I thought Tom Holland was a historian. I am talking about the author of In the Shadow of the Sword, a history of the seventh century Arab conquests and emergence of Islam which I posted about three times in 2013. I had read the book after a fascinating interview with Holland on Australia’s Radio National’s Late Night Live show with Philip Adams. Presumably Tom Holland had been introduced as a historian and it never crossed my mind to doubt that that was his profession.
But today I was struck by something I read in Richard Carrier’s new post today, No, Tom Holland, It Wasn’t Christian Values That Saved the West. My first reaction was that somewhere Holland was re-hashing his apology and praise for Christian values and even the heritage of the Christian church itself. Of course there’s nothing wrong with “love thy neighbour”, but Holland goes well beyond that. He credits Christianity with having, in effect, saved the world from barbarism. I certainly acknowledge many good programs throughout history by some Christians and some Christian organizations, but it is going too far to claim, as Holland does, that the difference between pagan and Christian values in ancient times was as stark as night from day.
I was somewhat incredulous that such a “reputable historian” could come out with that sort of … somewhat debatable viewpoint. So I posted:
I was just as dismayed when I noticed Tim O’Neill’s wearing of a Tom Holland praise badge on his website:
“A brilliantly erudite blog that stands sentinel against the wish-fulfilment and tendentiousness to which atheists, on occasion, can be no less prey than believers” – Tom Holland, best-selling history writer
I have demonstrated (most recently here) just how lacking in erudition and how thoroughly tendentious O’Neill’s History for Atheists actually is in some of its posts.
But Richard Carrier has shown that I myself have been caught out merely assuming Tom Holland was a credentialed/trained historian. Here is Carrier’s opening to his new post, No, Tom Holland, It Wasn’t Christian Values That Saved the West
Novelist Tom Holland just wrote an article for The Spectator titled “Thank God for Western Values,” declaring the “debt of the West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many might presume.” Everything he says is false.
The Back Story
Holland is another amateur playing at knowing what he’s talking about. He has no degrees in history, and no advanced degrees whatever. He has a bachelors in English and Latin poetry. He dabbled in getting a Ph.D. in Byron but gave up. No shame in that; but it still doesn’t qualify you to talk about ancient history, or even medieval. So keep that in mind. As to faith, he might be called a Christian atheist.
Now I squirm with that “another amateur playing at knowing what he’s talking about” put-down, but I was determined not to be caught out again so I checked and tried to find some credible source. I followed up the following citations in Holland’s Wikipedia page:
- Georges T. Dodds (June 1999). “A Conversation With Tom Holland”. The SF Site. Retrieved 16 September 2012.
- Charlotte Higgins (28 August 2005). “Tom Holland interview: Caligula, vampires and coping with death threats”. Guardian. Retrieved 16 March 2019.
Sure enough (and Carrier links to the first of these) Tom Holland never studied history at a tertiary level. Never. He has no formal studies in history to his credit. (Nor, by the way, does Tim O’Neill, who also studied literature, medieval literature in his case.) Even I have more “formal training” in university level history than Tom Holland, but more than that, I have built on my formal training (an arts degree majoring in history units, both ancient and modern) with trying to keep reasonably abreast of the scholarly debates and controversies about the nature of history ever since.
So I am finally getting my ear down close enough to the penny-in-the-slot-machine to hear the dropping action inside.
If you are wondering, by chance, in what way Holland might be incorrect when he leads a New Statesman article with
It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian.
then no doubt you will find some reasons in Carrier’s own post (I have not yet read it myself but I am sure with Carrier’s qualification in ancient history there will be some pretty good pointers there), and/or you can check out a post or two on this blog, such as:
- Christianity won over paganism by epitomizing pagan ideals
- Why Christianity spread so rapidly to become the main religion of the Roman empire
Even Pauline Christianity is arguably built on the principles of Stoic philosophy:
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50 thoughts on “Well, I Sure Got That Wrong”
I can recommend Hector Avalos’ book “The Bad Jesus’ as a debunking that Jesus, as portrayed in the gospels [Avalos specifically steers around the HJ/MJ issue] is not as good a guy or epitome of a worthwhile value as is generally perceived.
He devotes a chapter or so to each of the following – love the enemy, hate, violence, suicide, imperialism, anti-Semitism, inequality [the poor] misogyny, the disabled, medicine, and somewhere in there, the environment.
The verdicts are not favourable to Jesus.
see the part where jesus tells his disciples that preventing his body from the stink of death is better than feeding hundreds of hungry children? this sounds kind of contradictory to the story about giving up riches and living a life of suffering .
” love the enemy”
avalos wrote that even love entail violence in christian religion.
Chrisitan ethics, and their rationalization via changing interpretations of their Scriptures, have changed with the times. Poor houses, capital punishment, slavery, diminution of women, come quickly to mind.
Holland channels the full Tim O’Neill.
• Holland, Tom (20 April 2019). “Thank God for western values”. The Spectator.
• Comment by Neil Godfrey—19 September 2016—per “Tom Holland: Still Wrong About Christianity”. Vridar. 16 September 2016.
Well, I’m eventually going to get around to writing a book that directly refutes Holland’s thesis, I’ve just gotten side-tracked on mythicism along the way. But most certainly, didn’t save us from barbarism, if anything it contributed to it.
I have no interest in defending Mr Holland, but I would like to defend amateurs–or at least point to how good amateurs can be. I want to emphasize why it can be right to ‘squirm with that “another amateur playing at knowing what he’s talking about” put-down.’
I concede that amateurs will frequently, and probably most of the time, do things badly compared to credentialled pro’s. They typically know their field and are paid and given backup resources to learn more and more. However–
Understanding in a given field can become so sclerotic or stagnant as the pros do little that’s substantial or innovative, and they can tend to spend time reinforcing each other’s errors. They can be too full of their own dogma and the opinions and favors of other professionals and those who pay them. In some cases professionals may be paid (sometimes by governments or large corporations) in large part to defend dogma or at least a general way of approaching things.
Sometimes the self-trained (amateur) or the professional in a different but allied field can make a big difference–in any case, an outsider without the usual credentials. An extreme, yet highly pertinent, example is Einstein who, if I recall correctly, published 4 separate papers, each more or less revolutionary, on 4 separate topics within about a year, causing him, a patent clerk, to be quickly recognized as one of the major theoretical physicists of his day.
I can think of any number of fields when I will have to recognize that because the pro’s know endlessly more than I do, I must not dismiss their conclusions out of hand, yet where I sense enough stagnation, dogmatism, and complacency that I probably need to be potentially somewhat open to an amateur who seems knowledgeable and logical.
Well, to be fair, Einstein did have an extensive education in physics. He had is doctorate by that point.
A better example, IMO, is Harry Houdini, who had literally no education at all, could barely even write, but proved a large number of professionals wrong in regard to Spiritualism. Scientific American was publishing papers by credentialed naturalists and psychologists affirming that is had been proven that it was possible to contact spirits of the deceased, etc. Houdini came in and said, no, that’s nonsense, you guys have all been fooled and then had to proceed to prove it to them.
There is a lot written about this whole issue, so you can look it up easily enough on your own.
There is another really good example, but I can’t think of the guys name. If I recall he was an amateur geologist maybe in the late 19th century or early 20th who revolutionized the field. I read something about him around a year ago, but its fuzzy now :p
Anyway… Yeah, credentials have meaning, but they can’t be everything. This is especially true in history, where, to a large degree, so many people are out of their field of specialty anyway.
“Carl Nägeli was a Swiss botanist. He studied cell division and pollination but became known as the man who discouraged [the amateur] Gregor Mendel from further work on genetics.” (“Carl Nägeli”. Wikipedia.)
I don’t mean to demean amateur historians by any means. What pulled me up was my assumption that he had a professional background as a historian: that seems to have been a combination of my own lazy assumption and the way he has been presented in much of the media. This information deserves to be known when the author finds himself in controversies with other historians. Not because that lessens the value of his arguments, but that the reader has a right to understand the context, and to be on the more alert lookout for underlying methods and sources — on both sides.
Forthright disclosure gives a reader initial confidence. (Failing to fully disclose, as, for example, Tim O’Neill fails to make clear he has no formal training in history even though he regularly ridicules Carrier’s PhD in history, potentially leads to an unfounded confidence.)
Nor do I question that Tom Holland is a historian. He obviously is a historian. Some quotes from books about another author who was far more controversial than Holland should make the point:
Interestingly we see some people dismiss certain “mythicists” on the grounds that they lack formal qualifications although they do promote the work of unqualified authors who agree with them.
But always beware of the slackers even among the professionals:
I recently happened on a quotation from Marx (apparently comes from Preface to 2nd ed of vol 1 of Capital) on ‘vulgar economics’:
‘It was henceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested enquirers, there were hired prize-fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic.’
I believe this sort of thing probably occurs in fields other than economics (civil engineering, religious studies, pharmacology, history….), but as in economics it is typically tempered by the style of professionalism and some degree of uniformity (quality control).
A good thing about credentialled people and academic departments and other official bodies is that they usually go by set standards, explicit and implicit, so that just the right amount of influence is wielded and in a discreet way–enough to make a difference but rarely so unusual as to be too shocking to too many observers, in a style that will seem convincing and proper. There is typically no outright craziness or fraud screaming at you.
A bad thing about the credentialled and their organizations is that they go by these set standards.
Outsiders are more likely to get things really wrong (crackpots etc or total shills for scams) but they (including outright crackpots) can get things right by going where the officials and professionals won’t or can’t go.
• Per Holland, quoting Daniel Boyarin, Christianity was: “the most powerful of hegemonic cultural systems in the history of the world”.
Holland, Tom (31 March 2018). “The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, by Bart Ehrman – Review”. spectator.co.uk. The Spectator (Book Reviews).
• Hurtado, Larry W. (2016). Destroyer of the Gods: Early Christian Distinctiveness in the Roman World. Baylor University Press. ISBN 9781481304733.
• Ehrman, Bart D. (2018). The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World. Simon and Schuster. ISBN 9781501136726.
People who say things like “Western morals” are unique to Christianity usually have no idea what they’re talking about and obviously don’t know much about pre-Christian culture. You can pretty much find all these morals in pre-Christian religion. Especially Egyptian.
As Egyptologist Christiane Desroches Noblecourt wrote in her book “Gifts from The Pharaohs: How Ancient Egyptian Civilization Shaped the Modern World(Flammarion, April 17, 2007)”:
Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt by by Jan Assmann:
To add to my last comment:
Osiris: Death and Afterlife of a God By Bojana Mojsov
Ogden Goelet, in The Egyptian Book of the Dead: The Book of Going Forth by Day –
The Complete Papyrus of Ani Featuring Integrated Text and Full-Color Images
The declaration of innocence before the Gods of the tribunal. Papyrus of Ani. 1250 BCE (circa).
The worst thing Christianity brought about was absolutism. That’s the main innovation of Christianity. Pretty much everything else was preexisting.
I really appreciate your willingness to publicly be uncertain and admitting to being wrong. Much too rare qualities.
• Holland questions a humanist assumption.
Alom Shaha (20 December 2013). “Secularism is Christianity’s greatest gift to the world | historian Tom Holland explains how he reconciles his scepticism with his enduring Christian faith”. newhumanist.org.uk.
Holland, Tom (20 April 2019). “Thank God for western values | The debt of the West to Christianity is more deeply rooted than many might presume”. The Spectator.
“Amsterdam Declaration”. Wikipedia. “The Amsterdam Declaration explicitly states that Humanism rejects dogma, and imposes no creed upon its adherents.”
when did Carrier change if so? I just exchanged emails with him on his website and he says 1 in 3 chance Jesus existed, possibly 2 in 3
Per Carrier (OHJ 2014), the probability that Jesus existed (“Historicity Jesus”), could not reasonably be higher than 1 in 3 (i.e. ~33%).
ok . . . anyway this is what I heard back after expressing surprise that he considers Peter and James to be real
I misread the 2/3 part. bad skimming habits
• The following is held to be true on minimal mythicism and on minimal historicity:
My interpretation of Carrier (OHJ 2014):
Circa 50 ce list of historical sect members:
• James (distinct from the Apostle James)
Per Carrier, “The New Gathercole Article on Jesus Certainly Existing”. Richard Carrier Blogs. 27 February 2019.
I’ve been trying to dig out who actually “invented” Jesus so for Carrier that is Cephas/Peter
• Belief in celestial Jesus, the second god, existed prior to the sect we term “Christians”. The innovation of the original Christians was that this same celestial Jesus was killed.
Carrier, Richard (2014). “The Bible and Interpretation – Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?”. bibleinterp.com.
<“Jesus” had at last revealed that he had tricked the Devil by becoming incarnate and being crucified by the Devil (in the region of the heavens ruled by Devil), thereby atoning for all of Israel’s sins, so the Jerusalem temple cult no longer mattered, the sins of Israel could no longer hold back God’s promise, and the end of the world could soon begin.>
Carrier doesn’t directly attribute this to anything/anyone and without looking I don’t remember it from Paul(?) I’m writing a little essay for some friends so they can more understand what I’m babbling about, but I don’t think I can get this past them by just saying Cephas said it was so
thanks for all of your informative help
Raphael Lataster provides a complete summary of On the Historicity of Jesus .
• Lataster, Raphael (2015). Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform. ISBN 978-1-5148-1442-0.
“Jesus Did Not Exist reviewed by David Fitzgerald | Raphael Lataster”. raphaellataster.com. 6 September 2015.
See: Godfrey, Neil (18 November 2015). “”Jesus Did Not Exist: A Debate Among Atheists” by Raphael Lataster w/ Richard Carrier”. Vridar.
• “The Gospel According to Carrier”. 11th Story, Multi Media Artists. November – December 2017. (Video via YouTube in two parts, see also: “The Gospel According to Carrier Part II”)
• “Reality Trip (Podcast, Episode 040) – Featuring Dr. Richard Carrier”. Ben Fama — September 2016. (Closed Captioning available YouTube)
NB: You can display the complete YouTube CC transcript for the “Reality Trip” episode. Do not select “English (auto-generated)” but rather “English”!
NB: “The Gospel According to Carrier (Complete Unedited Interview)”. YouTube. 11thstory. 15 April 2019.
Mike’s quotation of Carrier’s response is from https://www.richardcarrier.info/archives/7643#comment-27642.
Mike — as others have pointed out now, Carrier has always said he believes 1 in 3 are the best probabilities that Jesus existed. See his On the Historicity of Jesus:
yes I did bad skimming habits as admitted earlier led to my mistake. if I’m now reading it right he’s giving 2/3 chance that Paul and apostles did exist and worshiped a celestial jesus, laving 1/3 chance that this is wrong and there was a physical Jesus
If you ever decide to crunch the numbers yourself (see Carrier′s Bayesian analysis on evidential assumptions) you may find the probability that Jesus existed (“Historicity Jesus”) to be 1 in 100 (i.e. 1%) or even IMO: worse than 1 in 1000.
or to further clarify Carrier appears convinced some or all of the apostles including Paul definitely existed and worshiped either a celestial Jesus (2/3 chance) or a physical Jesus (1/3 chance)
• That is correct.
Carrier, Richard (2014). On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt. Sheffield Phoenix Press. ISBN 9781909697492.
NB: The historicity of Paul, Peter, etc. (the members of the first Christian sect) is not dependent on the historicity of Jesus; or the ahistoricity of Jesus.
If Paul worshiped a celestial not physical Jesus then in the gospels any apostle that had physical interactions with a physical Jesus have to be figments of somebody’s imagination though they could be “based” on actual people associated with Paul.
Except for the obvious case of Peter, which was a neat way of hiding Paul’s Cephas behind a fictional character.
Jesus gives Simon the son of John a new name, renaming him Peter and explicitly saying “Peter which is also Cephas.”
Whichever author that was had to know the truth about Paul’s Cephas. The author was deliberately helping to hide the true nature of Paul’s Cephas from any prying eyes. It’s only in the last century I think that somebody started putting forward the claim that the gospel Peter and Paul’s Peter were two different people.
Cuz according to Paul, Cephas is the inventor of the claim that Jesus died for Israel’s sins (the celestial Jesus in heaven, later transformed by the historicizers into having happened on earth). Thus Cephas is also ultimately the inventor of the Jesus contained in the New Testament.
did Justin Martyr “ignore” Paul for the same reason? they knew all too well Paul worshiped a different Jesus. Later on though the historicizers realized Paul would be perfect to bridge the gap between the crucifixion and the creation of the historical church. Thus began the Paul forgery and rewrite factory
There’s no necessary conflict between a human Jesus and a celestial Jesus: Christians today all worship the “celestial Jesus” though most believe he was once a human on earth.
(Justin quite likely ignored Paul because he was the Apostle of Marcion, a heretic in Justin’s view.)
then why forge and rewrite Paul to add entirely historicizing elements? why hide Paul’s Cephas behind the gospel Peter? I think more is afoot here especially as no historian of the time chronicles any earthly events especially Josephus who should have had a ton more to write about those events.
After all the father of Josephus was Mattias a Jerusalem temple priest (lived first century 6-70) who would have been a direct witness to the Jesus events.
To say church father and historian son would not have discussed these things is beyond the realm of possibility. As in: HEY DAD! Were you there when that Jesus guy trashed the Temple? especially if after Jesus the church spread like wildfire as claimed. In his books Josephus heaps praise on his father, so there was no rift.
They both would have lived through and witnessed the rise of the inherently Jewish church if it had happened as early as claimed. Josephus just not liking the church and leaving it out doesn’t pass muster either, cuz if the church existed all of his non-Jewish fellow historians would have called him out on the omission.
I think it’s at least possible that Josephus as he was nearing the completion of his book noticed enough Christians wandering around that he tossed them a note, and in our view whatever he wrote was “damaging enough” that Eusebius had to obscure it to maintain the historicizer version.
re Josephus should have added “as he was nearing the completion of his book in 96 AD”
an added point should be consider those who were converting to the religion since other than people having children that was the only for the religion to grow. Surely by 100 AD and well into the 2nd century they would be taking into consideration these two conflicting stories in deciding which of the dozen sects to join.
Pointing to the historicizer version and saying well I read the histories and it’s not there, it didn’t happen, so such and such (for example Marcionism) must be the right one so that’s the church I’m joining.
I don’t see why any of those things follow from a possibility that Paul had some idea of a human-figure Jesus who became a celestial Jesus.
that’s not Carrier’s argument. Carrier makes clear that the crucifixion happens not on earth but in some heavenly realm. Somebody else posted the quote from Carrier above:
“Christianity, as a Jewish sect, began when someone (most likely Cephas, perhaps backed by his closest devotees) claimed this “Jesus” had at last revealed that he had tricked the Devil by becoming incarnate and being crucified by the Devil (in the region of the heavens ruled by Devil), thereby atoning for all of Israel’s sins, so the Jerusalem temple cult no longer mattered, the sins of Israel could no longer hold back God’s promise, and the end of the world could soon begin.”
Carrier, Richard (2014). “The Bible and Interpretation – Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt: Should We Still Be Looking for a Historical Jesus?”. bibleinterp.com.
More from Carrier
According to Paul “Jesus came to be (genomenos) from the sperm of David”(God manufactured Jesus directly from the sperm of David). When Paul says Jesus “came to be” (genomenos) “from a woman” does he mean literally, or allegorically (as in Gal. 4:24).”
Where is all this fantastical Fronkensteen stuff happening? Why does Paul not mention Mary or Joseph?
remembering of course that Marcion’s jesus was not born of woman but came down fully formed at Capernaum
which isn’t in the history books either, but like previous worship of mythical gods the practitioners and converts would have accepted all that as allegory
the gospel of Mark doesn’t have the birth of jesus either. At Mark IV the author alludes that his story is an ALLEGORY with a secret meaning
also (sorry for the long string but thoughts keep occurring) ideas such as Marcion’s must have been at least partially in vogue especially if Carrier is right, Paul existed, and the preceding celestial-only Jesus schools were eventually shut down by the Pharisees. After the Roman war ending 73 AD, and no more Pharisees around, these celestial-only Jesus schools would have naturally started up again.
Thus it’s literally impossible that Marcionism could have been so instantly popular if Marcion had made it all up by himself in 145 AD or whenever (and in his New Testament the first published canon Marcion backed himself up with 10 Pauline epistles he claimed to have found at the Jesus School in Antioch).
The evidence we have about the Pharisees is that they did not have the sort of power you are attributing to them. Besides, if some Jews believed in a celestial-only Logos or figure who was some sort of emanation of or assistant to God then that would have been quite in line with other first century Jewish beliefs and speculations that were held by different sects at that time.
After 73 there were still Pharisees. Many of them moved to Galilee from Judea.
Sorry, but I don’t know off hand what evidence we have that Marcion claimed to have found ten Pauline epistles at Antioch. Marcion, according to our records of him, did not claim to have made it all up but acknowledged Christianity before he converted to it.
well my assumption was pharisees but certainly there was somebody shutting down the jesus schools.
“Besides, if some Jews believed in a celestial-only Logos or figure who was some sort of emanation of or assistant to God then that would have been quite in line with other first century Jewish beliefs and speculations that were held by different sects at that time.”
well yeah isn’t that what we’re talking about? one of them said they got visions along those lines from Jesus
the Marcion/Antioch reference might be apocrypha (though it’s interesting Paul refers to the school at Antioch, in the incident at Antioch with Peter and James) but however Marcion got them, certainly the Pauline epistles went out of circulation or underground for nearly a century. Then somehow Marcion gets his hands on them.
I mean, isn’t the standard story that Paul was shutting down the Jesus schools (persecuting Christians) until he converted himself? I confess I didn’t pay much attention for the brief period I was a Catholic. Was he working for someone, or on his own?
There is no reason to think so. The evidence we have that Paul or any other Jews in the early or mid first century “persecuted” Christians is all very late and contradictory.
Some points to consider: https://vridar.org/2014/12/15/paul-the-persecutor/
also you are not understanding or mischaracterizing Marcion and “made it all up.” My reference was that if Marcion made it up out of whole cloth himself there was no way his version could have been instantly popular. He had to have been building on previous ideas and movements and fairly confident of his ensuing success, in order to have bothered at all.
Apologties for getting your meaning wrong.