On William Lane Craig's (mis)interpretation of Othmar Keel and criticism of my Hebrew cosmology illustration

William Lane Craig has written a few blog posts addressing the Bible's ancient Near Eastern cosmology. As a theologian, Craig is averse to having the Bible say things about cosmology that aren't true. I have no such theological concerns. I'm just a guy trying to understand ancient Semitic culture. My book's illustration of ancient Hebrew cosmology has been popular on the web and was used as the header in this article Craig is critiquing.

Craig attempts to refute my cosmology illustration along with the others shown by quoting the Swiss Egyptologist Othmar Keel. It's a big deal for Craig to claim Keel to his side because he's one of leading scholars in the world on biblical iconography. The amusing thing is I literally based my illustration off of Keel's. Compare: 

Othmar Keel, Altorientalische Miniaturkunst: Die ältesten visuellen Massenkommunikationsmittel. Ein Blick in die Sammlungen des Biblischen Instituts der Universität Freiburg Schweiz (Universitätverlag Freiburg Schweiz: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht Göttingen, 1996), 15. 

At time of writing, I've emailed both Keel and his coauthor Silvia Schroer, and haven't been able to get in contact with either to get a direct statement on Craig's citation of them. It doesn't matter, since it’s simple to show Craig misunderstood them and how. 

Here is the quotation of Keel and Schroer from Craig's article

"People in the ancient Near East did not conceive of the earth as a disk floating on water with the firmament inverted over it like a bell jar, with the stars hanging from it. They knew from observation and experience with handicrafts that the lifting capacity of water is limited and the gigantic vaults generate gigantic problems in terms of their ability to carry dead weight. The textbook images that keep being reprinted of "the ancient Near Eastern world picture" [such as Alex reprints in this very blog] are based on typical modern misunderstandings that fail to take into account the religious components of ancient Near Eastern conceptions and representations."

I understand why someone reading this quote alone would understand it to imply that Keel doubts concepts like the heavenly ocean, sky vault, and flat earth like Craig portrays in his posts. But it is certain the Egyptologist doesn't--not only based on virtually everything else he says in this book (seriously, the Egyptian earth disc is literally printed on the cover! Has Craig not read it?), but based on Keel's other works. Keel was ironically one of the most important and frequently cited sources in researching my own book defending the flat-earth, sky-dome cosmology of the Bible. 

First of all, this quote in Keel and Schroer's Creation: Biblical Theologies book has a footnote where Keel explains what he means. He cites the "textbook images" he is critiquing and explains that these images "[leave] out the most important characteristic of an ancient Near Eastern image of the world, namely participation of divine powers." 

If we hop over to his classic Symbolism of the Biblical World (which should be required reading for everyone before they are allowed to publish on biblical cosmology) here on google books we can read Keel making a remarkably similar statement in his discussion of an Egyptian artifact that actually depicts the ocean above the firmament (pg 37, my emphasis): 

"The heavenly ocean is called kbhw-Hr, the 'cool' or 'upper waters of Horus,' the sky god. The surrounding wall may represent the 'firmament' which contains the upper waters. The Egyptian knew no more about the nature of the celestial vault than did the Israelite. He knew only that it had to be capable of restraining the waters of the heavenly ocean and that it must therefore have had a structure similar to a wall or dam (Ps 33:7) Modern representations of the ancient Near Eastern world view (56 and 57) err in portraying the upper regions too concretely, as if they were as well understood by the men of that time as was the earthly environment."

I think it's apparent Keel was making the point that modern illustrations are misleading because they are too "concrete" and material focused whereas the ancients endlessly and chiefly cared about the supernatural forces that held the cosmos together and prevented the heavenly ocean vault from collapsing. This is one of the biggest themes in Keel's books--that ancients Semites didn't share our scientific interest in the cosmos. It's why Keel's own illustration is extremely iconographic and deliberately vague rather than schematic (he literally reproduces all the elements from ancient art). Notice also, he emphasizes the supernatural element of creation with the Hebrew caption: "With Wisdom Yhwh established the earth." 

No, one of the world's leading scholars on Hebrew iconography doesn't doubt the consensus view of ancient Near Eastern cosmology. Theologians act like these things are controversial because they have religious motives to, but among Semitists, Egyptologists, or Assyriologists the general consensus is overwhelming.

Comments

  1. Excellent job explaining matters! I ran across Craig misinterpreting that isolated paragraph from Keel months ago and wrote, “On Christian apologist William Lane Craig’s inept attempt to defend the Bible’s fallible view of the cosmos”https://www.reddit.com/r/exchristian/comments/h7l6mw/on_christian_apologist_william_lane_craigs_inept/

    Makes you wonder what Craig has to say about the agreement among biblical and ancient authors that the earth does not move (except during God’s occasional act of shaking it) while the rest of the cosmos above the earth, does move. And that the sun, moon, “and the stars also” were all “made and set above the earth,” but only after the earth itself was called forth, with heaven being above the earth, a tiered cosmos—which made belief in bodily ascension to get to heaven seem plausible to the ancient mind. The biblical agreement on this matter is clear, as well as the Bible’s agreement with ancient views of the earth’s immobility and a tiered cosmos, and cannot be explained away as a mere case of divergent perspective.

    See the appropriate sections of my chapter, “The Cosmology of the Bible” Also see the appropriate section of my most recent book chapter that covers why the Luke-Acts bodily ascension story was most likely composed for reasons other than its alleged historicity.

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  2. I read the Craig article linked in the post. Such ridiculous "precision" views coming out of the ancient Babylonians. It's amazing they knew *exactly* where to stop making the common ancient assumptions about cosmology.

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  3. WLC tried to answer your objections in the podcast Reasonable Faith. It would be interesting to get a rebuttal of the rebuttal...

    https://www.reasonablefaith.org/media/reasonable-faith-podcast/does-dr-craig-teach-a-works-based-salvation

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