Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Bats are Birds?

Whenever you make the claim that the Bible and science are compatible, naysayers will bring-up a series of claims which purport to prove otherwise. These are often presented in a show-stopper manner, as if they have uncovered problematic scripture that no biblical scholar knew existed. So confident are they that any reasonable person would immediately concede the correctness of their view, they don’t actually make an argument—they simply quote a passage, cross their arms and sneer. (Okay, over the internet it only smells like they are crossing their arms and sneering.)

This is the first of a series of posts that I want to use to rebut the oh-so-common points that they reinvent every time this topic arises.

As an introduction, I want to say that it would be a total and utter disaster if the Bible said anything that was inconsistent with (true) science. By “true” science I mean science that has been confirmed beyond any reasonable doubt. For example, if the bible taught that the earth was at the center of the cosmos—that would be a disaster. For if the Bible is in error in any statement, it might be in error in its gospel message—and that would make us the most miserable of creatures.

When reconciling these alleged scientific errors—we need to do a credible job. However, we do not have to play by the ground rules of our critics. Their ground rules are this: you must take the passage hyper-literally; purely at face value. You are not allowed to use arguments like “figure of speech” or “hyperbole” or “translation error” or “let’s place it in context.”

On the other hand, we must be honest. If we are to argue that a passage should not be taken hyper-literally, we need to have justification for reading it in the manner that resolves the supposed problem. If the explanation is a translation error, we need to provide evidence.

Oh, by the way, miracles don’t count. They, by definition, are inconsistent with science—otherwise they would be called parlor tricks. We do not have to explain how Moses parted the Red Sea or how Jesus walked on water to reconcile the Bible with science. The fact that science cannot explain miracles is a feature, not a bug.

So let’s, one by one, look at those passages that “prove” the Bible is not consistent with science.

Bats are Birds

The first one we will examine comes from the book of Deuteronomy (A similar passage is in Leviticus):
11 “You may eat all clean birds. 12 But these are the ones that you shall not eat: the eagle, the bearded vulture, the black vulture, 13 the kite, the falcon of any kind; 14 every raven of any kind; 15 the ostrich, the nighthawk, the sea gull, the hawk of any kind; 16 the little owl and the short-eared owl, the barn owl 17 and the tawny owl, the carrion vulture and the cormorant, 18 the stork, the heron of any kind; the hoopoe and the bat. (Deuteronomy 14:11-18)
The problem is clear enough. The Bible states bats are birds, when every grade-schooler knows that bats are mammals.

There are a number of ways to address this claim.

The ancients were not stupid

This is not so much an argument against the details of the claim, but a comment regarding the foolishness of making it in the first place. In fact, this point can be made regarding most if not all of the assertions of biblical scientific error: There is an assumption behind these claims that the ancients were idiots—and their ignorance was written into the Bible, belying both the inspiration and inerrancy (and hence the authority) of scripture.

If one were to make a more logical assumption, namely that the ancients were not morons, then one would be inclined, before declaring victory, to ask whether or not the offending statements could in some manner be correct. This could be done without acknowledging that the Bible is truth rather than fiction. It’s a simple matter of prudent caution; the realization that maybe they did know what they are talking about.

Taxonomy is not Fundamental Science

Classification schema are not written into the fabric of the universe. In fact, taxonomy debates are fairly common. Taxonomy is something we overlay on the diversity of life. It is done sensibly, but there is not an ultimate taxonomy that we have either discovered or awaits discovery. There is only the question of what is useful, self-consistent, and comprehensive enough for present scientific needs.

One rebuttal of the argument that the Bible errs is stating that bats are birds is that, in the simpler taxonomy of the ancients, bats were simply classified as birds. They were under no obligation to adhere to twenty-first century taxonomy—a taxonomy that itself may someday be completely revamped. (And if that happens, it would not relegate the current scheme into the dustbin of scientific error.)

A taxonomy, for example, that has four broad categories: sea life, amphibians, land animals, and flying-things (lets call them birds) is not incorrect and is not scientific error. It’s just not the scheme we use today.

Translation Weakness

A additional but not unrelated explanation is not so much translation error but translation weakness. The Hebrew word ôwph, translated as “birds” or “fowl” means winged. Thus a better translation might be: “You may eat all clean winged animals...” or “You may eat all clean flying things...” It was not grossly wrong, however, to choose “birds.”

Furthermore, even the word atallêph, translated as “bat” is done so with less than absolute certainty—it may mean “an animal flying in the dark.” Footnotes in many bibles attest to the uncertainty of translating atallêph as “bat.” So it is possible, though not critical for this argument, that “bats” is a mistranslation.


The bottom line remains that, independent of the fairly strong case for translational looseness, we have the argument that the ancients were entitled to their own classification scheme, one that met their needs, and without question a scheme that groups bats and birds together is entirely sensible. To reiterate: our modern classification scheme is not fundamental science. It is not like “general relativity.” A disagreement with our scheme in no way constitutes a scientific error.

1 comment:

  1. The problem with the "mistranslation argument" that is often made is that how many average Christians have access to or would understand the original text. As far as the common English speaking christian would be concerned is that the Bible does indeed classify bats as birds, which they are not.