Tackling a Storm God: A Deist’s Impression of Yahweh and the Control over Weather

1. The Crisis

On May 20th, an F5 tornado wrecked havoc in the community of Moore, Oklahoma. Scores of people died, including children; the tornado spared little. Through the devastation, a community mourned together and united, an inspiring story that has brought tales of heroism and perseverance in the face of such a catastrophic event. But like a Classical Greek play, a divine force takes a strong role as the great and powerful rod of Justice and Vengeance. This time, however, the narrative is just too annoying for me to stay out of it.

There are three sides of this story represented in the media, by talking heads and pundits, that make up this little ancient tragedy redivivus: (1) On the main stage is Yahweh, the omnipotent, destroyer of the wicked and/or savior to the fallen, but there are also (2) the fundamentalist, ultra-conservative Christian Army and (3) the disbelieving, anti-Religion, secularists who are both trying to spin this disaster to fit a preconceived notion about how the universe works and which forces govern the weather. It is a story that has played out in nearly every tragedy. I’m not saying who I think is right or wrong, but I do think that there is a serious mental lapse happening in both groups. As a agnostic deist, I have one foot in heaven and one foot in hell, and I’m quite content here; but it does give me, I believe, an interesting perspective on the situation and, frankly, I’m just too annoyed by all the polemics and rhetoric to not get involved.

2. The Blame Game

During the 2nd Century CE, Marcus Aurelius launched an assault on the Quadi, a Germanic tribe that had successfully routed a Roman Legion and laid siege to a town before being driven back by Aurelius’ army. During this assault, the Quadi had gained the upper hand. At one point, his army starving, dehydrated, and near defeat–surrounded on all sides by a vicious enemy intent on killing them, Marcus Aurelius humbly prayed to the gods for help. Within moments, a sudden storm brewed on the horizon and quickly started to drench the tired, thirsty Romans. Thunder crackled above them and giant lightning bolts seemed to be hurtling down into the ranks of the Quadi–some were struck, others scattered; the Romans, taking this as a sign, pressed forward and won the day.

A relief from the Column of Marcus Aurelius is a contemporary witness to the event; Notice a god hovering over the Roman legion, water raining down from his arms and body, with soldiers lifting up their shields so they might be filled with water.

This may sound like a fantasy story. In fact, the event probably did happen. Rainstorms, thunder and lightning, are all common natural phenomena and on hot days these storms can build up and strike without warning. Testaments to the event are highlighted by minted coins immediately following the victory honoring the gods and a relief on the column of Marcus Aurelius. Cassius Dio also tells us of the event, though his version of the tale is lost–possibly because of the weathering of time or because it was purposefully removed by Christians who wanted to have a monopoly on a god who grants miracles.

The reason I would consider that second possibility is because the only version of the story from Dio that we have available to us is one by an 11th century Christian monk named Xiphilinus (who, clearly, had copies of Dio’s tale). He accuses Dio of lying and suggests that, in reality, it was a Christian who prayed to Yahweh who then granted his wish and destroyed the enemy; in these fantasy stories, the kingly figure (in this case Marcus Aurelius) then is said–per Xiphilinus–to have bowed down and thanked Yahweh for his life-giving miracle. [If this sounds familiar, it is because there is a similar story (sans weather, but still miraculous) in Josephus concerning Alexander the Great.]

Do you see what he did there? He took one miracle story for the Roman pagans and made it all about Christianity. You may (aptly) be asking what this has to do with Oklahoma. Everything, unfortunately. As with the rain storm that saved Aurelius’ legion, due to the exceptional nature of the event, everyone feels the urge to look for deeper meaning. Though unlike Jupiter, who flies over the thirsty soldiers giving them a storm of life-giving rain, certain Christian groups have suggested that Yahweh has instead reverted back to his Old Testament ways, destroying towns and killing people because he is angry and vengeful. This is no idle position; for these Christians, they have Biblical support for this claim.

God floods the earth by opening the gates of heaven. Not so different than sending tornadoes towards populated towns.

In Genesis 19.24, God reigns fire down from the heavens. And in Exodus 9.23, Moses calls upon Yahweh to send forth a storm upon the land–which Yahweh does, causing it to thunder and lightning, rain and hail. Again in 1 Samuel 12.18, Samuel asks God to send a storm and once more he does this. Why all the storming? Because Yahweh is, after all, a storm god. No more clearly is this a thing than in 1 Kings 8, where Elijah has a ‘God duel’ with the prophets of Baal (another storm god). As it goes, Yahweh wins by ending a drought that has strangled the land by sending a storm. Yahweh controls the weather; the Bible is very clear on this. The sky is his domain, so much so that Moses has to climb a mountain to be with him (something akin to other storm god motifs–like Zeus on Mt. Olympus [also recent evidence suggests people gave offerings to Zeus at Mount Lykaion]). Indeed, Jesus’ command over the storm at the sea of Galilee and his ability to perform water miracles is a testament in the author’s portrayals to their recognition of Yahweh as a god of the storms and weather.

These storms are often associated with devastation–not salvation. So is it any wonder why highly religious people, like Pat Robertson, put the blame of the destruction of the storm on the victims for not praying as often as they should? Is anyone really surprised that Westboro Baptist Church blames a gay man for the wrath of god? They are merely following with the trope of the storm god so eerily laid out in the Bible. After all, something goes against god and god sends a lightning bolt at you (or a storm, or a drought–his call). Let me be clear, as these individuals are resting their understanding of the temperament and morality of god on the Bible, they aren’t wrong in their interpretation.

But atheists and other secularists in their own way have abused this to fit their agendas as well. One atheist group, rather than raising the money to support all the victims, thought it proper to raise several thousand dollars only for a single victim–a poor woman who had the misfortune of being mistaken for a Christian during an embarrassing interview with Wolf Blitzer–because she came out publicly as an atheist.

The interesting bit is that the Christian fundamentalists and the atheists are all asking the same thing: If god is all powerful, then why did this happen? It is a valuable question that deserves some consideration.

3. The Logical Problems of a Omnipotent God and Weather Catastrophes

This is where the whole logic of mainstream Christianity gets a little choppy. Following the tornado, many Christians called for prayer, but also the condemnation of Pat Robertson and others who are so quick to put the power of the storm in god’s hands. On the face of it, I see no problems with prayer and I certainly see no problem criticizing fundamentalists who put the blame for tragedy on innocent people. But let’s consider this for a moment; a lot of people–even Christians–are quick to criticize Pat Robert and Fred Phelps, Jr. because of their interpretations of the events but how many have considered the irony of their own religious ideals in light of the incident?

In one moment there is praying for the families of the victims (which, again, I get and appreciate the implications of it)–presumably to Yahweh, right?–and in the next there is criticism of the people placing the blame on the community for inciting god’s wrath. Do you, humble reader, see the problem?

I do not mind laying it all out: If god can have control over the weather–I’m presuming he can based upon the Biblical account of god–what good is praying to him *after* the events of the storm? Additionally, if he can’t control the weather, then what good is saying a prayer? The damage is already done and the souls of those departed are already due to be judged upon their own merits. But there is a far more twisted issue here; the issue that if god can control the weather–why allow tornadoes in the first place? Why not just create a planet where tornadoes aren’t a thing? Surely he could do that. If I can imagine it, surely the all-mighty can too.

This is where I just can’t fathom this sort of belief; and while I appreciate the tone of articles like this (John Byron), I also find fault with the logic of it. It is a challenge–especially when we’re talking about the death of children. The problem is that this realization–that an all-powerful god that controls the weather allowed this to occur (or had a hand in it) is downright disconcerting for people–it makes them uncomfortable because no god that they’d believe in would be so cruel or apathetic, and so they vehemently disagree to the point where it actually contradicts their own faith-arguments. And that is a good thing; I’m glad that most Christians are morally astute enough to recognize the Bible’s wrongness about weather patterns and natural disasters. But that does raise some problems for the believer, doesn’t it? It did for me.


“…and also I hate you.”

Certainly commentators have anticipated this; FOX News posted this article up, for example, claiming that the ‘practicality’ of faith and prayer rests in other peoples’ recognition of that faith, ergo they give generously (which, by the way, is absurd). In the Washington Post, a Christian author wrote a piece where he asks ‘Where was God?’ and his answer, though hollow, goes:

Human beings may not know all the answers of “why” God allows natural disasters or other evils in the universe. Although we personally would prefer that such disasters never occurred in the universe, we recognize intellectually that angry feelings towards tornadoes does not logically disprove God’s existence.

And he is certainly right in one respect–tornadoes do not disprove a god. In fact, for the strong believer tornadoes and destructive weather only further strengthen their faith in a deity like Yahweh the storm god of the Hebrew Bible. But Dave Sterrett, the author of this article, is wrong if he thinks that such catastrophe does not lay the foundations of doubt over an all-loving god. He writes, “The atheist is often assuming that if God is all good, then He would prefer to create a world without evil than to create a world in which evil exists.” But Sterrett doesn’t know his opponent well if this is what he thinks an atheist or secularist might argue.

Instead, the atheist is correct that an all-loving god would not intentionally send a storm to kill people, destroy their lives, ruin their homes, and kill their children. There is no love in such an act–and Sterrett must know this or he would not have resorted to a ‘mystery of god’ position (as in, ‘we can’t know why god does these things,…’) which is as absurd as the claim made by FOX that it is people’s faith–not their morality–that they give aid and comfort to the victims.

4. The Take-Away

In my humble opinion, the question shouldn’t be ‘why didn’t god stop the tornado?’ or ‘why did god allow this tornado to happen?’. The greater question–and one that is so often ignored–is, ‘what does this tragedy tell us about one another?’ What can we learn about how we deal with tragedy that might save us grief and sorrow in the future?

Through the clouds of wrath and flame I see a light–no, not god per se. I have no intentions of anthropomorphizing god. I do not indulge myself–as the artists of Aurelius’ column and the Christian monk Xiphilinus have done–in the process of finding god in the throes of destruction, and nor do I seek out god in the joy of wondrous actions. For me, as a deist, I’m content with naturalistic explanations for the goings-on of the world. No, I do not see god lifting crates of water. I don’t see god directing a tornado towards a school full of children either. Instead I see the light of humanity. I am not tied to certain dogmatic truths about a figure such as god–religiously or atheistically.

While some people are content with blaming god or blaming certain types of people they don’t like (I’d love to blame this on the absolute travesty that is the way education in the arts is being thrown away in this country–but I shall refrain). Storm systems exist on this planet like any other planet. We live in a universe that is not primarily geared towards supporting life; our existence might be nothing more than a byproduct of its main goal (and oddly enough, that may be why the universe is more suited towards the development of black holes).

Black holes snack on planets with masses much larger than Jupiter.

At the end of the day, what we find is that god is not the one keeping the lights on or the roof secure over our heads–at least, not directly. Seldom can Catholics and humanists agree on anything, yet when it comes to giving aid both groups have stepped up and provided help to those whose lives are devastated as a result of the weather. I do not attribute this to god, though perhaps some of you will. Instead I see the value in working together towards a common goal, putting aside pettiness and differences to help those who need it–to help other people for the sake of being good. Is that not a worthy goal? Is that not morally right? Can we stop the divisive language and work on rebuilding because it is the right thing to do?


See this (Joel Watts).

Beware the Ides of March!

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Beware the ides of March.

Julius Caesar Act 1, scene 2, 15–19

And here we are, the Ides of March!  Made famous by the date of the assassination of Julius Caesar (15 Mar). So I have provided here a little collection of useful links and images and articles for your own use.  Enjoy.


Area where Julius Caesar was assassinated.

  And here is a re-imagining of the event:

Though it probably didn’t happen like this. Just sayin’.

Here is Plutarch’s description of the event:

Now when the senate was gone in before to the chamber where they were to sit, the rest of the company placed themselves close about Caesars chair, as if they had some suit to make to him, and Cassius, turning his face to Pompeys statue, is said to have invoked it, as if it had been sensible of his prayers. Trebonius, in the meanwhile, engaged Antonys attention at the door, and kept him in talk outside. When Caesar entered, the whole senate rose up to him. As soon as he was sat down, the men all crowded round about him, and set Tillius Cimber, one of their own number, to intercede in behalf of his brother that was banished; they all joined their prayers with his, and took Caesar by the hand, and kissed his head and his breast. But he putting aside at first their supplications, and afterwards, when he saw they would not desist, violently rising up, Tillius with both hands caught hold of his robe and pulled it off from his shoulders, and Casca, that stood behind him, drawing his dagger, gave him the first, but a slight wound, about the shoulder. Caesar snatching hold of the handle of the dagger, and crying out aloud in Latin, “Villain Casca, what do you?” he, calling in Greek to his brother, bade him come and help. And by this time, finding himself struck by a great many hands, and looking around about him to see if he could force his way out, when he saw Brutus with his dagger drawn against him, he let go Cascas hand, that he had hold of and covering his head with his robe, gave up his body to their blows. And they so eagerly pressed towards the body, and so many daggers were hacking together, that they cut one another; Brutus, particularly, received a wound in his hand, and all of them were besmeared with the blood.

A coin commemorating the event:

One of the most famous coins of all time is the EID MAR denarius issued by Marcus Junius Brutus in 43/42 BC. When Julius Caesar crossed the Rubicon, he threw Rome into more than three years of civil war, eliminating his opponents along the way. In 49 BC, many leading citizens, including some sixty Roman Senators, had come to see Caesar as a power-grabber who wanted to make himself king. This was an unacceptable situation for men like Brutus, who wished to retain their beloved Republic.

Spider-Man and the Gospel Genres

While checking out Bible and Interpretation’s ‘Featured News’ section as I normally do, I came across this interesting looking article on the so-called Spider-Man fallacy.  I am always interested in the question of comics and their adoption of biblical themes (at times) or their shared motifs with ancient literature (because it is fun), so I clicked on the link.  I was surprised to see that the article was written to analyze an argument from an atheist about the nature of the Gospel genre.  The atheist (who is not named and so will remain our anonymous antagonist, even though this is unfair–I much rather prefer to have a name with an argument) gives this argument:

Archaeologists 1,000 years from now unearth a collection of Spiderman comics. From the background art, they can tell it takes place in New York City. NYC is an actual place, as confirmed by archaeology. However, this does not mean that Spiderman existed.

Though one has to admit, this would make a fun comic adaptation.

So the whole case is presented as if the scenario given by the atheist is essentially the same story surrounding the Gospels: a mythical figure set into a historical backdrop like New York City, who has interactions with real historical figures (like the mayor of New York City vs. Pontius Pilate, Herod Antipas, or Herod the Great).

I don’t like this logic.  The whole argument is a case of special pleading.  This particular anonymous atheist detractor seems to lack some basic knowledge about textual criticism, particularly how long we’ve had copies of the manuscripts (at least 1600 years–not 1000 years).  The argument also forgets that the comic strip is illustrated and we should hope that in 1000 years from now, humans still have full-text books (one would hope that illustrations don’t become the dominant form of media and story telling!) and still have comic books (though I wonder what their Justice League of the Future will look like).  So the whole argument is a wash: it presumes too many factors and asks you to accept too many unknowns (e.g., it asks you to pretend as if scholars in 1000 years won’t be as dorky or nerdy as we are today–something I highly doubt).

But that doesn’t mean the author of the refutation–Robin Schumacher–makes a good case against it either.  In fact the author of this piece for the Christian Post makes some surprising blunders (seemingly out of bias).  The biggest one is in their use of genre criticism:

However, such thinking has been discredited due to the work of a number of scholars, most notably Richard Burridge and his work What are the Gospels – A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography. Burridge, dean of King’s College in London, is a classicist who originally set out to disprove the thesis that the Gospels fit within the genre of ancient biography, but during his research, the evidence he uncovered caused him to reverse his opinion.

Those who think the Gospels don’t match the category of ancient historical biography confuse our current models of biography with those of the ancient world.

via Jesus and the Spiderman Fallacy | The Confident Christian.

The problem is that Robin Schumacher has it backwards.  Those who think the Gospels are ancient historical biography are the ones confused.  And Burridge is not the only one, along with Schumacher, who has it backwards.  We’ll look at Burridge, but I also want to focus on two other scholars who have argued similar positions: Darrell Bock and Craig Keener.

Let’s consider the basic proposition that the Gospels fit the genre of Greco-Roman biography.  Bock writes:[1]

What specific type of literature is a gospel?  How would an ancient reader have classified it?  …recent work has shown that the gospels read much like ancient Greco-Roman biographies and that the issue of bias does not preclude a discussion of historicity. A…concern for truth is present in the Gospels.  When we encounter a gospel, we are reading a literary form that the ancient world recognized as biographical…. Ancient biography gives us the portrait of a key figure by examining key events of which he or she was a major part as well as giving us glimpses of the hero’s thinking.  They tend to present a fundamental chronological outline of key periods starting with the birth or the arrival on the public scene….  Such biographies often concentrate on the controversies surrounding the key figure, especially the events that lead to a dramatic death, if that is part of the history.   It is this kind of work that we read as we turn out attention to the Gospel accounts as they present to us, as history, the life of Jesus.

Bock’s position, as is the position of many scholars of the historical Jesus, is one that visualizes the Gospels as histories—though not very good ones—of the life of the figure of Jesus.  So, the argument goes, there is something in the Gospels about a historical figure; it may not be much, which is the view of many scholars particularly those involved in the so-called ‘third quest’ and the Jesus Seminar, but there is somethingKeener agrees:

“In recent decades, as scholars have examined the best ancient analogies for the Gospels, it has become increasingly clear that the Gospels were designed as biographies—though as ancient rather than modern ones.”

This line of thinking did not come about ex nihilo.  In 1977, Charles Talbert[2], while not the first to suggest it, was the earliest contemporary historian to argue persuasively for Greco-Roman biography as the genre of the Gospels; a work more recently published, though still over fifteen years old, was published by Richard A. Burridge addressing the same issue–and the one with which Schumacher is familiar.[3]  But in the time between Burridge’s first publication and the present, several other investigations have been made into the study of genre and the Gospels. Most notably is the analysis by Michael Vines, where he takes Burridge, and David Aune as well, to task.[4] His most relevant point, in this author’s opinion, is that the Gospels do not focus on biographical aspects but on theological ones.  Burridge’s case rests on whether or not the Gospels imitate, unconsciously or purposefully, the genre of Greco-Roman biography (though he admits that the option is there that they only do so coincidentally).  However, the Gospels do not imitate Greco-Roman biography as Burridge, Aune, and Talbert believe and this is easily demonstrated.

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus.  Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus.  Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.

It helps the Classicist case that we also have contemporary attestation to Philostratus…

…and also to Apollonius.

The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example).  These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography.  As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods.

When one looks critically at the Gospels, one can easily see what I mean.  The Gospel authors were not writing independently, but were written for what are clearly different theological, political, and exegetical reasons, one after another over a period of at least 100 years.  And as I mentioned, they don’t name their sources, ever, but it is clear that Matthew and Luke had copies of Mark; a fact to which Keener admits, but he glosses over the fact that they don’t ever cite each other.  Keener greatly overstates his position when he writes that:

“…Matthew and Luke (whom we can best test) use their sources very carefully by ancient standards.… This does not mean that these writers concerned themselves about telling every detail in exactly the way that they received it—most ancient audiences expected writers to exercise more freedom than that—but that, by the standards we apply to their contemporaries, the Gospels are remarkably useful sources.”

If by using their sources “very carefully,” Keener means to admit that the authors changed, adjusted, or otherwise ignored each others’ works extensively (i.e. purposefully changed accounts from other Gospels in creating their own) then he is correct; they did utilize each other quite remarkably; so remarkably, in fact, that some scenes which occur in two Gospels appear as a parable in another.  Some vanish entirely!  Others are so chronologically garbled that Keener will be hard pressed to explain how it could have happened with such diligent and thorough authors utilizing their sources so carefully.  If the events of Jesus’ life could so easily be invented, removed, or altered so often, then clearly the authors of the Gospels were not interested in preserving the historical Jesus.  How could they have been?  They went out of their way on certain occasions to manipulate the narratives to show us a Jesus that was of the minds of their own socio-cultural settings, their own interests washing away whatever theological agenda their predecessors held.  Why would this occur if they were “very carefully” utilizing their sources?  Careful use seems not to have bothered them much at all.  When thinking of an example of such an occurrence in the texts, the fig tree is one that comes to mind almost immediately.

In Matthew, Jesus has just finished cleansing the temple after a very triumphal entry into Jerusalem and he was already running away to Bethany to escape the guards who were looking to kill him.  He sleeps the night there and awakens the next day to head back into the city; along the way back Jesus decides he is hungry.  Luckily for him, fig trees were abundant.  Unlucky for the fig tree, it was out of season.  Jesus becomes infuriated; he had called but the tree had not answered.  Throwing what, in my opinion, is not much different than a childish temper-tantrum, he curses the tree and it withers “at once.” (Matt. 21:19)   The disciples all marvel and even ask each other “How did the fig tree wither at once?” (Matt. 21:20)  With a little teaching that follows, this ends Matthew’s fig tree story.  This event might be historical.  But the Gospel authors, who Keener suggests were far more knowledgeable of the circumstances of the accounts than we are, do not seem to come to any particular consensus about it.

Mark portrays Jesus as just making it into the city before realizing he must leave again.  After what seems to have been an exhausting day of entrances, it’s off to Bethany he goes to spend the night as it was “already late” (Mark 11:11).  Awaking the next morning, Jesus and his companions make their way back to Jerusalem.  And as before, on their way, Jesus became hungry; he had to build up his strength for all the table-throwing and scolding later on, it seems.  He approaches the fig tree, out of season, and curses the fig tree.  All of his disciples heard this curse. (Mark 11:14)  After a long day of cleansing the temple, throwing over tables, they again departed from the city to escape the plotting priests and scribes.  The next morning the disciples saw the fig tree withered away and “remembered” (ἀναμνησθεὶς) in Mark 11:20.

Luke, Keener’s prized historian and biographer, seems to have completely dismissed this event as it is described in the other two accounts.  Luke visualizes this narrative completely differently, presenting it as a parable instead. (Luke 13:6-9) In fact, the parable is told far from Jerusalem to the north, in Galilee, a full six chapters before the Triumphal Entry occurs in Luke’s narrative (essentially throwing off the chronology). An interesting aside might be to note that Luke doesn’t seem to recall ever spending the night in Bethany during his stay near Jerusalem with Jesus. Some might find Luke’s ignorance of this account rather embarrassing, especially if they are trying to argue for the historical accuracy of the Gospel of Luke.

John is not only clueless of the withering of the fig tree, but he doesn’t even present it as a parable!  Instead, John “remembers” Jesus calling Nathanael from under a fig tree (John 1:43-48), but beyond that, he is completely ignorant of any cursing, withering, fig tree incident.  But Matthew clearly writes that all the disciples marveled.  Not some, not a few, not two.  This is odd–as Keener points out, Matthew and Luke both had access to Mark, yet Mark states that all the disciples saw the fig tree withered the next day.  If Matthew and Luke cared so greatly about the accurate reporting of historical events, why did they change this part of Mark’s narrative?  If they “construed Mark as biography as well,” as Keener suggests, why did they alter (or remove entirely) this scene from their narratives?

Conspiring authors? Perhaps that was the intent, but they didn’t listen to each other.

This is only one example; there are countless more.  Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels.  When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious.  This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.  According to Keener, however, the Gospel authors are more useful as sources for a historical tradition than Arrian.  That thinking just makes no sense at all.

Any familiarity with Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri would immediately illustrate the difference in quality and demonstrate actually care for source material.  In fact, if one were looking for an example of Burridge’s ideological history written with coincidental and, perhaps, even unconscious links to Greco-Roman Biography, Arrian’s Anabasis Alexandri is the best one we will find; yet it is dramatically unlike anything we see with the Gospel accounts.  In the very opening of his first book, he explains part of his method to the reader:

Wherever Ptolemy and Aristobulus in their histories of Alexander, the son of Philip, have given the same account, I have followed it on the assumption of its accuracy; where their facts differ I have chosen what I feel to be the more probable and interesting. (Anabasis Alexandri 1.1)

Like Philostratus, Arrian compares his sources, especially when they conflict (e.g., Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6). His sources, therefore, are also subject to criticism and evaluation (since we actually know what they are). Here with Arrian, as before with Philostratus, there is a direct engagement with the sources; one is not reading a story.  While some events display traits of a narrative, the reader is able to interact with it, to analyze the history with the narrator.  With the Gospel accounts there is no interaction with the narrative; the reader is moved along with the story, unable to analyze and critique it and, instead, is told that how the author of the Gospels wrote it is precisely how it occurred.[5]  There is never an instance where the Gospel authors take two separate accounts of an event and openly discuss which is more likely to have occurred, even though each Gospel portrays similar events differently, in different chronologies, with different individuals, and sometimes within different contexts and even locations.  What one reads is what one gets and, in almost every instance, what one gets is a theologically-driven exegetical interpretation of the Hebrew Bible.[6]


One final thought on the subject: It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus.  There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions).  Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se.  Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).  An example one might find of a fictional hero who is historicized in a Greco-Roman biography is Lycurgus, the legendary lawgiver of Spartan lore.  Plutarch dedicates a biography to him, complete with genealogy; but his attestation goes well beyond this.  Lycurgus gets honorable mentions and is discussed by Plato (Republic 10.599d), Aristotle (Politics 2.1270a, Rhetoric 2.23.11), Xenophon (Constitution of the Lacedaimonians 1), Polybius (Histories 4.2, 6.10), Josephus (Against Apion 2.220), Isocrates (Panathenaicus 12.152), Epictetus (Discourses 2.20), Tacitus (Annals 3.26), and Livy (History of Rome 38.34) to name a few.  But it is unlikely that Lycurgus was any more real than Romulus, of whom several Greco-Roman biographies are extant (Plutarch, Romulus; also Livy dedicates his first book of From the Founding of the City to the life of Romulus; stories of his life and deeds can also be found in ancient historiographies (e.g., Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Roman Antiquities 2).  The figure of Romulus is attested in works from Ovid (Fasti), Cicero (Laws, Republic), and to Tertullian (Apology). It may also be useful to note in passing that among these selected works mentioning Romulus there exists a tale of his death, resurrection, and rebirth to the figure of Quirinus.   This is merely to point out that even if the Gospels were portrayed as Greco-Roman biographies, it would not imply eo ipso that they are historically useful.

At the end of the day, Schumacher does not take into account the differences between the genre of a real Greco-Roman biography like one written by Philostratus, Plutarch, or Arrian, and the narrative stories of the Gospels.  Like Burridge and Keener, Schumacher only focuses on the superficial similarities of the genre, rather than a real detailed analysis like I have provided here.  This seems to be the trouble with some apologist commentators who lack a strong or dedicated Classics background.

But while Schumacher, et al, may be wrong, so is the anonymous atheist.  Making anachronistic comparisons are misleading and overstate their case.  One cannot (or should not) use modern genres as a useful comparison; instead, ancient epics or ancient Jewish fiction writing would have made a more palatable choice (like Michael Vines or Thomas Thompson argue).  So no one really seems to be the winner in this debate.  But that is often the case when I come across a discussion between a Christian apologist and an atheist when it comes to the Bible–a lot of misunderstandings, a lot of miscommunication, a lot of talking past one another.  And this is rather unfortunate.

On the plus side, I got to demonstrate, once more, how completely logically flawed it is to associate the Gospels with Greco-Roman biography.

[1] Studying the Historical Jesus: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic: 2002), 214.

[2] What is a Gospel? The Genre of the Canonical Gospels (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1977)

[3] What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992)

[4] Vines, The Problem of Markan Genre: The Gospel of Mark and the Jewish Novel (Academia Biblica 3; Atlanta: SBL, 2002), 7-19.

[5] While Arrian’s methods are exceptional, they fall short of modern standards. Even though he is a step above the typical ancient historian, his work is not perfect. He openly equates “interesting” stories with “probable” stories and, as one of his reasons for choosing Ptolemy as a source, states that it is because he was a King and “it is more disgraceful for a king to tell lies than anyone else.” (Anabasis Alexandri, Preface 1-3) Still, if a good historian like Arrian, whose methods are far superior to those of his contemporaries, those before him, and many after, can succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be more concerned with how much bias and error effects those writers of lesser quality. Not even the author of Luke, with his brief preface to Theophilus, can come close to this methodology.  R. Carrier argues this persuasively that Luke does not function well as a historian or biographer; see his discussion in Not the Impossible Faith: Why Christianity Didn’t Need a Miracle to Succeed (Lulu Press, 2009), 173-87.

[6] This author tends to agree with the statement on the Gospels by Samuel Sandmel, “If the historical statements they make chance to be reliable, this is only coincidence,” from ‘Prolegomena to a Commentary on Mark,’ in Two Living Traditions: Essays on Religion (Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1972), 149.

Did the Greeks Get a Building from an Ancient IKEA?

Pretty awesome!

Italian archeologists have unearthed the remains of a Greek temple-like structure dating back to 6th century B.C. They also found details on how to build it. Written in detailed codes, the collection of how-to instructions was found among the remains.

It says “Product is not covered under warranty.” Damn you, IKEA!

Much like the instruction booklets of the Swedish home furnishings company, IKEA, various sections of the elaborate structure were inscribed with coded symbols showing how the pieces slotted together. Shown here is one of the coded slabs. “So far we have uncovered 100 inscribed fragments, all related to the roof assembly system. The inscriptions also reveal that the palace was built by Greek artisans coming from the Spartan colony of Taranto in Puglia,” Massimo Osanna, director of the archaeology school at Basilicata University, told Discovery News.

Check out more photos and information here: Ancient Building Comes with Assembly Instructions : Discovery News.

Returning to (the Question of the Historicity of) Troy

With thanks to David Meadows for directing me to this:

The new expedition will be led by University of Wisconsin-Madison classics Professor William Aylward, an archaeologist with long experience of excavating the ruins of classical antiquity, including what is currently accepted as the site of Troy itself.

In ancient Greek it was called Ἴλιον, Ilion, or Ἴλιος, Ilios; and Τροία, Troia; Latin: Trōia and Īlium; Hittite: Wilusa or Truwisa and still grips the imagination over 3200 years after the events described in Homer’s epic poem the Iliad. Troy VII has been identified as the Hittite Wilusa, which gives the probable origin of the Greek version Ilion and is generally (but not conclusively) accepted to be the Homeric Troy.

via Archaeologists return to Troy : Past Horizons Archaeology.

I’ve written on the question of the historicity of Troy recently, and what I said then remains just as relevant:

That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line with the current events of the Archaic-early Persian periods, with the joining of previously warring poleis into alliances and leagues, with the idealization of the Hellenics vs. the Persians, where the narrative takes root and makes a stand.  And even then, these narratives function only within a set of functional guidelines (that is to say, within the setting by which our most current version of the Odyssey comes to us)–as history they fail to meet any guidelines since the narrative no doubt would have changed depending on the patron deities of the individual cities and the role of the heroes (again lending to the fact that what we have isn’t ‘what happened’ but ‘what the Greeks at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic mind.

My understanding is that there are simply too many challenges that the purveyors of a historical Troy must overcome: too many inconsistencies, too much wishful thinking, too great a chance of forcing the data to fit into preconceived notions.  The links between the modern excavations at Wilusa and the Homeric Troy are weak at best.  The dating of the settlements to various periods (i.e., is it Troy VIIa or Troy VI that is supposedly the historical Troy?) and the discussion of a conquest of the region (that the walls show signs of a fire, sure, but also earthquake damage from the same time!) are tentative and perhaps are based on questionable methods (i.e., the pottery dating used by some of the earlier excavators in the beginning of the twentieth century).

The geographical links are drawn from ancient sources, though all of them late and written after the group of texts were collected into what is now known as the Illiad (like Strabo, who lived around the turn of the first century CE–hundreds of years after the composition of the Homeric epics).   And how many ‘Troy’s’ were there in antiquity?  Livy recounts several ‘Troy’s’ popping up after the fall of the ‘original’ (which is not placed geographically) and notes that the settlers (those who escaped the destruction) were called ‘Trojans’ to his day.  So it is highly specious, in my opinion, to trust the accounts of any ancient author on the whereabouts of Troy, since it is clear that it was fashionable at various times and locales to link ones history with that of the Homeric epics.  And why not those who live off the Aegean Sea?  Of course those settlements would be counted amongst the Trojans!  It is all circular.  A settlement along the Aegean Sea region is associated with Homer and considered Trojan because the Trojans were from a settlement along the Aegean Sea region according to Homer.

There are serious implications to doing history in this fashion.  I again direct the readers to read my earlier post on this subject (linked above).

Do You Like Classics and Football?

What a silly question, right?  I mean, come on, who doesn’t like Classics and Football?! Well, good on you, because I have some information you’ll be glad to read!

So for those who aren’t aware, Rutgers is responsible for collegiate football.  Seriously, look it up.  And something else you might not know: Rutgers’  first football team was made up predominantly of Classics majors!

Rutgers’ new student paper, the Daily Targum, had the good sense to show up to report on the game, which they did in astonishing detail that has often been reprinted. See here for an excellent summary (with lots of great images) from the RU Athletics website.

Unlike Princeton, Rutgers also kept a good record of its student-athletes who showed up to play that November day—27 for RU in all.

Now, a glance at the academic rolls shows that all but five of those 27 players were taking the rigorous Rutgers Classics Curriculum. The best student among them was probably the team captain, William James Leggett, Class of 1872. Before graduating, he won prizes in Latin as well as mathematics and declamation. Amazingly, he was also Targum editor, director of the baseball team, and captain and stroke of the RU crew.

But three of the members of the team were flunking freshman algebra, and one of them—Classics student William McKee ’73—had a string of absences in the week leading up the game, which the faculty marked as “excused” after the Rutgers victory.

via This day in RU history: team of mostly classicists beat Princeton in first-ever intercollegiate football game |.

With thanks to Professor Brennan on bringing this to my attention.  Rutgers, Football, and Classics: a winning combination in my book and, as it so happens to turn out, Rutgers beat Princeton that game.

You Say the Odyssey is Based in History? Not So Fast!

In a discussion today about the ‘social network of the ancient past‘ article that circulated a few months back (and was, in my opinion, thoroughly decimated by Carrier though I offered my own thoughts here), someone commented that ‘the era of joking around about the Odyssey being just a mythological tale is ending.’  Really?  Is that where we are headed now?  The last thing we need is a maximalist revolution in Classics!

Coincidentally, this discussion on the historicity of Odysseus plays into what we’re talking about in my Greek/Roman Mythology class–but it is also something I have argued for many years.  That is, when we are examining ancient texts, we’re not simply looking at a ‘canonical account of what happened’; we’re looking at a text which has changed perhaps hundreds of times before ever being written down and collected–and even then the tale was altered in its performance and in its telling for hundreds of years following its composition and editing.

When people suggest that the Odyssey intimates real historical people and events, I cannot feel as though they are missing several pieces of the puzzle.  Are they forgetting that the Homeric tales contain bits of Bronze and Iron Age socio-constructs, cultural contracts, and information throughout the narratives?  Are they aware that the epic story cannot be removed from its mythological framing (that is to say, the narrative is not (1) of history and (2) of fiction just waiting for someone to come along and pull them apart like one might divide a piece of paper)?  You cannot have an odyssey without an Odysseus who is fawned over by Calypso, who journeyed to the underworld, who is aided by Athena, who returns to Ithaca and slays the suitors.  There is no story without the myth–and there is no history within the myth.  And then there is that pesky other story within the Odyssey–the Telemachia–which seems to have been included into the narrative of the odyssey, at a different time, for purposes unknown; as unknown as its author(s).

But what of that additional detail: That the narrative of the Odyssey fits more in line with the current events of the Archaic-early Persian periods, with the joining of previously warring poleis into alliances and leagues, with the idealization of the Hellenics vs. the Persians, where the narrative takes root and makes a stand.  And even then, these narratives function only within a set of functional guidelines (that is to say, within the setting by which our most current version of the Odyssey comes to us)–as history they fail to meet any guidelines since the narrative no doubt would have changed depending on the patron deities of the individual cities and the role of the heroes (again lending to the fact that what we have isn’t ‘what happened’ but ‘what the Greeks at that time and that place wanted to believe happened).  We’re not dealing with history, but cultural memory.  These tales are the products of the ancient mythic mind, not our modern rationalistic mind.

Some scholars perhaps fail to recognize any of this and, upon stumbling onto a site traditionally associated with Troy they assume they have found the historical Troy (The ancients certainly didn’t know where the hell the place was at because they give conflicting accounts–and they should know if we’re to assume they were aware of it!  Some even doubt the events completely!).  Likewise, Ithaca as described in the Odyssey is completely different geographically; so how would one even ‘discover’ sites associated with the narrative when no prominent land features are accurate enough to ‘locate’ anything?  It’s just like attempts to locate the real Atlantis or the so-called ‘Palace of Odysseus‘ (which is just bunk).  It is just more wishful thinking; another example of someone taking the narrative at face value.  Or it is an attempt to get more government funding for a dig or to sell non-credible books or to attract tourists.  Or it is some political or national move to claim ‘ownership’ of the past.  It is not, however, solid methodology or respectable archaeology.

So is the day coming when the Odyssey is shown to be founded in history?  Definitely not in the archaeological record we currently have.  What’s there to joke about?  I’ll tell you: it’s the methods of those who will stretch any conclusion or any discovery in a manner to arbitrarily place it into the narrative and context of the Odyssey.

Blogging Through A Classics Undergrad: Week 2

Well my second week of classes has begun and I think I am finally ready to start blogging about it.  So far I’ve learned a lot, like:

1) Apparently paying $18-20k a year to go to Rutgers is not motivation enough for some students to bother to show up to class.  Prior to my Greek/Roman Mythology class, a student approached me and another student and asked about book prices (we’re in the second week now and some of these students don’t even have their textbooks) and then proceeded to ask if our professor takes attendence, if he can get the notes online, and whether or not they should skip class because apparently (a) the two classes he had earlier in the day and (b) the two meetings he had after the class we were about to go to was just too much for him.  This is after I worked eight hours and drove an additional hour and a half and still had to drive home after class another hour and a half.  I had no sympathy for this poor soul.

2) There is always one student who has to interrupt the lecture to ask the professor stupid questions that make everyone else in the class cringe.  While theoretically it is fascinating how portrayals of myths change in art, whether or not Chronos swallowed his children whole vs. dismembering them and eating them bit by bit really isn’t a point of contention, and your argument that ‘they were spit back out’ doesn’t work because we’re talking about myths here–not real life.  I’m not sure how much Hesiod cared about obeying the natural laws when writing his Theogony, so please, for the love of Aphrodite, shut the hell up and let the professor speak.

3) First declension in Latin is easy but apparently when trying to master fifth declension you die.  That’s right, you just…die.

I’ll get into more of the meatier content of class later in the week when I have more time.

Blogging Through a Classics Undergrad

The fall semester starts here in less than two weeks.  So during the next few months I will be blogging less but I hope to be blogging more about my classes, my thoughts about content discussed in classes, and my own vetting of the material.  Since I am double majoring at the moment, the next few years should prove interesting.  Hopefully that will translate into some rather interesting posts here as well.


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