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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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 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.


18 February 2012

Cures, near Fara in Sabina

Nothing earth-shaking, but at least I haven’t added Latin nonsense or falsified mileages: the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica article “Cures” — being the little town in Sabine country that Titus Tatius and Numa apparently came from, and which was deemed in Antiquity to have been the origin of the name Quirites applied to the Roman people.

A brief article cribbed from a common 101‑year‑old encyclopedia should hardly be news, but alas it is, sort of. Wikipedia too, bless ’em, reproduces the same article, making essentially no changes: but the only two significant changes it does make are both mistakes. Small ones, but mistakes none the less: the ager Sabinus becomes an “alter Sabinus“; and 26 miles has been turned into 26 km. That in turn wouldn’t be terribly interesting if it weren’t that (a) the introduction of errors into the EB articles is very common at Wikipedia, maybe more common than not; and (b) the prevailing wisdom there, usually delivered with a sniff, is that the 1911 EB is antiquated, sexist, written in stodgy old English, and generally we people can improve all that.

And so we can. Our first step though, is to introduce no mistakes of our own. The next, which I’ve attempted to do on my own page, would be to add the source citations, links to what further websites may be relevant, and in this case a GoogleMap; and the dozen or so times Cures appears elsewhere onsite are now linked to it. Nothing major, but at least it’s not nonsense.

First page

1 July 2010

Two ‘new’ items on Lacus yesterday — a rather thin journal article from 1934 on the Basilica Argentaria, or rather, more properly despite the title, on the argentarii who hung out there; an entry in Platner & Ashby’s Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, inexplicably skipped years ago, on “Janus”: mostly about what the expression “Janus medius” might mean. The two items are related.

But as often, this new stuff has a little story behind it. I got a nice little e-mail from a young woman alerting me to the Basilica Argentaria article, letting me know it had a different interpretation from the one in Platner’s brief entry on it (that has long been onsite), and of course giving me the URL at JSTOR.

Now JSTOR is not public access, but it throws out teasers, that can be found by Google; and this was one of them: the first page of a three-page paper, to read the entirety of which you have to be a subscriber — to belong to a subscribing academic institution, or pay a hefty individual fee — or, on a one-shot basis here, you can pay $24 to read the remaining two pages. And of course, it’s only on the page turn (immediately!) that we read that the author of the paper disagrees with the “different interpretation” she threw out on page 1, agrees perfectly with Platner, and explains why!

Of course, seeing that, I put the article up, since the copyright on the paper expired in 1962, neither the journal nor the contributor having renewed it as required by the law then in force; but there’s a moral in all that. (No, not that one, Jona: I can see you coming from a parasang away.) As readers we need to be very careful; as writers with a thesis, we might as well write straightforward what we want to say from the git-go.

Moral duty

10 June 2010


This morning, I’ve put a text onsite, in English translation, that is already online in at least ten places: Cicero’s de Officiis.

Normally I’d never do such a thing, and I’m quite happy to link to existing online material, especially if it’s something like philosophy in which I have very little interest. And if that other site has a few typos, well I’m sure my own stuff does too — in fact, I’m reminded so about twice a week, when my e‑mail brings me (welcome) notice of them in my own house — and if they don’t slavishly reproduce the Loeb edition, well there’s no harm in that, and often enough that’s even an improvement.

But when on a rare foray into the meat of what it was Cicero might have said, I discovered that these Ten Sites — all, as far as I can tell, cribs of one single scan — print such things as this:

The pirates’ sense of can be expedient?

and find that the Loeb edition actually has:

The pirates’ sense of honour is higher than the senate’s. “But,” someone will say, “the revenues were increased, and therefore it was expedient.” How long will people venture to say that a thing that is not morally right can be expedient?

— I draw the line. (Go ahead, Google that phrase, in quotes: you’ll find 8 pages with that nonsensical line. One of them is brought to us by the “Britannica Online Encyclopedia”, actually hosted by; and another is apparently a printed book.)

This passage, mind you, is not the isolated accident. It’s just one of about 20 such passages of nonsense, all of them involving the mindless skip of two to six lines at the bottom of the page being scanned: except for two inexplicable skips of fully three-quarters of a page each. All of them make it quite clear that the perpetrator didn’t read what they were throwing online. Here are two more, and notice how insidious the first one, which appears to make a sort of sense:

One’s purse, then, should not be closed so tightly that a generous impulse should be observed and that limit should be determined by our means.

where the correct text is:

One’s purse, then, should not be closed so tightly that a generous impulse cannot open it, nor yet so loosely held as to be open to everybody. A limit should be observed and that limit should be determined by our means.


It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient.

where the correct text is:

It is their teachings that I am following in these books, and for this reason: the older Academicians and your Peripatetics (who were once the same as the Academicians) give what is morally right the preference over what seems expedient; and yet the discussion of these problems, if conducted by those who consider whatever is morally right also expedient and nothing expedient that is not at the same time morally right, will be more illuminating than if conducted by those who think that something not expedient may be morally right and that something not morally right may be expedient.

Jona rails, and does well to do so, at certain academics who are slovenly and untrustworthy in their facts and interpretations; but what are we to say of people, including publishers of printed books and that first line of defense against ignorance, the Encyclopedia Britannica, who throw up nonsense like this? Clearly, without reading it. The first of these two slovenlinesses is tragedy; the second is just plain farce.

And why would anyone put stuff like this online? This to my mind is where farce, like all really good farce, falls back into tragedy, and it’s also what gets me downright angry. Putting Cicero online is a sort of decoration: it’s like decorating one’s house with a piece of art bought somewhere because it goes with your sofa. It doesn’t really matter whether you’ve read it, or whether you expect anyone else to; it doesn’t matter what it says, whether it’s true or not, or hell, whether it even makes sense. What matters is the façade. These are the same people, the same mentality, that say “amphitheatre” for “theatre” because the longer word sounds cool; that toss out as a decorative tag Wotton’s 1624 translation of a sentence in Vitruvius, “Well building hath three conditions: firmness, commodity, and delight” — then to talk about commodities (this bizarre interpretation on an academic webpage!), or Wotton’s “quaintness” — rather than read Vitruvius in modern English and actually understand him.

I’m not a thinker or a philosopher, and can’t hold a candle to Jona or much of anyone else when it comes to historiography or archaeological evidence; but I can understand that the truth starts with plain facts, and behind that, with an attitude that things matter, and that getting them right matters. Caring for Truth is, to coin a phrase, a moral duty.

More Archaeological Disinformation

20 January 2010

Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi

As the readers of this little blog will have noticed, I am increasingly disappointed in the quality of archaeological journalism. Some nations, like Greece, have modest and more or less reliable journalists, but often, journalists swallow the most ridiculous claims by archaeologists.

The problem is important. When people will realize that archaeologists abuse the press for their own purposes (explained here), they will start to hate archaeology, just like people have become skeptical about climatology. The credibility of politicians and bankers was already reduced to zero, scientists and scholars will be next. That is a very, very serious matter, because it means that debates can no longer be solved by credible experts.

Some of the archaeologists’ tricks we already know. From Egypt, we get a lot of prepublicity about the so-called tomb of Cleopatra; even if it is true (which I doubt), the result can not match the hype. In Italy, any find is immediately connected to a text – so a villa becomes the Villa of Vespasian and a beautifully decorated cave becomes the Lupercal. In Israel, anything is connected to the Bible. An interesting ten-century BCE ostracon becomes “a Biblical inscription“, although there is absolutely no Biblical connection whatsoever. I suspect that money is the root of all these evils. Once your excavation has received media attention, the continuity of your funding is certain.

I thought I had seen it all, but this week, I discovered a new trick. What to do when you are excavating a relatively unknown site, belonging to a civilization that is not really popular in the West? That makes it difficult to grab attention. The Syrian-Swiss team that is excavating Qasr al-Heir al-Sharqi, an early Umayyad fort, has found the solution: you just write that you excavated your finds in Palmyra, which everyone knows. It’s 100 kilometers away; it’s as absurd as saying that Oxford identical to London; and yet, the Syrian-Swiss team managed to have this nonsense published – or was too lazy to correct a mistake by a journalist, which amounts to to the same. 5 on the Ctesias Scale.

Wiki and Pseudohistory

10 November 2009

It is not uncommon to complain about Wikipedia as a source for poor information. Many of these complaints are justified. There is a lot of humbug, and it often happens that good articles are inadequately improved. At the same time, those who are complaining most, academicians, are the ones who ought to remain silent. After all, Wiki has filled the gap that the universities left open: they have the money, they are funded to serve society, but they rarely made available their knowledge where it matters – online, that is. There’s still no real online edition of, for example, the Achaemenid Royal Inscriptions (so I made my own version).

As long as the universities do not make something better, the real question is not whether Wiki is good or bad. It is simply a fact that for hundreds of millions of people, it is the main source of scientific and scholarly information. The real question is how we can make it better, how we can help “good knowledge” defeat “bad knowledge”. Here are two simple solutions, one for Wiki itself and one for academicians.

First, Wiki must start to compete fairly. To understand this, you must know that Wikipedia consists of three levels. The first one is the article you see (like this one); the second level is the page on which you edit an article (like this one); and finally, there is the real code, which normal users will not see. Now at this level, Wiki plays a nasty game. Let’s have a look at the code of two normal links to another website:

The “nofollow” command means that search engines will not follow a link. In other words, while you and I can link to Wiki, it does not link back. You help Wiki achieve good Google ratings, but it does not contribute to yours. This means that when a person writes an article and summarizes a better page, Wiki will be on top, and the better page will be lower on the scales. The nofollow command is, essentially, an anti-competetive practice. It ought to be abandoned, so that better sites can compete more fairly.

Second, open access. The universities have acquiesced in the fact that reliable information is usually stored on pay sites (e.g., JSTOR). As long as this is the case, political activists and other people who are not interested in truth – and there are many of them on Wiki – can refer to online sources and look credible, while bona fide scholars and scientists cannot offer links to publications. Real scholars and scientists are forced to fight with their hands tied, which means that bad knowledge inevitably drives out good.

How to proceed? Perhaps the WWWC can convince Wiki that it is abusing html. I am optimistic, because so far, Wiki has been seriously interested in improving itself. To achieve open access, however, we must expect something of a miracle. Granted, the solution is easy: academicians must simply start to refuse to publish in journals that do not make the research results decently available online within, say, a year. That ought to be simple, but it may be too difficult for those who have, until now, managed to ignore the information revolution we are witnessing.