Author Archives: Neil Godfrey

Christians, Book-Burning, Temple Destruction and some balance on Nixey’s popular polemic

[Updated 12 hours after original posting]

I’d like to place here some balance or corrective to Tim O’Neill’s criticism of Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World. James McGrath has lent his support to O’Neill’s attack on Nixey’s book by expressing disdain for both atheists and their “gullible” audiences:

When atheists misrepresent ancient Christians as typically having been intellectual terrorists who burned great works of literature and philosophy, are they not themselves doing the equivalent themselves, burning the actual history in the minds of those gullible enough to blindly accept their claims, in order to replace our accurate knowledge of the past with their own dishonest dogma and that alone?

Just this morning I see that another biblioblog has collated some “critical reactions” to Nixey’s book.

To begin, Catherine Nixey makes it clear in her Introduction that what readers are about to encounter is a one-sided polemic.

This is a book about the Christian destruction of the classical world. The Christian assault was not the only one – fire, flood, invasion and time itself all played their part – but this book focuses on Christianity’s assault in particular. This is not to say that the Church didn’t also preserve things: it did. But the story of Christianity’s good works in this period has been told again and again; such books proliferate in libraries and bookshops. The history and the sufferings of those whom Christianity defeated have not been. This book concentrates on them. (p. xxxv, my emphasis)

It seems to me a little awry to condemn an author’s work because it accomplishes what its author intended it to do. But it is more serious to give the impression that a book denies something that it clearly does not: Nixey clearly says that the Church did, also, “preserve things”. Are we to think that even in the twenty-first-century one cannot speak ill of Christian history without attracting an avalanche of hostility?

Nixey, I understand, is a journalist and is writing for a popular audience. Often she adds little imaginative (novelistic) flourishes to fill out a dramatic historical episode. The book is neither a textbook nor original research. Nixey relies heavily on secondary literature rather than original research. That said, much of her secondary sources are highly respected scholars in the field (e.g. Robert Wilken, Dirk Rohmann).

Where to begin? Let’s return to the passage quoted above. Note that Nixey does not speak of “Christians” or “Christianity” as if these terms are labels of a monolithic movement. Christians in late antiquity were divided. Yet some of the attacks (they are more attacks than fair criticisms) appear at times to speak erroneously of Christianity as a united voice with a single attitude towards pagan learning. O’Neill writes:

The idea that the loss of ancient works came as a result of active suppression by “Christian authorities” coupled with ignorant neglect is the persistent element in these laments. In her recent debut book The Darkening Age: The Christian Destruction of the Classical World, British popular history writer Catherine Nixey harps on this theme. “Works by censured philosophers were forbidden,” she solemnly assures her readers, “and bonfires blazed across the empire as outlawed books went up in flames.” (p. xxxii) I imagine this kind of stuff sells popular books, but if we actually turn to the evidence and the relevant scholarship, we find very little to support these ideas.

It is a powerful image, this: Christianity as the inheritor and valiant protector of the classical tradition – and it is an image that persists. This is the Christianity of ancient monastic libraries, of the beauty of illuminated manuscripts, of the Venerable Bede. It is the Christianity that built august Oxford colleges, their names a litany of learnedness – Corpus Christi, Jesus, Magdalen. This is the Christianity that stocked medieval libraries, created the Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry, the Hours of Jeanne de Navarre and the sumptuous gold illustrations of the Copenhagen Psalter. This is the religion that, inside the walls of the Vatican, even now keeps Latin going as a living language, translating such words as ‘computer’, ‘video game’ and ‘heavy metal’ into Latin, over a millennium after the language ought to have died a natural death.

And indeed all that is true. Christianity at its best did do all of that, and more. But there is another side to this Christian story, one that is worlds away from the bookish monks and careful copyists of legend. (– Nixey, Darkening Age, p. 140f, my bolding)

If we are still willing to read Nixey’s book after such a bald assertion about what to expect we will be taken aback to find that Tim O’Neill’s warning is very wide of the mark. We would not expect to read the following passage about the philosophical works and the attitude of “Christian clerics” more widely in Nixey’s work (again with my emphasis):

Even philosophers like Plato, whose writings fitted better with Christian thought – his single form of ‘the good’ could, with some contortions, be squeezed into a Christian framework – were still threatening. Perhaps even more so: Plato would continue to (sporadically) alarm the Church for centuries. In the eleventh century, a new clause was inserted into the Lenten liturgy censuring those who believed in Platonic forms. ‘Anathema on those,’ it declared, ‘who devote themselves to Greek studies and instead of merely making them a part of their education, adopt the foolish doctrines of the ancients and accept them as the truth.’38

For many hard-line Christian clerics, the entire edifice of academic learning was considered dubious. In some ways there was a noble egalitarianism in this: with Christianity, the humblest fisherman could touch the face of God without having his hand stayed by quibbling scholars. But there was a more aggressive and sinister side to it, too. St Paul had succinctly and influentially said that ‘the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God’.39 This was an attitude that persisted. Later Christians scorned those who tried to be too clever in their interpretation of the scriptures. One writer railed furiously at those who ‘put aside the sacred word of God, and devote themselves to geometry . . . Some of them give all their energies to the study of Euclidean geometry, and treat Aristotle . . . with reverent awe; to some of them Galen is almost an object of worship.’40

And so, in part from self-interest, in part from actual interest, Christianity started to absorb the literature of the ‘heathens’ into itself. Cicero soon sat alongside the psalters after all. Many of those who felt most awkward about their classical learning made best use of it. The Christian writer Tertullian might have disdained classical learning in asking what Athens had to do with Jerusalem – but he did so in high classical style with the metonymy of Athens’ standing in for ‘philosophy’ and that prodding rhetorical question. Cicero himself would have approved. Everywhere, Christian intellectuals struggled to fuse together the classical and the Christian. Bishop Ambrose dressed Cicero’s Stoic principles in Christian clothes; while Augustine adapted Roman oratory for Christian ends. The philosophical terms of the Greeks – the ‘logos’ of the Stoics – started to make their way into Christian philosophy.51

. . . . . .

Christianity was caught in an impossible situation. Greek and Roman literature was a sump of the sinful and the satanic and so it could not be embraced. But nor could it entirely be ignored either. It was painfully obvious to educated Christians that the intellectual achievements of the ‘insane’ pagans were vastly superior to their own. For all their declarations on the wickedness of pagan learning, few educated Christians could bring themselves to discard it completely. Augustine, despite disdaining those who cared about correct pronunciation, leaves us in no doubt that he himself knows how to pronounce everything perfectly. In countless passages, both implicitly and explicitly, his knowledge is displayed. He was a Christian, but a Christian with classical dash and he deployed his classical knowledge in the service of Christianity. The great biblical scholar Jerome, who described the style of sections of the Bible as ‘rude and repellent’,49 never freed himself from his love of classical literature and suffered from nightmares in which he was accused of being a ‘Ciceronian, not a Christian’.50

. . . . . .

Philosophers who wished their works and careers to survive in this Christian world had to curb their teachings. Philosophies that treated the old gods with too much reverence eventually became unacceptable. Any philosophies that dabbled in predicting the future were cracked down on. Any theories that stated that the world was eternal – for that contradicted the idea of Creation – were, as the academic Dirk Rohmann has pointed out, also suppressed. Philosophers who didn’t cut their cloth to the new shapes allowed by Christianity felt the consequences. In Athens, some decades after Hypatia’s death, a resolutely pagan philosopher found himself exiled for a year. (pp. 147-152)

Yet those paragraphs really are from Catherine Nixey’s own book and not from Tim O’Neill’s criticism of it. Even in focussing on “the other side” of the story Nixey still reminds readers that that narrative was neither all black nor all white. read more »

Why Do We Think That? (That = Christian Mobs Destroyed the Library of Alexandria)

Who told us that Christian mobs were responsible for destroying the Great Library of Alexandria?

I had long thought it was true. I must have heard or read it somewhere, sometime when I was still a Christian. Such a factoid made no difference to my faith, no doubt, if only because I had long known that not all professing Christians have always behaved like saints. (Somewhere along the way I learned otherwise, but I never felt I or anyone else had believed in the rampaging Christian mob story for any sinister and diabolical reasons.)

But recent chastisements, one (or two) from an atheist, the other from a Christian, directed against atheists (no-one else, only atheists) for holding on to this bit of apparently false belief (the accusation being that they believe it for no better reason than that they hate Christianity and want to believe anything that casts Christianity in a bad light) have led me to try to find the source of this “misinformation”.

A visit to the virtual archive of the internet turned up the following:

The image of incensed early Christian mobs destroying Greco-Roman temples comes in part from the early modern period. Back in the late 18th century, armchair historian Edward Gibbon provided a view of temple destruction that had lasting repercussions. In his epic work, History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire he described the tearing down of the Serapeum in Alexandria as illustrative of the empire as a whole. He also described it as a direct assault on Roman idolatry:

“The compositions of ancient genius, so many of which have irretrievably perished, might surely have been excepted from the wreck of idolatry for the amusement and instruction of succeeding ages.”

Sarah Bond, Were Pagan Temples All Smashed Or Just Converted Into Christian Ones?

I like that “armchair historian” bit.

In the mouth of at least two witnesses . . .

Ever since Edward Gibbon’s vivid account of the destruction of the Serapeum in Alexandria at the hands of Christians, scholars have tended to view the conversions of temples into churches as clear manifestations of an intolerant Church wishing to express its triumph over paganism. Feyo L. Schuddeboom, The Conversion of Temples in Rome

Of course. Well, that makes some sense. I did read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall many years ago and that was probably what planted that “vicious little anti-Christian lie” into my head. Presumably many other readers of the same work, atheists and others, picked up the same notion.

We have all fallen in with the “prevalent proof” fallacy at times. We believe something for no better reason than that it is what we read, or what other people say and everyone seems to take for granted — or at no-one makes a fuss with a contrary opinion.

Not everyone has read Gibbon, though. So maybe a popular film (though I did not see it) has also had its influence:

The Great Library of Alexandria was one of the wonders of ancient civilisation having collected many thousands of scrolls containing knowledge and literature from across the known world.

The 2009 movie Agora is partially about its destruction and tells this story (my emphasis):

When the Christians start defiling the statues of the pagan gods, the pagans, including Orestes and Hypatia’s father, ambush the Christians to squash their rising influence. However, in the ensuing battle, the pagans unexpectedly find themselves outnumbered by a large Christian mob. Hypatia’s father is gravely injured and Hypatia and the pagans take refuge in the Library of the Serapeum. The Christian siege of the library ends when an envoy of the Roman Emperor declares that the pagans are pardoned, however the Christians shall be allowed to enter the library and do with it what they please. Hypatia and the pagans flee, trying to save the most important scrolls, before the Christians overtake the library and destroy its contents.  

Did Christians burn the Great Library of Alexandria?

The same website spreads the blame further yet:

Carl Sagan told a similar story in his series Cosmos (see this clip from about 3:30 in).

You’ll have to go to the website to try to access “this clip” since it is forbidden for Australians (or presumably anyone outside the USA) to access it online.

So it looks like Gibbon planted “the meme”.

However, that second sceptic site adds some caveats. We cannot be sure, it warns: read more »

The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult — Hermann Detering

Hermann Detering has a new essay (70 pages in PDF format) that will be of interest to many Vridar readers — at least for those of you who can read German. In English the title is The Gnostic Interpretation of the Exodus and the Beginnings of the Joshua/Jesus Cult. 

See his RadikalKritik blog:


The work begins with reference to Philo’s allegorical interpretation of the Exodus and concludes with references to Buddhism. . . .

5 Zusammenfassung

Ausgehend von der gnostischen Interpretation des Exodus-Motivs und der Frage ihrer religionsgeschichtlichen Herkunft stießen wir auf die zentrale Bedeutung des als Transzendenzmetapher gebrauchten Bildes vom „anderen Ufer“, das in der indischen/buddhistischen Spiritualität eine erhebliche Rolle spielt. Die Frage, wo die beiden Linien, jüdische Tradition und hebräische Bibel einerseits, buddhistische bzw. indische Spiritualität andererseits, konvergieren, führte uns zu den Therapeuten, über die Philo von Alexandrien in seiner Schrift De Vita Contemplativa berichtet.

Nachdem die buddhistische Herkunft der Therapeuten plausibel gemacht wurde, konnte gezeigt werden, dass ihrem zentralen Mysterium eine auf buddhistische Quellen zurückgehende Deutung des Exodusmotivs zugrundeliegt. Diese Deutung enthält zugleich den Keim für das christliche Taufsakrament. Frühe christliche Gnostiker wie Peraten und Naassener übertrugen auf den Nachfolger des Mose, Josua, was bei den stärker in der jüdischen Tradition verwurzelten Therapeuten Mose vorbehalten blieb. Der alte Mosaismus sollte durch den neuen, gnostisch-christlichen Josuanismus überboten werden. Jesus/Josua wurde zum Gegenbild des Mose.

Der christliche Erlöser Josua/Jesus ist so gesehen nichts anderes als – ein Ergebnis der jüdisch-buddhistischen Exegese des Alten Testaments! Der „geschichtliche“ Jesus, d.h. Jesus von Nazaret, wurde im Laufe des 2. Jahrhunderts aus dem Bild des alttestamentlichen Josua heraushypostasiert. 

Translators . . . . Where are you? We need you now!



Still Chosen After All These Centuries: Readings on Modern Jewish Experiences

I have been reading (and re-reading) several books on the grisly history of anti-Semitism. A few weeks ago I posted on a couple of thoughts that arose out of my reading of From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 (1980) by Jacob Katz. Katz covers the rise of anti-Semitism from the Age of Enlightenment through to the rise of Nazism. His survey covers not only Germany but also France and Austria-Hungary during that period.

If hatred of Jews is a product of Christianity’s ancient and medieval heritage of blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus, why did anti-Semitism flourish despite the advent of the Enlightenment, rationalism, the ideals of brotherhood and equality that were fanned with the French Revolution and Napoleonic conquests? How do we explain the survival and eventual avalanching of ant-Semitism despite a time in history when Jews were finding themselves being successfully assimilated into society as professionals, intellectuals, and more?

Through Katz’s book it is clear that Hitler did not suddenly come upon the scene and manufacture a popular antagonism against Jews. Hitler merely exploited what was already fermenting before his arrival on the scene.

Katz’s answers are interesting. They are compatible, for most part, with the analyses of the other authors I read.

Another work, one that covers a wider field than Katz’s primary focus on the history of written ideas, is The Pity of it All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933 (2002) by Amos Elon. Elon writes more colourful portraits of individuals, from Moses Mendelssohn to Albert Einstein. Elon takes us through the struggles of many high-achieving Jews to slough off their “Jewishness” in order to become one with other Germans both in professional status and cultural acceptance. Yet, the “pity of it all” was, of course, that the reader knows the outcome before the final chapter and that it was all in vain.

Meanwhile, I found myself turning back to re-read Jewish History, Jewish Religion: The Weight of Three Thousand Years (2008 edition) by Israel Shahak. Shahak’s little volume is a sharp reminder of the unsavoury tribalism at the heart of beliefs and practices of many religiously conservative Jews and nationalist Israelis even today. So often a haloed religious smile hypocritically hides a judgmental, intolerant heart. Elements of the superstitions and ugly tribalism associated with medieval Jewish ghetto life that more cosmopolitan Jews since the Enlightenment have sought so diligently to escape are still with us, unfortunately.

Finally there was The Jewish Century (2004), an award-winning book by Yuri Slezkine. Slezkine’s primary focus, unlike the above works, is on the Jewish experience in Russia and the contrasting experiences of Jewish emigres in, above all, the United States of America and Israel. His first few chapters were far too literary, metaphorical, for my taste that was seeking something more direct and prosaic. But I could not ignore his point and had absorbed his message by the final section.

Once again we find ourselves immersed in the by now familiar story: Jews finding themselves, or rather making themselves, increasingly accepted in their host society only to find themselves suddenly once again fallen from grace despite their best and most loyal efforts. Tribal nationalism trumped the idealism of socialism in Russia. The same atavistic nationalism that animated the pre-war world survives as a regressive anachronism in Zionism.

Only Israel continued to live in the European 1930s; only Israel still belonged to the eternally young, worshiped athleticism and inarticulateness, celebrated combat and secret police, promoting hiking and scouting, despised doubt and introspection, embodied the seamless unity of the chosen, and rejected most traits traditionally associated with Jewishness. (p. 327)

How has it been allowed to flourish as such an anachronism? Whence the unquestioning support for the Zionist state of Israel from the world that fought to end the worst excesses of nationalism and racism?

The most fundamental way in which World War II transformed the world was that it gave birth to a new moral absolute: the Nazis as universal evil. . . .

It was only a matter of time, in other words, before the central targets of Nazi violence became the world’s universal victims. From being the Jewish God’s Chosen People, the Jews had become the Nazis’ chosen people, and by becoming the Nazis’ chosen people, they became the Chosen People of the postwar Western world. The Holocaust became the measure of all crimes, and anti-Semitism became the only irredeemable form of ethnic bigotry in Western public life (no other kind of national hostility, however chronic or violent, has a special term attached to it — unless one counts “racism,” which is comparable but not tribe-specific). (pp. 360-361, my bolding)

read more »

The Fallacy Few Historians Have Avoided

Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as

  • most historians agree . . .
  • it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .
  • in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . 

The fallacy of the prevalent proof makes mass opinion into a method of verification. This practice has been discovered by cultural anthropologists among such tribes as the Kuba, for whom history was whatever the majority declared to be true. If some fearless fieldworker were to come among the methodological primitives who inhabit the history departments of the United States, he would find that similar customs sometimes prevail. There are at least a few historians who would make a seminar into a senate and resolve a professional problem by resorting to a vote. I witnessed one such occasion (circa 1962) as a student at the Johns Hopkins University. A scholar who was baffled by a knotty problem of fact literally called for a show of hands to settle the question. An alienated minority of callow youths in the back of the room raised both hands and carried the day, in defiance of logic, empiricism, and parliamentary procedure.

If the fallacy of the prevalent proof appeared only in this vulgar form, there would be little to fear from it. But in more subtle shapes, the same sort of error is widespread. Few scholars have failed to bend, in some degree, before the collective conceits of their colleagues. Many have attempted to establish a doubtful question by a phrase such as “most historians agree . . . ” or “it is the consensus of scholarly opinion that . . .” or “in the judgment of all serious students of this problem . . . .”

When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A historian has written, for example, “While the role of dope in damping social unrest in early industrial England has not been extensively investigated, every historian of the period knows that it was common practice at the time for working mothers to start the habit in the cradle by dosing their hungry babies on laudanum (‘mother’s blessing,’ it was called).” This statement is often made, and widely believed. But it has never, to my knowledge, been established by empirical evidence. The reader should note the hyperbole in the first sentence. When an historian asserts that “X has not been extensively investigated,” he sometimes means, “I have not investigated X at all.”

A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples.

A fact which every historian knows is not inherently more accurate than a fact which every schoolboy knows. Nevertheless, the fallacy of the prevalent proof commonly takes this form–deference to the historiographical majority. It rarely appears in the form of an explicit deference to popular opinion. But implicitly, popular opinion exerts its power too. A book much bigger than this one could be crowded with examples. One will suffice here, for the sake of illustration. Every schoolboy knows, and most schoolmasters, too, that Mussolini made the trains run on time. But did he? Ashley Montagu observes that “there was little or no truth in it: people who lived in Italy between the March on Rome (October 22, 1922) and the execution at Como (1945) will bear testimony to the fact that Italian railroads remained as insouciant as ever with regard to time-tables and actual schedules.” And yet, the myth still runs its rounds, with a regularity that Il Duce was unable to bring to his railroads.

The above is from Historians’ fallacies: toward a logic of historical thought (pages 51-53) by the renowned historian David Hackett Fischer. (That title link is to an open access copy of the book on

David Hackett Fischer



Deuteronomy’s Military Law — So Very Greek

Continuing from previous posts, the following draws upon a secondary source used by Russell Gmirkin in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible in his discussion of military law as set out in Deuteronomy. The extracts that follow are from Anselm C. Hagedorn’s Between Moses and Plato: Individual and Society in Deuteronomy and Ancient Greek Law.

I have occasionally changed the formatting of Hagedorn’s text and a few times replaced Hebrew or Greek text with English translations. Some footnotes I have converted into hyperlinks to the source text.

Russell Gmirkin’s comparative conclusion goes beyond the details in Hagedorn’s discussion so I will quote that broader perspective before embarking on my Hagedorn study:

The lack of a military role for the king in Pentateuchal law contrasts with the king as leader of the army at war in both the Ancient Near East and in the historiography of the biblical monarchy. The citizen army described in both the narratives and legal passages of Exodus-Joshua corresponds closely to the Athenian model. The notion of military practices being governed or limited by law is characteristically Greek. The involvement of the national Assembly in negotiating peace treaties in wartime in Josh. 9 suggests a commitment to democratic practices similar to that found at Athens but unheard of in the Ancient Near East. The Deuteronomistic exemption from military duties for a soldier with a new house, vineyard or wife appears to have been modeled on the statutorial exemption from military training for an Athenian soldier who newly became head of a household through marriage or inheriting an estate. (Gmirkin, p. 125)


Military Law Between Moses and Plato

Deuteronomy 20

When you go to war against your enemies and see horses and chariots and an army greater than yours, do not be afraid of them, because the Lord your God, who brought you up out of Egypt, will be with you.

Hagedorn p. 176

“You” in Deut 20:1 is in fact the assembly of all male Israelites who will go out and fight. This phenomenon is well attested in the Greek world. In an inscription from Athens we have a decree regarding warfare, here we read:

this decided in the Lykeion (the people of) Athens (Without the assembled people) it shall neither be (possible) to start a war (nor) to end one —

The people are responsible for military action in the law and at the same time the δήμος πληθύων [=popular assembly] controls the actions of the council, a fact not represented in Deut 20:1-20. If the law is indeed directed towards the same individuals who are already responsible for the investiture of the judges and the king in the leges de officiis, we are now able to use the so called Hoplite model of the Greek city states to investigate further what implications a fighting male citizenship had on the society.

It is important to note that one was first a citizen and then a soldier and not vice versa. To maximise its numbers of Hoplites, every polis had to be very keen on the maximisation of smallholdings so that more citizens could afford Hoplite armour.

Hoplites in phalanx formation

–o0o– read more »

Plato’s Influence on the Bible’s Property and Agricultural Laws

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Property Crimes and Agricultural Law




Laws against trespass

Exodus 22:5-6 

If anyone grazes their livestock in a field or vineyard and lets them stray and they graze in someone else’s field, the offender must make restitution from the best of their own field or vineyard. 

If a fire breaks out and spreads into thornbushes so that it burns shocks of grain or standing grain or the whole field, the one who started the fire must make restitution.

Laws of Hammurabi 57-58 

57 If a shepherd does not make an agreement with the owner of the field to graze sheep and goats, and without the permission of the owner of the field grazes sheep and goats on the field, the owner of the field shall harvest his field and the shepherd who grazed sheep and goats on the field without the permission of the owner of the field shall give in addition 6,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field) to the owner of the field.

58 If, after the sheep and goats come up from the common irrigated area when the pennants announcing the termination of pasturing are wound around the main city-gate, the shepherd releases the sheep and goats into a field and allows the sheep and goats to graze in the field—the shepherd shall guard the field in which he allowed them to graze and at the harvest he shall measure and deliver to the owner of the field 18,000 silas of grain per 18 ikus (of field).

Hittite Law 105-6

105 [If] anyone sets [fire] to a field, and the fire catches a vineyard with fruit on its vines, if a vine, an apple tree, a pear(?) tree or a plum tree burns, he shall pay 6 shekels of silver for each tree. He shall replant [the planting], And he shall look to his house for it. If it is a slave, he shall pay 3 shekels of silver for each tree.

106 If anyone carries embers into his field, catches(??) it while in fruit, and ignites the field, he who sets the fire shall himself take the burnt-over field. He shall give a good field to the owner of the burnt-over field, and he will reap it.

Plato, Laws 843 c-e

[843c] Wherefore every neighbor must guard most carefully against doing any unfriendly act to his neighbor, and must above all things take special care always not to encroach in the least degree on his land; for whereas it is an easy thing and open to anyone to do an injury, to do a benefit is by no means open to everyone. Whosoever encroaches on his neighbor’s ground, overstepping the boundaries, shall pay for the damage; and, by way of cure for his shamelessness

[843d] and incivility, he shall also pay out to the injured party twice the cost of the damage. In all such matters the land-stewards shall act as inspectors, judges and valuers,—the whole staff of the district, as we have said above, in respect of the more important cases, and, in respect of the less important, those of them who are “phrourarchs.” [The “phrourarchs” were the (5) officers of the (60) country police.] If anyone encroaches on pasture-land, these officials shall inspect the damage, and decide and assess it. And if any, yielding to his taste for bees,

[843e] secures for himself another man’s swarm by attracting them with the rattling of pans, he shall pay for the damage. And if a man, in burning his own stuff, fails to have a care for that of his neighbor, he shall be fined in a fine fixed by the officials. So too if a man, when planting trees, fail to leave the due space between them and his neighbor’s plot: this has been adequately stated by many lawgivers, whose laws we should make use of, instead of requiring the Chief Organizer of the State to legislate about all the numerous small details which are within the competence of any chance lawgiver.

Allowing passers-by to eat produce from a field

Deuteronomy 23:24-25

If you enter your neighbor’s vineyard, you may eat all the grapes you want, but do not put any in your basket.

If you enter your neighbor’s grainfield, you may pick kernels with your hands, but you must not put a sickle to their standing grain.

Leviticus 19:9-10; 23:22

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest.

Do not go over your vineyard a second time or pick up the grapes that have fallen. Leave them for the poor and the foreigner. I am the Lord your God.

When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.


Plato, Laws, 844d-845d

[844d] As concerns the fruit-harvest, the rule of sharing for all shall be this—this goddess has bestowed on us two gifts, one the plaything of Dionysus which goes unstored, the other produced by nature for putting in store. So let this law be enacted concerning the fruit-harvest:. . . . .

If a foreigner sojourning in the country desires to eat of the crop as he passes along the road, he, with one attendant,

[845b] shall, if he wishes, take some of the choice fruit with-out price, as a gift of hospitality; but the law shall forbid our foreigners to share in the so-called “coarse” fruit, and the like; . . . .  

A foreigner shall be allowed to share in these fruits in the same way as in the grape crop; and if a man above thirty touch them, eating on the spot and not taking any away, he shall have a share in all such fruits, like the foreigner; . . . . 


Moving boundary stones

Deuteronomy 19:14

Do not move your neighbor’s boundary stone set up by your predecessors in the inheritance you receive in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess.

Deuteronomy 27:17

“Cursed is anyone who moves their neighbor’s boundary stone.”

Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Plato, Laws, 842e – 843 a-b

[842e] First, then, let there be a code of laws termed “agricultural.” The first law—that of Zeus the Boundary-god—shall be stated thus: No man shall move boundary-marks of land, whether they be those of a neighbor who is a native citizen or those of a foreigner

[843a] (in case he holds adjoining land on a frontier), realizing that to do this is truly to be guilty of “moving the sacrosanct”; sooner let a man try to move the largest rock which is not a boundary-mark than a small stone which forms a boundary, sanctioned by Heaven, between friendly and hostile ground. For of the one kind Zeus the Clansmen’s god is witness, of the other Zeus the Strangers’ god; which gods, when aroused, bring wars most deadly. He that obeys the law shall not suffer the evils which it inflicts; but whoso despises it shall be liable to a double penalty, the first from the hand of Heaven, the second from the law. No one shall

[843b] voluntarily move the boundary-marks of the land of neighbors: if any man shall move them, whosoever wishes shall report him to the land-holders, and they shall bring him to the law court. And if a man be convicted,—since by such an act the convicted man is secretly and violently merging lands in one,—the court shall estimate what the loser must suffer or pay. Further, many small wrongs are done against neighbors which, owing to their frequent repetition, engender an immense amount of enmity, and make of neighborhood a grievous and bitter thing.

Gmirkin, pp. 119f

This parallel is reinforced by the common discovery of boundary stones in Attica and the apparent absence of archaeological parallels in ancient Mesopotamia or ancient Israel and Judah. To my knowledge, the earliest Judean boundary stones so far discovered are thirteen boundary stones found at Tel Gezer, written in Hebrew and Greek, dating to no earlier than the Hasmonean Era, suggesting that the use of boundary stones in Judah was a Hellenistic Era development taken over from the Greeks.



Slavery and Social Welfare (if any) Legislation in the Biblical and Neighbouring Worlds

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Slavery laws Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Source of slaves: war captives
Source of slaves: debt defaults X*
Source of slaves: piracy
Source of slaves: kidnapping
Source of slaves: famine
Types of slaves: public (owned by temples or the state)  
Types of slaves: chattel (owned by private individuals)  
Types of slaves: freeborn (typically debt slaves)    (only foreigners)
Debt (freeborn) slaves  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
Debt slaves sold to resident aliens had to be redeemed by kin X  Debt slaves of
fellow Athenians
was forbidden
from 594 BCE
Slaves of one’s own “nation” were to be treated mildly as hired servants, including by resident aliens
Release of debt slaves was required after a fixed number of years (3 or 6) **
Children of a freeborn slave and a slave wife given by the master remained the slave property of the master. When/if the freeborn slave left after six years he would leave his slave wife and children with the master. X /
Freeborn slave had option to demonstrate his love for his master by submitting to ear-piercing and becoming a permanent chattel slave. (My thought: surely a legal fiction!) X X
 Chattel slaves Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Forbidden to own a slave of one’s own “nation” (All slaves, except for debt slaves, must be foreigners) X
Slaves bound permanently to master were branded physically    
Beating of slaves, even if it led to their death, resulted in financial penalty at most     ✓
Asylum was permitted for abused runaway slaves X
Laws addressed marital rights of slaves  X

* Athens outlawed debt slavery under Solon, ca 594 BCE.

** Hammurabi’s code appears to have decreed a once-time-only release; the biblical law introduced a regular cycle.


Social welfare legislation Bible ANE Greece/Plato
“Land allotments for all citizens and land inalienability”   X */ 
Laws relating to debt slavery — see above
Debts forgiven after a cycle of years (but see ** above)      
Public festivals for the “happiness of everybody”      
No serious legislation to redress plight of the poor. (See below)

(Pronouncements by ANE rulers of good intentions towards society’s vulnerable rarely went further than political propaganda (no related legislation, apart from a one-off decree by a new ruler for debt relief) and in the bible, primarily appeals to charity.)


* As per Plato’s Laws and some Greek city-states; but not Athens.

** “Athens … had extensive legislation that protected the legal rights of widows, orphans, aged parents, the disabled and foreign residents.”

No serious legislation to redress the plight of the poor

Social support of the financially distressed is a prominent concern of many Pentateuchal texts. The biblical text frequently called for the protection of strangers, widows and orphans, societal classes without legal protections and vulnerable to abuse by the powerful (Ex. 22.21-24; 23.9; Lev. 19.33-34; Deut. 5.14; 10.18; 14.29; 16.11, 24; 24.15, 17, 19-21; 26.11-13; 27.19; Ps. 82.2-3; Job 24.3; Jer. 7.6; 22.3; Ezek. 22.7, 9; Zech. 7.10; Mai. 3.5). However, the Pentateuch made only moral appeals and called upon Yahweh to avenge wrongdoing (Ex. 22.22-24; Deut. 10.18; 24.15; cf. Mai. 3.5), without making specific provisions for care of strangers, widows and orphans or penalties for their abuse. . . .

The distress and vulnerability of the injured and infirm, especially the deaf and the blind, was also a subject of ethical concern (Lev. 19.14; Deut. 27.18), but not legislative protection. (Gmirkin, p. 111)

Russell Gmirkin goes on to mention laws protecting parents from verbal and physical abuse, but I myself don’t see those commands as specific to vulnerable groups: parents are not restricted to the poor or aged and the command applies to all parents regardless of age or class.

The poor constituted another vulnerable class, one particularly susceptible to economic exploitation by creditors and employers (Deut. 24.14-23; 28.38-44; Prov. 14.31; 22.7; Job 24.4; Zech. 7.10; Mal. 3.5). One law containing elements of social compassion called for day laborers to receive the pay by the end of the day (Deut. 24.14-15; cf. Mal. 3.5). Although all Israelites were pictured as land owners, a slide into poverty was possible through a poor harvest, subsistence loans secured by landholdings and loan default. Although the return of land in the year of release legislatively prevented a state of permanent debt slavery (Lev. 25.10-17, 23-34; Deut. 15.1-6), in the short term poverty was a social and political reality. Under Pentateuchal law, the landless “poor” were treated as a distinct class, exempted from severe financial obligations, allowed less expensive sacrifices and supported by both the collection of an agricultural tax for their relief and by enjoined acts of private charity. The kinship group constituted the first and primary source of support for the poor. (Gmirkin, p. 111)

One point I question in Gmirkin’s discussion is what seems to be an implication that the Pentateuchal laws were real-life legislation and not theological (theoretical) literature at the time of their composition. No doubt certain laws did become national obligations, but given what scholarship has learned about the theoretical or literary nature of other ancient Near Eastern Laws, including the Code of Hammurabi, I wonder if more consistent awareness of this possibility could have been addressed in the book.

For example, Russell Gmirkin aptly points out that

One such law allowed the stranger, the fatherless and the widow to glean the corners of the field after a harvest (Deut. 24.19-22), gathering unharvested grain, olives and grapes. Another called for an agricultural tithe to be consumed at the place where God would place his name and shared with the Levites within the gates (Deut. 14.22-27). Every three years, this tithe would be stored up within the city gates and given in its entirety to the Levite, the stranger, the fatherless and the widow (Deut. 14.28-29; 26.12-15; cf. Berman 2008: 95). Festival laws provided that Levites, widows, orphans and strangers should be brought to the place Yahweh placed his name to participate in yearly festivities (Deut. 16.11, 14). (Gmirkin, p. 112, my bolding)

I think that if we take the Pentateuch’s list of laws about tithing literally we will find that it appears every three years in a seven year cycle a landowner will be required to tithe on his produce to the Tabernacle/Temple every year, to set aside another tithe to enable him to take his family and whole household to the annual Feast of Tabernacles, and every third year to set aside another tithe for the Levite, stranger, fatherless and widow — that is, thirty percent of his produce every three years is swallowed up before he sells anything. I cannot help but suspect that such Pentateuchal laws, at least as written, are theological ideals and not literal legislation.

Nonetheless, in the posts on these various types of laws addressed in Russell Gmirkin’s book so far we have not distinguished between “real” and “theological/theoretical” legislation. The point has been to see what content in the biblical laws finds counterparts in either the ancient Near East and Greek worlds, and from that data to assess the possibility of influence from the Greek world.

Comparing Biblical Laws on Marriage, Inheritance and Sexual Relations with Other Ancient Codes

As per the previous posts, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

Two wives permitted X*
Bride-price custom (groom paid the father of bride) X
Dowry custom (bride had property from father, managed by her husband)
State cared for widows and orphans without near kin X
Bride could be won by heroic deeds (in myth and legend) X
Heiresses (where there are no sons to inherit) X
Levirate marriage (deceased husband’s next of kin to marry widow) X
PERMISSIBLE SEXUAL RELATIONS (Some acts tolerated though frowned upon)  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
With spouse
Husband with his concubine or servant/slave girl
Man with prostitutes
Man with companion (hetaira) X X
Married woman or betrothed virgin, with husband
Foreign women permitted to be prostitutes
Temple prostitution X  ?  
Consensual male homosexuality X X/
—- Penalty: death    /X
Homosexual rape and/or seduction/rape of minors     ✓
—- Penalty for bestiality: death   X/^
Cross-dressing X^^ X^^
Incest and other inter-familial relations
Prostitution of priest’s daughter, death by burning
Prostitution by native free woman and men X
—- Penalty for being prostitute, “cut off from people” / loss of civic rights    X  
Adultery, meaning sex with another man’s wife
Caught in the act, death # #
Suspicion of wife, wife to undergo Trial by Ordeal X 
Other extra-marital sex
— If consensual with another’s betrothed virgin still living with father pending marriage
—- Death penalty for both parties above  X
— If in city (or house), and girl/married woman did not cry for help    
—- Both were stoned  
— If in country, assumed girl/married woman was raped  
—- and the man was executed
— If the girl was not betrothed,    
—- man had to pay bride price and marry her and never divorce    @
— If the betrothed virgin was a slave,  
—- she was scourged and man had to offer trespass offering of a ram  X@@
Other Penalties
—- Parent could slay a pregnant daughter whose seducer was unknown X%
—- Adulteresses subject to public shaming  
— False accusation that bride was not a virgin – financial penalty to father  
— True accusation that bride was not a virgin – the bride was stoned for prostituting herself in father’s house


* 4i3 BCE Athenian assembly voted to allow men to have concubines for legitimate children (to compensate for war losses)

Hittites ruled sexual acts with some animals was capital crime; otherwise, disqualified from priesthood or palace service
^^ Transvestites had special positions in temples or religious rituals

Husband permitted but not obligated to kill the adulterer

@ Man agreed to marry the daughter or give her a dowry
@@ Man paid financial penalty

% Father or brothers could sell the girl into prostitution


Biblical assault and theft laws compared with Mesopotamian and Greek counterparts

As per the previous post, the table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

I have added more illustrative and explanatory notes at the end of the table this time.

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

ASSAULT Bible ANE Greece/Plato
1. General principle: lex talionis (eye for an eye) X
2. Compensate loss of income and medical expenses *
3. Assault on parent punished by amputation of hand X X
4. Assault on parent punished by death X **
5. Maiming a slave entitles the slave to freedom X
6. Class based penalties:
–greater penalties for commoners against nobles;
–lesser penalties for nobles against commoners
X X***
7. Lesser (or no) punishments for assaults on slaves
 WHEN MEN FIGHT (with a woman nearby)….  Bible  ANE Greece/Plato 
And one injures a pregnant woman:
— Money compensation for loss of fetus
And one injures a pregnant woman so that she later dies:
— Execution of the man
And a woman grabs/crushes the testicles of one to assist the other:
— Cut off her hand or finger
THEFT Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Thieves breaking into a house at night to be slain ^  ^
Highwayman — death penalty
“Normal” daylight theft — financial penalties
Kidnapping — death penalty
Temple theft — death penalty
Public property theft — death penalty
Stealing from a house on fire — get thrown into the fire ^^
All property theft — only financial penalties, no death penalty ^^^ X X


* financial compensation for damages if unintentional or double the amount if willful
** Death was a maximum penalty but judges were to decide if it was warranted in each case
*** Greek laws in fact reversed the principle; hubris, the crime of humiliating another person to aggrandize oneself was worthy of death

the house owner himself was free to kill the thief
^^ this appears to me to be an obvious example of a theoretical or literary law; one presumes the fire would have burnt itself out by the time the trial was held.
^^^ See below

Illustrative and explanatory notes follow….. read more »

Table Comparing Homicide Laws: Biblical, Mesopotamian and Greek

The table here is a simplified summary of some of the points Russell Gmirkin discusses in Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible. It is far from being a complete representation of his discussion. It is best read as an easy reference guide in conjunction with the detail covered in the book. The table is only a starting guide: it will be expanded and modified as the details of laws are further explored. I expect to do a few more similar tables for other types of laws. (Still putting on hold the discussion of the final chapter of Plato and the Creation of the Hebrew Bible as I backtrack to sections I covered too briefly earlier or inadvertently omitted altogether.)

ANE = Ancient Near Eastern laws

Greece/Plato = Laws as implemented in Athens and/or Laws presented as ideals by Plato in Laws

GORING OX Bible ANE Greece/Plato
Ox stoned X
Carcass not to be eaten X
Money compensation for loss
If ox kills a man after owner was warned and failed to act,
— money compensation
If ox kills a man after owner was warned and failed to act,
— owner executed
HOMICIDE Bible ANE Greece/Plato
A homeowner justified in killing a night burglar X  
Blood pollution of the land to be cleansed X
Kin to the victim required to prosecute the murderer  X
Kin to the victim required to carry out the punishment   X **
Asylum cities / temples for refuge X
Exile for unintentional homicide X
Execution by Burning X X
Execution by Drowning X X
Execution by Impalement X X
Execution by Beheading X X
Execution by Stoning X
State officials carry out the penalty X
Community carries out the penalty X

* owner tried for murder
** if the accused prematurely returned from exile

See also Plato and the Hebrew Bible: Homicide Laws



Meet Paul and Enoch; both come from the same place

Warning: If you are looking for snazzy gotcha type parallels that demonstrate a genetic relationship between the letters of Paul and Enoch you will be disappointed. This post is not about direct imitation or identification of “a source” for Paul’s letter. The first page addresses form parallels; to see the content and ideas click “read more” to see the remainder.

Professor James M. Scott compares two letters, one by Enoch and the other by Paul, and identifies a few points in common that help us understand a little more clearly the thought-world of both figures. Of course our real interest is in understanding Paul since we tend to see him as having more relevance to our Christian heritage than the evidently mythical Enoch. 

Scott’s essay, “A Comparison of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians with the Epistle of Enoch” is a chapter in The Jewish Apocalyptic Tradition and the Shaping of New Testament Thought (2017, edited by Benjamin E. Reynolds and Loren T. Stuckenbruck). The central argument is that both Paul’s letter to the Galatians and the epistle of Enoch (1 Enoch 92-105) share the same apocalyptic motifs in a common letter format, and that it follows that Galatians belongs to the “apocalyptic tradition” as much as does the letter of Enoch. My interest is in the shared motifs per se, and what they indicate about Paul’s intellectual world.

1 Enoch is generally thought to be made up of five texts that have been stitched together, and one of these initially discrete texts consists of chapters 92 to 105, dated around 170 BCE. If you have sufficient time, patience and interest to read those chapters and have just a vague recollection of Paul’s letter to the Galatians you will wonder how on earth anyone could see the slightest resemblance between the two. Enoch’s letter is full of Old Testament style pronouncements of prophetic woes and doom on sinners while Paul’s letter is about struggles with Judaizers coming along to his converts in Galatia and undermining the pristine faith by telling them they had to be circumcised and follow a few other Jewish observances, too. But a glance at James Scott’s publishing history shows he has spent a lot of time studying all of this sort of literature so let’s continue in faith.

First, look at some “technical” similarities to see that, despite major differences, we are comparing a works of the same genre, a letter form. (The text follows Scott’s chapter closely, though of course the table format is mine.)


Self conscious reference to his own writing as a letter Galatians 6:11 See what large letters I make when I am writing in my own hand! 1 Enoch 93:2 these things I say to you and I make known to you, my sons, I myself, Enoch.

1 Enoch 100:6 And the wise among men will see the truth, and the sons of the earth will contemplate these words of this epistle

The superscription of both letters names the author of the letter, and then, adds an impressive description of the author: Paul is an “apostle” sent by God; Enoch is a “scribe” who writes “righteousness and truth”.

Both Paul and Enoch present themselves as authors who communicate God’s will.

Galatians 1:1 Paul …. an apostle—[sent] not from men nor by man but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead ” This further description of who Paul is establishes from the outset the divine origin and agency of his apostolic commission, and thus, underscores his special authority. 1 Enoch 92:1 Written by Enoch the scribe (this complete sign of wisdom) (who is) praised by all people and a leader of the whole earth.
Both Galatians and the Epistle of Enoch are circular letters meant to be passed along to multiple readers in more than one location over the course of time. Enoch’s letter purports to be written in the seventh generation after Adam to be read by Jews and gentiles in the last days.  Galatians 1:2 to the churches of Galatia 


1 Enoch 92:1 to all my sons who dwell on the earth, and to the last generations who will observe truth and peace.


Both Galatians and the Epistle of Enoch address their respective readers throughout in the second person plural.  Galatians 4:19 My dear children 1 Enoch 92-105  Enoch refers to his addressees as “my children
In Galatians, the salutation is clearly identifiable.

The situation in the Epistle of Enoch is more complicated. The typical salutation or greeting is missing in 1 Enoch 92:1. Nevertheless, as Nickelsburg suggests, “it may be hinted at in the word ‘peace'” which comes at the end of the adscription in the same verse.

Galatians 1:3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ


1 Enoch 92:1 to all my sons who dwell on the earth, and to the last generations who will observe truth and peace.

Nickelsburg also takes the final reference to “peace” in the Epistle (“And you will have peace,” 105:2) as “an epistolary conclusion.”

“Peace” is referenced at the beginning and ending both letters Galatians 1:3; 6:16 1 Enoch 92:1; 105:2
Very last word of both letters is “Amen” Galatians 6:18 1 Enoch 105:2

Okay, that’s done with the “formalities”. We may say that technically we are comparing apples and apples. James Scott’s next section is more interesting for an insight into how much we read in Paul’s letter was part of the wider thought-world of the day and not “just Paul”. Scott turns to their common “apocalyptic elements”. read more »

Time to reflect on conspiracy theories, once again

Derek Arnold

Twenty years since Princess Diana’s accidental death in a car crash, or is it the anniversary of her murder by British Intelligence acting on behalf of the royal family? The Royal Family certainly had motive enough to want her dead. She was destroying their reputation as a bastion of conventional morality and without that bastion the royal family could not survive. So — arrange for a drunken chauffeur, lots of paparazzi, a narrow tunnel on the route, a pre-positioned strobe-light and alert operator,  and plots to delay ambulances, and the deed is done. alerted me to a Conversation article by Derek Arnold, Why Princess Diana conspiracies refuse to die. Excerpts I find especially pertinent:

I’ve found that belief in conspiracy theories is more about a refusal to accept the randomness of life and tragedy than it is about the existence of evidence (or lack thereof).

Sounds like the same reason “we” believe in God, ghosts, angels, superstitions, fate, diets.

As political scientist Michael Barkun details in his book “A Culture of Conspiracy: Apocalyptic Visions in Contemporary America,” conspiracy theories usually hinge on three core beliefs:

  • Nothing happens by accident. For this reason, the horrible machinations of “evil” conspirators become more believable than a fluke or an accident.
  • Nothing is as it seems. Successful conspirators hide their identities and actions; we must, therefore, always be wary, even when there’s little reason for suspicion.
  • Dots can always be connected. Though conspirators attempt to hide their actions, patterns exist everywhere.

Another book I would like to read.

Today’s 24-hour news cycle also cultivates an opening for conspiratorial thinking. Among journalists, the race to break a story can lead to gaps or errors in reporting. We also tend to forget that as readers, many stories, especially breaking ones, are a work in progress. It can take months – even years – to ever know the full story.

Oh yes. One really notices the differences among various media here. A few (less popular ones, unfortunately) conspicuously stress how little is known in the early days, and they do not broadcast speculative figures of “numbers dead” or “suspected identities” of perpetrators of atrocities in the first twenty-four hours of an event — which I suppose is why they are too boring for a wider audience.

But perhaps the biggest reason we tend to give credence to conspiracy theories is our own mortality.

Studies have shown that many of us feel that we have little control over our own lives. This leads to something called “anomie,” a type of weariness that makes us view the world as an adversary, with people and systems out to get us.

Return to the similar reasons for believing in god.

To simply think of Princess Diana’s death as a “tragic accident” gives us less control over own fate. No matter how logically messy the details of a conspiracy theory might be, they do, strangely, soothe our own sense of worth and place in our world.

Like asking Jesus or Mary or God, lords of the universe, to take time to interfere with a burst of rain to allow us to get to an important appointment on time.

(I bet the Queen really did order MI6 to get rid of Diana, though.)



Flawed Counter-Terrorists

Maajid Nawaz

A autobiography I found of special interest in understanding how a British Muslim became radicalized and eventually de-radicalized was Radical by Maajid Nawaz. I discussed one aspect of it in the post The Conflict between Islamism and Islam. From his biography and in his online writings and talks I have read and heard since there is absolutely no way I could ever think of Maajid Nawaz as an “anti-Muslim extremist” as the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has branded him. (My reading of the SPLC’s justification is that key persons in that organization fail to understand the difference between Islam and Islamism, and it is such persons whom Nawaz and others warn against. Incidentally, I have had to ask at least one Islamist to stop using the comments on this blog as a platform for spreading that ideology.)

Maajid Nawaz comes across to me as a flawed leader in the constellation of counter-extremist efforts. There is no one cause for radicalization and different motivations propel different persons in that direction. I once posted that I saw Maajid Nawaz as an example of a “status seeking” radical, following the descriptions of a wide range of historical extremists by Clark McCauley and Sophia Moskalenko in Friction. Such a motivation would explain what I think has been Maajid Nawaz’s biggest mistake — collaborating with a genuine “anti-Muslim extremist”, Sam Harris, with the publication and promotion of  their jointly authored book, Islam and the Future of Tolerance. The association has certainly lifted Maajid’s public profile at a time when reports that he had not fully honest about his past began to surface, but it would have been, well, possibly more appropriate for him to admit and apologize for past errors and move on by building on his experiences instead of offering opportunities for the Sam Harris’s and Jerry Coynes to falsely use him to promote prejudices he himself opposes. But, then again, there is money involved, and the need to sustain a cash flow for his organization, Quilliam. He has put himself in a difficult position.

Wheh! After all of that introduction, now to the point of this post. has posted an interview with Maajid Nawaz where he is given a chance to explain himself and what he stands for, along with a commentary on the term he coined, “regressive left”, that has taken on entirely new connotations among Islamophobes like Sam Harris and Jerry Coyne.

Former Islamist radical Maajid Nawaz on “regressive leftism” — and why the SPLC has labeled him an “anti-Muslim extremist”