Uncertainty in the dating of past events
The volcanic eruption that destroyed the ancient Roman city of Pompeii probably took place two months later than previously thought, Italian officials say. Historians have traditionally dated the disaster to 24 August 79 AD, but excavations in southern Italy have unearthed a charcoal inscription written on a wall that includes a date which corresponds to 17 October. The writing came from an area in a house that was apparently being renovated just before the nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying Pompeii under a thick blanket of ash and rock.
Other evidence that supports autumn rather than summer for the eruption includes:
– The south-easterly debris pattern is consistent with the prevailing winds in autumn, but not those in August.
– The remains of victims of the eruption in heavy clothing.
– Braziers have also been found in the ruins, suggesting a date closer to winter.
– A calcified branch bearing berries that normally only come out in the Italian autumn.
– Remnants of autumnal fruits (such as the pomegranate),
– Large earthenware storage vessels which were laden with wine at the time of their burial by Vesuvius. This could indicate that the inundation occurred after the year’s grape harvest and winemaking.
If such an error (or uncertainty) is possible in recorded history, what about ancient history?
Wikipedia says that recorded history starts at about 3000BC, but the oldest specific date they quote is 1046BC when the Zhou force (led by King Wu of Zhou) overthrew the last king of the Shang Dynasty, and the Zhou Dynasty was established in China. 776BC is the legendary start of the ancient Olympics and 753BC the legendary founding of Rome. The dates of events before Greece and Rome are only approximate or traditional and those in the early years of Greece and Rome are in doubt.
The Bible is an amazing record of ancient history. In 1440-1480BC Moses compiled and documented a history of the world up to the time of his death. This included Adam and Eve at about 4000BC, the global flood at about 2400BC, and Abraham at about 2000BC. And in about 1000BC the Hebrew king David captured Jerusalem.
So recorded history is quite short, being a few thousand years.
Dating ancient events
Ancient events have been dated by methods such as recorded history, archaeology, geology, dendrochronology (tree rings), radiometric dating, and luminescence. Most of these methods assume the principle of uniformity.
According to the American Museum of Natural History, “The uniformitarian principle means that the processes occurring today have operated throughout most of the Earth’s history. For example, an ancient sandstone formed exactly as a beach forms today – by the gradual build-up, over many years, of water-transported sands. The principle is one of the guiding rules for understanding rocks and landforms, reconstructing their histories, and estimating the time it took for them to form.”
Uniformitarianism assumes we can look at the present to see what has happened in the past. It is the geological theory that states that changes in the earth’s crust throughout history have resulted from the action of uniform, continuous processes. It can be summarized as “the present is the key to the past” and was pioneered by Hutton (1785) and Lyell (1830).
The geological column was formulated using fossils to correlate between rock layers in geographically distinct areas. The fossils were assumed to occur in an evolutionary order, from early simple organisms to more complex ones later in time. It was assumed that the rock layers were a chronologic sequence laid down gradually at the same rate as they are today, not catastrophically. And the rock strata were dated using radiometric methods. Between the mid 18th century and the mid 20th century the estimated age of the earth increased from 75 thousand years to 4.55 billion years.
Today, earth’s history is considered to have been a slow, gradual process (uniformity), punctuated by occasional natural catastrophic events. So there is some allowance for catastrophic events, but uniformity is still the dominant assumption.
Comparing with recorded history
In a previous blogpost I have shown that, “As a reliable eyewitness is superior to forensic science in the investigation of crime, so reliable history is better than ancient forensic science (the use of science to investigate ancient times) in investigating ancient times. So, history trumps science when dealing with the past”.
So, if a small error is possible in dating events like the eruption of Mount Vesuvius using recorded history, then larger errors are possible and probable in dating events using ancient forensic science.
The presuppositions used when dating ancient events usually involve the uniformity of some parameters over extended periods of time. There is no way to verify these assumptions because they relate to conditions that occurred in the ancient past, prior to recorded history. All these dating methods rely on unprovable assumptions. One of the main assumptions is that geological layers represent the gradual deposition of sediments (uniformitarianism). But archaeologists and geologists were not there to observe how the sediments were built up over time. So they don’t really know how long it took. And they don’t consider factors such as the Biblical flood and the ice age.
Although these dating methods appear to be objective and scientific, they are subjective. They are largely driven by the prevailing “long-age worldview”. However, the ‘age’ is calculated using assumptions about the past that cannot be proven.
The dating methods involve enormous extrapolation from what has been observed during recorded history, which cause a huge uncertainty in the predicted dates (Appendix A). In normal (operational) science such extrapolations would be viewed as being speculative guesses.
Those involved with unrecorded history gather information in the present and construct stories about the past. They use radiometric dating that relies on assumptions that are unknowable like the initial conditions, the radioactive decay rate over time, and that the fossil or rock are a closed system which doesn’t exchange chemicals with its environment. This makes the calculated dates unreliable and untrustworthy.
When I flew to Tasmania last month, the limit for checked in luggage was 20kg. I have a hand-held electronic scale to measure the weight of my luggage. At the airport I check that my scale gives a similar weight to that measured by the airline. This is how I check the calibration of my scales. If the readings are significantly different, I need to purchase a new scale.
The problem with ancient forensic science and the evolutionary/geological time scale is that they have never been calibrated against actual time. It’s impossible to calibrate them against real time because there are no records older than recorded history. Outside the range of recorded history, it’s impossible to calibrate dating methods independently. In fact, the use of all dating methods outside the range of recorded history rely on unprovable assumptions.
Have the methods of ancient forensic science been tested against samples of known age? The only instance that I can find gives examples where radiometric dates are much older than actual dates, where different radiometric methods gave different dates, where known recent lava flows are dated at millions of years, where DNA and soft tissue is found in fossils that are alleged to be millions of years old, and where 14C is found in coal and fossils that are supposedly millions of years old (Catchpoole et al, 2006, Mason 2014). This casts doubt on the reliability of all radioactive dating methods.
The past is the key to the present
We all know that time moves forwards, not backwards; and that causes precede effects. So it’s more accurate to say that “the past is the key to the present”. And “the present is the key to the future”.
This is a fundamental flaw of the principle of uniformity when it’s used to date ancient times using ancient forensic science. It’s a simple and obvious problem. The present isn’t the key to the past.
In the scientific method, a hypothesis is suggested and then tested by experimentation and observation. To be scientific the hypothesis must make predictions that are testable and falsifiable. The results of a test may either support or contradict the hypothesis. If they contradict the hypothesis, then the hypothesis has been found to be false. It’s easier to disprove a hypothesis because observations and experiments may disprove a scientific hypothesis, but can never entirely prove one. You can’t prove something is true. But you can disprove it.
According to the evolutionary/geologic timescale, the dinosaurs became extinct at the end of the Cretaceous period about 66 million years ago. So a possible hypothesis that is based on the evolutionary/geological timescale is that dinosaur bones are at least 66 million years old. A testable prediction from this hypothesis is, “If dinosaur bones are at least 65 million years old, then they will contain no proteins (unstable molecules) or soft tissue (because this will have decomposed over such a long time period)”. But paleontologist Mary Schweitzer found proteins, blood vessels and soft tissue in dinosaur fossils. So the hypothesis is false. This means that the evolutionary/geologic timescale has been proven scientifically to be false. Dinosaur bones are not millions of years old. And the evolutionary/geologic timescale is nothing like real time.
This conclusion has been reached using the measured rates of protein degradation. But those who advocate the evolutionary/geologic timescale have faith that this anomaly can be explained by claiming that the rate of protein degradation can vary widely and a reason for this longevity will be discovered. But they won’t recognize that radioactive decay rates could also vary over time! Instead they claim that, “many independent observations indicate that nuclear decay rates have been constant for millions of years”. I wonder how they measure millions of years without assuming millions of years? No one was there to measure the time period.
The Bible (which has the best record of ancient history) says that most of the world was destroyed by a global flood in about 2,400BC. And this was probably the precursor of the ice age (Job 38:29-30). The impact of this flood is evident across the world as widespread thick layers of sedimentary rock, some containing fossil graveyards. As such a catastrophic event would invalidate the assumptions of all ancient forensic science, dates reported to be older than 2,400BC do not represent true calendar dates (see Appendix B). They are purely hypothetical dates that may convey some information about relative dating, but not about absolute dating.
What about cave paintings that have been dated about 40,000BP? Whatever assumptions were made to determine these dates, they are obviously not calendar dates. This confirms that the uncertainty associated with dating events using ancient forensic science can be huge. These uncertainties are caused by the assumptions that are made when calculating the dates.
The hypothetical geological column is based on a fragmentary sedimentary record. And there are far fewer sedimentary rocks on earth than should have been deposited if its age is about 4.5 billion years. This means that either the earth is not that old as is generally believed or that most of the strata are missing because of erosion.
The lack of erosion surfaces between strata, the presence of poly-strata fossils, and the presence of any fossils show that sedimentary rock strata were deposited rapidly, not gradually. Note that when animals die today, they aren’t fossilized.
Cataclysmic events such as the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 have indicated that large amounts of sedimentation and erosion can be associated with cataclysmic vulcanism and floods.
Radiometric methods use isotope concentrations which can be measured very accurately. But isotope concentrations or ratios are not dates. To calculate ages from such measurements unprovable assumptions have to be made. The radiometric method is unreliable because of the unknowable assumptions that must be made about the history of the sample being dated. In practice, dates that do not fit the evolutionary/geologic time-scale are discarded. Only dates that fit this paradigm are reported. Because what a person thinks about the age of the earth depends on their worldview, the findings in most publications that use ancient forensic science depend on the author’s worldview.
Radiometric dating doesn’t directly measure the ages of fossils and rocks. It measures the concentrations of isotopes and then many unprovable assumptions are used to determine the probable age.
Let’s be sceptical of ages for events that are claimed to be older than recorded history. These hypothetical dates have huge uncertainties, which are never mentioned by scientists. When the real uncertainties are taken in account, the dates are shown to be speculative guesses.
Appendix A: Enormous extrapolation
Scientists use mathematical methods to make predictions. These mathematical methods (which are called “models”) are developed from measurements (observations) that have been made over a certain period of time and under a certain range of conditions. The predictions are most accurate for circumstances that lie within those under which the model was developed. Predictions made outside these circumstances are less reliable as they are extrapolations outside the realm that was measured and observed.
The ancient forensic scientific explanation of ancient history uses theories and observations made in the past few hundred years to make statements about what happened millions and billions of years ago. In science it is well known that the accuracy of a prediction decreases as it extends outside the region of measurement and observation.
Orders of magnitude are used to compare very large differences between numbers. It this case the difference is expressed as the power of 10. For example, 1,000 is one order of magnitude greater than 100, two orders of magnitude greater than 10, and three orders of magnitude greater than 1.
We will now estimate the degree of extrapolation that is made by ancient forensic science. In order to be conservative, we will assume that the scientific theories and observations have been developed from measurements and observations made in the past 1,000 years. So any prediction that applies greater than 1,000 years ago is an extrapolation outside the range of measurement and observation. Therefore, a prediction of an event 10,000 years ago represents an extrapolation of one order of magnitude. Using the dates taught in the Big History Project, we see that the extrapolations are at least 2 to 7 orders of magnitude. As the degree of uncertainty usually increases with the size of the extrapolation, these enormous extrapolations indicate a huge uncertainty in these predictions. In normal science such extrapolations would be viewed as being speculative guesses.
|Proposed Event||Extrapolation – Orders of magnitude|
|Big bang||7 (a factor of 107 )|
|Earth and solar system formed||6 (a factor of 106)|
|First life on earth||6 (a factor of 106)|
|First humans||2 (a factor of 102)|
Appendix B: The flood and radiometric dating
The Genesis flood would have greatly upset the carbon balance of the earth. The 14C/12C ratio in plants, animals and the atmosphere before the flood would have been lower than after the flood. And volcanism, which occurred during the flood, would have also reduced the 14C/12C ratio at that time.
Catchpoole D, Sarfiti J, Weiland C, Batten D (2006), “The creation answers book”, Creation Book Publishers.
Mason J (2014) “Radiometric dating”, Chapter 6 of “Evolution’s Achilles heels”, Creation Book Publishers.
Written, November 2018
“Mind the gap” is a warning phrase to take caution while crossing the spacial gap between a train doorway and the station platform. It’s used by many train and rapid transport systems. This gap is wider at stations with curved platforms, which increases the likelihood of passengers or luggage falling into the gap between the train and the platform.
In this blogpost we look at the temporal gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today. We will see that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.
According to scholars, the New Testament was written between AD 50 and AD 95. And most of the events described in the New Testament occurred between 5 BC and AD 65. But why was the New Testament written so long after the events it describes (up to about 65 years)?
The major way in which events and ideas were communicated in the ancient world was through the spoken word. It was an oral society. Many people were illiterate and writing materials were scarce. There were few books (scrolls) and they were very expensive to produce. So information was passed on by word of mouth and oral accounts were valued above written accounts.
In oral communication, the accuracy of a message received by a listener depends on the reliability of the speaker (sender) and the reliability of the information that the speaker wants to communicate. A reliable speaker tells the truth (instead of lying) and the information they communicate is more reliable if the speaker has access to the original source of the information, such as eyewitnesses.
A message can become unreliable if it passes through many intermediate speakers between the original speaker and the final listener. This is demonstrated in the telephone (Chinese whispers) game in which one person whispers a message to the ear of the next person through a line of people until the last player announces the message to the entire group. What usually happens is that the statement announced by the last player differs significantly from that of the first player. Obviously, if a message (or story) has been retold by many people, some of it can change if people forget parts of what they are told.
But the telephone (Chinese whispers) game doesn’t apply to the New Testament, because the time period when it was communicated orally was less than 65 years, which is one lifetime, and not many lifetimes. I call the gap to the first written account of the New Testament “the memory gap”, because in this case the accuracy of the message is dependent on the accuracy of the messenger’s memory.
The memory gap
The New Testament was written by the apostles and their associates who were eyewitnesses to the events they described. An apostle had accompanied Jesus Christ during His 3-year ministry (from His baptism to His ascension) and had been with the other apostles when Christ was resurrected (Acts 1:21-22). So they knew Jesus very well. This means they had accurate source of the information.
The memory gap for the gospels is 30-55 years. Mark, Matthew and Luke were probably written in the AD 60s, and John about AD 85. Some skeptics claim that, even with eyewitnesses, memory isn’t trustworthy over that period of time and that all kinds of things can contaminate the message. But the accuracy of the New testament message is enhanced by the fact that:
– there were multiple witnesses. According to the Old Testament, there must be at least two witnesses to establish the truth in a court case (Dt. 17:6; 19:15). For example, the accounts of four separate witnesses are given in the gospels (Matthew, Mark. Luke and John).
– there were 12 apostles who could oversee (control) the accuracy of the message. In this was there was corporate control of the message.
– When it’s all you’ve got, memory works well. For example, children have good memories for stories and the words and tunes of songs.
– Memory works well if you have a stake in what took place. The apostles had a stake in the gospel message because they had given up everything else to follow Jesus and most of them were martyred for their Christian faith.
– Corporate repetition is important for retaining stories and memories. The Christian message was repeated at weekly church gatherings.
It seems as though the message in the gospels was put in writing when the eyewitnesses were near the end of their lives. This enabled an accurate record to be passed on to subsequent generations. In a eulogy children recollect events that occurred in their family up to 50 years earlier. When they do this, the gist of their accounts will be the same, although they will recollect different details. Likewise, the gospels have the same core message, but each writer records different details. Most alleged contradictions in the gospels are just minor variations in the account. One eyewitness will include a piece of information, while another one will leave it out. If the accounts were identical, then there could have been collusion or plagiarism.
As Paul was in Jerusalem at the time of the crucifixion, he knew what had happened. So when he was writing letters between 50 and 66 AD (20 to 26 years later), he knew what he was writing about. Paul was probably converted a few years after the resurrection. He summarized the gospel as “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance; Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures” (1 Cor. 15:3-4NIV). He received this message orally from other apostles (Gal. 1:18-19) and passed it on to others. That’s an example of oral communication.
Oral transmission was done very carefully in ancient times. For example, Paul commended the Corinthians “for following the teachings I passed on to you” (1 Cor. 11:2NLT). These teachings were prescribed standards for Christian living.
The copy gap
The Bible is like a library (or anthology) – it’s a collection of books written by different authors. The text of each book was originally written on a manuscript (written be hand) called an “autograph”, which in the case of the Bible would have been a scroll. The memory gap is the period of time between the writing of the autograph and the events described in the autograph.
We don’t have the autograph (original manuscript) of most ancient documents. Instead we have copies that were made at a later time. Textural critics use the available copies to reconstruct the original autograph. I will refer to the time gap between a copy and the autograph, as the “copy gap”. Obviously, other things being equal, a longer copy gap provides more opportunity for copy errors to accumulate in the manuscript.
Ancient texts were written on papyrus scrolls which may have had a useful life of about 100 years (and up to 500 years in dry climates). However, some papyrus codices (books) from the third century AD survive today (such as the Chester Beatty Papyri written about AD 200). Between the late 3rd century and the 5th century AD, papyrus scrolls and codices were replaced by parchment pages in a codex (book). Parchment (or vellum; made from animal skins) was more durable and could have a lifetime of about 1,000 years. For example, marginal notes in the Codex Sinaiticus indicate that it was still being used by scholars about 300 years after it was written.
According to classical scholars, the oldest surviving complete copies of single New Testament books were written around AD 200, and the oldest surviving (nearly) complete copy of the New Testament, was written about AD 350 (see below). And the oldest surviving fragments of manuscripts of the New Testament were written in the second century AD (such as the John Rylands Papyrus written about AD 125). The fragments and books could be 1st and 2nd generation copies of the autograph, while the whole New Testament (copied in the mid 4th century AD) could be a 2nd or 3rd generation copy of the autographs. It should be understood that “complete manuscript” when used by a textual critic does not necessarily mean 100% of it has survived. “Complete” is a technical term meaning that the manuscript has the beginning and end of the book in question. For example, a “complete copy of John” would be required to have John 1:1 and John 21:25 and substantial portions of those verses between.
It’s instructive to look at the “copy gap” (between the original autograph and the oldest complete manuscript) for other historical documents. The copy gap is about:
– 1,400 years for the Histories of Herodotus (written in the 5th century BC),
– 800 years for the works of Josephus in their original language of Greek (written about AD 90),
– 1,000 years for the Annals of Tacitus (written about AD 115),
– 750 years for the letters of Pliny the Younger (written AD 112),
– 700 years for the “The Twelve Caesars” by Suetonius (written AD 120).
It has been stated that the copy gap (for the oldest complete manuscript) for most non-biblical classical sources is about 700-1400 years.
On the other hand, for the New Testament, the copy gap is about 300 years – Codex Vaticanus was written in about 325-350 AD and Codex Sinaiticus in about 330-360 AD. So the gap is significantly shorter for the New Testament. A longer gap means more copies of copies, which means more potential for copy errors to appear in the text. So the version of the New Testament we have today should be a more accurate copy of the original than is the case for most other ancient historical documents.
The scholar Sir Frederic Kenyon concluded, “The interval then between the data of original composition and the earliest extant (complete) evidence becomes so small to be in fact negligible, and the last foundation for any doubt that the Scripture have come down to us substantially as they were written has now been removed. Both the authenticity and the general integrity of the books of the New Testament may be regarded as finally established.”
An investigation of the gaps between the events described in the New Testament and their communication to us today shows that as the memory gap (from an event to the original written account) is less than one generation and the copy gap (from the original written account to the oldest complete manuscript available today) is significantly less than for other ancient documents, we can trust the historical accuracy of the New Testament.
Appendix: Dating the New Testament
We can infer that most of the NT was written before AD 70, because there is no mention of the invasion of Jerusalem by the Romans and the destruction of the Jewish temple. This event was prophesied in Matthew, Mark and Luke. So these gospels were written before AD 70.
Also, the martyrdoms of James in 62 AD, Paul in 64 AD, and Peter in 65 AD, which would have had a significant impact on the Christian community aren’t mentioned in the New Testament. So Acts was written before 64 AD, and Luke was written before Acts (Acts 1:1-2). This is consistent with Paul quoting from Luke in 1 Timothy (Lk. 10:7; 1 Tim. 5:18).
Most scholars agree that John was written after Matthew, Mark and Luke because it seems to build on and supplement these. The fact that the destruction of Jerusalem is not mentioned in John may be because the book was written 15-20 years later, when the shock had worn off. Also, church fathers thought that John wrote Revelation in about AD 95 (during Domitian’s reign over the Roman Empire).
Written, January 2017