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.

Read the rest of this entry »

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Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (2)

19 June 2011

[This is the second part of a review; the first one is here.]

Cover

Nevertheless, Gruen tackles a non-problem. I do not think there are many scholars who believe that the Romans were always hostile about the Germans, that the Greeks never said something kind about the Egyptians, and that everybody disliked the Jews. Granted, Gruen refers to Antony Pagden, the author of Worlds at War (2008), as an example of someone who makes gross mistakes; but who takes Pagden’ simple ontological holism seriously? As the regular readers of this little blog will be aware, I am usually the first one to agree that the current generation of classicists and ancient historians is not up to their tasks (example), but they are not as short-sighted as Pagden. Really. I think that most readers of Gruen’s book will read the words “the distance between cultures could be crossed in multiple and intriguing ways that elide the antithesis” with a certain indifference. Duh.

As I said, Gruen asks the wrong question. His answer is also incomplete. Granted, the subject matter is so rich that it is impossible to deal with every single aspect. No one will blame Gruen for not mentioning the temple of Isis in Rome, a fully Egyptian enclave in Italy about which many hostile stories were told, but which was still the largest sanctuary in a city that did not lack large sanctuaries. (Come to think of it, on the Palatine, the core of the core of Rome, the tallest temples were dedicated to Cybele and Elagabal.)

Yet, if Gruen wants to prove that cultural interconnectedness was important, it is not smart to use evidence from comparatively little-known authors like Silius Italicus. Why not Virgil himself, with his borrowings from Jewish literature in his account of Aeneas’ descent into the Netherworld? A chapter on xenophobia and xenophilia in Rome’s greatest authors might have strengthened Gruen’s thesis.

Summa summarum: Rethinking the Other in Antiquity has some conceptual weaknesses, but it is fascinating and interesting, and the reader will enjoy the pleasant feeling that there is still a lot to be discovered about the ancient world. “Classical” does not mean that everything about it has already been said.

More than once, I was reminded of my teacher, the late Pieter Willem de Neeve, who once had to review another book by Gruen, which he considered to be only partly successful, but which he also liked very much, because Gruen had shown many new aspects of texts which De Neeve had believed he already knew. This was also my experience, which says a lot about Gruen’s broad look at things, and about the texts from the ancient world: you can read them a hundred times, and they continue to surprise you.

References to Lévi-Strauss are mercifully absent.


Review: E. Gruen, Rethinking the Other in Antiquity (1)

19 June 2011

Cover

Rethinking the Other in Antiquity is a fascinating book. This conclusion is in itself interesting, because author Erich Gruen asks the wrong question and offers an incomplete answer. However, he also offers much interesting information. In the end, the book is pretty successful.

First, the wrong question. Analysis of “the Other” has been a fashionable topic for quite a long time already. Typically, an ancient historian or classicist collected everything that the Greeks and Romans had written about one of their neighbors (e.g., the Persians, Scythians, Carthaginians, Germans) and investigated how the classical authors presented their subject matter. The Carthaginian from literature often turned out to be a kind of anti-Roman, with all vices that the Romans detested most in themselves. In an interesting chapter in his Carthage Must Be Destroyed (2010), British classicist Richard Miles showed how the Carthaginian vices changed with the developing self-image of the Romans.

To the best of my knowledge, no classicist or historian has ever claimed that the “Other” was only the anti-Greek or anti-Roman. When I read an article about, say, Greek images of Egypt, I never have the impression that the modern author implied that the Greeks did not also recognize the Egyptians as human beings with whom they had a lot in common. Yet, Gruen sets out to show that the same sources that are read as presentations of the Other, can be read as evidence that the ancient nations recognized similarities.

The result is, as I said, fascinating and certainly worth reading. Of course, the relations were not just black and white, “we” versus “the other”, antagonistic only. The stories that the ancient nations told about each other, indeed show that they often believed that they had a lot to share.

In the first part of the book, “Impressions of the Other”, Gruen deals with Greek ideas about the Persians and Egyptians, Roman views of Carthage, Caesar’s Gauls, Tacitus’ Germans and Jews, and ideas about people with a different color. In the brilliant second part, “Connections with the Other”, Gruen presents the patterns used to stress cultural interconnectedness. In their foundation legends, for example, the Greeks and Romans presented themselves as descendants from other nations; in genealogical lists, Greeks and Jews could describe themselves as brothers of other nations; and there was always a possibility to adopt each other’s roles, like a Greek presenting a Jew as in the traditionally Greek role of philosopher.

Often, Gruen’s conclusions seem a bit too obvious. I was not surprised to read that Aeschylus does not present us with a hostile portrayal of the Persians in his famous play with the same title. Still, Gruen has a lot of interesting observations to make. I had not expected that the famous expression “Punica fides” is in fact very rare. There were many surprises, especially in the second part of the book.

[to be continued]


More Nonsense about Sodom and Gomorrah

1 May 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

I already blogged about Sodom and Gomorah: people are looking for it at the bottom of the Dead Sea, although the Bible is quite explicit that the remains were visible on the land (Zephaniah 2.9). When you write about Antiquity, the sources are the thing you can ignore, of course.

Or, if you have actually read the sources and haven’t found what you need, you just invent it: Archimedes’ Heat Ray, Herodotus’ visit to Babylon, or Octavian calling himself Octavian – just three examples of things not mentioned in our sources, reproduced by professional historians, employed by universities. Sources are only there to be either ignored or expanded with the stuff you need.

Alan Bond and Mark Hempsell of Bristol University are exceptional, because they are capable of making both mistakes simultaneously, if I am to believe this article. They have written a book called A Sumerian Observation of the Köfels’ Impact Event, in which they argue that a cuneiform tablet now in the British Museum contains a description of a Sumerian observation of a very large meteor – actually an asteroid over a kilometre in diameter – that impacted a place in Austria called Köfels. They can date it to June 29, 3123 BCE.

So far, so good. I wonder if there were Sumerian astronomical records that long ago, but for argument’s sake, I assume they are right. Now if the article I linked to refers to their own words, they also assume that a piece of this meteor destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah. Unfortunately, the Bible refers to a terrible shower, and does not mention anything similar to a meteor:

Then the Lord rained upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the Lord out of heaven (Genesis 19.24).

In other words, Bond and Hempsell are adding something to their source that simply isn’t there. It’s the same approach of texts that I discussed here: if an ancient text says that the Nile has converted into blood, you think “blood is red”, and because algae can be red too, you read the Biblical account as a description of algae. A meteor is destructive and falls out of heaven; the rain of the Lord is destructive and falls out of heaven; hence, a meteor is the rain of the lord. Textbook examples of the fallacy of the undistributed middle.

But even when we accept that Genesis describes a meteor impact, there remains another problem. Bond and Hempsell have decided to accept the story in Genesis as sufficiently trustworthy to be studied. So, why don’t they accept the chronology of Genesis as well? Even if we accept the longlevity of the Biblical patriarchs, there is no way to date the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah prior to the twenty-first century BCE.

Bond and Hempsell want to have it both ways: they want to accept the Biblical story about the destruction of the cities, but don’t want to accept the dates implied in the Bible. That is possible. Historical criticism is intended to help you establish why you can use which parts of the same text, and why some parts are more reliable than others. And fortunately, historians have been looking at the stories of the Abraham cycle. Although the consensus is not uncontested, many scholars will date Abraham to the Middle Bronze Age, let’s say in the seventeenth century. Again, this cannot be combined with a meteor impact in late fourth millennium. (I won’t discuss the theory – very likely, in my view – that the Abraham cycle is not historical at all.)

Bond and Hempsell ought to have stuck to reading the tablet itself. Their proposal is sufficiently interesting. As it now stands, they are adding a meteor to the Bible that is not mentioned and ignore a chronology that is. I hope that the journalist of the article I linked to, messed up things, but I am not sure.


Maundy Thursday / Wednesday

21 April 2011

Salvador Dalí, The Last Supper

No one likes to be in the chair of an amateur dentist. No one likes his government to spend money on nuclear research by amateurs. But everybody seems to believe that amateur historians can add something valuable. Now I am not denying that amateurs have contributed enormeously to the development of ancient history – but Winckelmann and Gibbon lived in the eighteenth century and Schliemann in the nineteenth. As a rule of the thumb, we can accept that, unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is an unqualified historian.

As an example, I mention the British physicist Colin Humphreys, who has recently claimed that the Last Supper took place on a Wednesday, and not on Maundy Thursday. Well, there is a problem indeed. The Gospel of John contradicts the Synoptic Gospels (Marc, Matthew, Luke). The latter describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal; Jesus is crucified on the next day. John, on the other hand, presents it as a normal meal, and states that on the day of the crucifixion, the Jews were still preparing the Passover meal. All agree that Jesus was arrested on a Thursday evening.

Humphreys says that Jesus and his followers used a different calendar than the Temple authorities. Using his own calendar, Jesus could celebrate the Passover meal on one day, as indicated in the Synoptic Gospels; while other Jews might celebrate it on another day, as indicated by John. This might mean that the Last Supper actually took place on a Wednesday, which would also create some room for the complex series of events between the arrest and the crucifixion.

Humphreys’ theory is not new. It was, in a slightly different form, proposed by Annie Jaubert, in 1957, in a book called La date de la cène. The trouble with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis is that it solves a problem that does not exist by using a method that is self-contradictory.

First, the non-existing problem. There is absolutely nothing inherently impossible in the series of events following the Last Supper: arrest, a hearing by Caiaphas during the late evening, transfer to Pilate during the night, trial early in the morning, flagellation, crucifixion. I visited Jerusalem quite recently and walked from the western slope of the Mount of Olives to the Davidson Center (which must have been the place of Caiaphas’ official residence), through the Jewish Quarter to the Citadel (Pilate‘s palace); after that, I walked back through David Street, through the Triple Suq to the Basilica of the Sepulcher (which is not far from Golgotha). This is more or less “the real Via Dolorosa” and I needed less than two hours, including coffee and conversations with shopkeepers.

Second, the self-contradicting logic. Any professional historian will immediately realize what is wrong with the Jaubert-Humphreys Thesis: they accept the gospels where they are contradicting each other (the date of the Passover meal) while they reject the evidence of the gospels where they are in agreement – Jesus was arrested on a Thursday. This is not logic, it is a travesty.

Unfortunately, this is not an innocent, funny story about scientists who should not pretend they are historians. They are common (example 1, example 2) and because everybody knows that unless proven otherwise, an amateur historian is just an unqualified historian, they are not really dangerous. Still, there is a complication: Humphreys has an academic title, which gives credibility to his parody of scholarship. Our universities are sources of disinformation. This is the problem I am addressing with my series on common errors; a solution I do not have, but often I am wondering whether we should not create a system to retract a doctorate.


Sodom and Gomorrah? They Will Never Find It

22 March 2011

The destruction of Sodom (Doré)

When you look for the ruins of Sodom and Gomorrah, the obvious book to ignore is the Bible. Just like evangelical explorers looking for Noah’s Ark investigate everything except for the text that helps to identify the location of the object they’re looking for, searchers for Sodom and Gomorrah simply forget to read.

Here‘s a pretty shocking article that Russia and Jordan have signed an agreement to search the bottom of the Dead Sea for the remains of the Biblical cities of Sodom and Gomorrah”. The project apparently receives state support from Jordan, after Israel had already sent out a submarine. Unfortunately, wherever the remains of the destroyed cities were seen in Antiquity, they were not at the bottom of the Dead Sea. The Bible is quite explicit:

Sodom and Gomorrah — covered with thornbushes (Zephaniah 2.9)

If there are thornbushes, Zephaniah must have seen the ruins on the land. Looking for the remains of the destroyed cities in the sea is just stupid. QED.


Announcing the Destruction of a City

29 August 2010

Defenders of Niniveh, killed in action while trying to prevent the sack of their city

A friend of mine recently attended a lecture in which someone discussed the speech of the Rabshakeh, an Assyrian commander who besieged Jerusalem in 701. In 2 Kings 18.25, he announces that he will sack the city: “Is it without the will of the Lord that I have come up to this place to destroy it?”

At this point, the lecturer paused and asked to those present if they could name another example of the announcement of the destruction of a city. No one knew. The speaker mentioned Thucydides‘ Melian Dialog, in which the Athenians threaten to destroy the city of Melos, which my friend found surprising. He summarized the lecture for me, and I got the impression from his words that the speaker had suggested that there were only two examples of a direct threat.

That turned out not to be the case, but since I read his summary of that lecture, I have been wondering how often commanders announced that they would destroy their opponents’ city. After all, it seems like a nice adhortation to your own men that they will be allowed to plunder. At the same time, it must be demoralizing for the besieged if they know that they will be molested, raped, killed. I would have expected that there would be evidence for threats like these, and indeed remembered Censorinus’ speech at Carthage (Appian, Punic Wars 81).

And that’s it. I’ve posted it at RomanArmyTalk (here), but even the guys over there, who are usually well-informed, could not mention a fourth instance. Anyone any thoughts?