Category Archives: Historiography

Even a Bayesian Historian Can Slip Up! (once)

I argue that the interpretation of Bayesianism that I present here is the best explanation of the actual practices of historians.

— Tucker, Aviezer. 2009. Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. Reissue edition. Cambridge University Press. p. 134

Aviezer Tucker

I have posted aspects of Aviezer Tucker’s discussion of how Bayesian reasoning best represents the way historians conduct their research but here I want to post a few details in Tucker’s chapter that I have not covered so far.

(Interjection: it is not strictly fair to call Aviezer Tucker a “Bayesian historian” because, as is clear from the opening quote, what he argues is that all historians, at least at their best and overall, employ Bayesian logic without perhaps realizing it.)

Tucker includes discussion of biblical criticism in his book but in his chapter on Bayesian methods he unfortunately contradicts himself. The contradiction can best be explained, I think, by appealing to the power of the Christian story to implant unquestioned assumptions into even the best of scholars. I could call that my hypothesis and suggest that the prior probability for it being so in many historians is quite high.

No doubt readers will recall my recent quotation from Tucker:

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9). Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question:

“What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?”

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask,

“What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

(Tucker, p. 99)

One explanation for the documents relating the miracles is that the miracles happened and were recorded. Other explanations can also come to mind.

No doubt because the question focused on miracles it was very easy for Tucker and countless others before and since to think of alternative hypotheses to explain the stories of miracles that have survived for our reading entertainment today.

The Slip Up

But look what happened to Tucker’s argument when he was faced with something that sounded more “historically plausible”: read more »

How a Historian Establishes “What Happened” when “we only have the words of the text”

If all we have is an ancient historical or biographical narrative that we cannot verify by independent evidence (and keeping in mind that, as we saw in the previous post, external claims also need to be capable of verification) then how can a historian go about deciding how much of the narrative is likely to be true?

Pericles’ Funeral Oration (Perikles hält die Leichenrede) by Philipp Foltz (1852) — Wikimedia

Continuing with Peter Kosso’s argument we come to his fourth method of verification, an examination of the internal features of our document. Kosso is using Thucydides as a case study.

There is the fact, abhorrent to modern historians, that he never tells his sources [at best he only says he garnered information from (anonymous) eyewitnesses and his own experiences — my note], and that he never justifies his opinions.” There are no arguments in Thucydides, and no footnotes. These silences force the judge of his credibility to use internal methods, since they eliminate the easiest way of finding other, independent sources of information. (p. 9)

Take the long speeches he puts into the mouths of key actors. Thucydides explains that it was obviously impossible to report these accurately but he attempted to reproduce what he believed would have been the general sense of what each person said. Thus,

With his own words Thucydides makes us uneasy over his veracity and he plants the worry that the message of the speeches may be as much a report on his own opinion as on the facts of the matter. (p. 9)

Internal features compatible with accuracy and objectivity

  • Vivid and full of detail

The writing is exceptionally vivid and full of detail, “participatory” in the sense that the reader is drawn in to relive the events. This is reminiscent of Hume’s suggestion that the products of imagination are less vivid than the products of observation. (p. 10)

That sounds fine at first blush, but of course a moment’s reflection will warn us of the catch.

But of course a good novel can be vivid and participatory, and many works of fiction are livelier and more real-seeming than The Peloponnesian War. Attention to detail and realistic style, in other words, are not necessarily indicative of truth. (p. 10)

  • Expressing divergent opinions

Thucydides gives us two sides of the story when he sets out his speeches. He will allow a figure to present the Spartan point of view as well as another to give the Athenian one. That he does so suggests to us that he is trying to be fair and even-handed.

Presentation of all sides is of course possible to do in fiction as well, but it is perhaps less likely, since good fiction intends to make a point. Thus Thucydides’ reporting from a variety of perspectives would be a symptom of his objectivity if it remained evenhanded and no discernible opinion, no favored perspective of the events, emerged in the narrative. (p. 10)

But a close reading of Thucydides will reveal another, far less objective or historical, purpose for the presentation of these diverse viewpoints. At this point I leave Peter Kosso’s article for a moment and turn to a closer look at another article that Kosso cites: read more »

How We Know “What Actually Happened” in Ancient Times

Peter Kosso

Peter Kosso [link is to his academic page], a philosopher of epistemology (or “philosopher of how we know things”), explains how historians can know “what actually happened” in ancient times. I would love to see scholars like Kosso direct their understanding and criticism to attempted explanations by biblical scholars. Well, this post is an indirect attempt to do just that by picking out some of the most salient points of his article. (Though I would love to do so, I don’t cover all the aspects and subtleties of Kosso’s essay.)

Kosso, Peter. 1993. “Historical Evidence and Epistemic Justification: Thucydides as a Case Study.” History and Theory 32 (1): 1–13. https://doi.org/10.2307/2505326.

–o–

Kosso illustrates his arguments with reference to the ancient historian with the reputation of being the father of scientific history, Thucydides.

How can we know if we can trust Thucydides’ account of the Peloponnesian war?

There are two possible ways of going about answering this question. One is external and the other internal.

  • External: We can turn to outside sources, other texts or archaeological evidence, to test the claims of Thucydides.
  • Internal: We can examine what was written by Thucydides himself and make a judgement based on what he himself says about himself and his work.
Thucydides

Four kinds of corroboration

#1 Material evidence: If surviving architectural monuments and natural terrain match what an ancient historian says then the text gains “a measure of justification”.

#2 If different authors write about the same or related things then to the extent that their accounts are consistent and further our understanding of events then “each gains credibility”.

#3 If another ancient work refers to Thucydides and discusses both him as a person and how he went about his work then we gain helpful background information to what we are reading in Thucydides’ history. But that report on Thucydides must be independent and not composed by a sycophant seeking the favours of Thucydides himself, of course.

This is to block the circularity of a theory accounting for its own evidence, a circularity that would make the testing vacuous. For the same reason, a textual source of information about some particular textual evidence must be independent of that evidence. The author of the accounting claims, for example, must not be a sycophant of the historian being described, but must have an independent source of credibility. (p. 4)

#4 What does the author say about himself and how he went about collecting his information? Does he display an awareness of the difference between eyewitness and hearsay evidence? Does he present both sides of conflicts or is he clearly biased? Do we find attention to detail? Are his explanations coherent? Is he vague in his descriptions or does he inspire confidence with realistic pictures of what actually happened? All of these features “might be used as indicators of accuracy and credibility.”

Putting Thucydides to the above tests

read more »

Once more on that false courtroom analogy

(Second part to “The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun)

.

Courtroom, lawyer and detective analogies seem to be especially favoured by evangelicals and even mainstream biblical scholars. No doubt the comparison with judges and criminal investigators lends a certain aura of credibility and authority to the methods or arguments that are being buttressed by the analogies, but as we have seen here a number of times before the analogy is very misleading.

Bart Ehrman is currently repeating the courtroom analogy he set out in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium (1999) that seeks to explain how historians of Christian origins work. On pages 89-90 he writes (again my own bolding):

Here I’d like to sketch several of the methodological principles that have emerged from these debates. As you will see, there is a real logic behind each of them, and the logic needs to be understood for the criterion itself not to seem hopelessly arbitrary. In particular, it might help to use an analogy: in many respects, the historian is like a prosecuting attorney. He or she is trying to make a case and is expected to bear the burden of proof. As in a court of law, certain kinds of evidence are acknowledged as admissible, and witnesses must be carefully scrutinized. How, then, can we go about it?

. . . .

In any court trial, it is better to have a number of witnesses who can provide consistent testimony than to have only one, especially if the witnesses can be shown not to have conferred with one another in order to get their story straight. A strong case will be supported by several witnesses who independently agree on a point at issue. So, too, with history. An event mentioned in several independent documents is more likely to be historical than an event mentioned in only one.

But that is not how biblical scholars work and the analogy is seriously misleading. read more »

“The Historian’s Wish List” – “clearly” jumping the gun

The Gospels may not have been written as objective, disinterested accounts of what really happened in the life of Jesus, but they clearly do contain historical information. The trick is figuring out what is historical and what is legendary.Bart Ehrman: “The Historians Wish List”

They “clearly do contain historical information”? Clearly? How do we know?

There are some details that can be corroborated by independent sources, such as the existence of Pharisees, Roman authority over Judea, cultic practices around the Jerusalem temple, and so forth. But without those independent witnesses we would have no way of knowing that even those details were “clearly historical information”.

Bart Ehrman does point out the existence of “external” sources in Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium — e.g. Pliny, Tacitus. Yes, their writings are certainly “external” to the gospels but to what extent they are “independent” or even authentic is another question that the historian is required to assess prior to his/her use of them. Ehrman calls them “external checks” on the gospels, but they can only be “checks” (p. 53) if they can be established to be independent. If they derive from a time much later than the events narrated in the gospels then questions inevitably arise about their independence of knowledge of the canonical gospel story. (In the case of Pliny we have serious questions about the authenticity of the key letter, not to mention the letter’s failure to even mention “Jesus” per se.)

(Note: we have seen in case studies of Demonax and Gyges on this blog that an external source can be late and still be reasonably argued to contain independent information and it can be contemporary and found to be false. But arguments need to be provided; the simple fact of lateness or contemporaneity alone does not automatically rule out or in the value of evidence. Comparable arguments would need to be supplied for the claims found in Tacitus for Tacitus to be considered an “external check” on the gospel accounts.)

It is one thing to know that documents contain or hide historical information in or behind their narratives and from that foundation proceed to see what we might consider historical. But it is quite another exercise to come to that prior certainty that the documents “clearly do contain historical information” that can be extracted somehow.

If we start applying methods to extract information of a certain kind before first establishing that the source is a genuine repository of that information, then we are putting the cart before the horse. Our exercise becomes a circular process. We will declare our extracted information “historical” (or “probably historical”) and possibly use that result to go back and argue that our documents “clearly do contain historical information.”

 

 

Scholarly Protection of the Uniqueness of Christianity

John S. Kloppenborg

Thanks to Jim West I was informed of the public availability of a new article by the well-known New Testament scholar John S. Kloppenborg.

Kloppenborg, John S. 2017. “Disciplined Exaggeration: The Heuristics of Comparison in Biblical Studies.” Novum Testamentum 59 (4): 390–414. https://doi.org/10.1163/15685365-12341583.

I think the article should always be cited whenever reference is made to Samuel Sandmel’s 1962 article warning of the flaws of uncontrolled “parallelomania“. Together they warn against either extreme.

Some quotations from Kloppenborg’s article (with the usual notice that formatting and bolding is mine):

By contrast, comparison in the historiography of early Christianity has had a peculiar history: comparisons were often employed either to establish the difference and, indeed, the incommensurability of Christian forms with anything in their environment; or, as Jonathan Z. Smith has observed, comparison was used to create “safe” comparanda such as the construct of “Judaism,” which then served to insulate emerging Christianity from “Hellenistic influence.” . . . .

. . . . comparison in the study of early Christianity has often been used to assert its sui generis and incommensurable character. That is, comparison is invoked to rule out comparison or to limit it so that comparison becomes inconsequential.  (p. 393)

Some readers will be aware of the work of the Jesus Seminar and the publications of John Crossan, Burton Mack and others pointing out similarities to Q and Cynic sayings.

On this hypothesis, the social postures evident in either the Sayings Gospel Q, or (for Crossan) in for the historical Jesus himself could be fruitfully compared with Graeco-Roman Cynicism. There was no claim that Q or Jesus were “influenced” by Cynicism, but instead that the social postures of Q (or Jesus) were “cynic-like,” in the sense that they constituted a radical deconstruction of the prevailing ways in which Galilean society constructed social and economic hierarchies, moral categories, and the very nature of piety. The reaction to this proposal was immediate and visceral. (pp. 394f)

And continues to this day, I notice.

No! No! No! went the reaction. There was no “archaeological evidence” of Cynicism anywhere in Galilee. Recalling the story that the reputed founder of Cynicism, Diogenes, set up his home in a bathtub (some say wine-cask) Kloppenborg wryly comments:

one wonders what could constitute archaeological evidence of Cynicism: bathtubs?

But K more pertinently notes the evidence of the tendentiousness of this reaction: read more »

How Historical Research Works (and does not work) — even with Bayes’

A Roman Catholic historian who thinks he’s a Bayesian walks into the secret Vatican archives. There he discovers a document that might have significance for rewriting the origins of Christianity. I have reproduced a facsimile:

The historian is stunned. His faith has taught him that James was only a cousin or half-brother. If he was wrong about that, he wonders, how can he even be sure Jesus existed at all?

Reeling in doubts, the historian is nonetheless conscientious and no fool. He knows he has to test this document for its authenticity. So he snips off a corner of it and sends it to the laboratory to determine the age and provenance of the material. As an extra check he sends a high definition copy to a paleographer.

The results come back. The material is dated between 40 AD and 60 AD and the paleographic analysis confirms that the style to what was typical of the year 50 AD.

Next, he asks if the letter is genuinely by Paul. His colleagues tell him it sounds just like the Paul they know so that is confirmed.

Since this is evidently an autograph questions of the contents of the letter being altered during the process of copying do not arise.

But how reliable are its contents as historical evidence? Our historian asks if we can verify that this particular James really was known to be the literal brother of Jesus.

He consults the latest scholarship on the book of Acts and discovers that it is now established “beyond doubt” that the first chapters, 1-15, were written in the year 45 AD and that the original text said that James was not only the head of the church but was also the junior brother of Jesus, one year younger to be precise. The contents of Paul’s letter are confirmed!

But our historian is more thorough still. Did anyone else in the early church know anything of this letter and its contents? He pores through Tertullian’s writings and sees that Tertullian quotes the passage about meeting James to refute Marcion’s heresy that Jesus was not really a flesh and blood human being born of a woman on earth.

That clinched it! The letter and its contents sure seemed to be genuine and known to be genuine by the venerable Fathers.

But our historian is a Bayesian. At least he thinks he is. He read half of a blurb on the back cover of a book that had Bayes written on its front cover and is confident that he got the hang of it from that.

If he was wrong about Jesus having brothers how can he be sure Jesus even existed? The historian pauses to think of all the unbelievable stories about Jesus. Could such a person really have existed in the first place? So he puts on what he thinks is his Bayesian cap that looks very much like one of those conical dunce caps and sets to work.

He weighed the evidence. He took all the stories that were mythical and set them against the evidence for the reality of Jesus and here’s what he found:

The weight of numbers proved it. Jesus did not exist after all. He was entirely mythical. The claims of the letter were all bogus. read more »

Reply to James McGrath’s Criticism of Bayes’s Theorem in the Jesus Mythicism Debate

Aviezer Tucker

James McGrath in a recent post, Jesus Mythicism: Two Truths and a Lie, made the following criticism of the use of Bayes’s theorem in the Jesus Mythicism debate:

. . . . as I was reminded of the problematic case that Richard Carrier has made for incorporating mathematical probability (and more specifically a Bayesian approach) into historical methods. . . .

If one followed Carrier’s logic, each bit of evidence of untruth would diminish the evidence for truth, and each bit of evidence that is compatible with the non-historicity of Jesus diminishes the case for his historicity.

The logic of this argument is based on a misunderstanding of the nature of historical inquiry and how a historian is expected to apply Bayesian logic. (It also misconstrues Carrier’s argument but that is another question. I want only to focus on a correct understanding of how a historian validly applies Bayesian reasoning.)

In support of my assertion that James McGrath’s criticism is misinformed I turn to a historian and philosopher of history, Aviezer Tucker (see also here and here), author of Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography. He treats Bayesian reasoning by historical researchers in depth in chapter three. I quote a section from that chapter (with my own formatting):

There have been attempts to use the full Bayesian formula to evaluate hypotheses about the past, for example, whether miracles happened or not (Earman, 2000, pp. 53–9).

We may compare McGrath’s criticism. He is of the impression that the Bayesian formula is used to evaluate the hypothesis that Jesus did exist. This is a common misunderstanding. If you are confused, continue to read.

Despite Earman’s correct criticism of Hume (1988), both ask the same full Bayesian question:

“What is the probability that a certain miracle happened, given the testimonies to that effect and our scientific background knowledge?”

We may compare McGrath’s criticism again. He is of the impression that the historian using Bayesian logic is asking what is the probability that Jesus existed, given the testimonies to that effect and our background knowledge. If you are still confused then you share McGrath’s misunderstanding of the nature of historical inquiry. So continue with Tucker:

But this is not the kind of question biblical critics and historians ask. They ask,

“What is the best explanation of this set of documents that tells of a miracle of a certain kind?”

The center of research is the explanation of the evidence, not whether or not a literal interpretation of the evidence corresponds with what took place.

(Tucker, p. 99)

In other words, biblical critics and historians ask (Tucker is assuming the biblical critic and historian is using Bayesian logic validly and with a correct understand of the true nature of historical research) what is the best explanation for a document that, say, purports to be by Paul saying he met the James, “the brother of the Lord”.

I use that particular example because — and someone correct me if I am mistaken — Jame McGrath and others believe that passage (Galatians 1:19) makes any questioning of the historicity of Jesus an act of “denialism”. (McGrath does not tell his readers in the post we are addressing what he has in mind as the “clear-cut” evidence for the historicity of Jesus but from previous posts and comments I am convinced that it is the “brother of the Lord” passage in Galatians 1:19 that he has in mind. If I am wrong then someone will no doubt inform me.)

No one, I am sure, would mean to infer that the late and highly respected Philip R. Davies was guilty of denialism when he suggested that the historical methods he applied to the Old Testament should also be applied to the New — a method I have sought to apply to the study of Christian origins ever since I read Davies’ groundbreaking book.

Back to the question. It is the question of what is the best explanation for the passage in our version of Galatians that I have attempted to address several times now.

That is the question that the historian needs to ask. Every decent book I have read for students about to undertake advanced historical studies has stressed, among many other duties, the necessity for the researcher to question the provenance, the authenticity, of the documents he or she is using, and to know all the questions related to such questions from a thorough investigation of the entire field. My several posts have attempted to introduce such questions that should be basic to any historical study.

Tucker, from my reading of his book, would not consider such an exercise to be “denialism”, but sound and fundamental historical method — and even sound biblical criticism. read more »

Testing the Claim that Jesus Scholars Use the Methods of Other Historians (Part 1)

Damn. I fell for it (again). A professor promoted a new book as “making the most sense of the crucifixion” and “making a fresh contribution to studies of the ‘historical Jesus'” so I made a rush purchase and read it the same day it arrived. Silly me, I should first have checked the University of Edinburgh Library’s open access policy and archive of dissertations because it is sitting there free of charge for all to read. Access is also online through the British Library. There are only slight modifications of wording and more truncated bibliographic references in the published version.  Sadly both versions make it clear that the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh is responsible for some very crude fundamentalist-level apologetics posing as serious scholarship. I expected better from the University of Edinburgh.

The first difficulty I had with the book (We Have Found the Messiah: How the Disciples Help Us Answer the Davidic Question) was lack of clarity over its aim. It often sounded as if the author, Michael Zolondek (=MZ), was arguing that Jesus was a Davidic Messiah in some absolute sense that Christians today could claim was “the” identifier of Jesus. That is, we today should think of Jesus as a genuine Davidic Messiah just as surely as we think of him as a Jew or a male (or god in the flesh?) — quite independently of what anyone else thought of him (passim from p. xiv to p. 143). Other times MZ narrows the question down to suggest he meant he was the Davidic Messiah in the eyes of the disciples specifically (chapter 5). Does he mean the reader to understand that the disciples’ perspective is “The Truth” that readers of the gospels should also embrace? Confusion of terms bedevils other areas as well. For example, at one point MZ appears to acknowledge that the criterion of multiple attestation has value only if each witness is independent (p. 92) but other times he implies that multiple attestation has value even when the witnesses are not independent (p. 98).

But my interest in this post is one particular detail about the book that I found quite curious. On at least three separate occasions in his chapter on “methodological issues” MZ stressed that biblical scholars such as himself really are following the same methods as historians of other fields. By the third time I had to ask if MZ doth protesteth too much.

Another strange feature of this doctoral dissertation was a bizarrely irrelevant and quite misleading comment about Jesus mythicism. I can post about that quirk another time.

Before I get into the discussion of the fallacious foundation of MZ’s argument here let me quote one passage that at first glance appears to contradict what I have just said:

The most significant of these [methodological issues] is, in my opinion, the fact that often times historical Jesus scholars are doing ancient history quite differently than ancient historians normally would. (p. 98, my emphasis and formatting in all quotations)

It turns out that what MZ means here is that Jesus scholars “often times” are working by far stricter standards than anything followed by “ancient historians normally”, and that if only more Jesus scholars would lower their standards to be consistent with those found in Classics and Ancient History departments at universities they would, lo and behold, find their job much easier and be able to reconstruct and prove all sorts of things about Jesus. Further, in his discussions of historical methods MZ cites sources that actually discuss the philosophy of history and debatable questions of historiography and problems in creating historical narratives, apparently confusing them with discussions of research methods brought to bear in evaluating sources and discovering certain facts about the past. I believe that these are generally distinct areas of study that MZ appears to have confused as I will also discuss below or in a follow up post.

Here are MZ’s more insistent claims that Jesus scholars use the same methods as other historians: read more »

Doing History: Did Celts Ritually Kill Their Kings?

Cathbad placed his hand on the woman’s stomach and prophesied that the unborn child would be a girl named Deirdre, and that she would be exceedingly beautiful but would bring about the ruin of Ulster.

FROM THE TÁIN BÓ CUAILNGE

A recurrent theme in stories about the Irish gods is that of the love triangle between an old husband (or fiancé), a young suitor and a young girl. This is probably a disguised myth of sovereignty wherein an old king is challenged by a young claimant to the throne. The young girl in the middle of the triangle may be identified with the goddess of sovereignty, whose power of granting prosperity to the land had to be won by means of sexual union with the young pretender. If the land needed revivifying, the old mortal king had to be deposed in favour of vigorous youth.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Kindle Locations 975-981). Thames and Hudson Ltd. Kindle Edition. (My bolding in all quotations)

We also have Roman testimony that the Celts practised human sacrifice:

They used to strike a human being, whom they had devoted to death, in the back with a sabre, and then divine from his death-struggle. But they would not sacrifice without the Druids. We are told of still other kinds of human sacrifices; for example, they would shoot victims to death with arrows, or impale them in the temples, or, having devised a colossus of straw and wood, throw into the colossus cattle and wild animals of all sorts and human beings, and then make a burnt-offering of the whole thing.

Strabo, Geography, IV, 4.5

Compare the circularity of “Biblical archaeology”:

Q: How do we know that the Biblical King David existed?
A: Archaeologists have unearthed the Tel Dan inscription that contains the expression many translate as “House of David”.
Q: How do we know that that inscription should not be translated temple of the beloved (david=beloved), a reference to a deity?
A: We have the Biblical story about King David.

The moral of this post is that correlation does not imply causation. We love mythical tales, both Celtic and Biblical. We often want to believe there is some truth behind them so it is easy for us to interpret archaeological finds as evidence for that “historical core”. But we fail to see that we are falling into the trap of circularity when we do that:

Q: How do we know the stories of Celtic human sacrifice were true?

A: Archaeologists have unearthed evidence of ritual killings.

Q: How do we know the evidence of the bones points to ritual killing?

A: That is the most natural interpretation given the literary accounts of human sacrifice.

  • Left unasked of the evidence: could the evidence of bones be explained in other ways? a post-death ritual misunderstood by the Romans, for example?
  • Left unasked of the Roman accounts: were tales of barbarism among conquered peoples manufactured to justify Roman belief that their conquests were a civilizing mission?

–o0o–

Lindow Man

In August 1984, the mechanical digger of peat-cutters working at Lindow Moss in Cheshire uncovered a human arm, part of a 2,000-year-old bog-body. The remains were those of a young man in his prime, about 25 years old. He was naked but for an armlet made of fox-fur, and no grave goods accompanied him. The mistletoe in his digested food revealed that he had eaten a special ‘last supper’. Like the Irish victims, this man had horrific injuries leading to his death: most significant were at least two blows to the head that cracked his skull and stunned him; he was then garrotted and, at the same time, his throat was cut.

The triple manner of his death has led some to connect him with the early medieval myth of the ritual threefold death that befell some Irish kings. One of these was the 6th-century AD Diarmaid mac Cerbhaill, who enquired of his wise men the manner of his death. The answer was that he would be stabbed, drowned in a vat of ale and burnt. Diarmaid scorned the prophecy, but it came to pass. Lindow Man was selected for a special death and burial. It was important that his body would be frozen in time, not permitted to decay, so the normal rites of death and ease of passage to the next world were denied him. His journey to the Otherworld was halted at the gate leading out from the world of humans.

Aldhouse-Green, Miranda. The Celtic Myths: A Guide to the Ancient Gods and Legends (Kindle Locations 2696-2708). Thames and Hudson Ltd. Kindle Edition.

–o0o–

Murder on the Mire

One Irish story, in the Cycle of Kings, describes the events leading up to the convoluted death of King Diarmuid. The king slays the man his wife has been having an affair with, and a Druid, or prophet, named Bec Mac De, foretells that he will suffer a three-fold death as a result – at the hands of one of the adulterer’s relatives, Aedh. The prophecy was very precise: Diarmuid would be killed by wounding, burning, drowning and a ridge pole falling on his head (a fourfold death, in fact). Eventually the prophecy is fulfilled. Black Aedh, in the doorway of the house where the king is feasting, pierces Diarmuid through the chest with his spear and breaks his spine; Diarmuid flees back into the house, but Aedh’s men set it on fire; Diarmuid immerses himself in a vat of ale to escape the flames; finally, the roof beam of the burning house falls on his head and finishes him off.

The triple deaths of kings and warriors described in the Irish myths, very often prophesied in advance, involve accidental fatal injuries as well as intentional assaults, but they may mythologize an actual practice: a ritual form of threefold killing. Perhaps this is a rare and valuable clue, from Celtic – rather than Roman – literature, that the Celts did indeed carry out human sacrifices.

Roberts, A. (2015). The Celts by Alice Roberts (UK Airports edition). Heron Books.

read more »

How a Fairy Tale King Became Historical

Jean-Léon Gérôme – Kandaules

Putting together the various ancient sources about the ancient King Gyges of Lydia the Professor of Latin at Johns Hopkins University, Kirby Flower Smith, arrived at the following story from which they all ultimately derived:

Gyges … the ancestor of Croesus was a shepherd when he was young, in the service of [Kandaules] king of Lydia. Once upon a time there was a storm and an earthquake so violent that the ground split open near the place where Gyges was watching his flocks. Gyges was amazed at the sight and finally went down into the cleft. The story tells of many wonderful things which he saw there ….

Among these wonderful things was a brazen horse which was hollow and had doors. In it was nothing but a corpse, of heroic size, and on one of its fingers a gold ring.

Gyges took the ring and came out again.

Sometime later he attended the monthly assembly of the shepherds and while there accidentally discovered the qualities of his ring, as described by Plato:

As he was sitting among the others he happened to turn the collet of it towards him and into the inside of his hand. The moment this was done he became invisible… [Plato, Republic II, 14]

He then procured his appointment as one of the messengers to the king and went up to Sardis to seek his fortune.

After reaching Sardis an adventure with the ring brought him to the notice of Kandaules (the king). At first, he was highly favored but later the king, who was cruel and whimsical, became suspicious of Gyges and set him at several tasks certain, as he supposed, to compass his destruction. Gyges, however, performed them all successfully with the aid of his ring, was reinstated in favor and given great estates ….

Gyges was now not only rich and powerful but also admired and feared for his beauty, strength and address, and for his versatility and superhuman knowledge of what was going on. The king who, like everyone else, knew nothing of his ring…, found Gyges invaluable, gave him the post of chief adviser and consulted him on all occasions.

There was one thing, however, which Kandaules had always kept jealously guarded, because it was the principal source, the real secret, of his power. This was his wife. She was …. exceedingly beautiful. But what made her indispensable to Kandaules was the fact that she was also very wise and powerful, being a mighty sorceress.

The one vulnerable spot in Kandaules was his passion for his wife. Like all who had ever seen her he was utterly bewitched by her beauty and as his confidence in Gyges increased he began to talk of it more and more freely. At last he insisted upon showing her. [Gyges refused, foreseeing mortal peril to himself from either, or both. But at last he was forced to comply and] the programme devised by Kandaules was carried out as related by Herodotos:

[The king said to Gyges], “Courage, friend…. Be sure I will so manage that she shall not even know that thou has looked upon her. I will place thee behind the open door of the chamber in which we sleep. When I enter to go to rest she will follow me. There stands a chair close to the entrance, on which she will lay her clothes one by one as she takes them off. Thou wilt be able thus at thy leisure to peruse her person. Then, when she is moving from the chair toward the bed, and her back is turned on thee, be it thy care that she see thee not as thou passest through the doorway.” [Herodotus, I, 7-16]

Gyges gazed upon her. She was more lovely even than Kandaules had described her,and Gyges fell in love with her then and there. Finally, having turned his ring around to make himself invisible, Gyges left the room.

The queen, however, [possessed a dragon-stone….. As he was going out [she] had seen Gyges [in spite of his magic ring]. But she made no sign. She knew that the situation was due to Kandaules and swore to be avenged.

When, therefore, Gyges, perhaps at her own instigation, came to her and declared his passion, revenge and, possibly, other considerations, prompted her to yield. Gyges was able to visit her unobserved on account of his magic ring and the intrigue went on for some time, [nothing being said on either side regarding the door episode.]

At last, when the queen saw that Gyges was entirely in her power, and being also in love with him herself, she laid her plans and sent for him. When he arrived, she told him [that she had seen him look on her as she undressed] that now Gyges must slay Kandaules or else die himself. Whatever the feelings of Gyges may have been, his situation, despite his magic ring, was even more desperate than in Herodotos. He had a sorceress to deal with and was committed to her by ties which he could not break, even if he had so desired.

Gyges acceded, the destruction of Kandaules was planned and carried out by the two …. and with the aid of the magic ring ….. [He thrust a dagger through him as he slept.]

When the deed was accomplished she gave Gyges the kingdom, as she had promised. He made her his queen [and they lived happily ever after.]

Such is the tale of Gyges, ancestor of Croesus …..

Smith, K. F. (1902). The Tale of Gyges and the King of Lydia. The American Journal of Philology, 23(4), 383–385. https://doi.org/10.2307/288700<

Did Gyges exist?

Professor Smith evidently did not think so. The above narrative he constructed from the various ancient tales of Gyges:
read more »

Fundamentals of historical research and the difficulties faced by historical Jesus studies

Some readers may have come across a very long list of ancient writers who “could or should” have made some mention of Jesus. That list surfaced in another forum discussion today and I found myself faithlessly writing a response to it there instead of spending my time on Vridar. To make amends, hoping Vridar will not feel offended or as if being treated second-class, I copy below what I wrote in the Afa forum.

Such a list serves as a reminder of the riches in sources that are available for the early Roman empire period compared with many other periods of ancient times.

What is fundamental to historical research is the necessity to independently corroborate sources and their claims. It’s not the only requirement but I have a hard time thinking of many ancient figures that are securely known to have existed without meeting that benchmark in the records.

I have listed below what I think are the fundamentals that historical researchers look for when examining the documentary sources. Independent corroboration is left to last

  • Documents need to be assessed for authenticity;

— that includes being able to trace their provenance, assess when they were possibly written, where, etc.

  • their authors ideally need to be identified in order for the investigator to have some idea of how likely they were to have access to certain information, what biases and agendas they may have had, etc;

— We have such information for a good number of ancient authors

  • the literary culture that forms the matrix of the document needs to be understood in order to guide analysis and interpretation;

— we need to understand the conventions of ancient historians and the proclivities of individuals: e.g. their tendency to invent historical accounts drawing upon classical epics and plays when their sources failed them

  • we need to be able to identify and evaluate the probable sources of ancient documents;

— were they relying upon historians before them and if so, which ones, when did they live, what reasons do we have for thinking their work to be reliable, etc

— part of this requirement is the acknowledgment that contemporary sources must form the basis of historical reconstructions. Sometimes later sources can be more reliable or act as checks but they can only rarely be a trusted starting point for historical inquiry

  • and claims made in the documents need to be independently corroborated

— e.g by archaeology, by ancient monuments and inscriptions, by contemporary documents by unrelated authors, etc.

These are the fundamentals. Obviously such processes leave the historian with less data than historians of more recent times have at their fingertips. That doesn’t mean that historians of ancient world lower their standards, however. It means instead that they ask broader questions or the sorts of questions that they know their sources will help them answer.

It also means there is often less certainty in some of their conclusions.

When it comes to the study of Jesus, historians are on the back foot with almost all of the above: read more »

Who Depoliticized Early Christianity?

Who killed Jesus and why?

With the Roman occupation of Palestine and its tense atmosphere of messianic hopefuls within the first century CE, the horrors of crucifixion were a real and ever present reality for messianic claimants like Jesus. A reality of which Paul and the first Christians would have been all too aware. Simply put, [Richard] Carrier inadvertently depoliticizes early Christianity. (Daniel N. Gullotta 2016, “On Richard Carrier’s Doubts“, Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus, pp. 332-333, emphasis mine)

Do you know who else depoliticized early Christianity? Early Christians. Paul. The evangelists. The early Church Fathers. In short, everyone.

New Testament authors are clear about why Jesus died and who is responsible. According to “our oldest sources” (to invoke a scholarly term), Jesus had done nothing worthy of punishment. As Hyam Maccoby put it:

According to the Gospels, Jesus was the victim of a frame-up. His aims were purely religious, and in pursuing them, he had fallen foul of the Jewish religious establishment, who, in order to get rid of him, concocted a political charge, and managed to hoodwink the Roman governor, Pilate, into believing it. When Pilate still showed reluctance to execute Jesus, they pressed the political charge until he was left with no option: ‘The Jews kept shouting, “If you let this man go, you are no friend to Caesar; any man who claims to be king is defying Caesar.”’ (John 19.7). (Maccoby 1984, “Who Killed Jesus?” London Review of Books, emphasis mine)

Englewood Dam

A narrow, precarious path

The story of Jesus’ death, followed by the successful spread of Christianity as related in the gospels and Acts, reminds me of the road across Englewood Dam. The dam, located northwest of Dayton, Ohio, protects the area from flooding by the Stillwater River. A number of dams in the area, all built after the Great Dayton Flood, have a similar design. The levees on either side are enormous, allowing the reservoirs to retain billions of gallons of water.

The first time I drove across the levee, I was struck by how easy it seemed (if not for the guardrails) to veer slightly to the left or the right, tumbling 100 feet down the embankment into the trees. The story of the Passion follows a similarly narrow, but more circuitous path. If Jesus was a rebel, a brigand, then he really was an enemy of Rome. And that just won’t do, will it? However, if Jesus did nothing but teach and heal, then why would Pilate have put him to death? Somehow, Jesus must have provoked someone to cause this chain of events, but who?

According to the New Testament, it was “the Jews.” The Jewish leaders were jealous of his fame, or else they worried the people would believe in him and cause the Romans to come and destroy them. (See John 11:45-53.) And here we see one of the great uses of the hypothesized historical Jesus. A reconstructed Jesus allows NT scholars in the post-Holocaust world to reinterpret verses like these: read more »

The Year of the Nativity: Consensus, Harmonization, and Plausibility

Herod the Great

Yes, it does seem odd for Vridar to have so many Christmas posts this year. I normally watch the holidays go by and think to myself, “I should have written something about that.”

In any case, I promise this will be my last Christmas post of the year, which should be an easy vow to keep, since it’s already the 28th.

In a previous post, I wrote about the date of the nativity. This time we’ll look at the year of Jesus’ birth. Considering all the ink scholars have spilled over this subject, and all the contortions many of them have gone through to push for specific dates that “work” (even so far as to move the death of Herod to 1 BCE), it’s a wonder there is a consensus. And yet, almost everywhere you look, you’ll find the date range of 6 to 4 BCE.

Only the most diehard apologist would try to harmonize Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts of the nativity. They diverge at nearly every point. Moreover, most critical scholars recognize the birth stories as legends. Both Matthew and Luke contain two momentous events which, had they actually occurred, would have given us a precise date for Jesus’ birth. In Matthew, Herod the Great slaughters all the young children in Bethlehem. In Luke, Augustus calls for “all the world to be taxed.”

Neither of these events happened, and therein lies the problem. They are legendary accounts told for religious, doctrinal reasons. And here’s a good rule of thumb: Once you’ve tossed rotten fruit into the dumpster, don’t climb back in to see if you can find some edible bits. In other words, resist the temptation to find a kernel of truth in fictional accounts, especially when you have absolutely no corroborating external evidence. There’s no shame in saying, “We don’t know, and we may never know.read more »