of buzz among Christians. That's due both to the content and the fact that Scorsese is a legendary director, so his movies naturally garner much attention. Here's a review of a similar, but far less familiar movie:

Judging the judiciary


From John Lennox in his book God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? (pp 52-5):

The great mathematician David Hilbert, spurred on by the singular achievements of mathematical compression, thought that the reductionist programme of mathematics could be carried out to such an extent that in the end all of mathematics could be compressed into a collection of formal statements in a finite set of symbols together with a finite set of axioms and rules of inference. It was a seductive thought with the ultimate in 'bottom-up' explanation as the glittering prize. Mathematics, if Hilbert's Programme were to succeed, would henceforth be reduced to a set of written marks that could be manipulated according to prescribed rules without any attention being paid to the applications that would give 'significance' to those marks. In particular, the truth or falsity of any given string of symbols would be decided by some general algorithmic process. The hunt was on to solve the so-called Entscheidungsproblem by finding that general decision procedure.

Experience suggested to Hilbert and others that the Entscheidungsproblem would be solved positively. But their intuition proved wrong. In 1931 the Austrian mathematician Kurt Gödel published a paper entitled 'On Formally Undecidable Propositions of Principia Mathematica and Related Systems'. His paper, though only twenty-five pages long, caused the mathematical equivalent of an earthquake whose reverberations are still palpable. For Gödel had actually proved that Hilbert's Programme was doomed in that it was unrealizable. In a piece of mathematics that stands as an intellectual tour-de-force of the first magnitude, Gödel demonstrated that the arithmetic with which we are all familiar is incomplete: that is, in any system that has a finite set of axioms and rules of inference and which is large enough to contain ordinary arithmetic, there are always true statements of the system that cannot be proved on the basis of that set of axioms and those rules of inference. This result is known as Gödel's First Incompleteness Theorem.

Now Hilbert's Programme also aimed to prove the essential consistency of his formulation of mathematics as a formal system. Gödel, in his Second Incompleteness Theorem, shattered that hope as well. He proved that one of the statements that cannot be proved in a sufficiently strong formal system is the consistency of the system itself. In other words, if arithmetic is consistent then that fact is one of the things that cannot be proved in the system. It is something that we can only believe on the basis of the evidence, or by appeal to higher axioms. This has been succinctly summarized by saying that if a religion is something whose foundations are based on faith, then mathematics is the only religion that can prove it is a religion!

In informal terms, as the British-born American physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson puts it, 'Gödel proved that in mathematics the whole is always greater than the sum of the parts'. Thus there is a limit to reductionism. Therefore, Peter Atkins' statement, cited earlier, that 'the only grounds for supposing that reductionism will fail are pessimism in the minds of the scientists and fear in the minds of the religious' is simply incorrect.

That there are limits for reductionism in science itself is borne out by the history of science, which teaches us that it is important to balance our justifiable enthusiasm for reductionism by bearing in mind that there may well be (and usually is) more to a given whole than simply what we obtain by adding up all that we have learned from the parts. Studying all the parts of a watch separately will not necessarily enable you to grasp how the complete watch works as an integrated whole. There is more to water than we can readily see by investigating separately the hydrogen and oxygen of which it is composed. There are many composite systems in which understanding the individual parts of the system may well be simply impossible without an understanding of the system as a whole – the living cell, for instance.

Besides methodological reductionism, there are two further important types of reductionism: epistemological and ontological. Epistemological reductionism is the view that higher level phenomena can be explained by processes at a lower level. The strong epistemological reductionist thesis is that such 'bottom-up' explanations can always be achieved without remainder. That is, chemistry can ultimately be explained by physics; biochemistry by chemistry; biology by biochemistry; psychology by biology; sociology by brain science; and theology by sociology. As the Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Francis Crick puts it: The ultimate aim of the modern development in biology is, in fact, to explain all biology in terms of physics and chemistry.'

This view is shared by Richard Dawkins. 'My task is to explain elephants, and the world of complex things, in terms of the simple things that physicists either understand, or are working on.' Leaving aside for the moment the very questionable assertion to which we must return below that the subject matter of physics is simple (think of quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics or string theory), the ultimate goal of such reductionism is evidently to reduce all human behaviour – our likes and dislikes, the entire mental landscape of our lives – to physics. This view is often called 'physicalism', a particularly strong form of materialism. It is not, however, a view which commends universal support, and that for very good reasons. As Karl Popper points out: 'There is almost always an unresolved residue left by even the most successful attempts at reduction.'

Scientist and philosopher Michael Polanyi helps us see why it is intrinsically implausible to expect epistemological reductionism to work in every circumstance. He asks us to think of the various levels of process involved in constructing an office building with bricks. First of all there is the process of extracting the raw materials out of which the bricks have to be made. Then there are the successively higher levels of making the bricks – they do not make themselves; brick-laying – the bricks do not 'self-assemble'; designing the building – it does not design itself; and planning the town in which the building is to be built – it does not organize itself. Each level has its own rules. The laws of physics and chemistry govern the raw material of the bricks; technology prescribes the art of brick-making; brick-layers lay the bricks as directed by the builders; architecture teaches the builders; and the architects are controlled by the town planners. Each level is controlled by the level above. But the reverse is not true. The laws of a higher level cannot be derived from the laws of a lower level – although what can be done at a higher level will, of course, depend on the lower levels. For example, if the bricks are not strong there will be a limit on the height of the building that can safely be built with them.

Or take another example, quite literally to your hand at this moment. Consider the page you are reading just now. It consists of paper imprinted with ink (or perhaps it is a series of dots on the computer screen in front of you). It is surely obvious that the physics and chemistry of ink and paper (or pixels on a computer monitor) can never, even in principle, tell you anything about the significance of the shapes of the letters on the page; and this has nothing to do with the fact that physics and chemistry are not yet sufficiently advanced to deal with this question. Even if we allow these sciences another 1,000 years of development it will make no difference, because the shapes of those letters demand a totally new and higher level of explanation than physics and chemistry are capable of giving. In fact, complete explanation can only be given in terms of the higher level concepts of language and authorship, the communication of a message by a person. The ink and paper are carriers of the message, but the message certainly does not arise automatically from them. Furthermore, when it comes to language itself, there is again a sequence of levels. You cannot derive a vocabulary from phonetics, or the grammar of a language from its vocabulary, etc.

As is well known, the genetic material DNA carries information. We shall describe this later on in some detail; but the basic idea is that DNA can be thought of as a long tape on which there is a string of letters written in a four-letter chemical language. The sequence of letters contains coded instructions (information) that the cell uses to make proteins. But the order of the sequence is not generated by the chemistry of the base letters.

In each of the situations described above, we have a series of levels, each higher than the previous one. What happens on a higher level is not completely derivable from what happens on the level beneath it. In this situation it is sometimes said that the higher level phenomena 'emerge' from the lower level. Unfortunately, however, the word 'emerge' is easily misunderstood, and even misleadingly misused, to mean that the higher level properties arise automatically from the lower level properties without any further input of information or organization – just as the higher level properties of water emerge from combining oxygen and hydrogen. However, this is clearly false in general, as we showed earlier by considering building and writing on paper. The building does not emerge from the bricks nor the writing from the paper and ink without the injection of both energy and intelligent activity.

Mariolatry and images of Jesus

Here's an interesting comparison:

On the one hand, Puritans say it's wrong to make images of Jesus because (among other reasons) an image of Jesus can't represent his deity. So images of Jesus are Nestorian. 

On the other hand, Catholics say that if you deny that Mary is the Mother of God, that makes you Nestorian. 

Poses a bit of a dilemma for Puritans. 

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Splitting the moon

The Koran never explicitly attributes a miracle to Muhammad. One possible candidate is surah 54. The Koranic reference is elliptical, but when supplemented by the Hadith, it attributes a miracle to Muhammad, to verify his prophetic credentials. Here's one discussion from a standard reference work:

The first two verses of al-Qamar ["The Moon"] are understood by the vast majority of commentators as a reference to a miracle performed by the Prophet. One evening, he was addressing a group of disbelievers and Muslims on the plain of Mina, just outside of Makkah. The disbelievers had been disputing with the Prophet for several days, demanding a miracle as proof of his prophethood, and they began to do so again. The Prophet then raised his hand and pointed to the moon, whereupon it appeared to separate into two halves, one on either side of the nearby Mt. Hira. He then said, "Bear witness!" (IK, T) and the line of separation disappeared. All were left speechless, but his opponents soon discredited it as an illusion produced by sorcery. According to one account, one of the disbelievers said, "Muhammad has merely bewitched us, but he cannot bewitch the entire world. Let us wait for travelers to come from faraway places and hear what reports they bring". Then, when some travelers arrived in Makkah a few days later, they confirmed that they too had witnessed the splitting of the moon (IK). "The Moon," Seyyed Hossein Nasir, ed., The Study Quran: A New Translation and Commentary (HarperOne, 2015), 1299. 

1. One obvious problem with this report is that it relies entirely on Muslim sources. 

2. But a deeper problem is the scale of the reported miracle. For the phenomenon would be visible to everyone on earth who happened to be facing the moon (assuming clear skies in their neck of the woods). And many of these involve literate civilizations. Add to that the fact that ancient people took a keen interest in celestial portents and prodigies, and you'd expect to have multiple surviving records of this event from geographically diverse localities. So a reported miracle that's cited to verify Muhammad's prophethood actually undercuts his prophethood, given how unlikely it is that a natural wonder of this magnitude would leave no trace in historical records outside the Muslim world. 

3. Perhaps a Muslim apologist would counter that if this is a problem for Islam, then there's a parallel problem regarding Joshua's Long Day (Josh 10:12-14), the sundial of Ahaz (Isa 38:8; 2 Kgs 20:9-11; 2 Chron 32:31), and darkness during the crucifixion (Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33). 

i) But even if (ex hypothesi) these were problematic for the historicity of Scripture, that doesn't let a Muslim off the hook. That doesn't resolve his own problem.

ii) The miracle attributed to Muhammad (7C AD) is far more recent than the NT example (1C), much less the two OT examples (8C BC & 2nd millennium BC). It's unsurprising that records wouldn't survive for much earlier events.

iii) The crucifixion darkness may simply be darkness over "the land" (i.e. Erez Israel). Indeed, that's practically an idiomatic synonym for Palestine. In that event, it's not on the same scale as the miracle attributed to Muhammad. 

It might be caused by swarms of locusts covering the sun. That would be a suitable omen of divine judgment. 

iv) Commentators often compare the crucifixion darkness to the Ninth Plague (Exod 10:21-23). That, however, was a local rather than global spectacle. Moreover, Goshen was exempted–which, again, stresses the local nature of the miracle. So it's not on the same scale as the miracle attributed to Muhammad. And if that's truly analogous to the crucifixion darkness, then that's another argument for the local nature of the phenomenon. 

v) The sundial of Azaz was evidently a local miracle, confined to the land of Judah (2 Chron 32:31). Had it been a global phenomenon, Babylonian emissaries wouldn't travel to Judah to enquire about the sign. Rather, they were following up on a report–given Babylonian interest in astronomical portents and prodigies. 

The accounts don't describe anything happening directly to the sun. Rather, they describe the counterclockwise effect of the shadow. Perhaps a preternatural or supernatural optical illusion. 

vi) Regarding Joshua's Long Day, it's hard to pinpoint the nature of the phenomenon because we lack a direct description of the event. The passage is poetic, and filtered through a secondary source, which makes it hard to identify the "mechanics" behind the miracle. But in context, the miracle involves prolonging daylight to give the Israelites extra time to defeat the enemy, so, at a minimum, a preternatural or supernatural optical effect is in view.

Outlaw alligators

Here's why it's not enough to ban guns–we need to ban gators:

What Set Christianity Apart In The Ancient World

A New Testament scholar, Larry Hurtado, recently published a book about how ancient Christianity differed from and changed the world of its day. The book is titled Destroyer Of The Gods (Waco, Texas: Baylor University Press, 2016), and I recently finished posting a series of quotes from it on Facebook. Here's a listing of some of the topics covered, with links to each post:

Introduction, Why Christianity Succeeded, Constantine's Motives

Monotheism, Exclusivism, How The Christian View Of God Differed From A Jewish View

How Roman Opposition To Christianity Differed From Opposition To Other Religions, Christianity's Economic Impact

Early Christianity's Contribution To Religious Liberty

The Literary Character Of Early Christianity, Apologetics

Images, Altars, Sacrifices, Priesthood, Buildings, Baptism, Weekly Meetings, Prayer

Abortion, Infant Abandonment, Violence, Sex, Gender, Slavery


Conversions to Christianity Among Highly Educated Chinese

Here's an interesting footnote:

[20] Plaisier (Ibid., 341) cites a study of the Chinese Academy of Social Science affirming that 69% of the people converted to Christianity in the last two decades indicated the healing of a family member or themselves. See also

The entire paper is worth reading.

HT: Steve Hays.

History, dreams, and forgeries

Unbelievers are skeptical about the Gospels. That's a self-defeating skepticism on their part, because it commits them to general skepticism regarding testimonial evidence, yet they themselves rely on testimony evidence for most of what they believe. 

1. However, I'd like to consider a limiting case. Take dreams. At best, dreams are at least one step removed from reality. Indeed, we usually classify what we experience in dreams to be a paradigm case of something imaginary–in contrast to what we experience when we're awake. Philosophers use dreams as paradigm-examples of illusion. Some researchers classify dreams as hallucinations. 

Suppose a biographer's only source of information about the subject was his dreams. Suppose a biographer had direct access to the subject's dreams. The biographer could see what the dreamer was dealt. How much could a biographer reconstruct about the subject's actual background from his dreams? That doesn't seem like very promising raw material. 

Perhaps the least reliable part of dreaming is the plot. The plot is imaginary. Even if, in a sense, you dream about what happened to you that day, when you were awake, the overall dream plot will deviate significantly from what really happened.

Dreams have two other unrealistic features. We dream about imaginary characters. Strangers. People we never met in real life. And we dream about them just once. 

Likewise, we dream about imaginary places. Strange, sometimes surreal landscapes we've never seen in real life. 

However, dreams also have features that correspond to real life. Sometimes we dream about real people. Acquaintances. Usually family and friends–or coworkers. When we dream, we recognize certain people–unlike strangers we encounter in dreams. 

Likewise, sometimes we dream about familiar places. Where we live and work, or used to live and work.

In my observation, recurring dream characters are based on real people. Likewise, recurring dreamscapes are based on real places. And when we dream about familiar places, these can be detailed and fairly accurate.

If all I knew about you was your dreams, one way I could sift the core biographical elements from the imaginary elements is by distinguishing the recurring characters and recurring dreamscapes from one-off encounters and one-off dreamscapes.  

A biographer could figure out the time period in which you lived from the cityscape in your dreams. If it's a 20C cityscape rather than a 19C cityscape or 18C cityscape or medieval cityscape or ancient Near Eastern cityscape. He could draw the same inference from the way people dress. And the cars. Or furniture in houses. Interiors as well as exteriors. So he could place you within a particular period in history. This is true even when you dream about strange places you've never seen in real life. For imaginary scenes will still reflect your generic experience of architecture from your own time and place. 

By the same token, if you dream about high school on a regular basis, he could reasonably infer that you're a teenager. He could infer that from the setting, and classmates–if they're recurring characters. 

He could infer your nationality from the language you use other dream characters use. He might well be able to infer your social class from the dream characters you hang out with. 

If you have erotic dreams, he could infer if you're heterosexual or homosexual.

From recurring dreams and nightmares, he might be able to infer your unrequited yearnings and deepest anxieties. 

If the dreamer is religious, that will sometimes be reflected in his dreams. 

2. Let's consider another limiting case. Take forgeries. In the nature of the case, a forgery stands in contrast to history or reality. Typically, a forger impersonates an eyewitness about a time and place other than his own. What makes it detectably a forgery is the telltale presence of anachronisms. That's because the forgery knows his own period better than the period he feigns. Indeed, he's so conditioned by his own period that he can't put enough conscious distance between himself and his impersonation to be aware of the anachronisms. 

And therein lies a paradox. Although a forgery is an unreliable or worthless window into the fictitious past setting, it can be quite informative about the forger's background and interests. The Koran's garbled versions of OT events and the life of Christ are historically worthless. However, the Koran is highly revealing about Muhammad's time, place, character, loves, hates, foes, and followers. Likewise, although the Mormon "scriptures" are historically worthless in reference to the fictional past they clumsily portray, they unwittingly reveal a lot about Joseph Smith's character, interests, and the religious currents of the day. Same thing with apocryphal Gospels. Paradoxically, even an unreliable source can be indirectly reliable in terms of what it unintentionally divulges about the circumstances and agenda of the author. They tell you nothing about the projected situation, but quite a lot about the situation of the forger. 

My point is to mount an a fortiori argument: if it's possible to learn a lot about a person from his dreams, or forgeries, surely it's possible to learn a lot about a person from historical sources, even if those are generally unreliable.  

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Keep your hands off my U-boat!

A staple argument for abortion is the appeal to body autonomy: a woman has ownership of her body. She has a right to control her own body. Her body, her choice. You can't justifiably force someone to donate the use of their body, even for a worthy cause.

The argument has some prima facie appeal. Most of us believe adults are entitled to a measure of independence. But by the same token, most of us don't think that's absolute. 

But let's play along with the principle for the sake of argument. And let's take a comparison: suppose I own a private jet or perhaps a private submarine. I'm superrich. Submarines are my hobby. 

If you're a passenger on my plane or sub, do I have the right to flush you out the airlock? After all, it's my plane! It's my submarine! As a passenger, you're leeching off the life-support system on my private jet or sub. You can't survive outside that artificial environment. You can't survive at 40 thousand altitude outside the cabin. You can't survive 10 thousand feet deep outside the sub. You can't survive without the food and drink, climate control, oxygen, &c. So you're a freeloader! 

If I flush you out the airlock, that's no one's business but my own. To critics I say, Keep your hands off my U-boat! 

Perhaps a feminist would object that the passenger is a guest, and that's no way to treat a guest. 

To begin with, that would be analogous to pregnancy due to consensual sex. But most people who support abortion don't restrict abortion to the rape exception. 

I'd add that even if we grant the rape exception for argument's sake, not all passengers are guests. Sometimes a passenger is a stowaway. But does that mean it's all right to flush a stowaway out the airlock?

In addition, consensual sex without contraception involves implied consent to become pregnant. That's an implicit invitation.

So by that logic, even if the passenger is on my plane or submarine by invitation, I'm still entitled to flush them out the airlock–just as a mother is entitled to an abortion even if she consented to sex without contraception. She knew the "risk" of getting pregnant. Moreover, many feminists would say that even if she intended to become pregnant, she still has a right to change her mind at any time. 

What if God commanded you to...?

Unbelievers sometimes taunt Christians by asking whether they'd kill their own child if God commanded them to do so. That's a popular atheist trope. 

i) One problem with the challenge is the issue of coherence. We could turn the challenge back on the atheist. What would you do if God told you to do that?

You used to be an atheist until God told you to do it. Now that you rudely discover that God really exists, what do you do? 

So what's the nature of the hypothetical? Does it stipulate a situation in which God actually commands you do to that? You hear an audible voice without any visible source. Perhaps a divine sign to corroborate divine authorization.

Is the hypothetical asking what you would or should do assuming that's a realistic scenario? If so, that's a dilemma for anyone, believer and unbeliever alike. 

ii) Or is the hypothetical designed to test the veridicality of divine commands? If that happened to you, should you question your sanity? 

But that doesn't single out Christians. Both believers and unbelievers can suffer from psychosis. Some unbelievers hear voices. So that's a conundrum for anyone. 

iii) The challenge is intended to make Christians squirm. But if you think about it, the challenge is a glib, unintelligent quandry (see above).

iv) The challenge typically alludes to the "sacrifice" of Isaac (Gen 22). But that actually backfires. After all, God didn't make Abraham go through with it. So if we're using that example as the frame of reference, then God doesn't intend for you to obey that command. Divine precedent should lead you to discount the sincerity of the command.

v) Moreover, we're not in the same position as Abraham. He was a strategic figure in the formative stages of redemptive history. But we're living in the age of fulfillments–past and future. The groundwork has been laid. 

Herod and the dragon

And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2 She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth. 3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it. 5 She gave birth to a manchild, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, 6 and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days (Rev 12:1-6).

Critics say Matthew invented the nativity stories. In particular, they say he began with messianic prophecies, then concocted stories to make Jesus fulfill the prophecies. But there are multiple problems with that objection:

i) The same critics say Matthew is quoting OT passages out of context. His prooftexts are ill-fitted to illustrate his stories. If, however, Matthew fabricated the stories, then he could make the details exactly match his chosen prooftexts. If, conversely, they don't seem to line up in a straightforward fashion, that's because Matthew is constrained by  biographical facts about Jesus.

ii) If Matthew invented the nativity stories, we'd expect a string of stand-alone vignettes. They wouldn't be related to each other, but related to the prooftexts.

By contrast, what we actually have in Mt 2 is a series of events in which one thing leads to another by cause and effect. Because the Magi witness a celestial portent or prodigy, they journey to the Holy Land. Because they lack sufficient information to pinpoint the address, they go to the capital to seek directions. Because they ask, that tips off the paranoid Herod about a perceived rival to the throne. Because Herod is alerted to the threat, he dispatches soldiers to assassinate the child. Because a death squad is on the way, Joseph must spirit the child out of Herod's jurisdiction. Because Herod dies, Joseph is free to return to Israel, but because Herod's son is ruling in his father's place, Joseph relocates the family to an region outside his successor's jurisdiction. 

But if the incidents in chap 2 were made up in reference to isolated prooftexts, we'd expect a string of isolated vignettes.  These would be self-contained little stories about unrelated incidents in the life of the Christchild, rather than a consistent plot development. 

iii) Finally, Rev 12 may well afford independent corroboration for Mt 2. It's hard for a reader who's familiar with the events in Mt 2 not to be reminded of the same thing in Rev 12. Herod is the dragon whose endeavor to liquidate the newborn child forces the Holy Family to take refuge in Egypt.  I'm not suggesting that Rev 12 is reducible to that background event. It's a multilayered text with many allusions. But between Mt 2 and Rev 12, we have multiple attestation for the plot to bump off the Christchild. 

Dragons of Eden

Ut-Napishtim reveals to Gilgamesh the existence of a "thorny" herb (that is a herb hard to access) at the bottom of the sea, which, though it will not confer immortality, will definitely prolong the youth and life of whoever eats of it…Gilgamesh fastens stones to his feet and goes down to search the bottom of the sea. Having found the herb, he pulls a spring from it, then unfastens the stones, and rises again to the surface. On the road to Uruk, he stops to drink dorm a spring; drawn by the scent of the plant, a snake draws near and devours it, thus becoming immortal. Gilgamesh, like Adam, has lost immortality because of his own stupidity and a serpent's strike. 

Iranian tradition, also, has a tree of life and regeneration which grows on earth and has a prototype in heaven…Ahriman counters this creation of Ahura Mazda's, by creating a lizard in the waters of Vourakasa to attack the miraculous tree Gaokerena. 

The serpent is present beside the Tree of Life in other traditions, too, probably as a result of Iranian influences. The Kalmuks tell how a dragon is in the ocean, near the tree Zambu, waiting for some of the leves to fall so that he can devour them. The Buriats believe in the serpent Abyrga beside the gee in a "lake of milk". In some Central Asiatic versions, Abyrga is coiled round the actual tree trunk.

There are gryphons or monsters guarding all the roads to salvation, mounting guard over the Tree of LIfe, or some symbol of the same thing. When Hercules went to steal the golden apples from the garden of the Hesperides, he had either to kill or put to sleep the dragon guarding them…The golden fleece of Colchis was also guarded by a dragon, which Jason had to kill to obtain it. There are serpents "guarding" all the paths to immortality…They are always pictured round the bowl of Dionysos, they watch over Apollo's gold in far-off Scythia, they guard the treasurs hidden at the bottom of the earth, or the diamonds and pearls at the bottom of the sea…In the Baptistery at Parma, dragons mount guard over the Tree of Life. The same motif can be seen in a bas-relief in the Museum of the Cathedra of Ferrara.

The "snake-stone" offers a very good example of a symbol displaced and changed. In many places, precious stones were thought to be fallen from the heads of snakes or dragons…The origin and the theory underlying these legends and so many others are not far to seek: it is the ancient myth of "monsters" (snakes, dragons), watching over the "Tree of Life", or some specially consecrated place, or some sacred substance, or some absolute value (immortality, eternal youth, the knowledge of good and evil, and so on). Remember that all the symbols of this absolute reality are always guarded by monsters which only allow the elected to pass; the "Tree of Life", the tree with the golden apples or the golden fleece, "treasures" of every kind (pearls from the ocean bed, gold from the earth and so on) are protected by a dragon and anyone who wants to attain to one of these symbols of immortality must first give proof of his "heroism" or his "wisdom" by braving all dangers and finally killing the reptilian monster. From this ancient mythological theme, via many processes of rationalization and corruption, are derived all beliefs in treasure, magic stones and jewels. The Tree of Life, or the tree with the golden apples, or the golden fleece, which symbolized a state of absoluteness (gold meant "glory", immortality, &c.)–became a golden "treasure" hidden in the ground and guarded by dragons or serpents. Mircea Eliade, Patterns in Comparative Religion (University of Nebraska Press, 1996), 289-91; 441-42. 

1. This analysis is very suggestive. However, it suffers from some methodological problems: 

i) Eliade doesn't date his sources. 

ii) There's the assumption that these motifs must be the result of cultural diffusion: they can't arise independently. 

iii) There's a certain straining to reduce all these stories to variations on a common theme–under the assumption that there must be some common thread. Is that, however, something Eliade is deriving from his sources or imposing on his sources? There's the danger of shoehorning the stories into a preconceived grid by treating the similarities as primary and the dissimilarities as secondary. There's a risk of comparing elements from one story with elements from another story, rather than considering how all the elements within a given story relate to each other. Do they have a common significance? Or is their significance determined by the particular role they play within the world of the story? 

iv) Adam and Eve don't "first give proof of their heroism or wisdom by braving all dangers and finally killing the reptilian monster." They were created in the Garden. They had automatic access to the prize. 

And that's not an incidental detail. The trials by ordeal are essential the quest genre. Moreover, the quest genre typically involves a male protagonist. Gen 2-3 just aren't parallel.

v) In Genesis, immortality and longevity are not interchangeable principles. Adam and Eve didn't lose their longevity. They enjoyed fabulous longevity–as did their predeluvian posterity. What they lost was the opportunity to become immortal. They lost that both for themselves and their posterity. 

vi) Are deep-sea pearls symbols of immortality? Does the golden fleece symbolic immortality? What about Apollo's gold? 

vii) Perhaps worst of all, Eliade's comparison centers on the dragon, the hero, and a tree of life, but Gen 3 centers on the Tempter, Eve, and tree of knowledge–not the tree of life. It was the tree of knowledge, not the tree of life, that was forbidden. The "snake" tempts them to break a prohibition regarding the tree of knowledge, not the tree of life. There's no textual evidence that the "snake's" duty is to guard the tree of life–or even the tree of knowledge. Eliade is forcing the story into a groove where it doesn't belong. 

2. Having registered all those caveats, does Eliade's comparison have any residual value? Oddly enough, he overlooks two texts that seem to provide supporting material for his theory:

10 A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. 14 And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates (Gen 2:10-14).

“You were the signet of perfection, full of wisdom and perfect in beauty. 13 You were in Eden, the garden of God; every precious stone was your covering, sardius, topaz, and diamond, beryl, onyx, and jasper, sapphire, emerald, and carbuncle; and crafted in gold were your settings and your engravings. On the day that you were created they were prepared. 14 You were an anointed guardian cherub. I placed you; you were on the holy mountain of God; in the midst of the stones of fire you walked. 15 You were blameless in your ways from the day you were created, till unrighteousness was found in you. 16 In the abundance of your trade you were filled with violence in your midst, and you sinned; so I cast you as a profane thing from the mountain of God, and I destroyed you, O guardian cherub, from the midst of the stones of fire (Ezk 28:12-16).

i) In both Gen 2 and Ezk 28, there's some linkage between Eden, gold, and gemstones. In Gen 2, the link is indirect. There's no gold or gemstones in the Garden. Rather, that's in outlying areas. 

In Ezk 28, the link is more direct. The difference is that Gen 2-3 is historical narrative, whereas Ezk 28 reflects poetic license. 

ii) In Ezk 28, you have the character of a treasonous guardian seraph. That, however, is different from Eliade's counterparts, for this sentinel, rather than protecting the prize, becomes the tempter. Moreover, the comparison is complicated by the fact that Ezekiel is using imagery of a primordial fall to characterize a historical tyrant. So it's not just a theological interpretation of Gen 2-3. Rather, there's some "interference", by mixing Gen 2-3 with the king of Tyre. 

iii) That said, if ancient readers were accustomed to the motif of a snake or dragon that guarded something forbidden to outsiders, do certain otherwise puzzling pieces in Gen 3 fall into place? That would explain what the Tempter was doing there in the first place. That would explain why Eve wasn't startled by the Tempter. She was used to seeing angels patrol the perimeters of the garden–maybe to keep dangerous animals from penetrating the precincts. Moreover, that made the Tempter a seemingly benign figure. 

Furthermore, a guard who betrays his position can do unique damage. Consider a sentinel that's tasked to guard the city gates. If he's bribed to open the gates to the invading army, that's an inside job. And it's far more damaging than what outside assailants could do. 

iv) However, that interpretation isn't necessarily unproblematic. It seems to make their disobedience a set-up. They'd be in no position to suspect the motives of a guardian seraph. Is it fair to punish them?

Strictly speaking, Adam and Eve are not entitled to live in the Garden. They are not entitled to immortality. They are there at God's indulgence. 

Then you have Paul's statement that Eve was deceived, but Adam as not (1 Tim 2:14). How do we account for that distinction? Perhaps it's based on the assumption that Adam experienced God firsthand, whereas Eve's knowledge was secondhand. 

So why did Adam succumb? Who knows? Perhaps he was overcome by cupidity and curiosity. A tree of knowledge! Maybe that aroused covetous feelings. And the fact that it was forbidden made it all the more enticing. 

Monday, February 13, 2017

The Reliability of Acts: A Conversation with Dr. Tim McGrew

Trump and Title IX

A promising development:

24-hour days

Are there not twelve hours in a day? (Jn 11:9)

Young-earth creationists define the days of creation as consecutive 24-hour periods. I'm going to draw a distinction that may not change the YEC/OEC debate, but it introduces some conceptual clarity into the definition. 

It seems to me that there are basically two different ways to delineate the duration of a day. One way is to begin with the definition of a day. You define a day as the interval between the last sunrise and the next sunrise (or sunset and sunset, if you prefer). You then subdivide a day into 24 equal units of time. An hour is then 1/24 of a day. On that definition, the duration of a hour is relative to the duration of a day. An hour has no fixed duration. 

The other way is to begin with the definition of an hour. An hour has a stipulative duration. An absolute duration that's independent of the interval between the last sunrise and the next sunrise. On that definition, the duration of a day is relative to the duration of an hour (multiplied by 24).

The second definition is how modern people in a hitech civilization define a day. We use chronometers that are independent of the natural cycles of daylight and night, because that's too imprecise. We use reference frames like atomic clocks. That has nothing to do with the interval between one sunrise and the next. 

However, the first definition is how people in Bible times had to operate. In principle, that means a shorter day or longer day will have the same number of hours, since the hours are simply a fraction of a day. A shorter day means shorter hours and a longer day means longer hours, but it's the same number of hours overall. Whatever the actual duration of a day, measured by the interval between the last sunrise and the next sunrise, you divvy that up into 24 units of time. 

That distinction wouldn't make much difference to people living in the Mideast. If, however, you're living near the arctic circle, with polar days and polar nights, that makes a dramatic difference. 

In a published preface for a new book, “Pope Francis” deflects blame for “monstrosity” of child sex abuse onto “servants of the Church”

“Pope Francis” has condemned clerical sex abuse as “an absolute monstrosity”, according to the preface he has written for a book authored by a Swiss victim who was sexually abused by a priest over a period of years.

Well of course he has condemned “clerical sex abuse” as “an absolute monstrosity”. What he has not done is to take any official responsibility for “the Church” which implemented policies to hide and cover up specific instances of sexual abuse.

The so-called “apology” continues:
I am happy that others can read his testimony today and discover how far evil can enter the heart of a servant of the Church.

How can a priest at the service of Christ and his Church cause so much harm? How can someone who devoted their life to lead children to God, end up instead to devour them in what I called “a diabolical sacrifice” that destroys both the victim and the life of the Church? Some of the victims have been driven to suicide. These deaths weigh on my heart, on my conscience and that of the whole Church. To their families, I offer my feelings of love and pain and humbly, I ask forgiveness. (Bold highlighting is in the original.)

Sure, we all feel bad about this. Boo hoo! But “the Church” is not responsible. It is only “the servants of the Church” – raising echoes of John Paul II’s request for “forgiveness for the sins of Her (the Church’s) children. In fact, Bergoglio further removes “the Church” from any responsibility and turns it into “a loving mother”:

It is an absolute monstrosity, a horrible sin, radically against everything that Christ has taught us. Jesus uses very harsh words against those who harm children, “If anyone causes one of these little ones--those who believe in me--to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18: 6).

As I recalled in the Apostolic Letter of June 4, 2016, Our Church must take care and protect with special love the weak and the helpless “as a loving mother”. We have stated that it is our duty to be extremely strict with the priests who betray their mission, and with their hierarchy, bishops or cardinals, who might protect them, as has happened in the past. (Bold highlighting is in the original.)

There is no hint that official Roman Catholic doctrines and policies, as well as its unspoken culture of secretiveness among its bishops and higher clergy, had anything to do with the ongoing “monstrosity”.

Dragon lore

15 His [Leviathan's] back is made of rows of shields,
 shut up closely as with a seal. 16 One is so near to another
 that no air can come between them. 17 They are joined one to another;
 they clasp each other and cannot be separated. 18 His sneezings flash forth light,
 and his eyes are like the eyelids of the dawn. 19 Out of his mouth go flaming torches;
 sparks of fire leap forth. 20 Out of his nostrils comes forth smoke,
 as from a boiling pot and burning rushes. 21 His breath kindles coals,
 and a flame comes forth from his mouth (Job 41:15-21).

for from the serpent's root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent (Isa 14:29).

In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea (Isa 27:1).

Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon? (Isa 51:9). 

3 And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems. 4 His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth (Rev 12:3-4).

The origin of the dragon mythos is interesting. At least I find it interesting. It figures in the Bible, but it's culturally diverse. Does it have any basis in reality? 

i) The dragon assumes a stereotypical appearance in occidental and oriental iconography, so there's a danger if modern readers visualize that image when they run across ancient references to "dragons". In early literature, the "dragon" hadn't assumed such a standardized form. It's more composite and varied. When we think of dragons, we think of a huge reptile with a crocodilian or saurian body, clawed paws, spiky dorsal ridge, huge bat wings, head with horns or crest, nostrils that emit smoke and mouth that emits fire.  But ancient descriptions are sometimes more serpentine. 

ii) Because the dragon is a composite animal, more than one animal might underlie the mythical or legendary construct. Two inviting candidates are crocodiles (e.g. Nile, salt-water, black caiman), and constrictors (e.g. reticulating pythons, anacondas). 

The association between dragons and sea-monsters might naturally connect with crocodiles, which are aquatic animals. That link is strengthened by figural references to Egypt or Pharaoh as a dragon, given the notoriety of the Nile crocodile. 

There's also the question of whether venomous snakes play into in the dragon mythos. Although they are physically unimpressive, legendary embellishment might scale them up. 

iii) From what I've read, there's evidence that the habitat of crocodiles used to extend further north. The region was less arid in ancient times. Conversely, Southeast Asia is home to salt-water crocodiles and reticulating pythons. 

iv) What about the Mesoamerican dragon (Quetzalcoatl)? Is that the result of cultural diffusion? Did Indians who settled in South American bring dragon lore with them? Or did it arise independently? For instance, the Amazon river has crocodiles and anacondas. 

v) How do we account for the link between dragons and fire? Dragons function as picturesque metaphors to personify forces of nature, so perhaps free association linked dragons with volcanoes. To take a comparison, consider the legend of fireproof salamanders. 

If now [in the case of] the salamander, which is [only] an offspring of fire.

If, therefore, the salamander lives in fire, as naturalists have recorded, and if certain famous mountains of Sicily have been continually on fire from the remotest antiquity until now, and yet remain entire, these are sufficiently convincing examples that everything which burns is not consumed.

If some ancient people thought salamanders live in fire or lava, there'd be nothing incongruous, from their standpoint, about associating dragons with fire. 

Once a particular motif captures the popular imagination, it can develop a life of its own. Consider all the permutations of the vampire that Stoker's novel inspired. 

vi) According to the fossil record, there used to be giant crocodiles (Rhamphosuchus, Deinosuchus) and giant snakes (Titanoboa). On conventional dating schemes, these became extinct before the advent of man. If, however, some of these prehistoric behemoths survived long enough to coexist with humans, that might inspire legendary "dragons". 

vii) If you're a young-earth creationist, you believe dinosaurs coexisted with man. On that view, the dragon mythos might be modeled on pterodactyls.