Category Archives: History

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.
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“New Atheists Are Bad Historians”

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 . . . .


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 »

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

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 »

Recovering from a Postmodernist & Jungian Jesus Headache

6ba73150824e779593148505241434f414f4141Hi there. If I don’t post again soon I’ll feel like I’ll have to introduce myself again. I’ve been taking time off mainly just to read, and especially to read a work that for me at least has been quite challenging. It’s full of coined concepts alongside esoteric ones: ontic as distinct from ontological; existentiell versus existentialia; historic versus historical; Dasein, Lichtung; “world” used not only as a noun but even as a verb; Jungian philosophy and psychology, Heidegger; “projection” but with a meaning fundamentally opposite from Freud’s meaning . . . I was labouring with a headache much of the time. But through it all I’ve come to at least work out (sort of) what Hal Childs is writing about in The Myth of the Historical Jesus and the Evolution of Consciousness.

Childs is comparing John Dominic Crossan’s approach to understanding the historical Jesus with that of Carl Jung. Crossan, recall, is well known for scholarly tomes such as The Historical Jesus and many others, some of which I’ve discussed on this blog. Childs argues that scholarly efforts to understand the historical Jesus are essentially efforts to create new myths about the Christ figure that is so much a part of Western cultural heritage.

Hal Childs is certainly not arguing for a Christ Myth theory (or, as Raphael Lataster rightly points out, the term should be Jesus Myth theory since obviously the “Christ” is mythical to begin with). He is attempting to raise the readers’ awareness of the extent to which all historical “reconstructions” and narratives are themselves mythical. From one perspective I can understand his point well enough, but I do have fundamental disagreements with some of his views of history (and the postmodernist view generally) that I cannot address here.

But for now I would like to mention one point in particular that is central to his thesis. Childs sympathizes with Crossan’s expressions of “embarrassment” over the way scholarship has produced such a wild array of historical Jesus figures. Crossan blamed the lack of a sound historical methodology for this “embarrassing” state of affairs; Childs, however, blames something else. Or rather, he doesn’t so much as lay “blame” as he does offer thanks:

[M]ultiple historical-Jesus-images are an unavoidable necessity in the light of the narrative and mythic essence of history — as such, it is not to be struggled against but embraced. (p. 259)

As far as I can understand from reading Childs’ work he falls into the same confusion about the nature of historical evidence that most biblical scholars also do. He writes with the assumption that historical Jesus studies are no different, at their base line, than any other study of an ancient historical question. But there is a significant difference and I have addressed it many times here. The difference revolves around something that is so fundamental that I think many historians rarely stop to think about it consciously. In brief, the core difference is as follows:  read more »

Did Muhammad Exist? A revisionist look at Islam’s Origins

A criticism of the view that Muhammad did not exist

Excerpts from an interview published in

Spiegel Online International  

Dispute among Islam Scholars: Did Muhammad Ever Really Live?

SPIEGEL ONLINE: There is a group of prominent German Islamic scholars, who are becoming increasingly aggressive about questioning whether the existence of the Prophet is even historically accurate. The theory got its most recent backing from the University of Münster’s Professor Muhammad Sven Kalisch, who is in charge of training teachers for Islamic education at the secondary-school level. The Ministry of Education of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia is now planning to calm the waters by appointing an additional professor of Islamic pedagogy. Are we witnessing a split into two camps?

Marx: I don’t see it that way. But we should note that what we have from Kalisch at the moment are only the things he has allegedly said. From them, it sounds like he has decided to back the thesis of Professor Karl-Heinz Ohlig, which Ohlig publicized three years ago in his book “Dark Beginnings” (“Die dunklen Anfänge”). There, Ohlig posits that the Koran is a Christian text and that Muhammad probably never lived. But this group, which also includes the numismatist Volker Popp and some others, is very small. I’d say that their position isn’t really within the realm of accepted scholarship.


Marx: There are far too many pieces of evidence that make Ohlig’s thesis that the Prophet never lived untenable. In the 14 centuries of polemics between Christians and Muslims, this issue has never made an appearance. Even in Syrian-Aramaic sources, however, there is some documentation about the prophet from an earlier time.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Your scholarship focuses on the early period of Islam and the Koran. What is the evidentiary situation? How could we prove that the Prophet lived?

Marx: You have to be a bit delicate about it. In general, when it comes to history, you can’t point to any scientific proof. How would we, for example, prove the existence of Charlemagne? We can’t conduct any experiments; we have to work with evidence. And, for this issue, the evidentiary thread is the Koran. In this case, the evidentiary situation is better than it is for any other religion. We know of manuscripts of the Koran and Islamic inscriptions already 40-50 years after the Prophet died. It would be hard to explain the Koran, if you took the prophet out of the equation. Ohlig claims that Islam was actually a Christian sect up until the Umayyad Caliphate, that is, the eighth century. In this case, I run into this massive issue: It doesn’t match up with the text of the Koran. Why isn’t Christ a more central figure in the Koran, then? You hear about Abraham, Moses and Noah much more frequently.

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: In other words, if the Prophet did not live, in order to explain the literature, there must have been an enormous conspiracy.

Marx: Precisely. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Are you saying that Ohlig and his fellow combatants are either demagogues or pseudo-scholars?

Marx: It’s not for me to make that type of judgment. But that’s what it seems like to me. . . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Muhammad Sven Kalisch operates in a sort of border region, that is, between science and theology. And, then, he’s supposed to be training religion teachers, too. The Coordination Council of Muslims in Germany (KRM) isn’t going to support him anymore because they believe that Kalisch is questioning fundamental elements of the Islamic faith. Is it conceivable that a person can be a Muslim and at the same time say that the Prophet might not have even ever lived?

Marx: That’s hard to imagine. . . .

. . . .

SPIEGEL ONLINE: Could we ever see the thesis — that the Prophet Muhammad might not have ever lived — brought up as a matter of discussion in an Islamic university?

Marx: I wouldn’t know where.

SPIEGEL ONLINE: As a researcher, how do you steer clear of this tense issue? You use what is a completely critical-historical approach. As long as your findings don’t contradict mainstream Muslim theology, it’s no problem. But what happens when it does?

Marx: Well, then it would probably be a problem. But we’re still a good way off from that situation. Don’t forget that what we’re doing here is basic research. The Koran deserves to be studied in a serious, scientific manner. I think it’s essential that we take these steps with Muslims. . . .

Interview conducted by Yassin Musharbash

In 2013 I read Tom Holland’s history of the rise of Islam, In the Shadow of the Sword, in which he argues in a most readable narrative that the astonishing spread of Arab conquests in the seventh century had more to do a series of tragic forces, in particular the Bubonic Plague, weakening the neighbouring Byzantine and Persian empires, than it did with the might of Arab arms. Moreover, those Arab conquests were not motivated by the Islamic faith; rather, the Islamic faith did not emerge until some decades after those conquests. I posted about Holland’s views at:

Since then I have been wanting to read more about the historical questions surrounding early Islam. Holland cited the works of several scholars I had hoped to engage with before I read Robert Spencer’s book Did Muhammad Exist? An Inquiry into Islam’s Obscure Origins, (But I distracted myself by reading another of Holland’s historical works instead.) Meanwhile Spencer’s book fell my way so I grabbed it.

Happily it turned out to be much more interesting as a historical exploration than I had expected. The most troubling flaw was Spencer’s rather poorly informed and stereotypical views of the nature of religions generally and Islam in particular as experienced in today’s world: he contrasts Christianity as an essentially peaceful religion ever since its origins with Islam as an essentially war-making and killing machine because of its historical origins. Some readers will love that summary and others will be dismayed by it (I am among the latter). Nonetheless, despite this botched conclusion much of the book is quite interesting and informative. How much of its information I will come to revise as I learn more I don’t know, so here I am writing up some general points that appear to be the views of a minority of Islamic scholars.

Anyone familiar with the arguments for and against the historicity of Jesus will recognize some of the terrain here. Evidence cited over the years for the historicity of Muhammad has included:

  • the rich and vivid detail in the Islamic records of his life
  • the documenting of negative (embarrassing) features of his biography
  • the implausibility of anyone making up a character making such grandiose claims
  • only the personal inspiration of such a person could explain why so many others were motivated to found a vast empire in his name
  • how else can we explain the founding of a religion that went on to boast more than a billion adherents

Similar arguments have been made for the historicity of Jesus yet as we know not one of them truly withstands scrutiny.

But before I write more about the doubts raised about the traditional story of Islam’s origins I ought to make clear what scholars who dispute this minority view say about it.

Patricia Crone is professor of Islamic history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She writes:

True, on Arabic coins and inscriptions, and in papyri and other documentary evidence in the language, Mohammed only appears in the 680s, some fifty years after his death (whatever its exact date). This is the ground on which some, notably Yehuda D Nevo and Judith Koren, have questioned his existence. But few would accept the implied premise that history has to be reconstructed on the sole basis of documentary evidence (i.e. information which has not been handed down from one generation to the next, but rather been inscribed on stone or metal or dug up from the ground and thus preserved in its original form). The evidence that a prophet was active among the Arabs in the early decades of the 7th century, on the eve of the Arab conquest of the middle east, must be said to be exceptionally good.

Everything else about Mohammed is more uncertain, but we can still say a fair amount with reasonable assurance. Most importantly, we can be reasonably sure that the Qur’an is a collection of utterances that he made in the belief that they had been revealed to him by God. The book may not preserve all the messages he claimed to have received, and he is not responsible for the arrangement in which we have them. They were collected after his death – how long after is controversial. But that he uttered all or most of them is difficult to doubt. Those who deny the existence of an Arabian prophet dispute it, of course, but it causes too many problems with later evidence, and indeed with the Qur’an itself, for the attempt to be persuasive.

For my own views on Crone’s argument about historicity see my post on historical method.

For further criticism see also, of course, the interview excerpts I have placed in the side-box.

I mentioned previously several other historians who have questioned the conventional story of Islam’s origins in my posts on Tom Holland’s book; here are a few of many more names listed by Spencer:

Ignaz Goldziher (1850-1921): Lateness of earliest biographical sources on Muhammad along with tendency to invent stories to support later political and religious positions made it impossible to treat the biographies as historically reliable. Spencer lists many names of scholars who have raised questions about Muhammad’s historicity but I list only a few here;

Henri Lammens (1862-1937): Questioned the traditional dates associated with Muhammad; noted the “artificial character and absence of critical sense” in the earliest biographies of Muhammad.

Joseph Schacht (1902-1969): Impossible to extract authentic core of historical material from the earliest texts. Many documents claiming to be early were in fact composed much later.

John Wansbrough (1928-2002): Doubted the historical value of early Islamic texts. Qur’an was developed for political purposes to establish Islam’s origins in Arabia and to give the Arabian empire a distinctive religion.

Patricia Crone and Michael Cook: Noted lateness and unreliability of most early Islamic sources; reviewed archaeological, philological sources, coins from seventh and eighth centuries. Posited that Islam arose within and then split from Judaism. Argued the Arabic setting (including Mecca) was at a late date and for political purposes read back into the history of Islam’s origins. Later, however, Crone wrote that the evidence for Muhammad’s existence is “exceptionally good” (see the quotation above).

Günter Lüling: Qur’an originated as a Christian document; reflects theology of non-Trinitarian Christianity that influenced Islam.

Christoph Luxenberg (pseudonym): Qur’an shows signs of a Christian substratum; Syriac, not Arabic, resolves many difficulties in the text.

So what are the main points that prompt questions about the historicity of Muhammad and suggest that Islam emerged as a major religion some decades after the Arab conquests? Robert Spencer lists the following: read more »

Daniel Boyarin

I disengaged from the question that was being asked, falling on the last resort of the scholarly scoundrel: “I’m just trying to figure out what really happened!” (Daniel Boyarin)

Thanks to Jim Davila‘s blog I see the JWeekly has published a lengthy article on one of my go-to scholars, Daniel Boyarin.

Daniel Boyarin — the Talmudist, feminist, anti-Zionist, only-in-Berkeley Orthodox Jew


I’ve cited Boyarin in about a dozen posts on Vridar and will certainly refer to some of his works again. Not that I play “follow the leader” so much as I find him a most though-provoking and informative teacher: his works are always leading me back to study original sources and to read ever more widely among other scholarly works with which he engages. After I’ve finished one more round of this process I may find myself doubting some proposed point of his (I do not realize how painfully conservative I am till I read some of his radical views) but I will always be returning to his books for fresh perspectives and gateways to learning.

Some excerpts I enjoyed from the JWeekly article:

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Shirley Jackson Case: Inadvertent Omissions

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.

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Inside the Minds of Flat-Earthers

flatearthUntil I read Christine Garwood’s book Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea my idea of people out there who really believed the earth is flat was that they could only be as mysterious and unfathomable as leprechauns. But they really have existed these past 200 years and courageously taken on the whole world in what they have believed is their fight for sanity and reason.

The most enlightening insight I took from Garwood’s history is that flat-earthers for most part have been motivated by the same noble ideals as the best of us. It’s just that, well, they see things a little differently. Or rather, they see the same things we see but they want the rest of us either to use more common sense and/or have more faith in the Bible. They hate the idea that most of us are gullibly swallowing what the professional elites are trying to sell us. They want science democratized and the demos to be more true to God.

How can we fault anyone for living by such ideals?

Christine Garwood further informs us that much of the ridicule we direct at flat-earthers is fueled in part by our own ignorance. When we assume that flat earthers are no more advanced than the people of the dark ages or even earlier primitive times then we are actually demonstrating a key point of the flat-earthers. Flat earthers argue most of us blindly accept, uncritically and without any request for supporting evidence, whatever the professionals tell us. We trust too readily. Even many of the professionals are deluded. The fact is, and Garwood explains the evidence for this extensively, that since the fourth century BCE most people who are on record as having given the question any thought have believed the earth is round. How we came to think otherwise and how myths about Columbus became common knowledge is explained in the prologue and first chapter of Flat Earth. Hint: Washington Irving of Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle fame is largely to blame for the mischief.

That should be a mildly discomforting thought. If so, it segues into the questions of the relevance of the history of the flat earth movements. (We can’t have a history book that’s written just for entertainment alone, after all.) read more »

Fresh Evidence: The Forged Jesus Passage in Josephus

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 (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 »

Criteria of Authenticity Tested Against the Gallipoli Landing

hp_image_1We’ve just had our Anzac Day ceremonies here. Attendance at the dawn services and veteran marches is growing by the year, they say. This year something new emerged on one of my favorite radio shows, Late Night Live with Phillip Adams — an interview with Hugh Dolan author of 36 Days: The Untold Story of the Anzac Assault, 25 April 1915. The program is headed Dispelling the Gallipoli ANZAC myths. I subsequently watched the related TV program, Gallipoli From Above: The Untold Story. And of course I’ve ordered the book! One more to read, damn it.

There are many facets of the Anzac myth that will continue to be discussed and one of them is the perennial question: Why do Australians celebrate a military defeat as “the moment” that supposedly defined us as “a nation” or cast in bronze what we call our “national identity”?

Commentators are forever discussing the irony of our nation apparently “taking pride” in a military defeat.

How does that jell with what New Testament historians use as criteria of historical authenticity? So we celebrate a defeat. Does this not conform well with the criterion of embarrassment? Nobody would choose to celebrate a defeat unless it really happened, would they? And the story has been sustained by multiple independently attested sources, hasn’t it, over the years. So here we surely see in this event at least two criterion of authenticity found to be entirely validated.

But the Anzac story gets into more detail. The landing itself was a bloodbath. At dawn, under heavy fire. The Australians were victims of British incompetence and were landed at the wrong beach for starters.

No-one would make up a story in which they were the victims of such incompetence and disaster, would they?
Well, 36 Days suggests that that’s exactly what “we” have done now for almost 100 years.

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Rewriting the History of Modern China

dowagerHow history changes! At school I learned that nineteenth century China was easy-pickings for European powers who were able to easily kick aside her antiquated army and carve out for themselves “spheres of influence” for their own trading benefits as they willed. The most scandalous of these occasions were the Opium Wars in which Britain forced the Chinese imperial government to open up the Chinese populace to British merchants making a “killing” selling Indian opium.

Two reasons were always given for the ease with which Westerners were able to dominate China so easily:

  1. The Chinese felt so superior to the West, disdaining the “barbarians”, that they had no wish to learn from them or adopt any of their ways, not even their superior technology;
  2. The Chinese from the later nineteenth to the early twentieth century was effectively ruled by a Dowager Empress who was authoritarian yet weak and loathed Westerners and resisted any form of modernization.

Maybe those points need to be nuanced but that’s essentially how I recall my high school lessons of China before the Republican movement, the Japanese invasion and the Communist Revolution.

One thing always stood out: the Empress Dowager was bad news for China.

All that has been completely turned on its head since a new book by Jung Chang, Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. The author writes with the benefit of documents released for the first time from Chinese and Japanese archives.

It turns out that far from being the brake on modernizing China the Empress Dowager was in fact the driving force behind modernization. At the time of her death she was even working towards establishing a Constitutional Monarchy that would have given millions of Chinese the right to vote. So much that I learned about pre-communist and pre-republican China has been completely turned on its head.

Among the reforms she was responsible for: read more »

So John the Baptist was interpolated into Josephus? One more argument for the forgery case

jm_baptism_1Many of us are aware of the arguments of Frank Zindler that the John the Baptist passage in Josephus is an interpolation, but we leave those aside here and look at what Rivka Nir of the Open University of Israel offers as reasons for doubting the genuineness of the John the Baptist passage in Antiquities. The following is drawn from “Josephus’ Account of John the Baptist: A Christian Interpolation?” by Rivka Nir in the Journal for the Study of the Historical Jesus (2012) 32-62.

Rivka Nir’s article also suggests her own answer to the old question of the origins of the idea of baptism as we read it in connection with John the Baptist.

To begin, let’s refresh our memory of what we read about John the Baptist in Josephus. The translation following is as it appears in Rivka Nir’s article:

(116) But to some of the Jews the destruction of Herod’s army seemed to be divine vengeance, and certainly a just vengeance, for his treatment of John, surnamed the Baptist.

(117) For Herod had put him to death, though he was a good man and had exhorted the Jews who lead [ἐπασκοῦσιν] righteous lives and practice [χρωμένοις] justice [δικαιοσύνῃ] towards their fellows and piety [εὐσεβείᾳ] toward God to join in baptism [be united by baptism] [βαπτισμῷ συνιέναι].

In his view this was a necessary preliminary if baptism [βάπτισιν] was to be acceptable to God. They must not employ it to gain pardon for whatever sins they committed, but as a consecration of the body implying [or: on condition] that the soul was already thoroughly cleansed by [righteousness—R.N.] [δικαιοσύνῃ].

(118) When others too joined the crowds about him, because they were aroused [ἤρθησαν] to the highest degree by his sermons, Herod became alarmed. Eloquence that had so great an effect on mankind might lead to some form of sedition, for it looked as if they would be guided by John in everything that they did. Herod decided therefore that it would be much better to strike first and be rid of him before his work led to an uprising, than to wait for an upheaval, get involved in a difficult situation, and see his mistake. (Antiquities 18.5.2 116-119)

Rivka Nir first gives us the three pillars upon which the authenticity of this passage rests (I omit supporting details in the footnotes and add bold format):

  1. In view of dissimilarities or even contradictions between the Gospel and Josephus versions about John the Baptist, it is reasoned that had the passage been interpolated by a Christian, the interpolator would most likely have accommodated the account to its version in the Gospels.
  2. The passage’s correspondence in vocabulary and style to Josephus’ Antiquities in general and books XVII–XIX in particular.
  3. The presence of the text in all the Josephus manuscripts and its mention by Origen in his Against Celsus (1.47), dated to 248 CE.

Early suspicions of a brazen forgery

1893: Herman Graetz called the passage “a brazen forgery”.(Geschichte der Juden, III, p. 276, n. 3) read more »

Real Historians Do Bayes!

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

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)


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 »

Historical Jesus Scholarly Ignorance of Historical Methods

On 14th January I posted How Historians Work – Lessons for Historical Jesus Scholars in which I demonstrated that at least some biblical scholars are unaware of normal historical practices by quoting key sections from works recommended to me by Dr McGrath. On 16th January Dr. James F. McGrath, Clarence L. Goodwin Chair in New Testament Language and Literature at Butler University, responded by accusing me of being a fool, either ignorant or obtuse on the one hand or wilfully misrepresenting and wishing to deceive readers whom I believe are gullible and foolish on the other.

Unfortunately Dr McGrath’s reply only further convinced me that he has not read both books in question even though he recommended them to me — though he does appear to have at least read sections (only) of one of them — and that his smearing of my character and intelligence is unwarranted.

Dr McGrath began his reply with:

I sometimes wonder if mythicists realize when they are making fools of themselves. If they do, then they are presumably akin to clowns and comedians who provide a useful service in providing us with entertainment. If they are unintentionally funny, then their clowning around in some instances may include misrepresentation of others which, however ridiculous, requires some sort of response.

Presumably this sort of ad hominem is intended as filler in place of reasoned responses to virtually the whole of the arguments and demonstrations of my post since he repeats such accusations often while never engaging with all but a couple of my points, and even those only tangentially.

Dr McGrath then lands another character attack that he says he will not deliver or will ignore so I will ignore that for now, too — although I did respond to it on his blog at the time.

So to the main point:

But on the misrepresentation of Vansina, and of Howell and Prevenier, a few brief points are in order, which I suspect will show clearly to anyone interested that Godfrey either is either failing to comprehend Vansina, Howell, and prevenier, or is willfully misrepresenting them.

This introduction at the very least leads me to expect that Dr McGrath will demonstrate by quoting Vansina and Howell and Prevenier read more »