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.


Common Errors: Summing up

27 October 2009
Spijkers op laag water

Spijkers op laag water

Today, my little book on common errors, Spijkers op laag water, becomes available in the bookshops in the Netherlands and Flanders. I have, over the past couple of months, several times blogged about it; today, I finish this series with an article on the causes of error. It is, essentially, the epilogue of my book. You can read it here.

In this epilogue, I stress that professionalism does matter, and that “amateur historian” is just another word for “unqualified”. I also stress that specialization has disastrous consequences: there is no time to teach the logical foundations of scholarship, which means that quality control is reduced to mutual criticism. That 37 of the 50 errors presented in my book have been made by people with a Ph.D., proves that this type of control fails.

Worse, our specialists are often forced to talk about subjects outside their direct competence; you cannot expect from a classicist to explain ancient history – but in publications for the general audience and teaching to first year-students, scholars are forced to discuss subjects they are unqualified for. As a consequence, our academicians are now a more important source for false knowledge than pseudoscholars like Immanuel Velikovsky or Erich von Däniken.

This may come as a shock, but I can substantiate this claim. Since 1995, I have probably answered 3,200-3,600 e-mail messages from “the general audience”, and I came to realize that there was a pattern behind the many misunderstandings: people are perfectly capable of distinguishing scholarship from pseudoscholarship, but will be fooled when a credible author makes a mistake.

I may be wrong, of course. I even hope so. But I am unaware of other studies to the causes of misunderstanding about Antiquity, and so far, the messages I have received appear to be the only data around. Unless professional scholars can offer better figures – which is certainly possible – I think that efforts to improve scholarship must not be directed against pseudohistorians; instead, we must focus on the universities.

Read more here, or order the book here.