Interview with Jim West

27 August 2014
Jim West and Zwingli

Jim West and Zwingli

You don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate the blog of Jim West, Zwinglius Redivivus. Nor do you have to agree with everything he says to recognize that here we meet someone who is not only interesting, but manages to remain interesting. That’s not just because he’s funny. His real charm is that he has a clear, recognizable theme: while there are many people writing about Christianity, here’s a professionally trained theologian who understands the main issues, can offer context, and knows how to separate the good from the bad and the ugly.

He’s not just a blogger, though. West is also pastoring in the Baptist Church in Petros, which is a small town in Tennessee. I’ve not been there – in fact, I have never met Mr West – but photos show a sober, no nonsense building; its website shows a Christian community that appears to be open to others and willing to contribute to its town.

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Casey on the Mythicist Jesus

28 July 2014

caseyDon’t I have a heart, to write a piece about an unsuccessful book by a writer who has died only recently? Mustn’t a reviewer stick to the principle that of the dead, we say nothing unless it is something good?

Yes, of course. Except when the author has raised a topic of particular interest. Maurice Casey’s Jesus. Evidence and Argument or Mythicist Myths? is such a book and if I am quite critical about it, it is because I think the author has recognized the urgency of a very serious problem that deserves much more attention.

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Dutch History

23 April 2013
Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Liberty of Conscience crushing Tyranny. One of the windows in the church of St John, Gouda.

Fourteen years ago, I published a small Dutch book, Hollands glorie, which offered a history of the Dutch consensus culture, from its very beginnings to the latest developments, covering more or less the millennium that was, in 1999, coming to an end. Reprinted several times, it was completely revised and republished in 2005, this time called Polderdenken.

The text, which I have decided to call Consensus and Crises, has been translated by my friends Marie Smit-Ryan and Bill Thayer, and I have made a web version, which you can find here. Parts of it have been adapted, because I cannot reasonably expect foreigners to know Dutch topography. Most illustrations are from Amsterdam – I’m an Amsterdammer after all, and proud to be one – but I hope to add photos from other towns as well.

The text is about 35,000 words and tries to explain why the Dutch political system is currently in crisis, but this precise theme has not prevented me from digressing on things I found interesting.

Again, you can find it here. I hope you will enjoy it.


Why Pearse’s Mithras Pages Are Important

25 February 2013

Mithras relief from Dormagen

When, in 2040, the departments of humanities will be closed, an elderly historian will perhaps wonder what caused the demise of scholarship. Probably, he will answer that the humanities no longer wanted to live. Somewhere between 1995 and 2005, the will to survive vanished. The ancient, venerable scholarly disciplines no longer wanted to add something meaningful to the shared heritage of mankind.

The turning point, our historian will find out, had been the invention of the internet. Until then, scholars and scientists had communicated their results to the larger audience in a way that can be described as transmitter and receiver: researchers sent out information – books, journals, TV – and the people listened. But at the turn of the millennium, communication became more interactive. People could talk back and could shape the nature of the discourse. Our historian will gladly quote from Time Magazine, which had chosen “you” as the person of the year 2006. The transmitter-receiver metaphor no longer applied; the best metaphor to describe the way in which scientists and scholars explained themselves to the people, became the dialog.

A fine example, our historian will conclude, is Wikipedia, which was a kind of meeting place of good and bad information. Our historian will concede that the designers of the encyclopedia had realized the importance of debate from the very beginning: if someone had a question about someone else’s contribution, they could discuss these issues. It was good that in these debates, people immediately started to refer to their sources, and our historian will recognize that at the beginning of the twenty-first century, everybody recognized the importance of at least looking scientific or scholarly. Compared to the beginning of the twentieth century, that was a leap forward. The greatest achievement of western civilization in the twentieth century was that one-third of the population had had access to higher education.

Unfortunately, our historian will notice, this was not a guarantee of quality. He will discover that the online debates were easily hijacked by activists, because in the debate between good and bad information, between good and poor scholarship, bad information drove out good. Our historian will find it incredible, but he will establish that reliable information was, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, deliberately kept away from the larger public by pay walls. In the fight against activists, bona fide scholars and scientists fought with their arms tied, and by 2005, the damage was done.

This being the nature of the game, one would have expected that philologists, historians, archaeologists, theologians, philosophers, and other scholars would have fought back, but our future historian will discover that this rarely happened. If something was done at all, it was just presenting the facts, which were often correct indeed, but they were offered without any further explanation.

Still, there were professional researchers who investigated how to explain science and scholarship to the people successfully. They recommended scientists and scholars to explain methods and theories, but few scholars bothered to take care. Where was the book, our historian will be wondering, that explained the Lachmann method or the hermeneutic cycle to the larger audience?

Slowly, he will start to understand why so many people could, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, claim to be scholars, and were never contradicted: the scholars never explained how they achieved their results, giving the impression that scholarship was not a real, professional discipline, but a kind of amateurish hobby to which anyone might contribute. Precisely when information was transferred less by transmitter-receiver and more as a dialog, and when a highly educated audience demanded more information than just facts, the scholars retreated from the debate, not explaining what mattered most.

At the beginning of the twenty-first century, our historian will think, three things ought to have been the top priorities if the humanities were to survive:

  1. online encyclopedias, written by professional scholars – and of course for free, because the people had already paid taxes and the information was already theirs;
  2. a sound explanation of methods and theories;
  3. an active policy to refute errors and mistakes.

Our future historian will notice that scholars refused to live up to the expectations. Of course, there were exceptions. There were some websites on which something was explained, but they were rare, they were created after the damage had been done, and they covered only the first of the three requirements. Too little, too late, too incomplete. There will be a wry smile at the historian’s face when he writes about the self-pity of the early twenty-first century scholars: they were never tired of complaining that nobody seemed to understand why the humanities mattered, but they rarely explained.

The historian will conclude that the humanities had committed suicide. Still, there had been people, inside and outside the universities, who had done their best. People who had refused to join the academic rat race, who had not been interested in the length of their publication list, who were really interested in the dialog with the larger audience.

***

One of these is Roger Pearse, the webmaster of Tertullian.org and a tireless fighter against quack history. In December, he has started a website on the Roman god Mithras. It offers a basic account of the Mithraic mysteries, it offers the sources, and most of all: it offers the arguments to refute theories that present Mithraism as an essentially Persian cult (it isn’t) and that it heavily influenced Christianity (it didn’t).

If we want to avoid that a historian, writing in 2040, will conclude that our generation is the one that killed scholarship, we desperately need more websites like these. But I am not optimistic. As long as our academics are more interested in the length of their publication list than in their duty to the larger audience, the humanities are doomed.


Gregorovius, sort of

25 December 2012

I’ve been remiss about posting here; I’ll try to do better this year. I’ve added all kinds of things that haven’t been reported here, the most important of which are Cicero’s De Finibus, ps‑Aristotle’s Mechanica, Asclepiodotus and the much more interesting Onasander in English translations; Manetho in both English and Greek.

But a few weeks ago, my friend Susan Rhoads (she of Elfinspell, known to many who will be reading this as one of the richer sites on medieval Italy and 19c American literature) sent me a nice Christmas gift: so by last night, just in time for Christmas, I’m sharing it rather than hogging it for myself. The complete book, Latian Summers, by Dorothea Roberts, is now online. It’s her translation of about ⅕ of Gregorovius’ Wanderjahre in Italien: as her title indicates, the Lazio parts, although not absolutely complete. The translation is flawed, but nothing that can’t be corrected; I’ve also added about a hundred notes of my own, especially to her last chapter, which is an excursion Gregorovius made thru Umbria, a region I know well. I’ve also added 9 GoogleMaps and three photographs, the most handsome of which is one taken by Jona in the Museo di Villa Borghese. Enjoy!


J.D. Grainger, The Syrian Wars

28 October 2012

If you read this review to see whether a book is sufficiently good to buy it, read no further: John Grainger’s The Syrian Wars is a good book. It is even an important book, and if I will appear to be very critical, this is because it is worth criticizing.

The nine Syrian Wars, waged between the Seleucid and Ptolemaic Empires over the possession of Coele Syria, are a neglected subject. There were few battles to attract the historians’ attention, but more importantly: Rome was at the same time uniting the Mediterranean, a process that was to have more lasting consequences than the eastern wars. Grainger, however, succeeds in showing that the Syrian Wars deserve more attention. He stresses that the conflict was central to the growth of the governmental system of two Hellenistic states, which he calls ‘competitive development’.

On which foundation does he build his thesis? On written sources and coins, of course, which he treats with great care. However, this also means that The Syrian Wars is essentially a N=1 study, which might be refuted easily. As Grainger indicates, any part of his reconstruction can be challenged by the discovery of new texts. If this happens several times, it will be fatal to his thesis.

When empirical foundations are weak, students of most disciplines invoke comparisons. When they do not have sufficient evidence to build a firm structure, it is useful to tie it to more solid objects. This is why historians of Antiquity are inevitably forced to compare their reconstructions to reconstructions of comparable processes in other pre-industrial societies.

Fortunately, the necessary parallels exist. Competitive development is hardly unique; historians and sociologists have often shown that state formation is usually a consequence of a prolonged military conflict. Tilly’s Coercion, Capital, and European States (1990) is a modern classic. If Grainger had referred to it, his book would have been more convincing, because its thesis would be based on more than one example. N=10 is better than N=1.

The need for comparisons is even greater, because Grainger appears to be unaware of a lot of recent literature. The new sources that might challenge parts of his reconstruction, have in fact already been published. For instance, Grainger’s dates of the Second Diadoch War are based on Manni’s ‘low chronology’ (1949), not on Tom Boiy’s little gem Between High and Low (2007). The relevant new sources are ostraca and cuneiform texts.

Occasionally, Grainger is unaware of new readings of well-known texts. It is strange to see how he antedates the Antigonid invasions of Babylonia to 311, and presents Ptolemy’s naval expedition to the Aegean in 309 as a trick to lure Antigonus away from the eastern theater of war. This leaves the reader with a sense of confusion, because one would expect the two operations to be more or less simultaneous. Fortunately, the problem is only apparent: the Chronicle of the Diadochs (= Babylonian Chronicle 10) dates the Babylonian War to 310/309. Grainger knows the source, but ignores recent scholarship.

This can also be said of his treatment of the reign of Antiochus IV. Fortunately, his treatment resembles Mittag’s beautiful Antiochos IV (2006). Both authors show that the king pursued a policy that is far more rational than the authors of the ancient sources are willing to admit.

Another omission is the set of twenty texts known as the Babylonian Chronicles of the Hellenistic Period. The evidence was known for some time already (seven of these texts were already included in Grayson’s Assyrian and Babylonian Chronicles, 1975). Several statements of Grainger’s are directly contradicted by BCHP. For example, Grayson says that we do not know where crown prince Antiochus was when his father Seleucus Nicator was assassinated. He settles for Ecbatana, but Chronicles BCHP 5, 6, and 7 suggest that the crown prince often resided in Babylon. (Disclosure: I am involved in the publication, preparing the online editions that scholars use to discuss these chronicles.)

Grainger’s discussion of the Third Syrian War ignores BCHP 11, a chronicle that not only proves that the Egyptians captured Babylon, but also offers interesting details about the fights. After an unsuccessful siege of Seleucia-on-the-Euphrates, Ptolemaic heavy infantry (‘ironclad Macedonians who are not scared of the gods’, according to the chronicler) attacked Babylon, which held out twelve days until it fell on January 20. The citadel remained in the hands of its Seleucid garrison, however, and early in February, the commander of Seleucia tried to lift the blockade. He was defeated and the Seleucid troops who had remained in Seleucia, were massacred. We do not know what happened next, but this is important information. Grainger, unaware of this first-rate source, concludes ‘that Ptolemy crossed the Euphrates but did not reach Babylon’.

The real problem, however, is not that Grainger ignores useful comparisons and recent scholarship. The study of ancient societies is complex, no one can know everything, and scholars cannot even establish what they do not know. Ancient history is the discipline of the unknown unknowns. To fill the lacunas in the knowledge of their writers, publishers have boards of editors. If Grainger is unaware of the existence of BCHP – which is, like so many cuneiform resources, only available online – it is the editors’ task to help. This time, however, the board has been sleeping, which may also explain the unusually great number of typos and the unusually poor maps.

All this should not distract us, however, from the simple fact that Grainger has written an important book that no student of Hellenistic institutions or military history can afford to ignore. With a more energetic board of editors, it might have been a good book, but still, Grainger has achieved his aim: to prove that the continuing conflict forced two Hellenistic states ‘to undertake measures to strengthen themselves internally, financially, militarily, politically, by alliances, and by recruiting manpower, so that they could face yet another war which both sides came to anticipate’.

[Originally published in Ancient Warfare]


“Original research” at Wikipedia

14 September 2012

I’m currently completing my online transcription of Strabo, and reached XIII.1.36, in which a woman named Hestiaea is mentioned as follows, in toto:

Demetrius cites also Hestiaea of Alexandreia as a witness, a woman who wrote a work on Homer’s Iliad and inquired whether the war took place round the present Ilium and the Trojan Plain, which latter the poet places between the city and the sea; for, she said, the plain now to be seen in front of the present Ilium is a later deposit of the rivers.

I’d never heard of her, and was curious to see if anything else had been said of her, so headed over to Wikipedia; and found an article which called her “Hestiea of Alexandria Troas”, and said by way of prooemium that she wrote influential critical works on the epic poems of Homer, repeating the statement in a section titled “Published Works”, as follows:

During her lifetime Hestiea became an influential critic and grammarian and published her works. Her works of criticism on Homer’s epics were commented on by Strabo in his work Homerica. Specifically, she published a treatise on “the possibility that the War of Troy had occurred in contemporary Ilium”.

This was footnoted with a citation of Charles MacLaren, The Plain of Troy described. . . (1863).

Since the Wikipedia statement was completely wrong, I replaced it by this:

Hestiea is known to us from the following single brief sentence by Strabo in the Geography (XIII.1.16, C599): “Demetrius cites also Hestiaea of Alexandreia as a witness, a woman who wrote a work on Homer’s Iliad and inquired whether the war took place round the present Ilium and the Trojan Plain, which latter the poet places between the city and the sea; for, she said, the plain now to be seen in front of the present Ilium is a later deposit of the rivers.”

— giving my reasons as:

(1) why cite a secondary work instead of the ultimate primary source? (2) no indication that she was famous or influential; (3) the article misunderstood the purport of her work.

to which I could have added that Strabo wrote no work titled the “Homerica“, and that, though plausible from the context, the Alexandria that Hestiaea was from was not certainly the one in the Troad.

Within a few hours I was of course reverted, with the following comment:

Reversed your deletion of material; point (3) that you made is your opinion/interpretation; you can’t just up and delete sourced material from Wikipedia. Do you have evidence to back up your claim that the paper misinterpreted her work or Strabo’s? Another point I want to mention is that Wikipedia’s policies are to discourage original research, which would be an obstacle to basing the article on primary sources, which is what you wanted, if I understood your edit comments correctly. And she’s notable as a rare example of a female Hellenic scholar, giving her some importance in women’s history; reference to Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party installation.

The MacLaren book, by the way, is online at Google, and far from stretching Ms. Hestiaea in the direction Wikipedia took her, is quite sober about her, saying merely this, again, in toto (p61):

“He [Strabo] refers to Hestiea, a lady of Alexandria Troas, who had published criticisms on Homer, and came to the same conclusion [that the Trojan Plain was narrower at the time of the Trojan War].”

The citation of Strabo has become original research, and a clear misinterpretation of the comment on Strabo by a 19c hack takes precedence over Strabo himself, requiring “evidence” to fix. Then we wonder why Wikipedia is such a mess.

The key, of course, is in the political propaganda of Judy Chicago: what is really sacrosanct is the use of Hestiea’s bare name, making her (maybe) more than she was, in order to pump up a feminist agenda. Golly, A Woman In Antiquity Who Wrote.