Tag Archives: Tom Holland

Is this really true?

Tom Holland is currently preparing a new book in which he fleshes out what he says in this video. Is Paul really like a “depth charge” in history, ultimately responsible for ripples that brought about the Enlightenment itself?

If one says that one’s inheritance is Christian what do we mean by Christian? Has not Christianity itself (including its use of Paul) been shaped according to shifting circumstances and ideologies through the ages?

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 http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/religion/2016/09/tom-holland-why-i-was-wrong-about-christianity

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 https://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/22/books/review/mary-beards-spqr-and-tom-hollands-dynasty.html

 

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.

 

Tom Holland: Still Wrong About Christianity

holland
Tom Holland

Historian Tom Holland has made a public confession that when it comes to his morals and ethics he is “thoroughly and proudly Christian”. (Tom Holland is a very talented writer and historian whose study of the rise of the Arab empire and birth of Islam I have discussed here. I was also fascinated by another work of his, Millennium: The End of the World and the Forging of Christendom — a period of history I specialized in when studying history as an undergrad.)
Now Christian blogs are crowing that the renowned historian has “come out” in defence of Christianity. The Enlightenment philosophes got the Church all wrong, he implies.

Dr. Platypus, Darrell J. Pursiful’s Bible and Faith Blog, posts Tom Holland Was Wrong about Christianity and Michael Bird on Euangelion posts Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity. I imagine there will be many more to follow. The excitement is over Tom Holland’s article just published in New Statesman, also titled Tom Holland: Why I Was Wrong about Christianity.

Holland tells us of his younger fascination with the great empires and generals of ancient history (an interest he says morphed out of his boyhood love of dinosaurs) and how they made the Bible’s heroes looked so anemic in comparison.

He had long embraced the view of history bequeathed us by the Enlightenment era (via Gibbon, Voltaire, etc) that Christianity ushered in an age of intolerance, superstition and ignorance. One had to look further back to the ancient “classical era” to find values more worthy of humanist ideals.

His epiphany dawned over time as he reflected upon the barbarism of Sparta and Rome:

The longer I spent immersed in the study of classical antiquity, the more alien and unsettling I came to find it. The values of Leonidas, whose people had practised a peculiarly murderous form of eugenics, and trained their young to kill uppity Untermenschen by night, were nothing that I recognised as my own; nor were those of Caesar, who was reported to have killed a million Gauls and enslaved a million more. It was not just the extremes of callousness that I came to find shocking, but the lack of a sense that the poor or the weak might have any intrinsic value. As such, the founding conviction of the Enlightenment – that it owed nothing to the faith into which most of its greatest figures had been born – increasingly came to seem to me unsustainable.

For once I can say something I have never written before and never imagined myself saying. A historian from outside the guild of biblical studies can learn something from a Professor of New Testament; in this instance the professor is Gregory J. Riley. (There are surely many others; but as an outside amateur I think of Riley as the most well known scholar addressing the contribution of ancient “classical” values to Christianity.)

Christianity was not born mysteriously out of a womb unrelated to the body of which it was a part. Every human creation is a product of a human environment. It would be unique, unnatural even, if Christianity emerged from a virgin birth.

gregory-riley
Gregory Riley

By way of explanation I think the titles of two of the following posts on Gregory Riley’s works should tell the story, though the titles are also hyperlinked to their original content:

See also Peter Kirby’s page: Historical Jesus Theories: Gregory Riley

Then there are the scholarly works addressing Paul’s debt to classical ethics with nary a word of credit to Jesus. I mention just a handful that I can identify quickly from my own collection:

  • Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2000). Paul and the Stoics. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press.
  • Engberg-Pedersen, T. (2006). Paul’s Stoicizing Politics in Romans 12-13: The Role of 13.1-10 in the Argument. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 163–172. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072836
  • Lee, M. V. (2009). Paul, the Stoics, and the Body of Christ. Cambridge; New York: Cambridge University Press.
  • Malherbe, A. J. (1989). Paul and the popular philosophers. Minneapolis: Fortress Press.
  • Rasimus, T. (2010). Stoicism in early Christianity. Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Academic.
  • Thorsteinsson, R. M. (2006). Paul and Roman Stoicism: Romans 12 and Contemporary Stoic Ethics. Journal for the Study of the New Testament, 29(2), 139–161. http://doi.org/10.1177/0142064X06072835

Julius Caesar and Leonidas were not the only figures to speak for ancient values. Seneca was ordered by Nero to commit suicide, if my memory serves.

And as for the utter callousness of Caesar’s treatment of the Gauls and Sparta’s legendary treatment of helots, yes, it would be soul-destroying to think humanity has made no progress in two thousand years. Yet we do ourselves a serious injustice if we fail to recognize that our Christian nations have on the whole fully approved the extermination of entire cities of innocents for what they believe was the purpose of saving the lives of their own soldiers, and continue to approve of the slaughter of innocents in order to achieve specific national and strategic goals.

Tom Holland might be advised to turn his attention to historians of modern realities (his compatriot Jason Burke comes to mind) and learn that enormous strides in propaganda and hypocrisy have possibly exceeded advances in morality. No, that’s not quite fair or true. It really is a lot harder today for national leaders to do what they want without regard for public opinion and I have little doubt that leaders today really do have consciences more refined than those of their ancient counterparts (except for the psychopaths, of course). But, but…. it does pay sometimes to look behind the headlines.