The Oldest Temple in the World—- Part One

In eastern Turkey about eight miles northeast of the city of Shanli-Urfa  ( aka ancient Edessa) is a high place.  The Bible has a lot to say about high places, and Gobeckli Tepe (which means pot-bellied hill) is one of them.  On a clear day, like the day I was there, you can see a hundred miles in most any direction from the top of Gobeckli.   Here are two pictures to give you a sense of the elevation of this place. 

High places were and are places the ancients (and moderns) go to get in touch with one god or another.   They are traditional sites where sacrifices are offered (see e.g. the story of Abraham and Isaac, or see the high place on the top of the tel at Megiddo within the city walls).

Gobeckli Tepe is indeed one of those places.  What makes it stand out from places like Megiddo is that there is no archaeological evidence at all of any residences around the 20 or so stone circles on top of this hill.  It is a specific site set up for a specific purpose.  We can certainly debate what the purpose or purposes were, but there is no debate that it is a site dedicated to something specific.  Among the theories that has been noised about, but has less credence, is that this is some sort of menagerie or zoo.  I’m not buying it.   Are we really to imagine the ancients, (busy trying to survive their day to day existence and living a subsistence life full of hard work), had time and interest to set up a zoo?  Hardly.  This is nearly as plausible as imagining we have here the holding pens for Noah’s critters before they were inserted into the ark.  This then would truly be a  arkeology site, were that the case.

There is now available an impressive and detailed monograph about the site written by the lead archaeologist, Klaus Schmidt. It’s title is Sie bauten die ersten Tempel. Das ratselhafte Heiligtum der Steinzeitjager (C.H. Beck, 2006-07).  No my friends, I am afraid this important work is not in English yet.   C’est la vie.  To do scholarly work on the Bible you need at least three modern languages (never mind the ancient ones)— German, French, and English.   This book chronicles carefully the some seventeen years of meticulous and careful work of Schmidt and his team, co-ordinating finds here and from near by sites like Nevali Cori.   Schmidt is by no means done.  Only four of the circles have been dug up, and this summer they plan to cover them with a metal roof for protection.  At this rate it will take another 50 or so years to finish this excavation.  Schmidt knew almost immediately he was on to something big when he set foot on the site,  and he realized if he put his hand to the trowel here, he would spend the rest of his life here.  Alla jacta est. He did it, and is doing it.   Such is the life of a dedicated archaeologist.   He lives in nearby Urfa and commutes back and forth to the site which is quite literally in the middle of nowhere— or more specifically in the middle of farm country.   It was a Turkish farmer who first saw something like this—

It was sticking up in his field.  The earliest guess in the sixties was that this was a Byzantine tel with Byzantine ruins.  Those guesses could not have been more wrong.   What we have here is the oldest religious complex in the world.   And guess where it is?   It’s between the rivers of the Tigris and Euphrates mentioned in the story of the Garden of Eden.  It is just down the road from the apex of the fertile crescent in Haran where Abraham stopped on the way to the promised land.   It is, in short in the very place many have long thought human civilization began,  and perhaps even human life began.  It is interesting that the current issue of Christianity Today has an article chronicling how the latest debate in the evolution discussions is whether there was in fact an original pair of humans from which all other humans come—- can you say Adam and Eve?  I knew you could.   Regardless of where that argument goes,   Gobeckli will stretch our categories in many ways, for example, we have here a serious and severe challenge to young earthers.

About young earth theory I have several points to make in passing as I don’t want to get off subject: 1) the dating of Gobeckli to 9,800 B.C. appears to be correct (more on this in a later post).  This makes it enormously older than the stone monoliths at Stonehenge or on Easter Island, and thousands of years older than the pyramids as well and according to young earthers it would be older than the earth itself!  Which of course is impossible.  We have to rearrange the way we think about when actual civilization and religion per se began on earth.  Most anthropologists have suggest a date around 10,000 for the beginning of human civilization.  Gobeckli will almost certainly cause a recalculation on that.  2) the Bible tells us absolutely nothing about the age of the earth anyway. The genealogies in the OT are segments, selective, and in some cases are royal genealogies which leave out names and indeed whole generations of names.   You can’t even judge the age of human civilization from the Bible, never mind the age of the earth; 3) I especially do not believe God purposely intended to give fossils and other aspects of the earth ‘the appearance of age’ without it really being that old.  This is deception plain and simple, and God is not a deceiver.  Period.  Exclamation point; 4) the Bible is not a scientific textbook written in a pre-scientific era, and often we ask the wrong questions of it.  It’s concerns are with history and theology and ethics.  Not with geology and the like.  We need to stop reading the Bible anachronistically,  reading our own modern urgencies back into these sacred texts. Having got that off my chest,  we must turn to the second post.

  • Thorn

    Interesting information. I am inclined to believe in a God-driven evolution which, I guess, makes me a ‘crea-olutionist’. It is the only thing that makes sense in the light of current evidence, in my opinion. However, I am neither scientist, nor biblical scholar and am open to other well-formed/supported alternatives. Of which, young earth creationism is not, and even more, seems dangerous to me. Conform reality to fit a belief? I can’t see where God would approve.

  • dan

    Yes, this is interesting information. I am pretty sure that all of life has come about through some form of evolutionary process. Francis Collins and Karl Giberson are most likely correct in their work that they are writing about. In my personal research and understanding of human civilizations, I can not find any record of any human group, language, culture, or civilization or going back further than 10,000 BCE. This information on the Gobeckli temple find dated around 9,800 BCE is certainly very interesting and it would shed new light on my personal studies into ancient existence.

    Adam and Eve? Are they verifiable? Surely, they are a part of ancient mythology and part of Hebrew poetry in the first part of Genesis.

  • Thorn

    On the Adam and Eve question, I don’t see how someone could say they did not exist, with any confidence at all. Nothing is gained by it, in my opinion.

  • JoeyS

    Looking forward to these posts!

  • codebeard

    While I’m not really interested in debate about it these days, I’ve heard all these arguments for an old age of the Earth and I don’t really think they fairly engage the majority of young earth arguments.

    1) Lots of things have been dated to be far older than 9,800 BC — but this is using old earth models to interpret the ratios of various isotopes etc. For example, if you assume a priori that the earth is very old, then you will assume that the atmospheric levels of C14 are stable over time, and therefore you will assume the isotope ratios in an artefact started off at the same ratio that we see in the atmosphere today. If we do not assume a priori that the earth is very old, then we cannot in turn assume that the ratios are constant in time and so we will end up with completely different dates.

    2) Regarding genealogies, I’m willing to accept that there might be some “gaps”, but my earnest question would be regarding a verse like:
    “When Adam had lived 130 years, he had a son in his own likeness, in his own image; and he named him Seth. After Seth was born, Adam lived 800 years and had other sons and daughters. Altogether, Adam lived a total of 930 years, and then he died. ” (Gen 5:3-5)
    Now, there might have been a few generations between Adam and Seth that weren’t recorded, but whether it was ‘Adam -> Seth’ or ‘Adam -> Child -> Grandchild -> Seth’, how else can you interpret it except as there being 130 years between Adam’s birth and Seth’s? I mean, unless you propose a priori that the numbers in these detailed genealogies are all incorrect, I can’t see an alternative interpretation, and the total time elapsed is going to add up the same way regardless of how many generations were left out.

    3) I personally have never seen a young earth proponent put forward a view that God created fossils etc with the appearance of age — I’ve only ever seen this as a straw man argument against them. I think if you want to respectfully argue against a young earth position, you should find out what their mainstream proponents believe first.

    4) Again, I don’t know any young earth creationists who would say the Bible is or is like a science textbook. Some do nevertheless treat it that way, and I think that is unfortunate, but to bring up this point is not really engaging with the specifics of the arguments, it’s just a tactic to dismiss their views. In short, it’s saying “you have the wrong approach, so I can feel comfortable ignoring everything you say.”

    I think it really comes down to epistemology, and people on both sides of the debate seem to cherry-pick their epistemological principles in a way that suits them. For example, some read the 130 years between Adam and Seth as “obviously incorrect” because it leads to a straightforward conclusion which is at odds with modern geology, and their epistemology holds modern geology as more authoritative. Yet many of these same people are happy to accept that Jesus rose from the dead despite the fact that modern biology tells us this is impossible, because they hold the gospels as more authoritative. It has nothing to do with the Bible being a textbook or not — it’s all about epistemology and our hierarchies of authority.

  • Eric Sawyer

    Hi BW3,

    The photographs remind me so much of my home in Africa. (thanks for uploading such nice big pictures!)

    You say:
    ‘We need to stop reading the Bible anachronistically, reading our own modern urgencies back into these sacred texts.”

    Well said.