Category Archives: History

Blog Subject Matter for 2019


Just briefly, here are some things that I (and probably Neil, as well) intend to write about in the coming months.

  • How do historians treat possibly legendary or semilegendary figures other than Jesus?
    • The search for a common methodology of historicity. How do historians weigh the evidence surrounding characters such as King Arthur and Robin Hood? What steps do we take to evaluate literary evidence?
    • Processes historians follow to assess historical authenticity. How do they do it? Spoiler alert: We need contemporary, verifiable, independent corroboration.
    • The often quite strong and surprisingly predictable backlash against the suggestion that people’s beloved heroes may never existed. “You’re taking away our history/heritage!”
  • Is determining historical existence categorically different from the search for probably authentic deeds and sayings? If so, how does that difference affect our methods and the ways we analyze evidence?
  • Is Carrier’s reference class model useful for determining historicity?
    • Is it circular?
    • What parts of his method can we salvage?
  • The perils of amalgamating different, often contradictory stories into a single narrative legend.
  • The Memory Mavens: More stuff about ritual memory vs. shared stories.
  • William Wrede: His contributions to methodology (now generally unknown and ignored).

Happy Belated New Year!

Abe Lincoln Sightings in the South and a Trickster Jesus

Until recently, I had never heard of the stories former slaves told regarding appearances of Abraham Lincoln in the antebellum South. But it turns out many freed slaves told stories they apparently believed to be true in which the president (or president to-be) showed up in person to find out what was really happening on Southern plantations.

In most cases, white Southerners who came in contact with Lincoln did not know who he was. And in this way, he appears to be playing the role of trickster. Sometimes he’d even sleep in the master’s house.
I think Abe Lincoln was next to [the Lord]. He done all he could for [the] slaves; he set ’em free. People in the South knowed they’d lose their slaves when he was elected president. ‘Fore the election he traveled all over the South and he come to our house and slept in the old Mistress’ bed. Didn’t nobody know who he was. (Bob Maynard, Weleetka, OK)
While sojourning there, the disguised future president observed the ill treatment of the slaves. He noted their meagre pay: “four pounds of meat and a peck of meal for a week’s rations.
He also saw ’em whipped and sold. When he got back up north he writ old Master a letter and told him he was going to have to free his slaves, that everybody was going to have to, that the North was going to see to it. He also told him that he had visited at his house and if he doubted it to go in the room he slept in and look on the bedstead at the head and he’d see where he writ his name. Sho’ nuff, there was his name: A. Lincoln. (Maynard)
Other times, Lincoln appeared in disguise.
Lincoln came [through] Gallitan, Tennessee, and stopped at Hotel Tavern with his wife. They was dressed [just like] tramps and nobody knowed it was him and his wife till he got to the White House and writ back and told ’em to look ‘twixt the leaves in the table where he had set and they sho’ nuff found out it was him. (Alice Douglas, Oklahoma City, OK)
Reading these tales, perhaps you reacted as I did, thinking of the appearance of Jesus on the Road to Emmaus:
28 As they came near the village to which they were going, he walked ahead as if he were going on. 29 But they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, because it is almost evening and the day is now nearly over.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he was talking to us on the road, while he was opening the scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:28-32, NRSV)
Of the two followers on the road, why is it, we wonder, do we learn only one of their names (Cleopas)? Why is the other anonymous? I think the narrative invites us as readers or listeners to put ourselves in the place of the actors. We are telling our disguised traveling companion what happened to Jesus. We ask the stranger to eat with us. Finally, Jesus reveals himself to us. More than just a story about recognition, in the Road to Emmaus, the evangelist relates a story about our participation in the presence of Christ. The appearances of Lincoln in the South are similar kinds of stories. William R. Black, in a highly perceptive article in The Atlantic, writes: read more »

How an executed war criminal became a mythic national hero

Breaker Morant

Years ago I walked out of a movie theatre enraged. Thousands throughout Australia at that time did the same. People talked about it for months afterwards, asking “How could they do it!” The “they” were the British colonial masters led by Lord Kitchener; the “it” was the execution of two Australian soldiers as scapegoats to protect the international image of Great Britain. The film was Breaker Morant, based on historical persons and events in the Boer War at the turn of the last century. Morant, nicknamed the Breaker, was a national hero few of us at the time had even heard about. The film revived memories from the early twentieth century that the Breaker was very much a national hero and a sacrificial victim to the British overlords.

Morant has gone not so much into history as into legend. He followed the admired track of other Australian folk-heroes — Ned Kelly, Moondyne Joe, Captain Starlight. They were all men against authority; good bad men or bad good men, always with enough human appeal to disguise the fact that they were outside the law, that they robbed and killed and were brought to book. Behind them all are the near-mythic figures of Hereward the Wake and Robin Hood, of William Tell and the outlaws of the Old West. People prefer to think of them all as bold and brave individuals, self-reliant and strong, defiant against great odds. Morant, in the popular mind, has joined their company.

(Denton in Closed File, cited by Walker, pp. 18f )

Here are the facts about Morant according to Shirley Walker’s article ‘A Man Never Knows His Luck in South Africa’: Some Australian Literary Myths from the Boer War. I list them first so you can begin to wonder how such a figure was able to acquire the status of an Australian mythic hero.

  • His name was Edwin Henry Murrant, son of the Master and Matron of the Union Workhouse, Bridgewater, Somerset.
  • He lied about his age to marry Daisy O’Dwyer, soon afterwards deserting her and eventually remarrying as a bigamist
  • “A young English scapegrace consigned to the colonies for some youthful escapade”
  • He had a reputation for defaulting on debts
  • A “womanizer”. His nickname Breaker referred to both his breaking in of horses and his breaking of women’s hearts
  • A horse thief
  • A regular drunkard
  • In the Boer War he shot prisoners, including a number who entered his camp under the white flag.
  • He also had witnesses to these crimes, including a missionary, murdered.
  • On being caught he was tried and executed by firing squad.

There was a positive side:

  • He was “well known throughout Australia (i.e. the colonies) as a rough rider, a polo and steeplechase rider”
  • a bush poet published in the leading magazine, The Bulletin, under the pen-name “The Breaker”

How does one make a Hereward the Wake or Robin Hood type hero out of raw material like that?

First, one needs the right soil for any seed to germinate. Or, to change the metaphor, one needs a mold by means of which to cast the person to become the hero.

In other words, the ideas of the myth are “out there”, in the minds of an audience who are prepared to love the idea of finding exemplars to fit those ideals. read more »

Was Paul an Apocalyptic Jew Before His Conversion?

Earlier this summer while listening to a course from The Teaching Company, Bart Ehrman’s How Jesus Became God, something struck me that I’d missed earlier. He alluded to the notion that the Apostle Paul, as a Pharisee, had an apocalyptic worldview even before he came to believe that Jesus was the Christ. That notion, I confess, came as a bit of a surprise to me.

He repeats this belief in his most recent book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World, this time even more clearly and confidently. As proof, he reminds us that Paul called himself a Pharisee. Ehrman writes:

Like many other Jews of the time—including such figures as John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth—Pharisees held to a kind of apocalyptic worldview that had developed toward the very end of the biblical period and down into the first century.

Ehrman, Bart D.. The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World (p. 44). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition.

As I indicated above, this notion struck me as a bit odd. First, if you’ve read anything at all about the Pharisees, you know that we have limited information about who they were and what they actually believed. The three main sources for first-century Pharisaism — the later records of Rabbis reflecting on earlier times, the writings of Josephus, and the gospels of the New Testament — all have a particular point of view and an axe to grind. In the end, we are certain of very little.

The small amount we do know requires a great deal of careful analysis and sober judgment. Too often what we thought we knew was simply the result of overconfidence and an uncritical approach to the meagre (and contradictory) sources at hand. Jacob Neusner, author From Politics to Piety: The Emergence of Pharisaic Judaism, put it this way:

While every history of ancient Judaism and Christianity gives a detailed picture of the Pharisees, none systematically and critically analyzes the traits and tendencies of the discrete sources combined to form such an account. Consequently, we have many theories but few facts, sophisticated theologies but uncritical, naive histories of Pharisaism which yield heated arguments unillumined by disciplined, reasoned understanding. Progress in the study of the growth of Pharisaic Judaism before 70 A.D. will depend upon accumulation of detailed knowledge and a determined effort to cease theorizing about the age. We must honestly attempt to understand not only what was going on in the first century, but also — and most crucially — how and whether we know anything at all about what was going on. “Theories and arguments should follow in the wake of laborious study, not guide it in their determining ways, however alluring these may look among the thickets and brush that cover the ground.” (Neusner 1972, p. xix)

The quotation at the end comes from G.R. Elton’s review of Fussner’s Tudor History and the Historians from the journal History and Theory.

Scholars who specialize in the history of the Pharisees have been arguing for decades over who they were, when they first appeared, what they believed, and even what their name means. Did it really mean “separatist”? If so, what were they separating from?

In Steve Mason’s 2001 tome, Flavius Josephus on the Pharisees: A Composition-Critical Study, he provides a useful list of scholars for and against various issues in Pharisaic history (see p. 2). For anyone interested, I will reprint it here with expanded details. Where possible, the links below will take you to the actual online text of the publication.

First, on the overall question of core, common beliefs, Mason lists one as “the repudiation of apocalyptic,” an element found in Kurt Schubert’s “Jewish Religious Parties and Sects”, in The Crucible of Christianity, ed. Arnold Toynbee [London: Thames and Hudson, 1969], 89). read more »

A Well Known Historian Praises Bart Ehrman’s History of Christianity’s Triumph

I have enjoyed and learned from two historical tomes by the popular historian Tom Holland: In the Shadow of the Sword: The Birth of Islam and the Rise of the Global Arab Empire and Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom. Holland knows how to garnish historical detail and interpretation with narrative colour.

Whose face is the model for this image?

Some days ago Holland reviewed Bart Ehrman’s new book, The Triumph of Christianity: How a Forbidden Religion Swept the World in The Spectator: How Christianity saw off its rivals and became the universal church. He had the highest praise for both Ehrman as a scholar and his newest publication:

This is the work of a great scholar, sifting sources, placing them in their historical context, interrogating the assumptions that may condition how we interpret them. There are even some graphs. Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. . . .

Ehrman is a great scholar, and this — as one would expect — is a book full of learning and nuance.

Larry Hurtado blogged a notice of Tom Holland’s review of Ehrman (while parenthetically noting Holland’s positive words about his (Hurtado’s) own book, Destroyer of the Gods.)

It is nice to see scholars getting along so well, especially from different areas of speciality. We can for a while at least put behind us those times biblical scholars complain that outside critics are not qualified to properly assess the worth of publications of “historian-theologians”. If some readers were becoming just a tad uncomfortable with the inordinately(?) prodigious output of a scholar who simultaneously carries a full-time teaching load they are surely reassured by the confirmation that Ehrman’s new book is further evidence of his scholarly greatness. Now I do not question that Ehrman has made notable contributions to both scholarship and popular knowledge of early Christianity and its sources. Can I be forgiven, however, for suggesting that some of his most informative and valuable publications (e.g. The Orthodox Corruption of Scripture, Lost Christianities…) are some decades old? His recent work that purported to address memory theory in Jesus studies for a popular audience was Jesus Before the Gospels: How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior unfortunately disappointed his peers who are specialists in the current application of memory theory to historical Jesus studies. I am reminded of the ancient historian Michael Grant who wrote more books than he had active years as a classicist. Obviously there has to be a relationship between quantity and quality at some point.

Tom Holland

And not even the most popular of historians and theologians, neither Tom Holland nor Bart Ehrman, are without biases and professional flaws. Holland laid out his own bias when he wrote the following in September 2016:

Why I was wrong about Christianity

It took me a long time to realise my morals are not Greek or Roman, but thoroughly, and proudly, Christian. . . .

. . . .

The notion that a god might have suffered torture and death on a cross was so shocking as to appear repulsive. Familiarity with the biblical narrative of the Crucifixion has dulled our sense of just how completely novel a deity Christ was. . . . .

Holland, T. (2016). Why I was wrong about Christianity. Retrieved September 16, 2016, from

I have suggested before that Tom Holland has overlooked something that even biblical scholars have noted: that Christianity not only contained novelty; it also encapsulated values that appealed to ancient ideals. See, for example, some of the work by Gregory Riley discussed on this blog.

Since bias is inevitably with us all what we look for in an author is awareness of one’s biases. If Holland appears not to notice his own neglect of an alternative narrative he does at least pick up Ehrman on this point:

Indeed, so determined is Ehrman not to be mistaken for a theologian that he makes a point of refusing to speculate as to whether the rise of Christianity was a Good or Bad Thing. ‘I do not celebrate it either as a victory for the human race and a sign of cultural progress on the one hand, or a major sociopolitical setback and cultural disaster on the other.’ Historians rarely proclaim their neutrality with quite such emphasis.

Perhaps, though, Ehrman protests too much. Neutrality on the topic of Christianity, for historians brought up in the West, can present peculiar challenges. That Christians are parti pris does not mean that agnostics and atheists are necessarily any the less so. No scholar today writing about Isis or Mithras has skin in the game; but Ehrman, when he writes about early Christianity, most certainly does. A one-time evangelical who found the experience of studying biblical texts so destabilising to his faith that he is now an agnostic, he is also an American — and therefore, simply by virtue of being a professor of religious studies, a participant in the US’s ongoing culture wars. Neutral he is not.

What of professional competence, even consistent skill in maintaining the distinction between evidence and justified interpretation on the one hand and more free-wheeling extrapolations on the other? If at least one scholar has found fault with Ehrman’s at times cavalier approach to his material so has at least one other found fault in Holland’s desire to tell an acceptable story outstripping due care to maintain professional standards:

In “Dynasty,” his history of the first five emperors, another British historian, Tom Holland, admits quite candidly, citing Tacitus, that “even when it comes to notable events, we are in the dark.” The Roman historians themselves were well aware of this. Tacitus begins his “Annals”: “The histories of Tiberius and Caligula, of Claudius and Nero, were falsified, while they remained alive, out of dread — and then, after their deaths, were composed under the influence of still festering hatreds.” Alas, Tacitus himself was not immune to similar prejudices, nor was our other prime source, the gossipy Suetonius. Holland, too, itches to get on to the juicy bits, quoting Suetonius: “But enough of the emperor; now to the monster.” He always perks up when, as he puts it in his breathless way, “fresh and murderous novelties were brewing,” and he does not always stop to catch his breath and assess just how true it all is. Did Nero really murder his mother and two of his wives, sodomize his stepbrother and deliberately set fire to Rome to make room for his new palace, putting in some lyre practice the while? Did the austere and high-minded Tiberius really spend his retirement in Capri cavorting with nymphets and toyboys in the most esoteric debaucheries? — (my emphasis)

Mount, F. (2015, November 20). Mary Beard’s ‘SPQR’ and Tom Holland’s ‘Dynasty.’ The New York Times. Retrieved from


It’s very nice to have the commendations of scholars from a field outside one’s own. Surely the praise of a “non-biblical historian” can add prestige to the work of a “historian-theologian”. It is worth being reminded, however, that even the most popular historians and theologians are not beyond serious criticism.


Gun Culture: What Makes America Different?

AR-15 Variants (from Wikipedia)

For years, I’ve been meaning to write a book on slavery in the United States. I don’t mean to minimize or oversimplify the issues surrounding the issues of chattel slavery in America, so up front I will say without reservation that the subject is complicated and multifaceted, and that it covers several centuries. It deserves more coverage than I can provide in a single post.

Having said that, I remain convinced that slavery is the fundamental cause of the American Civil War, which is, of course, the consensus among the majority of historians. The weight of the evidence puts the matter beyond dispute. However, whenever we can, we should distinguish proximate causes from ultimate causes.

Saying that slavery caused the Civil War is correct, but insufficient. It would be just as true to say that the election of Abraham Lincoln provoked the South to secede. But why was that the last straw? What did Southerners believe they would lose if they stayed? What did they think they would gain by leaving?

Slavery did not exist in a vacuum. It was not simply an ancillary feature of 19th-century Southern society that, by itself, made them different from the North. Slavery could not exist without the framework that supported it, an interlocking network of structures: Slave society, slave politics, slave economics, slave justice, even slave (pseudo-)science. Religion played a role as well, as Christian clergymen found ready ways to explain why Africans were a cursed race and how slavery was part of the natural order. All of these ingredients working together created Slave Culture.

Slave Culture had its own unique history, as well, which one would expect. That history celebrated the gentleman planter while it warned of the terrors of slave revolt. They were determined to learn the lesson of Haiti. Never let the slave get the upper hand. Always respond with maximum violence.

In a similar way, a large swath of modern America is Gun Culture. I support sensible gun control, including background checks, registries, mandatory gun safety classes, etc. But when gun enthusiasts tell us over and over, “Guns aren’t the problem,” they unwittingly have a point. They are right. For while guns most assuredly are part of the problem, they do not float, detached in the ether. They are not just another consumer product. read more »

6 More Reasons to Question Josephus’ “James the brother of Jesus” passage

Josephus does, in Jewish Antiquities, have two passages on the emergence of Christianity and the persecution of its followers, involving Jewish jurisdiction, but both are suspected of being interpolations. (Efron 1987, p. 333)

Warning: this post addresses a small section of a work by Jewish scholar, Joshua Efron, Studies on the Hasmonean Period, that was not been well received by all reviewers. John Collins, for example, wrote of the section that I cover here:

The final chapter, on the Great Sanhedrin, is peripheral to the main theme of the book. E. denies that there was any uniform tradition about the Great Sanhedrin, but finds that the NT Sanhedrin “was created in the bosom of Christian theology” (p. 337).

Efron’s book shows extensive familiarity with the history of scholarship and is richly documented, but it is a work of apologetics rather than of history. For E., the solidarity of pietism and the Jewish state is primary. Any contrary view is “distorted.” Equally, anything that seems to anticipate Christian theology cannot be Jewish. (Collins 1990, p. 373 — my emphasis)

Louis Feldman is less harsh in his review but nonetheless identifies the bias. Efron attacks contemporary scholarly reconstructions of various intra-Jewish political rifts and conflicts in “a strident tone” and dismisses anything that would blur Jewish distinctiveness from Christianity:

The main, and most controversial, thesis of this work is that the Hasidim and the Hasmoncans cooperated throughout their revolt against the Syrian Greeks, and that this cooperation continued with the later Pharisees. The reconstruction of this period often rests upon the Pseudepigrapha, notably the Psalms of Solomon. But Efron dismisses such evidence as betraying a hidden Christian viewpoint . . . (Feldman 1994, p. 87)

You have been warned. Read at your own peril. Read critically (as you always do).


About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he was one who performed surprising deeds and was a teacher of such people as accept the truth gladly. He won over many Jews and many of the Greeks. He was the Christ. And when, upon the accusation of the principal men among us, Pilate had condemned him to a cross, those who had first come to love him did not cease. He appeared to them spending a third day restored to life, for the prophets of God had foretold these things and a thousand other marvels about him. And the tribe of the Christians, so called after him, has still to this day not disappeared. (Antiquities, 18.3.3)

Many readers are familiar with the passages. The first, known as the Testimonium Flavianum, describes Jesus as “a wise many if one ought to call him a man” and even states that “he was the Messiah” and his followers were righteous “seekers of the truth”, he performed miracles, was unjustly condemned to death at the instigation of the Jews, appeared to have been resurrected three days later, etc. If Josephus wrote the passage as we have it then he was clearly himself a Christian and we are left perplexed over everything else he wrote in defence of “Judaism”.

The fourth century bishop Eusebius quoted the passage but the third century Origen did not see it in his copy of Josephus.

But don’t many scholars agree that the passage as it stands cannot have been written by Josephus while remaining certain he must have written something about Jesus nonetheless? Many do. Efron’s opinion of these efforts:

Various proposals, speculations and attempts to reconstruct from it some authentic core have produced only dubious hypotheses.213

213 . . . . The scholars positing authenticity (complete, partial or emended) have recourse to casuistic speculations or arbitrary textual alterations. See R. Laqueur, Der jüdische llistoriker Flavius Josephus (Giessen 1920), p. 274ff.; H.St. J. Thackeray, Josephus the Man and the Historian (New York 1967, repr. of 1929ed.),p. 125ff.; F. Dornseiff, “Zum Testimonium Flavianum,” ZNW 46 (1955): 245ff.; A. Pelletier, “Ce que Josephe a dit de Jesus,” KEJ 124 (1965): 9ff.; D. Flusser (see n. 190), Yahadut u-Mekorot ha-Natzrut, p. 72ff .; F.F. Bruce, Jesus and Christian Origins Outside the New Testament (Gr. Rapids Mich. 1974), p. 32ff.

And once more:

Classic examples of the practices of Christian copyists and editors in transposing suitable additions and adding them to Josephus can be found in the Slavonic version of Jewish War.

The arguments have gone back and forth “for generations” (Efron’s words) and we have posted at length on them here.

And now Caesar, upon hearing the death of Festus, sent Albinus into Judea, as procurator. But the king deprived Joseph of the high priesthood, and bestowed the succession to that dignity on the son of Ananus, who was also himself called Ananus. Now the report goes that this eldest Ananus proved a most fortunate man; for he had five sons who had all performed the office of a high priest to God, and who had himself enjoyed that dignity a long time formerly, which had never happened to any other of our high priests. But this younger Ananus, who, as we have told you already, took the high priesthood, was a bold man in his temper, and very insolent; he was also of the sect of the Sadducees, who are very rigid in judging offenders, above all the rest of the Jews, as we have already observed; when, therefore, Ananus was of this disposition, he thought he had now a proper opportunity. Festus was now dead, and Albinus was but upon the road; so he assembled the sanhedrin of judges, and brought before them the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ, whose name was James, and some others; and when he had formed an accusation against them as breakers of the law, he delivered them to be stoned: but as for those who seemed the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws, they disliked what was done; they also sent to the king, desiring him to send to Ananus that he should act so no more, for that what he had already done was not to be justified; nay, some of them went also to meet Albinus, as he was upon his journey from Alexandria, and informed him that it was not lawful for Ananus to assemble a sanhedrin without his consent. Whereupon Albinus complied with what they said, and wrote in anger to Ananus, and threatened that he would bring him to punishment for what he had done; on which king Agrippa took the high priesthood from him, when he had ruled but three months, and made Jesus, the son of Damneus, high priest. (Antiquities, 20.9.1)

We have also discussed the second passage at length. But Efron has more to add and the rest of this post sets out why he also rejects this passage as genuine to Josephus.

Efron observes that this second passsage (see inset) portrays the Sanhedrin in a way very similar to the New Testament’s viewpoint: very harsh, even evil. Likewise the Sadducees are said to be “very rigid” or “severe”, translatable as “savage” (Efron), more than any other Jews. And Ananus belongs to this “savage” sect and is further described as “extremely bold and brazen”.

Enough good citizens, however, complained to the authorities about the injustice against James committed by Ananus and had him removed from the priesthood.

1. Unfavorable portrait of Ananus is polar opposite to Josephus’ views

Efron sees in these portrayals of the Sanhedrin, the Sadducees and Ananus too much New Testament. In Josephus’s earlier work on the Jewish War we find Josephus expressing the “polar opposite” view of Ananus, “overwhelming him with praise”, “devoting an emotional eulogy to him”. As for the Sadducees, Josephus in the earlier work never betrayed a hint that they were in any way to be faulted for their religious practices and views.

Could not Josephus have changed his mind by the time he wrote Antiquities?

It is true that opinions and evaluations sometimes change in Josephus’ second and more critical version. Thus, in his apologetic autobiography, Josephus in self defense somewhat dims Ananus’ lustre, but there is no trace of a diametrically opposite view of him.216 Acts of the Apostles, however, in a picture resembling the dubious episode outlined above, stresses the unfavorable aspects of Ananus (Annas) the high priest, and his Sadducee retinue, avidly persecuting the Christians without pity.218

216 Bell. II 563, 648, 651, 653; IV 151ff., 162ff. 193ff., 208ff., 288ff., 316ff.; Vita (38) 193ff.;(44) 216, (60) 309.

218 Acts 4:6ff.; 5:17ff.; Luke 3:2; John 18:13ff. To the two forged passages should be added the extremely suspect testimony in Josephus (Ant. XVIII 116 ff.) on John the Baptist carrying out a baptismal ceremony in the Christian spirit to atone for sins, without a sacrifical offering and without the Temple, contrary to the Torah. The term “the Baptist” and the man, unknown in Jewish tradition, as is baptism to obtain forgiveness for sins through purification of the body after purification of the soul (as in Heb. 10:22) show this to be a Christian version. A number of scholars came to this conclusion long ago: D. Blondel, Des Sibylles (Paris 1649), p. 28 ff.; Richard Simon (Mr. de Sainjore), Bibliotheque Critique, vol. 2 (Paris 1708), p. 26ff.; H. Graetz, Geschichle (see n. 8 above), vol. 33, p. 293 ff. Origen (n. 223 below) already knew the dubious passage: Contra Celsum 147. (Efron 1987, pp. 334-35)

2. Another “astounding connection with … Acts”

Who are the “most equitable of citizens” who opposed the Sadducees? The Josephan passage is vague. To Efron, read more »

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

[Updated 12 hours after original posting]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . . . . .

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

. . . . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like that “armchair historian” bit.

In the mouth of at least two witnesses . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did Christians burn the Great Library of Alexandria?

The same website spreads the blame further yet:

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

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

So it looks like Gibbon planted “the meme”.

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

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

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?



The Bifurcation of the Semitic Myth and Post-WW2 Antisemitism

[After the 1967 June War] [t]his was what the Arab had become. From a faintly outlined stereotype as a camel-riding nomad to an accepted caricature as the embodiment of incompetence and easy defeat: that was all the scope given the Arab. 

Returning to Egypt at end of the 1967 Six Day War

Yet after the 1973 war the Arab appeared everywhere as some-thing more menacing. Cartoons depicting an Arab sheik standing behind a gasoline pump turned up consistently. These Arabs, however, were clearly “Semitic”: their sharply hooked noses, the evil mustachioed leer on their faces, were obvious reminders (to a largely non-Semitic population) that “Semites” were at the bottom of all “our” troubles, which in this case was principally a gasoline shortage. The transference of a popular anti-Semitic animus from a Jewish to an Arab target was made smoothly, since the figure was essentially the same. 

Thus if the Arab occupies space enough for attention, it is as a negative value. He is seen as the disrupter of Israel’s and the West’s existence, or in another view of the same thing, as a surmountable obstacle to Israel’s creation in 1948. Insofar as this Arab has any history, it is part of the history given him (or taken from him: the difference is slight) by the Orientalist tradition, and later, the Zionist tradition. Palestine was seen—by Lamartine and the early Zionists —as an empty desert waiting to burst into bloom; such inhabitants as it had were supposed to be inconsequential nomads possessing no real claim on the land and therefore no cultural or national reality. Thus the Arab is conceived of now as a shadow that dogs the Jew. In that shadow—because Arabs and Jews are Oriental Semites—can be placed whatever traditional, latent mistrust a Westerner feels towards the Oriental. For the Jew of pre-Nazi Europe has bifurcated: what we have now is a Jewish       hero, constructed out of a reconstructed cult of the adventurer-pioneer-Orientalist (Burton, Lane, Renan), and his creeping, mysteriously fearsome shadow, the Arab Oriental. Isolated from everything except the past created for him by Orientalist polemic, the Arab is chained to a destiny that fixes him and dooms him to a series of reactions periodically chastised by what Barbara Tuchman gives the theological name “Israel’s terrible swift sword.” 

Aside from his anti-Zionism, the Arab is an oil supplier. This is another negative characteristic, since most accounts of Arab oil equate the oil boycott of 1973–1974 (which principally benefitted Western oil companies and a small ruling Arab elite) with the absence of any Arab moral qualifications for owning such vast oil reserves. Without the usual euphemisms, the question most often being asked is why such people as the Arabs are entitled to keep the developed (free, democratic, moral) world threatened. From such questions comes the frequent suggestion that the Arab oil fields be invaded by the marines. . . . (Said, Edward. 1977. Orientalism. Penguin, London. pp. 285f.)

Compare the quotation in my previous postread more »

September 11 and the Surveillance State

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 »

Historical Conditions for Popular Messianism — Christian, Muslim and Palestinian

A number of readers have questioned my own questioning of a popular belief and claim by Richard Carrier that

Palestine in the early first century CE was experiencing a rash of messianism.

I suggest on the contrary that evidence for popular messianism does not appear until the Jewish War in the latter half of the first century. See post + comment + comment and links within those comments to earlier posts. Certainly popular counter-cultural leaders prior to that time (but still well after the time of Jesus) did not imitate any known Danielic or Davidic notion of a messiah expected to challenge Rome.

In this post I will address some general background information that we have about popular messianic movements. If we are to be good Bayesian thinkers then we need to set out as much background knowledge as we can before we begin. This post will put two or three items on the table for starters. Other background data has been covered to some extent in the above linked “comment(s)” and “post”.

Medieval Messianism

cohnA classic study of popular millennial movements is Norman Cohn’s The Pursuit of the Millennium . After surveying such movements in the Middle Ages Cohn concludes:

They occurred in a world where peasant revolts and urban insurrections were very common and moreover were often successful. . . .

“Revolutionary millenarianism drew its strength from a population living on the margin of society – peasants without land or with too little land even for subsistence; journeymen and unskilled workers living under the continuous threat of unemployment; beggars and vagabonds – in fact from the amorphous mass of people who were not simply poor but who could find no assured and recognized place in society at all. These people lacked the material and emotional support afforded by traditional social groups; their kinship-groups had disintegrated and they were not effectively organized in village communities or in guilds; for them there existed no regular, institutionalized methods of voicing their grievances or pressing their claims. Instead they waited for a propheta to bind them together in a group of their own.

Because these people found themselves in such an exposed and defenceless position they were liable to react very sharply to any disruption of the normal, familiar, pattern of life. Again and again one finds that a particular outbreak of revolutionary millenarianism took place against a background of disaster . . . 

Excerpt From: Cohn, Norman. “The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages.” iBooks. (My own bolded highlighting)

Examples of those camel back-breaking disasters and related messianic movements:

  • Plague –> the First Crusade and the flagellant movements of 1260, 1348-9, 1391 and 1400;
  • Famines –> First and Second Crusades and the popular crusading movements of 1309-20, the flagellant movement of 1296, the movements around Eon and the pseudo-Baldwin;
  • Spectacular rise in prices –> the revolution at Münster.
  • Black Death –> The greatest wave of millenarian excitement, one which swept through the whole of society . . .  and here again it was in the lower social strata that the excitement lasted longest and that it expressed itself in violence and massacre.

Islamic Messianism

read more »

The Myth of Nero’s Persecution of Christians

Abstract of a recently published article by Princeton University Professor of Classics, Brent D. Shaw:

A conventional certainty is that the first state-driven persecution of Christians happened in the reign of Nero and that it involved the deaths of Peter and Paul, and the mass execution of Christians in the aftermath of the great fire of July 64 C.E. The argument here contests all of these facts, especially the general execution personally ordered by Nero. The only source for this event is a brief passage in the historian Tacitus. Although the passage is probably genuine Tacitus, it reflects ideas and connections prevalent at the time the historian was writing and not the realities of the 60s. 

Brent D. Shaw (2015). The Myth of the Neronian Persecution. Journal of Roman Studies, 105, pp 73-100 doi:10.1017/S0075435815000982

I will attempt to outline some of the points I found of particular interest in his article.

The Torches of Nero, by Henryk Siemiradzki. According to Tacitus, Nero targeted Christians as those responsible for the fire.

Shaw argues that the famous story of Nero burning and in other ways torturing Christians as punishment for the Great Fire of Rome in 64 C.E. never happened. (As usual, bolded font and formatting are my own.)

Nero’s spectacular executions of large numbers of Christians in the aftermath of the fire that raged through the city of Rome in July of 64 is commonly regarded as a foundational event in the history of Christian martyrdom. They were the first executions of Christians performed at the behest of the Roman state. In almost every history of the early Christian Church, the event is marked as a dramatic turning point in the relations between Christians and the imperial government.

Given the surprisingly widespread acceptance of the great significance of this axial event in Christian history, the thinness of the evidence on all aspects of it is quite striking. The paucity and weakness of the data, however, have not prevented acceptance of the historicity of this ‘first persecution’ as an undisputed fact. Indeed, the degree of certainty in the Neronian persecution stands in almost inverse proportion to the quality and quantity of the data. Those who have expressed even modest scepticism about the historicity of the one explicit passage in the historian Tacitus that attests to the executions have been voces clamantium in deserto.

The simple argument of this essay, deliberately framed as a provocative hypothesis, is that this event never happened and that there are compelling reasons to doubt that it should have any place either in the history of Christian martyrdom or in the history of the early Church.

To begin with, there is no evidence that Christians were crucified as a penalty for their faith. The key reference here is Barnes, T. D. 2010: Early Christian Hagiography and Roman History, Tübingen. So much for the late legend of Peter being crucified, let alone crucified upside down. The late tales of the martyrdoms of Peter and Paul appear to have been expressions of what second century Christians wanted to believe. In the Gospel of John there was a prophecy that Peter would meet an undesirable fate and it seemed appropriate that he should die by crucifixion as had Jesus. For all we know from the available evidence Peter died in the 50s, in Jerusalem, peacefully in his sleep. Paul, according to Acts, was in trouble not for being a Christian but for being a disturber of the peace.
read more »