Monthly Archives: February 2019

Some Stray Thoughts on Paleography

Rylands P52 (Recto)

Recently on Vridar, Neil posted about the untimely passing of Hermann Detering. A person commented with a link to his own blog, in which he called Detering a crank, and described Vridar as a blog that is “run by a fraternity who hope that Jesus never existed.” While I am a huge fan of unintended irony, we had to block the fellow for being a boor.

In his post, he defended the use of paleography (or as citizens of the Commonwealth spell it, palaeography) as a means for dating ancient documents. Detering, he insisted, didn’t know what he was talking about.

We can’t deny that when all else fails, paleography is sometimes the only way to guess at a date range for a given manuscript or fragment thereof. Unfortunately, it is the worst of all methods available to us. Here are some reasons why: read more »

Memory and the Pursuit of the Jesus Tradition

I have begun to read Alan Kirk’s Memory and the Jesus Tradition, a compilation of twelve of his essays published between 2001 and 2016, and have, as usual, found myself making slower progress than I expected. At so many points in just the first few chapters I have had to detour to endnotes and seek out cited works to get a clearer idea of what lies behind many of Kirk’s points and quotations. The parallel readings have been worth it, though. Reading Kirk and the sources to which he alludes in parallel has opened up my understanding memory theory as applied in very practical ways in the social sciences on the one hand, and its theoretical application in Jesus tradition studies on the other. Kirk would disagree that his discussion of memory theory is entirely theoretical and I will address one of his attempts to present real-world applications of his theoretical discussions.

One pleasant surprise I have already experienced so early in my exploration of memory theory studies (in particular from the section in one of Kirk’s references titled “Literature and Cultural Memory” but which Kirk appears to entirely overlook in this collection of essays) is that I have become convinced that memory studies do have a most significant place in the study of early Christianity. Alan Kirk and other historical Jesus scholars attempt to use memory theories to uncover pre-gospel development of the Jesus tradition while I suspect that their most fruitful contribution can be found in exploring how the various gospels themselves helped establish the emerging identities of the early Christianities.

But first, let’s see what Alan Kirk himself, and no doubt with the agreement of the editor he credits for assisting him with putting this book together, Chris Keith, has to say about memory studies in the context of Christian origins:

. . . what was emerging under the aegis of memory analysis was a comprehensive account of the formation of the Jesus tradition and its history, from its origins and continuing on its arc towards canon-formation. . . . 

Memory-grounded analysis is able to deliver a coherent account, not only of the tradition’s origins, but also of its history through analysis of how the tradition mediates the salient past into contemporary contexts of reception. Here it intersects with source criticism and redaction criticism. In other words, a memory-based account of the tradition neither displaces standard redaction-critical, tradition-history and source-critical approaches nor does it merely supplement them. Rather, it integrates them into a more comprehensive account of cultural formation and history, providing a kind of unified field theory for various lines of enquiry.

(pp. 10, 18 of 375 — all page numbers are taken from an e-book version. My bolding in all quotations.)

How memory works

Holocaust survivors, survivors of more recent genocidal attacks in Africa, persons emerging from collective war-time experiences with individual post-traumatic stress syndrome, — it is by the sharing of personal experiences among such persons that meaning is found for what they have experienced as a new kind of “collective memory” is established. A collective narrative, a story that offers some sort of control or meaning, of their experiences, is created through such sharing of memories. Similarly the populations of entire nations that have experienced traumatic times can find a new sense of self or national identity through a collective communication of those experiences in dialogue, in the arts, in literature, in rousing speeches that inject hope and meaning into the raw memories of their devastating experiences. A close relation to the latter scenario is the nineteenth and early twentieth century

Zionist commemoration of ancient Jewish resistance movements such as the Zealots, . . . aimed at legitimating the Zionist political programme as well as promoting activist countermodels for Jewish identity, while its breathtaking (sic) diminution of the exile to a point of virtually no magnitude signified its repudiation of the stereotypically passive, sighing Jew of the Gulat. Zionist memory, in other words, was a matter of the ‘ideological classification of the past’. 

(p. 34 / 375)

I can to some extent understand how “memory studies” work, how “memory” can create or renew personal and collective identities and meanings, when applied to such situations.

If I understand Alan Kirk’s essays correctly (and I have read so far no more than four of the twelve), I believe he is attempting to apply that sort of memory process, or memory re-creation and meaning through social sharing, to groups he imagines to have been early (pre-gospel) bearers of “memories of Jesus” originating with historical encounters with Jesus.

Finally, this approach has obvious relevance for historical Jesus research. Historical Jesus scholarship, not recognizing the extent to which the tradition is the artefact of commemorative processes, often treats the gospels as garden-variety archival materials, for example, regarding them in their relative brevity as very incomplete records preserving just traces of events rather than being symbolically concentrated mediations of the aggregate of events. The model worked out in this chapter raises the question of what sort of historiography is required to deal with tradition – a media-based artefact with a commemorative and representational relationship to historical realities.

(pp. 89f. / 375)

But what justifies the application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies?

read more »

Ancient Historiography and Historians — Vridar Posts

For the background to this post see Vridar Maintenance.

I am listing here the posts that are categorized or tagged as “Ancient Historiography“. This list is for my own editing purposes but I am making it public because I know it’s a topic that if of particular interest to some readers, so they can share my pain in trying to sort them out.

From this list I will be looking for anything that

  • does not really come under “ancient historiography”,
  • is better tagged or categorized with some other label.

Maybe “ancient historiography” itself is too broad, narrow, or unclear as to precise meaning.

(Other posts not listed here but paralleling the themes and content of posts here will be added and sorted out in good time.)

Interested readers are welcome to make suggestions.

  1. What Josephus might have said about the Gospels — 2008-10-26
  2. How History Was Done in Bible Times: Myths about Herodotus and Thucydides — 2014-02-05
  3. Ancient Historians: Thucydides, historian of realism, not reality  — 2014-02-06
  4. The Best of Ancient Historians Following Homer and the Epic Poets  — 2014-02-07
  5. How Ancient Historians Constructed Dramatic Fiction: Thucydides and the Plague — 2014-02-13
  6. How Ancient Historians Worked — Summary — 2014-02-16
  7. The Difference between Story and History in the Bible — 2015-03-11
  8. The Positive Value of Scepticism — and Building a Negative Case — in Historical Enquiry — 2015-06-17
  9. Ancient Historians Fabricating Sources — 2015-07-24
  10. Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths? — 2017-05-28
  11. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography? –2017-06-07
  12. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  13. Ancient vs. Modern Biographies: Didn’t Bultmann Know the Difference? — 2017-08-02
  14. An Ancient Historian on Historical Jesus Studies, — and on Ancient Sources Generally — 2017-10-31
  15. The evidence of ancient historians — 2017-12-10
  16. How Historians Study a Figure Like Jesus — 2018-10-21
  17. “Now we know” — how ancient historians worked — 2018-11-30
  18. Ancient History, a “Funny Kind of History” — 2019-01-21
  19. Luke-Acts Explained as a form of “Ideal Jewish History” (Part 1) — 2019-02-02
  20. Luke-Acts as form of history-writing (Luke-Acts Explained . . . Part 2) — 2019-02-03

Then there are additional posts currently attached to a label “Ancient historians“. Some of the above posts also have “ancient historians” as a label but I am avoiding double up here.

  1. Comparing the sources for Alexander and Jesus — 2007-04-22
  2. Ancient historians’ accounts of shipwrecks — 2007-04-27
  3. Ancient historians at work: Polybius, Herodotus (cf Gospels, Acts) — 2007-05-08
  4. The literary genre of Acts. 4: Historian’s Models – comparing Josephus — 2007-11-27
  5. The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .? — 2009-09-24
  6. Comparing the evidence for Jesus with other ancient historical persons — 2010-05-01
  7. Reading an ancient historical narrative: two fundamental principles — 2011-02-24
  8. Correlations between the “Histories” of Herodotus and the Bible’s History of Israel — 2011-02-24
  9. What if the Gospels did cite their sources and identify their authors? — 2012-09-18
  10. Is Luke Among the Lying Historians? — 2013-12-03
  11. Signs of Fiction in Ancient Biographies — & the Gospels — 2017-06-06
  12. What’s the Difference Between a History and a Biography?— 2017-06-07
  13. Distinguishing between “fiction” and “history” in ancient sources — 2017-06-18
  14. Did the ancient philosopher Demonax exist? — 2017-08-09
  15. It works for Esther. Why not for Jesus? — 2017-12-19
  16. Doing History: How Do We Know Queen Boadicea/Boudicca Existed? — 2018-05-07
  17. How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical — 2018-05-08
  18. Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings? — 2018-05-09
  19. Why the Rabbis (and Gospel Authors, too) Wrote Fiction as “True History” — 2019-01-24
  20. Midrash: A Message from God, though not historically true — 2019-01-25

Then other posts, link is “ancient history

  1. Is history a trial? — 2011-10-25
  2. Dealing with Silence and the Absence of Evidence in an Age of Resurgent Orthodoxy — 2017-12-08

Then more under “ancient biographies

  1. Did Demonax Exist? The Historicity Debate ‘Rages’ — 2017-08-15
  2. Ad Hoc explanations for all those different biographies of Jesus …. (or Socrates) — 2017-12-03
  3. Why the “Biographies” of Socrates Differ — 2017-12-05

ancient forgeries

  1. Ancient forgeries — by lawful decree — 2007-09-06
  2. Forgery in the ancient world — 2009-07-04
  3. Was forgery treated seriously by the ancients? — 2017-09-19
  4. The Problem of Forgery in the Bible: 10 Myths to Justify False Authorship — 2017-03-01

ancient sources

  1. Miscellaneous point — Mount Vesuvius and the argument from silence — 2018-090-18
  2. A scholarly hankering…. — 2018-09-21
  3. “Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many” — 2018-10-25
  4. Lying Eyewitnesses — Always With Us  — 2018-12-21

ancient literature

  1. The literary genre of Acts. 1: Ancient Prologues — 2007-11-12
  2. Ancient prologues: Conventions and an oddity of the Acts preface — 2007-11-13
  3. The literary genre of Acts. 10: historical novels – ancient cyrogenics and lost cities — 2008-02-09
  4. Literary criticism, a key to historical enquiry (Nehemiah case study) — 2010-07-01
  5. The Popularity of Resurrection — 2010-07-17
  6. The Classical and Biblical Canons — & the importance of identifying authors — 2017-11-29
  7. Another example of that bookend structure in ancient literature — 2018-10-30
  8. A New Genre for the Gospels? It’s not so unusual. And Imitation and Intertextuality? A necessity! — 2018-12-09

ancient novels

  1. Why New Testament Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels — 2012-11-17
  2. Greek Novels Casting Light On New Testament: Part 2 of “Why NT Scholars Should Read Ancient Novels” — 2012-11-28

Okay, that’s a start. Over 60 posts to be sorted here.

. . . .

But wait, some more: “Greco-Roman Biographies

  1. Michael Licona Asks, “Why Are There Differences in the Gospels?” — 2017-05-31
  2. One Key Difference between Gospels and an Ancient Biography — 2017-06-08
  3. How and Why Plutarch Expanded His “Lives” — 2017-06-14
  4. Did Aesop Exist? — 2017-08-08
  5. Evolution of the Gospels as Biographies, 1 — 2017-08-10

And it is at this point where we are beginning to overlap with the Gospel Genre posts.

And still more (to be periodically updated):

Plutarch

  1. Dog resurrection — 2009-12-30
  2. Ancient mythicist-historicist role reversal — 2010-03-10
  3. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-01-04
  4. Another Bart Ehrman mis-reading of Earl Doherty’s book — 2012-03-29
  5. One Difference Between a “True” Biography and a Fictional (Gospel?) Biography — 2017/04/30

Suetonius

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Suetonius and Chrestus — revised — 2007-01-16
  2. Scholars undermining scholars on questions fundamental to historicity of Jesus — 2011-10-04
  3. 5. Earl Doherty’s Response to Bart Ehrman’s Case Against Mythicism: A Roman Trio — 2012-04-23
  4. “Is This Not the Carpenter?” – References to Jesus outside the Christian Sources — 2012-08-21

Pliny the Younger

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Pliny’s letter about the Christians — revised — 2007-01-17
  2. New Testament allusions in Pliny correspondence with Trajan? — 2007-01-17
  3. Fresh Doubts on Authenticity of Pliny’s Letter about the Christians — 2016-02-17

Tacitus

  1. R.I.P. F.F.Bruce on Tacitus and the Christians – revised — 2007-01-16
  2. O’Neill-Fitzgerald: #5, Should We Expect Any Roman Records About Failed Messiahs? — 2014-01-01

Julius Caesar

  1. How Jesus Christ outclassed Julius Caesar  — 2010/08/21
  2. The Gospels Are “Only Parables” ABOUT Jesus: Crossan (Part 2 of 3) — 2013-01-11

The Truth About Islam and Democracy

We’ve posted about Islam, democracy and the different meanings of sharia law before. See, for example,

  • three posts posts based on Muslim Secular Democracy: Voices from Within by Associate Professor Lily Zubaidah Rahim;
  • quite a few posts citing John Esposito but one especially focused on the meaning of sharia based on Who Speaks of Islam? What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John Esposito and Dalia Mogahed. 
  • and glimpses of conflicts within Islamic societies as large scale movements push back against some of the worst conservatism according to Riaz Hasssan in Inside Muslim Minds
Anwar Ibrahim ; Dalia Mogahed

Here are interviews with two prominent Muslims, a liberal opposition leader in Malaysia, Anwar Ibrahim and then with Dalia Mogahed (co-author with Esposito). Take your pick between the podcast or transcript. (I read the transcript.)

The Intercept: Deconstructed (14th Feb 2019): THE TRUTH ABOUT ISLAM AND DEMOCRACY (WITH ANWAR IBRAHIM)

Some key points:

  • the anti-democratic states associated with Muslims are in the Arab world, the minority of Muslims. And it’s not hard to see why.
  • Sharia has a range of meanings and applications. It is among less well informed Westerners that it has a singular meaning. Any law that violates human rights is to be condemned. But we need first to know who and what, exactly, we are talking about in each situation.
  • Islam has bloody borders; a clash of civilizations. . . . both catch phrases are grounded in ignorance and selective amnesia.
  • Oh yeh — most Muslims love the fundamental principles of democracy. Most Muslims live in democracies and most of those who don’t live in a democracy want to live in a democracy.

 

Trump Movement as a Cult / 2

Continuing from Towards Understanding . . .

It does feel like something to be wrong. It feels like being right. — Kathryn Schultz per J. Quinton

Fifth point. The sins, the flaws, the character defects in the leader make no difference to the “true believer”. They are forgiven or in some other way excused and overlooked. Recall the David analogy. Religious leaders in particular love to preach it. David was “beloved by God” and a “man after God’s own heart” despite his treachery, adultery and murders. He is God’s instrument and it is not our place to question God. The same principle holds for the nonreligious political “cults”. Followers may wish their leader would be more mature, grow up, or whatever, but the positives in the man will always outweigh and render negligible the negatives.

Sixth. One research finding seeking to understand why some people join cults or extremist groups is that prospective members have fewer social ties than “the norm”. They are feeling less connected, less attached. Their world feels to be “falling apart” in significant ways. One thinks of fears or worries about increasing financial tensions (living standards are in decline; there seems no way to ever approach their parents’ standards of living), health problems (costs put proper care out of reach), shifting social expectations (e.g. how men should treat women), leaving them frustrated especially if they feel they have to face these things essentially alone. We saw where horrendous changes in welfare and security in 1920s Germany led. We have seen what happens to too many rootless second generation young immigrants from very different cultural backgrounds and their propensity to join anti-social gangs or more dangerous extremist groups. It’s not hard to identify among “Trump followers” a sense that everything in society is “broken”, a sense of losing hope and no clear light at the end of it all.

Seventh. And the antidote to #six is finding a “home”, “like-minds” with “like feelings” among one’s companions in the new movement. One finds a new family of like minds who understand and who offer support or at least agree on the solution. There is strong sense, from this moment on, of the world divided into “them”, the outsiders in the lost world of darkness and confusion and wrongs, and “us”. The “thems” may sometimes offer very smart arguments against specific beliefs of the insider or proclamations by their leader, but smart arguments will only come across as threatening and “surely deceptive” if they come from those on the “outside” representing the world that the new “inner group family member” has found problematic and left behind.

Eighth. People are judged according to what they represent, and arguments are assessed on where they appear to be coming from and for what they represent, too. Hence any rationalization or refutation can be found for any facts or arguments that are critical of one’s new “family” or place where one feels a sense of belonging. The force and emotion behind the arguments can be far more persuasive than what outsiders might see as the “cold logic” alone. In fact, the arguments for one’s new family-movement are highly emotional, perhaps clearly logical but logical delivered with heated emotion. Ad hominem attacks are par for the course; scoffing and sneering at the competence or intelligence of key leading “outsiders” is also routine. Fear, anger, outrage, — one’s own logical arguments and handy bags of facts are riding the crests of these waves.

…..

And continuing . . . .

…..

Can Historians Develop a Valid “Feel” for a Reliable Source?

Ruth Morse

While preparing my next post on the Trump movement’s analogues to cult experiences I tripped over a page by another historian, Ruth Morse, addressing what modern readers need to understand whenever reading works of pre-modern historians. Once again anyone aware of the methods of New Testament or early Christianity historians must surely wonder why historians of medieval and ancient times don’t embrace the methods of NT historians (e.g. criteria of authenticity, memory theory) or why NT scholars don’t ditch their own methods and emulate those of their peers in other history departments.

‘Common report’, essentially rumour, has never been thought to be an accurate source or a sceptical witness, and historians have always known this.

But don’t biblical historians, or more specifically, historical Jesus historians, have criteria and tools to enable them to dig down and assess with some measure of reasonable probability how common reports (biblical historians use the term “oral tradition” which perhaps connotes a more stable notion of what is being passed on) have mutated over periods through memory refractions and back to something close to an original saying through various criteria of authenticity? Have other historians not yet caught up with these “advanced techniques’?

Loathe to lose any remnant of evidence, loathe to relinquish a way of inserting non-authorized opinions which could be attributed to anonymous sources, medieval historians themselves argued about ‘common report’ and how it might be used. Even sceptical historians might accept that if oral traditions offered nothing else, they gave important testimony to what people had traditionally believed (which itself presented a topic for discussion, because such beliefs could be weighed and compared, where comparing might offer an opportunity to the rhetorically alert).

Yes. Oral reports do tell us what the people sharing them were saying to one another. Were they telling stories of Robin Hood, or Jesus? What grounds do historians have for concluding that those tales had any decades old historical basis?

Would a historian ever rely upon suspect sources?

An allegiance to truth never precluded the use of suspect material; nor did history exclude certain embellishments of that material. One embellishment might be an ostensible rejection of suspect material which, by its very existence, retained precisely what it pretended to discard. What kind of representation of what understanding for which audience are essential questions to ask when evaluating medieval and renaissance history. How far it is either any more than testimony to current opinion, or whether it can be trusted as a reliable account are questions which raise other issues.

But cannot historians develop some sort of sense or feel for what is a reliable source?

Most modern historians of the Middle Ages develop what they characterize as a ‘feel’ for when medieval historians can be trusted.

But did not early historians, ancient and medieval, know how to apply their learning in rhetoric to draw out sympathy and confidence in readers to that they would feel loathe to question the truth of what was being written?

Since the encouragement of some kind of intuitive sympathy was itself one of the rhetorician’s goals, early warnings about ethos may help readers coming to medieval historians for the first time. The seductive experience of wanting what a favourite medieval historian says to be true sometimes to the detriment of one’s better judgement continues to be part of the experience of many case-hardened researchers.

Or perhaps a careful study of historians of old (and medieval historians did learn and emulate the techniques and aims of ancient historians) will alert modern readers to the possibility that much of what they encounter may indeed by fiction.

By analysing individual topoi and situating them within a system of rhetorically manipulated reference, I hope to demonstrate how pervasive ‘literary’ habits of embellishment were, that ‘realism’ is a constantly shifting style which is constantly remade, not a guarantee of a true depiction, and that however convincing, charming, fresh, or intelligent an account, it may be no more (but no less) than a plausible construction which refers to known patterns of human character, behaviour, and event. The styles chosen by historians involve multiple reference: to the particular past narrated; to earlier models of writing history; to other, early literary models (like epics or fictions, or poems of many kinds); and to over-arching (or perhaps underpinning) eschatological ideas of human history.


Morse, Ruth. 2005. Truth and Convention in the Middle Ages: Rhetoric, Representation and Reality. Cambridge England; New York: Cambridge University Press. 95


 

Towards Understanding the Trump Movement as a Cult

Trump – Armstrong

I was dismayed after leaving a religious cult to discover that fallacious thinking that had led me into the cult was not restricted to cult members but was evident throughout society all around me. How I had been so shut off from “the world” not to have noticed how much we shared with “the world”. We always saw ourselves as “called out of this world” and as no longer a part of “this evil world”. We also thought of ourselves as a body, a gathering of converts, unlike any other in the world, so after I had left and reflected on what our operation was “really like” I was dumbstruck to read about how our cult’s M.O. was likewise characteristic of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Mormons, and others. Okay, so religious cults were bad news for this and that reason, but it was a real blow to my expectations of what I would find “in the world” after I began to observe the same thinking-gone-wrong among not only more benign churches but in society at large.

Then there was that TV documentary on the Hitler Youth. I listened most attentively to interviews with those who had been members before the war and was again struck with clear echoes of the experiences I had come to think, from both personal experience and wider learning, were seductive features of religious cults.

We know the jokes and sayings about the devil’s masterstroke being to convince his dupes that he doesn’t exist. The one sure constant among all cults is that cult members do not believe they belong to a “cult” — it’s all those other weirdos who are the cultists; we are not like them.

And one more thing. Too many of my friends in my old cult turned out to be friends only on condition I remained part of the collective. But there were others whom I saw as true friends, sticking with me even after I was “disfellowshipped” or “cast out into the bond of Satan”. But what a disappointment I felt as I watched so many of them merely gravitate to other cults, most often imitation breakaways from the parent church.

I think in some ways this Vridar blog is a result of those “coming out” experiences. If asked what was the biggest lesson I have taken away from my cult years it would have to be, surely: “I know only too, too well how easy it is for me to be so very wrong.” That’s why readers see so many references to the research, the evidence, the analysis of arguments, of specialists on this blog, and to the examination of common arguments and conclusions, even among other specialists, that we find to be without valid foundation. We try to be careful and get to the facts and analyse the intellectual foundations of what we think and everything is, essentially, provisional. If anything of my experience and subsequent learning can be of some use to anyone else at an appropriate point in their life’s journey I would be satisfied.

I have been saving up scores of online articles published by journalists, political scientists, sociologists, psychologists, historians, about the Trump phenomenon in the United States and only recently I have begun to return to them and read them one by one. There are a number of people in the United States I would consider good friends even though I have never met them face to face. Unfortunately, despite our friendship, I have never had any desire to visit the United States in the same way I like to visit other countries of the world. Perhaps it’s because I see too much of the U.S. here already: on TV and in movies, and especially in the news. Not that all my information has come through today’s mainstream media. I also took up a year’s course in United States history as an undergraduate, and I have followed up much of what I learned at that time by purchasing new books as they relate to special themes of interest from those student years. In our course we covered everything from the invention of the compass through to the confluence of the Kennedy assassination and Beatles Tour, from the Federalist Papers, to the judgments of John Marshall, “Manifest Destiny”, and the Civil Rights Movement. (I recall at one stage taking a special interest in the details of the history of the Rhode Island settlement, possibly at least partly because an American pastor who introduced me to “my cult” was named William Bradford.) Meanwhile, in our English literature courses, I can never remove from my mind novels and plays by William Faulkner, James Baldwin and Tennessee Williams. Then I taught To Kill a Mockingbird in high schools soon afterwards. And I have had a number of American friends, both face to face here in Australia and, of course, online even today. But I cannot presume to know more about what is happening in the United States than what I read and hear. I am always open to correction and learning.

So when I read articles by people-in-the-know comparing Trump supporters to “a cult” I cannot help but pause a moment and wonder.

The following is in no pre-planned order. It is pretty much stream-of-consciousness stuff. read more »

Searching for Facts Beneath the Propaganda: Syria

James Harkin

It’s taken me a little while but it was worth it. The article is long (about 10,000 words) and after having read it I wouldn’t have wanted it to be any shorter. Anyone who is interested in how news media works, how information is sourced in the age when competing groups and individuals can disseminate their respective viewpoints always backed up with live images of what we are assured is supporting evidence, and how one goes about digging down beneath all these reports and seeks to find out what actually happened and why by visiting the site and talking to witnesses, will find What Happened in Douma? Searching for Facts in the Fog of Syria’s Propaganda War by James Harkin, published in The Intercept, very informative.

I imagine most of us tend to read any news from war zones with a sense of provisionality, of thinking, ‘Well, that’s what we’re hearing now and people are using that news story to justify further involvement in the war, further killing, but who knows how long it will be before the truth ever comes out, if ever.’ James Harkin’s essay certainly reinforces justification for that response to war-time news.

The author’s research was supported by a fellowship at the Shorenstein Center at Harvard University. Benjamin Decker at the Shorenstein Center’s Information Disorder Lab provided open-source investigative support and Rahaf Safi at Harvard’s Kennedy School contributed research. Other research and translation support was provided by Victor Lutenco of the Kennedy School and Hannah Twomey of the Centre for Investigative Journalism in London.

Historians on the Most Basic Laws of Historical Evidence

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward.
Professor David Dumville, British medievalist and Celtic scholar, Chair in History & Palaeography in the School of Divinity, History & Philosophy, Professor in History, Palaeography & Celtic, University of Aberdeen.

The most basic laws of historical evidence are very straightforward. History must be written from contemporary sources or with the aid of testimony carried to a later era by an identifiable and acceptable line of transmission. Many texts which present themselves for our consideration as testimony to Anglo-Saxon history are creations remote from that age. Historical writing may be entertaining if an author chooses to cut corners or ignore the rules of evidence when assessing such works—but it will not be worth the paper it is printed on.

Dumville, 55

Professor Dumville’s words conclude a chapter addressing questionable practices and conclusions of a number of medieval historians that echo, at least in my ears, methods in biblical studies.

In the opening paragraph Dumville sets out a warning that no doubt many scholars of “biblical Israel” and Christian origins would enthusiastically offer lip agreement to:

[The historian] must excavate his texts, not in the spirit of a treasure-hunter seeking little more than the thrill of whatever finds may come to hand, but in as measured and scientific a fashion as possible. In the academic discipline of history, as in archaeology, the time for treasure-hunting has now passed. In spite of occasional lapses, methods and standards of criticism are rigorous and well advertized.

Dumville, 43

Excavating texts?

That image of “excavating texts” reminds me of James McGrath’s illustration of the way a historian supposedly reads a text compared with the way of a literary analyst:

McGrath, James F. 2008. The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith. BookSurge Publishing. p. 57

There is a significant difference, however. When Dumville speaks of “excavating” texts he makes not a single reference to any “criteria of authenticity” such as “criterion of embarrassment” or “criterion of double dissimilarity”; he makes no reference to “memory theory” as might have at that time been gleaned from Halbwach’s 1980 publication of The Collective Memory. What he means by “excavating” the texts is studying what can and can’t be known about their probable source material and any data (or absence of data) that establishes a clear line of record to the events written about. That is flatly opposed to the assumptions and implications of the diagram above. One cannot reason about the narrative style or presentation of a text in order to apply criteria or memory theory and thereby arrive at a “probable series of historical events”.

What excavating texts means to Dumville is establishing clear evidence of the use of sources that can be traced back to being contemporary with the events of the narrative or document. If the author does not set out the evidence that would enable readers to be assured that his or her story or record were derived ultimately from contemporary sources then the work is completely useless for historians who seek to reconstruct the earlier event.

Comparing hypothetical sources and traditions “behind” biblical texts

What if later narratives agree, though? Won’t that be some indication that they are at least close to accurately representing earlier events? No. Some medieval historians fell into that error (as Dumville would put it) when they concluded from agreements in later sources that those later source agreements indicated that they all used a much earlier set of documents from the very time of the events being studied.

Does anyone else at this point think of the arguments underlying the Q source? Or those that attempt to glimpse earlier memories? What of Bart Ehrman’s plethora of sources that, among others, add M and L to Q?

Contrast Dumville’s view of historians who worked back from agreements in later twelfth century sources to concluding that they were based on a hypothetical (surely actual) ninth century documents:

It was the implication of Pagan’s discussion of the Flores historiarum and Historia Dunelmensis ecclesie that such lists were maintained in ninth-century Northumbria. However, this view must be qualified by the knowledge that the unanimity of the twelfth-century Durham texts is sometimes in shared error or doubtful deduction. Continuity of accurate record is not therefore to be assumed, and any information with such an uncertain pedigree cannot sustain very confident use. (52)

Semantic seductions

Next, note the confusion of terminology, how sometimes the language of “documents” or “records” can so easily (I suggest even unconsciously) elide with sources that technically are not “documents” or “records” at all. (This was a criticism I once made of a discussion by James Crossley and that was the source of his outrage and, it seems at least to me, even some small ongoing obsession to denigrate this blog in subsequent publications. )

Lyon has laid some stress on the date 854 in Northumbrian historical record, observing that it ‘is explicitly mentioned in several documents, so it cannot be lightly rejected’. The first essential point is that it is not mentioned in any document at all, for we have none surviving from early Anglo-Saxon Northumbria. That very absence speaks volumes for the nature of institutional discontinuity in the Anglo-Scandinavian period. The date 854 is mentioned in a number of twelfth-and thirteenth-century literary texts. In discussing a historical subject, we must not lapse into the loose language of the archaeologist who is unaccustomed to written sources: not all written texts are documents; documentary and literary texts have a different status and require somewhat different handling. (52)

What they deride as “minimalism” in OT studies

A contemporary source, even if consisting of but one single coin, must outweigh tomes of written sources that offer no certain derivation from the time of the events they point to:

The instinct displayed by Hugh Pagan in 1969—for the numismatist to dispense with the apparent information of the written sources for much of ninth-century Northumbrian history and rely on evidence derivable directly from coinage—must, I think, command the assent of the historian. Hopeful manipulation of the twelfth-century literature serves little purpose. (53)

We are aware of difficulties and debates over efforts to reconcile various archaeological finds in the region of Palestine with Biblical narratives.

Compare an outsider review of Nazareth archaeology

I was further reminded of René Salm’s analysis of the published archaeological reports of pottery finds around Nazareth and the virulent attacks many have directed against him as a consequence — on the grounds that he is “not an archaeologist”. Dumville is not an archaeologist, either, but that does not render him incapable of reading thoughtfully, commenting on, and disagreeing with conclusions drawn by specialists and many peers who concur with them.

  • The silver penny’s location, and the name on it, lead to the “obvious” conclusion that it must derive from a certain period well documented in the literary sources.
  • The physical differences from other coins known to be related to those literary sources therefore raise questions.
  • “Extraordinary hypotheses” are advanced to explain these physical differences. Why is one coin so different from the others “surely from the same provenance”?
  • The “minimalist” view: Stripped from the problematic literary sources, the coin is more simply interpreted as evidence that our literary sources are incomplete and that they even fail to inform us of the existence of entire kingdoms.

The other problem of procedure concerns the now famous silver penny—from the Trewhiddle hoard, buried in Cornwall c. 875 x c. 895—bearing the name of a King Earned. Careful study of this coin has allowed the seemingly secure conclusion that it is to be compared with the coinage issued by Æthelwulf of Wessex in the 850s and Berhtwulf of Mercia in the 840s. The only known king of the name is the ruler of Northumbria to whom our twelfth- and thirteenth-century sources attribute a lengthy reign within the period 806-42. This king is well represented by an appropriate coinage. Neither the form nor the style of the Eanred silver penny seems to suit an equation with a Northumbrian king of the first half of the ninth century. Furthermore, G. C. Brooke gave it as his opinion that ‘the style of the coin seems . . . to prove it to be an issue of the Canterbury mint.

To meet this difficulty, extraordinary hypotheses have been advanced. It may not be wholly unfair to suspect that it provided much of the fuel powering Pagan’s radical reassessment of Northumbrian chronology. Alternatively we have been invited to allow the existence of ‘a historically unknown king, who was ruling, possibly in the Midlands, about 850’. (54)

The historian, for all his wish to know more about his research area, is obliged to confess ignorance, that the literary sources available sometimes simply do not justify conclusions we would like to make about our question of interest.

The Historian’s Conclusion

There are no back-up methods to fill in the gaps left by the absence of contemporary sources. There are no appeals to criteria of authenticity in the literary texts. There are no speculative exercises, however “intelligently guessed”, in memory theory. There is only the humble admission of ignorance.

After all, the most basic laws of historical evidence really are very straightforward.

 


Dumville, David N. 1987. “Textual Archaeology and Northumbrian History Subsequent to Bede.” In Coinage in the Ninth-Century Northumbria: The Tenth Oxford Symposium on Coinage and Monetary History, edited by D. M. Metcalf, 43–55. BAR British Series 180. Oxford: B.A.R.


 

Vridar Maintenance

This blog has grown in numbers of posts and topics like wild weeds all over the place and is long overdue for a some serious organization. The Categories and Tags have been unwieldy, untidy, inconsistent, and I hope to maintain the energy with Tim’s help to tidy everything up. So expect changes and probably in the short term (not too many months, hopefully) even more inconsistency and chaos as we try to restore weeds and desert into a Garden of Eden.

The Problem of the Reconstruction of the Life, Deeds, Words of Jesus

Spot the problem here:

The problem of the reconstruction of the course of life, deeds, and words of Jesus Christ is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating issues in modem biblical scholarship. In order to cope with this issue, scholars devised various reconstructive methods and procedures, which are usually presented today under the labels of several ‘quests for the historical Jesus’. In this way, notwithstanding all the differences between various scholarly proposals, a more or less coherent image of the historical Jesus as a particular Jewish religious and social ‘activist’, who lived in first-century Galilee, emerged and became more or less widely accepted in mainstream scholarship.

However, all reconstructions of the deeds and words of the historical Jesus, which were presented at various stages of the ‘historical Jesus research’, were formulated on one fundamental assumption, namely that the Gospels more or less directly refer to the life of the historical Jesus. Even if numerous modem scholars regarded various parts of the Gospel material as most probably unhistorical, this basic assumption concerning the referential character of the Gospels was in fact never challenged. Consequently, scholars still generally believe that the Gospels in an at least fundamental way reflect the features of the life and person of the historical Jesus: his early activity in Galilee, his challenging interpretation of the Jewish law, his clashes with the Pharisees, his travel to Jerusalem, his conflict with the chief priests in the Holy City, etc.

The most recent research on the hypertextual features of the Gospels has revealed that this basic scholarly assumption is not necessarily true. In general, it can be argued that the Gospels were not written with the aim of recording the course of life, deeds, and words of the historical, ‘fleshly’ Jesus. The Gospels are results of hypertextual reworking of the letters of Paul the Apostle and of other early Christian writings, which were regarded by the evangelists as the sources for the knowledge of the real, ‘spiritual’ Jesus Christ, who came to be known to the world in the course of life, in the person, and in the writings of his particularly chosen Apostle, and who still lives in his Church. The research on the historical Jesus ought to take this basic feature of the Gospels into serious consideration.

Consequently, in order to deal with the issue of reconstructing the life of the historical Jesus in a truly scholarly way, the hypertextual features of the Gospels should be properly investigated.

(Adamczewski 2013, 11 f.)

What Bartosz Adamczewski says there is all very fine as far as it goes but there is something vital missing. And it is that missing element that has opened up opportunities for some rather savage reviews of his work.

Yes, it is fine to present the “case for” a proposition. But unless one addresses systematically the flaws in the existing or alternative viewpoint, especially if that alternative is the prevailing conventional wisdom, one is not likely to persuade anyone to jump ship, at least not with justifiable reason. Simply declaring the alternative to be resting ultimately upon unfounded assumptions won’t work any magic unless one accompanies that claim with clear demonstrations.

That won’t persuade most to change their minds overnight; it will probably engender unscholarly responses. But it will at least leave material for other, most likely new, scholars to notice and work with into the future.

 


Adamczewski, Bartosz. 2013. Hypertextuality and Historicity in the Gospels. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang GmbH, Internationaler Verlag der Wissenschaften.


 

Imagine No Interpolations

What if the Testimonium Flavianum, the passage about Jesus and his followers, in Antiquities by Josephus was written in full (or maybe with the exception of no more than 3 words) by Josephus? I know that would raise many questions about the nature of the rest of our sources but let’s imagine the authenticity of the passage in isolation from everything else for now.

What if the passage about Christ in Tacitus was indeed written by Tacitus? Ditto about that raising more questions as above, but the same.

What if even the author attribution studies that have demonstrated the very strong likelihood that Pliny’s letter about Christians to Trajan was not written by Pliny were wrong after all?

What if that “pocket gospel” in the early part of chapter 11 of the Ascension of Isaiah were original to the text and not a subsequent addition? (I think that the most recent scholarly commentary by Enrico Norelli on the Ascension of Isaiah does actually suggest that scenario but I have not read any of the justifications if that is the case.)

What if 2 Thessalonians 2:13-16 which has Paul saying the Jews themselves killed Jesus in Judea was indeed written by Paul thus adding one more inconsistency of Paul’s thought to the already high pile?

What if, contrary to what has been argued in a work opposing (sic) the Christ Myth hypothesis, the passage about Paul meeting James the brother of the Lord was originally penned by Paul after all?

Would the above Imagine scenarios collectively remove any reason to question the assertion that Christianity began ultimately with a historical Jesus?

I don’t think so. read more »

From Adapa to Jesus

Adapa Sumerian deity of healing, with healthy catch of fish
Creative Commons Attribution

That the gospels recycled themes, motifs, sayings, can be found across the Middle East from Mesopotamia to Egypt and stretching back millennia to before the Neo Babylonian empire and even before the time of any Jewish Scriptures will be of no surprise to anyone who has read The Messiah Myth by Thomas L. Thompson.

Of the myth of Adapa and the South Wind “the earliest known version is a Sumerian text from Old Babylonian Tell Haddad”, made available by Cavigneaux in 2014. I have part translated, part paraphrased the opening section of Cavigneaux’s French translation of the often broken Sumerian text, and added a distinctive note on one comment that I found particularly interesting.

In those distant days …

After the Flood had swept over,

and brought about the destruction of the land …

The world is reborn

A seed of humanity had been preserved …

Four legged animals once again widely dispersed …

Fish and birds repopulated the ponds and reedbeds …

Herbs and aromatic plants flowered on the high steppe …

The state is born

An and Enlil organized the world …

The city of Kish became a pillar of the country …

Etana becomes king

Then the elected shepherd …

Founded a house …

The South Wind during his reign brought blessings …

Humanity without a guide

Humanity did not have a directive …

[Nobody knew how to give or follow orders]

The Story of Adapa begins

[A loyal devotee of Enki he goes fishing in the quay to supply his master’s temple in Eridu.]

In later exorcistic texts … the quay (Akk. kārum) is a trope for the liminal space between worlds.

At the New Moon he went up to go fishing

Without rudder he let the boat go with the flow

Without pole he went up the stream

On the vast lagoon …

[He is capsized by the South Wind]

He curses the South Wind …

And broke the wings of the South Wind …

Jesus stills storm. Interestingly the South Wind was said to be beneficial; it appears to me that Adapa’s technology, apparently directed by the power of his words, was being frustrated by the South Wind.

The narrative is thus a reference to the destruction of the old world and the restoration of the new, through a Flood or through water bringing about the end of one world and nourishing the emergence of the new. As Thompson observes in The Mythic Past new worlds emerge through parting waters (Creation, Noah, Exodus, Elijah-Elisha, Jesus’ Baptism/heavens divided).

Adapa has a special gift. Though mortal, he has power over words, or rather his words have power over the world. Adapa will become the great mythical sage of scribes, of all who can with the magic of words change the face of the earth and the organization of society: engineers, architects, legislators, ….

We are familiar with astronomy and astrology being all one branch of knowledge in these times; similarly magic and medicine were indistinguishable at this stage. The skills of the scribes, the amazing feats they accomplished with words, appear to have been supernatural gifts.

After Adapa by merely speaking causes the wind to cease the supreme god is astonished and invites him up to heaven. Adapa’s personal god, however, warns Adapa not to accept certain gifts [bread, drink, a coat] that will be offered to him there but to only accept an anointing. The chief god laughingly tells Adapa that he has just refused the gifts that would have given him eternal life.

And so forth.

We see here a story opening with the water, a flood, separating the old and the new. We see the wise hero wielding power over the elements, even stilling a “storm”, by his mere commands. Others are amazed at his ability. In this case, it is the gods who are amazed.

The plot of the story begins with the sage “going fishing”, a scene that is found to have mythical or metaphorical significance of life and death, entering a space between two worlds.

I find such literary comparisons interesting. I’m not saying the evangelists were adapting the myth of Adapa, of course. I am thinking about the way certain mythical tropes have been recycled and refashioned through changing human circumstances and experiences.


Cavigneaux, Antoine. 2014. “Une Version Sumérienne de La Légende d’Adapa (Textes de Tell Haddad X).” Zeitschrift Für Assyriologie Und Vorderasiatische Archäologie 104 (1): 1–41. https://www.academia.edu/26276183/Une_version_sum%C3%A9rienne_de_la_l%C3%A9gende_d_Adapa_Textes_de_Tell_Haddad_X_

Sanders, Seth L. 2017. From Adapa to Enoch: Scribal Culture and Religious Vision in Judea and Babylon. Tübingen, Germany: Mohr Siebeck. 42


 

Australia’s Refugee policies: (1) women without male escorts; (2) male sports stars

We learned only this week that in 2014 the Tony Abbott government, in contravention of international obligations, authorized border officials to turn back to Saudi Arabia any Saudi Arabian woman arriving without a male escort and who, under questioning, gave indications that she would seek asylum in Australia. Further details are addressed in an interview with an Amnesty International representative from about 40 minutes into ABC’s The Drum.

If you are male and fled torture in Bahrain and happen to be a famous soccer player everyone right up to the Prime Minister will be calling for your return to Australia. Which is a good thing, of course. But inconsistent application of goodness…., barbaric.