Category Archives: History


2017-10-21

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

by Neil Godfrey

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like that “armchair historian” bit.

In the mouth of at least two witnesses . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christians burn the Great Library of Alexandria?

The same website spreads the blame further yet:

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

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

So it looks like Gibbon planted “the meme”.

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


2017-05-28

Are theologians rationalizing myths and miracles as ancients rationalized their myths?

by Neil Godfrey

The Red Sea Exodus certainly did not happen as the Bible relates it, but many find a way to keep the story as “true” by rationalizing it: a smaller number of Israelites waded through at low tide, for example.

King David may not have ruled over a great kingdom as the Bible tells us, so he was probably a local bandit warlord at the very least.

Jesus surely did not heal merely with a command, so we believe he healed by means of ancient rituals which had some psychosomatic power.

The disciples obviously could not have literally seen Jesus alive after his death, so we must conclude that they had either some sort of hallucinatory experience or an inner conviction that convinced them he was resurrected.

In such ways many of us today find ways to cling to mythical tales. We discard anything that is contrary to our everyday experience and find a natural way to more or less explain how less sophisticated people came up with such mythical tales that are so important to us.

One example of an ancient philosopher doing just that very same thing is Palaephatus, someone who had been taught by Aristotle.

Look at how he rationalized the myth of Pandora:

The story about Pandora is intolerable — that she was fashioned out of earth and imparted her shape to others. It hardly seems likely to me. 

Pandora was a wealthy Greek woman: whenever she went out in public, she would dress up in her finest and rub her face with a cosmetic made of earth [i.e. white lead that Athenian women used to whiten their faces]. It was she who first discovered how to apply such cosmetics to her skin. Nowadays, of course, many women do so, and none of them gains any special renown because the practice is so common. 

This is what happened; but the story was twisted in an impossible direction. 

(Palaephatus, 34.Pandora, in J. Stern (1996), translator and commentator, On Unbelievable Tales / Palaephatus. Wauconda, IL, Bolchazy-Carduzzi.)

Only a fool would believe a human being could literally turn to stone:

They say that Niobe, a living woman, turned into stone on the tomb of her children. Anyone who believes that a human being turned into a stone or a stone into a human being is a fool. The truth is as follows. 

When Niobe’s children died, someone made a statue of Niobe out of stone and set it on the tomb. Passersby would say: “A stone Niobe is standing on the tomb. We saw her ourselves.” . . . . That is how it was, but Niobe herself did not turn into stone. 

(Palaephatus, 8:Niobe)

And so on and so forth.

Interesting to note the assumption that there must have been historicity, something historical, behind the myths. It is as if it were inconceivable that anyone would “just make up” such stories. Some form of evolving “social memory” is surely the source of significant cultural heritage. A wise man like Palaephatus would analyse the narrative and “discern” the most plausible “historical reconstruction” behind it.

And theologians have continued the tradition up to the present day, yes?

 

 


2016-09-11

September 11 and the Surveillance State

by Tim Widowfield

There was of course no way of knowing whether you were being watched at any given moment. How often, or on what system, the Thought Police plugged in on any individual wire was guesswork. It was even conceivable that they watched everybody all the time. but at any rate they could plug in your wire whenever they wanted to. You have to live – did live, from habit that became instinct – in the assumption that every sound you made was overheard, and, except in darkness, every movement scrutinized. (George Orwell, 1984, Chapter 1)

Our world, sixteen years after 11 September 2001, has changed dramatically in both subtle and obvious ways. We scarcely notice one of the most all-encompassing changes, namely the loss of privacy in almost every facet of our lives. Cameras track us everywhere we go. Our credit card payments betray our every purchase. Our cell phones share our GPS locations. We voluntarily tell people where we are, where we’re going, what we’re eating, and what we’re thinking on social media platforms.

Mostly, we relinquished our illusion of privacy without a peep. Our language shows the voluntary nature of our loss: We share with people, and simultaneously, we share with our governments. Once upon a time in the West, we trusted our governments to spy only on suspects. If they gathered enough evidence, they might arrest those suspects. But now our governments “surveil” those whom it deems “persons of interest.” If those persons act “suspiciously,” they may be “detained.”

Presumably, we allowed these changes to occur because of 9/11, specifically, because our intelligence agencies had failed. Surely, if a small band of terrorists could bring down skyscrapers in Manhattan and strike the Pentagon, someone must have failed somewhere. We can’t deny that. But exactly where did that failure occur? read more »


2015-11-16

“New Atheists Are Bad Historians”

by Neil Godfrey

Did you know that the “New Atheists and their online acolytes” have “a long list” of historical ideas that are “wildly wrong”? If this situation has been causing you sleepless nights then you will be relieved to learn that Tim O’Neill has started a new blog to bring these dimwits to their senses. It’s called . . . .

HfH

For those of us who had not realized the full extent of this problem, Tim explains that these New Atheists — and he names them: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Christopher Hitchens (and also P.Z. Myers, Jerry Coyne and Richard Carrier) — happen to get wrong just about any and everything they ever say about history whenever they try to declare how bad religion has been for humanity.

Given that they are such historical ignoramuses it is not surprising that the one “cluster of fervid and contrived pseudo history” that comes in for special attention is the “elaborate fringe theory . . .  that is the Jesus Myth hypothesis”.

Tim proudly promises his readers plenty of sarcasm and scorn [meaning, if he continues with his past form, personal insults and abuse along with plenty of factual and logical fallacies], but his opening post, Why History for Atheists? An apologia for (yet) another blog, also promises some confusion of argument besides.

Before we address the promised confusion let’s understand more of Tim’s view of his new blog. Tim is pretty pleased the number of online hits to his earlier articles, laced as they are with “occasionally Irish-Australian atheist bastardry”, and has interpreted these clicks as “an appetite and a clear need for some level­ headed, carefully researched and objective fact checking and debunking of New Atheist Bad History”. Of course Tim is the one equipped and willing enough to meet that appetite and need.

He sincerely assures his readers that though his motives are dual they are not duplicitous. His two motives are

  • Firstly, I love history, including the history of religions, especially Christianity. . . .
  • Secondly, as a rationalist, I like to take rationalism seriously. So I go where the evidence takes me on history as with everything else. However much an idea may appeal to me emotionally, if the historical evidence doesn’t support it, I can’t accept it. Many New Atheists don’t seem capable of putting their emotions aside and looking at the evidence.

Little sign of the self-awareness and humility of a Daniel Boyarin here.

Thank God and Rationalism for Tim.

So what is all of this history that the New Atheists get wrong? Tim set it all out in “the long list”:

  1. Christians burned down the Great Library of Alexandria and Hypatia of Alexandria was murdered because of a Christian hatred of science
  2. Constantine was a crypto­pagan who adopted Christianity as a cynical political ploy (and personally created the Bible)
  3. Scientists were oppressed during the Middle Ages and science stagnated completely until “the Renaissance”
  4. “The Inquisition” was a kind of Europe­ wide medieval Gestapo and the medieval Church was an all­ powerful totalitarian theocracy
  5. Giordano Bruno was a wise and brave astronomer and cosmologist who was burned at the stake because the Church hated science
  6. The Galileo Affair was a straightforward case of religion ignoring evidence and trying to suppress scientific advancement
  7. Pope Pius XII was a friend and ally of the Nazis who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and helped Nazis escape justice

I hadn’t realized Dawkins, Harris, Dennett and Hitchens, have been filling our sponge-brains with such dated prejudices. read more »


2015-06-05

The Doctrine of Discovery: The Legal Framework of Colonialism, Slavery, and Holy War

by Tim Widowfield
English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John...

English: An oil painting of Chief Justice John Marshall (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1823, the Supreme Court of the United States decided the case of Johnson v. M’Intosh (pronounced “Macintosh”). The case centered on a title dispute between two parties over land purchased in 1773 and 1775 from American Indian tribes north of the Ohio River. In the decision Chief Justice John Marshall outlined the Discovery Doctrine, explaining that the U.S. federal government had exclusive ownership of the lands previously held by the British. While the native inhabitants could claim the right to occupy the land, they did not hold the radical title to the land.

In plain English, the United States claimed ultimate sovereignty over the discovered territories, but permitted the native tribes residing there to continue to live in a kind of landlord-tenant relationship. Marshall explained that as a result, the natives could sell only their right to occupancy — their aboriginal title — and only to the federal government. With a stroke of the pen, American Indians had become tenants of the empty land.

Legal basis

The case has several peculiarities; for example, Marshall’s decision did not rely on the Constitution or previous decisions, but instead upon international agreements put in place during the Reconquista of Iberia, and solidified shortly after Columbus’s first voyage to the New World. This framework essentially permitted Christian nations of Europe to invade, occupy, and colonize any non-Christian land anywhere in the world.

Marshall explained that the United States was the successor of radical title, which they had won by defeating the English. (The quoted paragraphs below come from the original text of the decision. The bold text is mine.)

No one of the powers of Europe gave its full assent to this principle [of discovery] more unequivocally than England. The documents upon this subject are ample and complete. So early as the year 1496, her monarch granted a commission to the Cabots to discover countries then unknown to Christian people and to take possession of them in the name of the King of England. Two years afterwards, Cabot proceeded on this voyage and discovered the continent of North America, along which he sailed as far south as Virginia. To this discovery the English trace their title.

In other words, as long as no other Christian nation had taken title of a non-Christian foreign territory, the English saw it as fair game. What Cabot had discovered, they reasoned, became the Crown’s sovereign holdings.

In this first effort made by the English government to acquire territory on this continent we perceive a complete recognition of the principle which has been mentioned. The right of discovery given by this commission is confined to countries “then unknown to all Christian people,” and of these countries Cabot was empowered to take possession in the name of the King of England. Thus asserting a right to take possession notwithstanding the occupancy of the natives, who were heathens, and at the same time admitting the prior title of any Christian people who may have made a previous discovery.

The same principle continued to be recognized. The charter granted to Sir Humphrey Gilbert in 1578 authorizes him to discover and take possession of such remote, heathen, and barbarous lands as were not actually possessed by any Christian prince or people. This charter was afterwards renewed to Sir Walter Raleigh in nearly the same terms.

While Marshall focused on so-called heathen people (usually construed as polytheists, animists, etc.), we should recall that Portugal operated under the same doctrine to colonize and subjugate people in Africa, some of whom were Muslims. read more »


2015-03-08

Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

by Tim Widowfield

When I consulted my reading notes for the recent post on Case’s The Historicity of Jesus, I noticed a couple of things I had meant to comment on, but left out. In this post I seek to atone for my sins of omission.

read more »


2015-01-16

Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus

by Neil Godfrey
Paul Hopper

Paul Hopper

A volume on linguistics and literary studies published last year contained a chapter by Paul Hopper, Distinguished Professor of the Humanities Emeritus at Carnegie Mellon University, titled A Narrative Anomaly in Josephus: Jewish Antiquities xviii:63. The chapter can now be downloaded from academia.edu. (I was alerted to this through a post by Peter Kirby on Biblical Criticism & History Forum.)

Here is the abstract of the chapter:

Abstract: Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities introduces Jesus the Messiah into his history of the Jews, and appears to report events corresponding closely to those of the Gospels, including Jesus’s crucifixion on the orders of Pontius Pilate. A longstanding dispute exists about the authenticity of this text. The present article offers a narratological analysis of the passage, comparing the styles of event reporting in the passage with the three other episodes in Josephus’s Pontius Pilate sequence. The study concludes that the uses of the Greek verb forms such as aorists and participles are distinct in the Jesus passage from those in the other Pilate episodes, and that these differences amount to a difference in genre. It is suggested that the Jesus passage is close in style and content to the creeds that were composed two to three centuries after Josephus. (my bolding in all quotations)

Hopper’s conclusion is even more direct: read more »


2013-07-18

Real Historians Do Bayes!

by Neil Godfrey

How do historians, comparative linguists, biblical and textual critics, and evolutionary biologists establish beliefs about the past? How do they know the past?

dr_tucker

Aviezer Tucker

That’s the subject of Aviezer Tucker‘s Our Knowledge of the Past: A Philosophy of Historiography (2004). Tucker’s interest is the relationship between the writing of history (historiography) and evidence (p. 8). It is written for audiences interested in philosophy, history, biblical criticism, the classics, comparative linguistics and evolutionary biology (p. 22).

When I began to review Richard Carrier’s book, Proving History, I pointed out that far from substituting crude mathematics for historical inquiry, the application of Bayes’ Theorem merely expresses in symbolic terms the way historians evaluate the nature of evidence and test hypotheses to explain evidence for certain events and artefacts. Some fearful critics have objected to the application of Bayes because they have never understood this fact.

All Bayes’ theorem does is help us clarify our thinking. Bayes theorem is simply a symbolic way of expressing how we do our best thinking when seeking explanations for evidence or evaluating hypotheses against the evidence. The more complex the factors that need to be considered in addressing a problem the easier it is for us to overlook a critical point or draw invalid comparisons. Bayes’ helps us to clarify thinking about the most complex of issues, including those in the social sciences and history. *

Why Bayes?

Tucker writes as a philosopher and concurs with the above assessments of other authors addressed in my earlier posts. Philosophers like to clarify the complexities they are discussing and are apt to use illustrative symbols to this end.

Philosophers find often that formal representation, Bayesian probability in our case, clarifies and concentrates the discussion. Some historians and many classicists may not be as used to this form of representation as their philosophical colleagues. . . . When I use formal representation, I express the same concepts in words, for the benefit of readers who are not accustomed to formal notation. (p. 22)

Historians ask questions like the following:

To what degree does a piece of evidence contribute or not to the confirmation of a hypothesis, given background conditions? (p. 96)

Specifically:

To what extent does a similar saying in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke support, or not support, the Q hypothesis, given everything else we know that is relevant to the question?

To what extent does the passage “born of a woman” in Galatians 4:4 support, or not, the hypothesis that the author believed Jesus was an historical person in the recent past, given everything else we know about Galatians, that verse in particular and its context, and evidence for Jesus?

The Bayesian theorem purports to state formally the relation between a particular piece of evidence and the hypothesis. (p. 96)

In the fifty or so pages of chapter 3 Tucker demonstrates

that an interpretation of Bayesian logic is the best explanation for the actual practices of historians. (p. 96) read more »


2010-05-02

Applying Sound Historical Methodology to “James the Brother of the Lord”

by Neil Godfrey

It is easy for both historicists and mythicists to to descend to shallow proof-texting when arguing over the significance of Paul’s reference to James, the brother of the Lord, as evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

I am not attempting here in this post to cover all the arguments. I only want to address the necessity for a broad approach to the question and to rescue it from the tendency to reduce it to a simplistic positive/negative point.

Galatians 1:19

I saw none of the other apostles—only James, the Lord’s brother.

Renowned conservative historian, Sir Geoffrey Elton, warns against deploying such simplistic methods as citing a single piece of evidence to make a case. In this instance, the case is about evidence for the historicity of Jesus.

Historical research does not consist, as beginners in particular often suppose, in the pursuit of some particular evidence that will answer a particular question (G.R. Elton, The Practice of History, p.88)

If that’s what historical research is not, Elton goes on to explain what it is:

it consists of an exhaustive, and exhausting, review of everything that may conceivably be germane to a given investigation. Properly observed, this principle provides a manifest and efficient safeguard against the dangers of personal selection of evidence. (p.88)

Amen! The dangers of personal selection of evidence in historical Jesus research are spotlighted by each reconstructed “historical Jesus” being in some recognizable image of its author.

Jesus historicists are particularly guilty of falling into the trap of “beginners” that Elton warns against when responding to mythicist arguments. Of course they know better when engaging in professional work among their peers. They generally avoid taking mythicist arguments seriously, and this is why they respond like amateurs. read more »


2010-04-21

Chomsky, Crossley and the betrayal of an independent approach to historical Jesus studies

by Neil Godfrey
Noam_chomsky

Noam Chomsky

It is easy for theologians and biblical scholars to wear prophet mantles and appear to be courageously attacking the sins of the established powers. There can be an easy smugness in identifying one’s position with “the conscience” of the guild, the church, the public or nation. “Speaking Truth to Power” loses some of its awe when one finds the Power in turn rewarding its “gainsayers” with various honours and security of status. The game was played out without embarrassment from either side in Australia when one of its most socially and environmentally regressive Prime Ministers, John Howard, recommended a prominent social justice advocate cleric, Peter Hollingworth, to the Governor-Generalship, and awarded a leading environmentalist, Tim Flannery, Australian of the Year.

So it was with a little hope, but not too much, that I approached biblical scholar James Crossley’s book, Jesus in an Age of Terror, that opens with the following quotation from Noam Chomsky’s The Responsibility of Intellectuals:

It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the modern intellectual, it is not at all obvious.

Unfortunately, Crossley himself falls into the trap of joining other religion scholars who boast of critiquing imperialist, racial and class-warfare themes while in reality missing the heart and soul of Chomsky’s message. As a consequence Crossley becomes yet another brick in the wall of the establishment power he critiques only superficially.

Here is Crossley’s ironically correct explanation of the Chomsky model of how mainstream media works:

The propaganda model shows that the press is not really an important tool of democracy and it is not really disagreeable, argumentative or subversive of political power, at least not in any significant sense. The function of the mass media is to provide support for the special interests that dominate the state and private activity. This is reflected in their choices, emphases, and omissions. It is the powerful who fix the assumptions of media discourse and decide what is allowed to be seen and heard, often with the support of academics. Disagreements reflect disagreements among the elites. Although individuals may hold very different views from the agenda of mass media, these views will not be seriously reflected in the overall agenda or agendas. (pp.3-4, Jesus in an Age of Terror)

Yet this is exactly the place where Crossley’s own supposedly “independent” studies of Christian origins find themselves. He shares with his more religiously interested colleagues the logically flawed historiographical and epistemological assumptions that sustain that guild’s reason for existence.

Everyone knows — it is a simple truism — that one needs independent verification of any narrative before making assumptions about whether it is factual or not. This, at least, may seem enough of a truism to pass over without comment. Not so, however. For the [many a biblical scholar], it is not at all obvious.

read more »