From Amateur to Student: A Personal Journey

Over the past few years, I have seen an increase of self-published books by self-proclaimed ‘scholars’ out there, proposing this crappy theory or that terrible hypothesis; and they do so often under the banner of anti-elitism or anti-Academy.

Simcha Jacobovici (no academic credentials in the field of Biblical Studies, Ancient History, Classics, or similar fields) throws credible scholars (of which he is neither) under the bus when he calls them “sleeper agents of Christian orthodoxy” without ever once considering the views of those who are criticizing his work.  He fancies himself and his work to be akin to Indiana Jones.

David Elkington, the man who brought attention to the fake Jordan codices, has no academic credentials whatsoever (he was in art and design school for a bit, but apparently he never finished).      Yet he portrays himself to the media as a biblical scholar and archaeologist–even though these are specific fields of scholarship which often require graduate-level degrees which he doesn’t hold.   Similar to Jacobovici, Elkington berates scholars (those with credentials) who are critical of his work and his credibility by suggesting that they are somehow not scholars.

Joe Atwill, the man behind the ‘Jesus was an invention by the Romans’ hypothesis (one that is clearly bogus), studied computer science in college.  While he may be an excellent chess player (as his ‘About Me’ suggests), that does not make him a scholar.  His views on the New Testament, on Josephus, and on the Dead Sea Scrolls are naive and represent a conspiracy theory–not accurate, dedicated historical research.

More recently, Ralph Ellis has published a new edition of his book on Izas Manu.  This recent travesty of a hypothesis (I take his sample chapter apart here) follows a long series of books by Ellis (Jesus as the last pharaoh, Jesus as King Arthur, etc…crazy and bizarre claims that are rightly not taken seriously), usually self-published.  Though he apparently has no formal education, like Elkington, he falls back on his many years of independent study.  Just how many years? It is impossible to know, as in one place he has 20, another place he lists 25, and yet another he claims 30.  But he feels he is better equipped to handle history as he is “independent from theological and educational establishments“–a nice way of admitting he is not credible.  And yet when those of us who are affiliated with an academic institution criticize his work, he labels them as frauds and seeks to harass them and threaten them with legal action if they don’t remove their criticisms.

These represent a handful of examples of the plethora of individuals out there who feel the same way.  They view academia as if it were some useless game, without a real value.  Or, in extreme cases, they see academics as the primary suspects in a cover-up of the ‘real truth’ and only they–the outsiders–can really expose the false teachings of the false prophets in the ivory towers.  It is delusional, offensive, and–worst of all–there are many people out there who buy into it.

Truth be told, I am well acquainted with this sort of thinking as, unfortunately, I used to be one of them.

Before you ask, yes, I’m aware of the student debt crisis.  Yes, I’m aware the economy is in shambles.  I am absolutely aware that the job market is terrible and for some people, it is impossibly difficult to find a start to their careers as a result.  I recognize the problems, I see the dilemma.  But today I am proud to be a student and am thankful I decided to get an education.  But I wasn’t always this positive about it.

Six years ago I was against any sort of higher learning.  It cost too much, it took too long; I saw it as a hindrance on what I viewed as my research–who wants to take courses in subjects, like Biochem that meant absolutely nothing to me, just to earn a degree in Philosophy or History?  It made no sense to me then.  I wanted to spend all my time reading books I wanted to read on my own time, spending money the way I saw fit, on subjects about which I wanted to learn.  After all, paying thousands of dollars for a few credits here or there seemed absolutely ludicrous.  Where was all that money going, anyway?!

This mentality was fueled by attention, unfortunately.  The more attention I was given by people just as adsorbed as I was, the more authority I imagined I had, and the less school seemed to matter.  In my mind’s eye, I pictured myself as a true academic.  The thought of college tasted flat to me, it felt like such a dated idea; it was where rich kids went to avoid having to do any real work for four years or so.  While they were off partying, I was face-down in texts–in my own version of reality, I was the one doing the real studying.  I was making break-through after break-through that I believed would challenge academia for ages to come.

On the occasions where I was brushed off by scholars, I tried to tell myself it was because I was unfettered by scholastic institutions and could think more freely.  I saw them as a religiously-motivated force that stood against me.  But this was all a fantasy I had concocted; inside I knew I was the one who was not credible.  And when certain individuals called me out on this, I became aggressive and defensive and reacted harshly.

Oh, how wrong I was.

Then, years ago, something clicked inside.  I was betrayed by a colleague who, while to my face appeared to be a friend, behind my back would talk down about me because of my lack of credentials.  When I discovered this, I was at a loss.  As much as I had this build-up of hatred and bile against this individual–who I shall not name–I realized that it was my own fault.  I had stepped into a world bigger than myself and I was, frankly, out of my league.

Soon all those excuses about college and how it ‘wasn’t for me’ meant absolutely nothing, because no matter how much I thought I knew, no matter how many books I had in my library, I had no laurels and I would not be taken seriously.  Ever.  I wanted to be an academic, but those doors would always be closed to me without a higher degree.  It was heartbreaking.

For a few more months after this event, I continued to try to tell myself that college was meaningless, but the same old arguments I’d used before just melted away, like wax to a flame.  While college may be a way to avoid a real job for some people (a rather expensive avoidance tactic at that), the truth was that my own job prospects were limited by my meager High School diploma–I might find a great place to work and get a decent salary, but it would never be the job I wanted to do (teach ancient history) and I would never be completely happy there.  It would be a job, but not a career.

This was also during the very beginning of the crash in late 2007, and jobs were hard to come by–if they were had at all.  When I was applying for new work, I was consistently being turned down by applicants with higher degrees.  Even in basic industrial work, college grads–even those with associates degrees–were getting jobs.

That settled it for me: I had to go back to school.  I was completely ignorant about the process, however, and I had no idea where I was going to go.  But everything started to move quickly the second I decided on a college.   Money was surprisingly not much of a factor for my first few years; the jobs I worked paid too little and I ended up finding the financial assistance I needed.

In a bit of good fortune, I found that I owned a lot of the textbooks already, or I had something comparable that I used instead, which cut the costs of class expenses for me a bit.  Going part time also helped me a great deal, as I still needed to work to pay my bills.  Working and going to school is a difficult life choice and of course I recognize that not everyone can find the time to do it.  But I have met some fantastic human beings, my professors have been brilliant (mostly), and there are some classmates who just continue to impress me (especially the single parents who work and go to school–bravo!).

But having lived that life prior to college, I can now intimate where the mentality comes from, that is, the belief that continuing your education doesn’t matter. In my opinion, and from experience, it stems from insecurity.  These sorts of individuals will probably never be scholars, and I think that really bothers them. So in a way, I can see why some of them demonize historians and scholars.  For those who do, they have to see themselves has superior–they have to be right and the establishment, therefore, is wrong.  Not only does this empower them, but it makes them feel like a real scholar (as flawed as that perception is) and, in some ways, not just a scholar, but one of the greatest scholars.  So they essentially fulfill their own fantasy.

While Joe Atwill may be a smart fellow and a nice guy (which I understand him to be), his work will never be ‘scholarship’.  It will only ever be a hobby he does in his free time.   And his hypotheses will only ever be conspiracy theories.  The same is true for Ralph Ellis (though I hold out little hope he will ever see his bizarre conclusions for what they are), for Simcha Jacobovici (who may just be a C-list television producer who sits around all day, editing his documentaries in his underpants), and for David Elkington (who might not even be genuine in character).  There is one absolute fact that unifies them: they are not academically affiliated, on occasion they overstate their credibility, and they often disregard actual academic arguments which contradict their claims.  Conspiracy and mystery clouds their conclusions.

Interestingly enough, the attempts to sabotage my credibility now are mostly from dated websites that criticized me for the same exact things I’m criticizing others for now.  Someone will state that ‘no college will accept me’ and they’ll send this to my .edu email address (and for these sorts of individuals who love to put two and two together, they certainly miss that detail all the time).  They’ll tell me that I have no academic support, but then I’m the one who actually bothers to publish academically while they can only produce self-published volumes.   Maybe at one time in my life these criticisms were valid.  But if they were, they have long since become obsolete.

To those of you out there reading this who are of a similar state of mind, let me offer some words on the matter.   The grounding that college gives you is extremely valuable.  All those generic classes that you take your first few years, they are what gives your experience depth.  For many college freshmen, they can be a guide towards discovery.  College is not about manufacturing a certain brand of people–don’t listen to that hype.  It is about building you up as a person; what you get from college is what you put into it.  It has made me a sharper thinker, a better writer, a more dedicated researcher, given me a broader perspective on life and nuance, an appreciation for different tastes and cultures, and much more.  My suggestion, always, will be do better yourself.  College is a step towards doing that; at least, it was for me.

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2 Responses

  1. [...] I very rarely delete comments, and I don’t plan to delete this one, but I’d like to briefly respond to Mr. Ellis’ concerns. First, this is a direct personal attack on Tom that I don’t find particularly informed or accurate. In my dealings with Tom I’ve found him to be a quite balanced and self-aware student of the ancient world. I’m broadly aware of his academic and non-academic background, and I see no reason to judge his contemporary contributions to the academy by a past zealous tendentiousness that he has directly addressed and moved beyond (here). [...]

  2. […] Mr. Atwill is just like all the other amateur-Scholar-wannabes who refuse to put in the time and effort to earn a degree in the field, who want to advance their pet theories to sell books and dupe you over. He relies on popular media and the ignorance of the layperson to score points rather than publishing in a credible academic journal or publishing academically. He knows he can’t do that, because he has no clue how academics work, how they think, or what they actually argue on the subject. He might as well claim that Jesus lived on Atlantis, which came from Mars. That theory is about as ridiculous as the notion that Rome invented Jesus. […]

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