The Cyrus Cylinder and testable theories


Karl Popper pondered the question “When should a theory be ranked as scientific?” and came up with the following criteria (summarized from the article):

  • confirming a theory is easy.
  • a scientific theory should be falsifiable.
  • testing a theory means trying to prove it is false.
  • testing a theory means verifying its predictions are observed.

While not everyone holds to Popper’s philosophy of science the criterion of testability, falsifiability and predictability are considered important for any scientific theory. In fact the claim that is often leveled against “religion” is that it can’t do any of these things and thus can easily be dismissed by the scientific community.

No amount of experimentation can ever prove me right;
a single experiment can prove me wrong. – Albert Einstein

I went to see the Cyrus Cylinder exhibit this weekend. And it got me thinking.

By Prioryman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

By Prioryman (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

Christianity is a religion based on historical events. If certain events did not happen then certain hypothesis regarding the Scriptures and the veracity of the theory of Christianity can be rejected.  Paul essentially says this in 1 Cor 15:17:

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins.

Now, consider the fact that 2 Chronicles, Daniel, Ezra, and Isaiah all mention Cyrus as the Medo-Persian ruler who conquered Babylon and allowed the Israelites to return to their land and rebuild their temple. And consider that the narratives in Haggai, Zechariah, Nehemiah and Esther rely on this event as well. Can we test the theory these books propose?

Here is the event as recorded in Ezra 1:2-3 (NET).

Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: The Lord God of heaven has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. He has instructed me to build a temple for him in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Anyone from his people among you (may his God be with him!) may go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and may build the temple of the Lord God of Israel – he is the God who is in Jerusalem.

In Neil MacGregor’s TED Talk he says:

 We only knew about the return of the Jews and the decree of Cyrus from the Hebrew scriptures. No other evidence.

This is a crucial event in the meta-narrative of Scriptures. If there was no other evidence we could then construct a test using scientific criterion. Archaeology and historic research (observable data) should be able to falsify the following hypothesis and predictions:

  • Cyrus was the ruler of Medo-Persia in the 6th century BC.
  • Cyrus and the Persians conquered the Babylonians in the 6th century BC.
  • We should expect to find evidence that the Persians in the 6th century BC  allowed captives to return to their homelands and start worshiping their own God or gods.
  • We should not expect to find evidence that the Persians in the 6th century BC discouraged or prevented people from returning to their homelands and worshiping their gods.

Neil MacGregor, in discussing the finding of the Cyrus Cylinder in 1879, goes on to say:

Suddenly, this appeared. And great excitement to a world where those who believed in the scriptures had had their faith in creation shaken by evolution, by geology, here was evidence that the scriptures were historically true. It’s a great 19th century moment.

Why? The cylinder confirms all of the criteria that we laid out. The cylinder that was found is dated to the proper time period. It bears an inscription in Babylonian cuneiform (translation) that confirms that Cyrus and the Persians conquered the Babylonians and allowed captives to return home and worship their gods.

Does the cylinder prove that a major historical event that is crucial to the story line in the Scriptures and recorded in several books actually happened? Yes.

Does this prove the Bible is accurate? Yes and no. MacGregor rightly notes:

 But — and this, of course, is where it becomes complicated — the facts were true, hurrah for archeology, but the interpretation was rather more complicated. Because the cylinder account and the Hebrew Bible account differ in one key respect. The Babylonian cylinder is written by the priests of the great god of Bablyon, Marduk. And, not surprisingly, they tell you that all this was done by Marduk. … The Hebrew writers in the Old Testament, you will not be surprised to learn, take a rather different view of this. For them, of course, it can’t possibly be Marduk that made all this happen. It can only be Jehovah.

The Cyrus Brick that was situated across the room from the cylinder also confirms these events and reads:

Cyrus, king of the world, king of Anshan, son of Cambyses, king of Ansham. The great gods delivered all the lands into my hand, and I made this land to dwell in peace.

Clearly Cyrus was not partial to any set of gods. He promoted religious freedom in order to secure peace. It may be that there are multiple proclamations to different people groups and different gods. Or, given that it was the Babylonian empire that was just defeated, maybe his proclamation made sure that people knew the gods of the recent powerhouse in the region were now siding with him.

While the cylinder does support a major historic event in the Biblical timeline, it would certainly be going to far to infer that the cylinder proves God moved Cyrus to issue the decree. I don’t think it even proves that God exists (something science rules out a priori). For that we might have a more interesting discussion if we were to find a manuscript of Isaiah dated prior to the occurrence of this event. If this manuscript had Isaiah 44:28 in it we would have a remarkable proof of a very specific prophecy. But as it stands today the oldest manuscript of Isaiah, found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, is dated to the first century BC.

However, consider the possibility that the cylinder was found and dated to the proper time period. Imagine it confirmed a ruler over Persia named Cyrus. But now imagine if the inscription on it was translated and read:

Thus says King Cyrus of Persia: Marduk has given me all the kingdoms of the earth. Therefore he alone is to be praised and worshiped. No temple may be built for any other gods and all temples previously built must remain in ruins. All previously captured religious implements are now the property of Persia.

This finding would have falsified the historic events as outlined in the narrative of several books in the Old Testament. It would not have been what we would have predicted if the claims were accurate.

But as it stands today Einstein was right, this “experiment” may not prove that God supported Cyrus or that the Scriptures are given to us by God, it also fails to falsify that claim using scientific criterion.

What do you think?

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