How many shekels for that camel?
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One of the arguments put forward for the literal inerrancy of the Christian bible is that it refers to people and places known to have existed historically. As it has these historically verified facts correct, then we can assume that all the facts are correct.
Of course, this argument, if valid, establishes the inerrancy of all historical fiction. (For those satisfied with reductio ad absurdum, you need read no further.)
But really, for a claim of inerrancy to reasonably stand, the issue is not whether some people and some places are historically true, but whether everything that can be verified proves to be true. A single wrong fact destroys the claim of literal inerrancy — though believers would still be free to see the bible as spiritually inerrant.
In chapter 23 of Some Mistakes of Moses, Ingersoll writes:
In the thirtieth chapter of Exodus, we are told that the people, when numbered, must give each one a half shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary. At that time no such money existed, and consequently the account could not, by any possibility, have been written until after there was a shekel of the sanctuary, and there was no such thing until long after the death of Moses.
When did Moses supposedly live? It's not certain — perhaps as long ago as 1550 BC, perhaps as recently as 1250 BC. At that time, the shekel was a unit of weight, not currency. The first coins are generally dated to around 600 BC - and the shekel as a coin came into existence sometime after that. Exodus 30:13 is pretty meaningless in the context of 1250 BC because the verse does not specify what material weighing a half shekel must be given... gold? or camel dung? Or as far more reasonable interpretation — Exodus was not written at the time claimed, but written at a time when shekels had been in common use as currency long enough that people thought "it has always been this way."
More recently, another biblical "fact" has been found to be made up — once again pointing to the writings attributed to Moses being written much later and containing factual errors. A couple of Israeli archeozoologists have been looking at ancient camel bones and have found that there are no bones of domesticated camels in the region prior to about 930 BC. Apparently domesticated camel bones can be distinguished from wild camels because of the heavy burdens carried by the domesticated camels.
And yet, there are 21 mentions of domesticated camels in the writings of Moses — and using normal biblical chronology they appear as domestic property as much as 1,500 years prior to the domestication of camels in the region. And Moses would have been writing about 300 years (perhaps even 500 years) before camels were domesticated.
The logical explanation? The books of Moses were not written at the time claimed but written at a time when domesticated camels had been in common use as beasts of burden long enough that people thought "it has always been this way."
Shekels and camels... both say the bible is not factually inerrant, rather the book contains provable errors; both say the bible was made up by men — men who did not know what they were talking about and who did not understand that the past might have been different from their present.
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