‘Doing’ History in Light of Memes and Cultural Memory Both Ancient and Modern

A recent article by Paul V.M. Flesher on Bible and Interpretation was posted on cultural memory a few days ago, and it was while I was in the process of writing this post, so I thought I might incorporate it into this discussion.  Here is a snippet and a relevant definition of ‘cultural memory’ and how we might consider using it here:

For Bible-believing students, an academic approach to the study of Scripture may constitute an attack on their personal identity. It works to recast their “cultural memory”—a key component of their psycho-social makeup which identifies their past (their personal pre-history, if you will) and locates their place in its progression. A course presenting a literary or historical Introduction to the New Testament, for example, can become for these students a threat to their self-understanding and to their ties with their religious community.

Memories shape an individual’s identity. Frequently we think of memories as recollections of events, activities, or experiences that happened in our own lives. Some of these experiences happened to us alone and constitute private memories, while other events were experienced by other people and thus comprise shared memories. Often many shared memories take place with identifiable groups of people, whether small groups like a family or kindergarten class or large groups such as citizens of a nation, members of a religion, or even fans of a World Cup soccer team. These experienced memories are not cultural memories, although a few may ultimately enter that classification.

Most cultural memories, by contrast, do not recall experienced events, but instead refer to events that happened in the past, usually to people conceived of as one’s ancestors or forerunners. These “memories” must be taught in some way, whether through formal classes, informal instruction or storytelling, or through reading. They constitute acquired knowledge rather than recollections of experienced events. Cultural memories differ from other knowledge of the past in that the events selected comprise pivotal moments that shape the identity of the group preserving their memory, whether this is an religious, ethnic, national or familial group. These are not just any events from the past, but events that are particularly relevant to the social group passing on the cultural memory. To a Frenchman, the revolution of 1789 would constitute a national cultural memory, but the Spanish conquest of the Aztecs would not. It is one thing to learn history, it is quite another to acquire a cultural memory.

I suppose the subject of this post is threefold.  First, (1) how quickly historical memes spread (often false historical memes) and (2) how quickly they can become rooted in cultural memory.  From that point, how does a historian consider the question if ‘cultural memory’ is considered ‘truth’, as rooted in society as well as individuals’ upbringing?

Every few months now, and with greater frequency since the creation of the Tea Party,  there seems to be an onslaught of fictional attributions to America’s founding fathers.  Whether it be words they never spoke, or deeds they never did, or beliefs they never held, America is on the cusp of a knowledge revolution, wherein ‘facts’ are becoming less important than tradition–especially tradition, albeit newly invented, which conforms to America’s current ideological trend.

Paul Revere is also related to Jack Black, apparently... (but don't quote me on that)

Consider the lies being told, the refashioning of history, where in certain politician’s worldviews, is a past where the founding fathers said the Pledge of Allegiance and Paul Revere warned the British, or where Jon Quincy Adams (the son of John Adams) was a founding father and that these founding fathers worked to end slavery.  I believe one commenter said it best, “Will these historical snafus cause [these politicians – ed.] any supporters? It doesn’t look like it, but it makes one wonder if they could pass a citizenship test.”  And perhaps that is also the scary part.  Who educated these politicians?  I am reminded of the comment by junior Senator Mark Pryor to Bill Maher, “You don’t have to pass an IQ test to be in the senate.”  Aside from the obvious question (“Why the hell not!?”), we must wonder how these politicians are elected into office and why they have such a strong following when they can’t even adequately reproduce the history of the country they are attempting to serve!

The answer, I believe, is in the transmission of the meme through an ideology already set in people who, clearly, don’t care about the facts.  And I don’t even mean just one political party, because it goes beyond politics (and as it turns out, both parties are responsible for disseminating quotes without fact-checking and fabricating false quotes to fit their agendas).  In general, and probably predominantly in this country, people are starting to care less about facts and more about impact.  And once such a powerful, traditional meme is transmitted through social interactions (general conversations, viral media, social websites, whatever have you), people latch onto it without bothering to fact-check, and in some instances some seek to actively include such falsities into books and websites used to educate others.

Why this happens  is as interesting as the how, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be a result of seeking to propagate an agenda.  As my generation gets older, having grown up with the internet, and a new generation who is even more in tune with technology starts to come into its own, the internet is the one-stop source of information.  I know that the internet is becoming more integral to education as well, wherein students are allowed to use it for research, often under some guidelines.  What implications does internet research have for students today when the most used online encyclopedia can be edited and fixed without any sort of peer review?  Many will undoubtedly say that Wikipedia editors try to be fair and eliminate bias where possible, but it remains to be an editable site where the majority of opinion will supersede any balance at times and with complete anonymity, anyone can edit without the slightest worry about retraction.  And such a site has repercussions for those whose work has been stolen by Wiki editors:

By the time you happen to find your work copied onto Wikipedia, it has already been propagated all over the net by Wikipedia copycats, making the job of going through their copyright infringement office all but meaningless.

And once a false statement is disseminated to other sites, blogs, social media, people will trust it because it comes from people they, themselves, trust: a blog they read all the time, a friend on Facebook or Google+, a news source which might not have verified the facts first before writing a story on it, and in a more relevant case, a news source who runs with a story about either history or religion without consulting experts in the field first.  So people will assume, without much concern, that these sorts of memes are okay to spread and are trustworthy because, well, their friend on Facebook is smart and trustworthy and has no reason to lie,and in our social-media culture the share button is all too easy and tempting to hit.  And thus the fictitious meme is spread by those who, while not having negative intentions, are caught up in a wisp of a motion they do every day, unbeknownst that the shared content wasn’t fact checked by their friends on Facebook, nor the source that their friends retrieved it from.

Your Brain on Memes (via Graphjam)

When Osama Bin Laden was killed, the internet was abuzz with quotes attributed to Martin Luther King and Mark Twain.  The quote of Martin Luther read “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy” and of Mark Twain, “I have never killed a man, but I have read many obituaries with great pleasure.”  These were found everywhere, except by those who paused for as moment to fact-check, and a good thing they did!  It turns out they were both falsely attributed–that is to say, fake.  And as a result of some noteworthy research, a trail could be found–where it originated wasn’t some malicious attempt to subvert history but a ‘whisper-down-the-alley’ mash-up of cut and pastes which, somewhere along the way, were so convoluted what became of it was a fictional quote.  And as it turns out, we are doubly guilty of allowing this as it happens a lot.

Even a fellow Biblioblogger, known for his fact-checking and for his ridicule of others who spread false information, was just recently caught using a fake quote from Charles Darwin in order to promote a particular ideal to which he follows.  The quote was spread by Lady hope who claimed to have been with Darwin on his deathbed, but those who we know were actually there (like his family) state firmly she was never at the bed of Darwin and that her story is a falsity.   And the Biblioblogger’s source in this case was a friend on Facebook, one  with whom I also am familiar and know did not spread the quote with any intention of deceiving, he simply didn’t know.  The quote can be found on all sorts of quote sites, especially Christian/Creationist sites.  This Biblioblogger picked up on it, trustingly, and proceeded to spread it, unaware that he was disseminating false information; it is a rarity with this Biblioblogger, but even he, the ineffable scholar he is, can fall prey to his own ideological desires and cultural memory.

And it doesn’t even just occur with the use of quotes; chain letters are another popular internet phenomena proving, for our own age at least, that people care little about checking into the truth of claims and more about the message behind them.  Indeed, letters are sent around without a care whether or not the individuals are real or completely fictitious.  And this really brought to light, in my mind, interesting parallels to the past, sans current technology, and how quickly a meme can spread and change and what implications there might be.

When you stop to consider how popular ideas can become, and how ardent we are, as social beings who seek out patterns and affinities, about creating cultural references to popular ideas, is it any wonder that we fabricate and create and exemplify and exaggerate?  Some fictional legends about our founding fathers are already ingrained in our cultural memory and some are even teaching them as fact!  For example, I was tough in elementary school that George Washington had wooden teeth.  It was only when I was older and was able to read things for myself that i found this to be a complete fiction.  Washington actually had teeth carved from ivory and gold.  One set of them is on display at a Baltimore museum.  There are, of course, folk legends about historical figures: Johnny Appleseed, Black Bart, Buffalo Bill, and so on.  These were historical figures with huge legends about them.  But there are also folk stories, based around fictional characters from dime novels, which are also ingrained in our cultural memory.  Stories about Cordwood Pete and Paul Bunyan, Pecos Bill, Ichabod Crane, and John Henry (a very noteworthy African-American folk legend) abound and I am certain there are those who believe these stories are based off historical figures, even though they are characters invented by dime novelists and writers.  There are even fiction figure like Uncle Sam (who is the personification of America, whose name stems from a historical person Samuel Wilson) who make up a large part of our cultural patriotism, who of course are not historical figures, but created to exemplify certain ideals we felt, as a nation, best covered us.

The same seems to be true for those in antiquity.  In a paper, soon to be published in a volume of great interest (if I don’t say so myself), Kurt Noll argues that the spread of memes in antiquity happened quite fast, faster than people currently give credit.  This actually makes sense, if we consider it from a standpoint of the ancient mythic mind.  In antiquity, fact-checking even among the more elite of society–the historiographer and biographer for example–was virtually nonexistent, and among the lay audiences or listeners of tales fact checking was just not important.  While it might have taken time for news to funnel through the trade networks and social channels in antiquity, once a meme was transmitted, they took on a life of their own.  This is perhaps why we have so many differing narratives, conflicting and divisive, even about common myths (like with what happened to Romulus).

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The same might be said about early Christianity (whether you believe Jesus was an earthly figure or not–it is irrelevant for this discussion); Bultmann, a believer in the earthly, historical figure of Jesus, still made clear his views that what we have in the New Testament represent cultural memory, or kerygma–the post-Easter traditions–from the early church and not ‘history’ in the sense of real, historical events.   Fictional words, deeds, and actions attributed to Jesus and the early church fathers are commonly found in our sources.   The Canonical Gospels are no different.  When the controversial Jesus Seminar analyzed the 1500 words supposedly spoken by Jesus, they could only agree on 2% likely being authentic.  In fact, 82% of the sayings attributed to the figure of Jesus were thrown out.  Of course, of the 2% left which the Jesus Seminar believed were authentic, other scholars have put forth studies showing they aren’t at all authentic (most notably, the inexpensive book The Messiah Myth by Thomas Thompson comes to mind, but also Thomas L. Brodie’s massive, yet decently priced, book The Birthing of the New Testament–so pick them up!).

In antiquity, this was a common occurrence.  Moses, for example, is often portrayed, similarly to Jesus, in different ways, speaking different (sometimes contradicting the modern canonical narrative we now possess) words, imitating certain actions, traveling to different lands, and so on.  Like American folk history, legends were built up around ancient individuals who had historically lived, and sometimes the legends came about during their own lifetimes, like Julius Caesar, but usually after their deaths like Apollonius of Tyana, Socrates, and Pythagoras.  Other stories, though, also arose from fictional characters, or those who appeared in fiction writing but were historicized later into cultural memory, like Lycurgus of Sparta, Moses, Abraham, Judith, Horatius Cocles, Romulus and Remus, Aeneas, and so on.  There are perhaps hundreds of cases where individuals who never existed were historicized into the past in antiquity.  No scholar worth their salt would dispute this (the numbers are too numerous).  The question isn’t about whether or not fictional characters could be accepted as historical figures, but the speed at which a fictional story could transform into a mythic one.

In out day, cultural memory plays a large part in the spread of memes circulating around false information.  Of course the internet and social media technology certainly don’t hinder the process.  But if cultural memory is the reason why we spread information the way we do, as self-serving as that might appear, then we must expect that in antiquity, cultural memory was also a catalyst for the spreading and distortion of memes surrounding legends and myth.  The introduction (by Bernard Knox) to M.I. Finley’s The World of Odysseus (See also Barbara Graziosi’s Inventing Homer: The Early Reception of Epic), contains an interesting little story about the power of cultural memory and the spreading of a story while highlighting the speed at which this can be spread within just a few decades.

In 1953 the late Professor James Notopoulos was recording oral heroic song in the Sfakia district of western Crete, where illiterate oral bards were still to be found. He asked one of them, who had sung of his own war experience, if he knew a song about the capture of the German general and the bard proceeded to improvise one. The historical facts are well known and quite secure. In April 1944 two British officers, Major Patrick Leigh Fermor and Captain Stanley Moss, parachuted into Crete, made contact with Cretan guerrillas, and kidnapped the German commanding general of the island, one Karl Kreipe.

The general was living in the Villa Ariadne at Knossos, the house Sir Arthur Evans had built for himself during the excavations at the site. Every day, at the same time, the general was driven south from the villa to the neighboring small town of Arkhanes, where his headquarters were located. He came home every night at eight o’clock for dinner.  The two British officers, dressed in German uniforms, stopped the car on its way home to Knossos; the Cretan partisans overpowered the chauffeur and the general. The two officers then drove the car through the German roadblocks in Heraklion (the general silent with a knife at his throat) and left the car on the coast road to Rethymo. They then hiked through the mountains to the south coast, made rendezvous with a British submarine, and took General Kreipe to Alexandria and on to Middle East Headquarters in Cairo.

So much for epic history. Nine years after the event the British protagonists have been reduced to one nameless general whose part in the operation is secondary and there can hardly be any doubt that if the song is still sung now the British element in the proceedings is practically nonexistent—if indeed it managed to survive at all through the years in which Britain, fighting to retain its hold on Cyprus, became the target of bitter hostility in Greece and especially among the excitable Cretans.

It took the Cretan oral tradition only nine years to promote to the leadership of the heroic enterprise a purely fictitious character of a different nationality. This is a sobering thought when one reflects that there is nothing to connect Agamemnon, Achilles, Priam, and Hector with the fire blackened layer of thirteenth-century ruins known as Troy VII A (the archaeologists’ candidate for Homer’s city) except a heroic poem which cannot have been fixed in its present form by writing until the late eighth century, at least four illiterate centuries after the destruction.

Sobering indeed.  We have a world where a search on a browser will produce exact results to a search queue, which puts information at our fingertips, in our faces, in mere seconds..  Memes spread quickly in our era as a result of how quickly information is available.  But even in pre-computer culture, where memes are spread via oral tradition, something common in antiquity, it only took 9 years to alter the story completely, introducing a new character completely fabricated, and shine light on another faction of the narrative.  Only 9 years.  And the reader is only told of the one bard.  If the same question were posed to other bards, the song might be completely different still.

So the question that follows all of this is how does one locate ‘history’ when even our earliest sources are nothing better than cultural memory?  And clearly the first Christian communities, whomever they were, could not agree upon those existing cultural memories (which is why we have competing doctrines, competing Gospels, conflicting theologies and exegeses).  This doesn’t just follow for Christianity, but Judaism, or the history of the Greeks, or the Romans, or the Sumerians, or those civilizations for which we have nothing but bones and pottery shards?  How does one separate ‘history’ from the ‘meme’ and cultural memory when we have trouble even in our own day!  And it does make one wonder why future historians will be arguing about over our generation, assuming we don’t kill each other before then.

Joe Zias’ Reaction to BBC Article

Joe was goodly enough to pass along this comment to me, posted with his permission:

First thing one has to see is who is promoting it.  Englishman who broke the story called me a few yrs back wanting to meet with me here in Jerusalem, over a book he was writing on Qumran.

We met and he asked me about a skeleton from tomb 18 at Qumran as he was told, so he says, by the French priest who excavated the tomb that it may be John the Baptist. As I know the material quite well I told him that the skeleton there has a head and I would provide the photo of the grave the following morning which I did. A short time later the book The Secret Initiation of Jesus at Qumran appeared and lo and behold, the story of the headless skeleton appeared.

I might add that he also helped authenticate on the basis of the patina that the lead coffin, originally discovered by BAR in Qumran was  ancient. A short time later it was determined that it was zinc not lead and then  after it was published at least three times, that it was coated with Barium-Titanium paint, patented in the 1920’s to prevent oxidization on zinc. That unique, one of a kind, first, was, as I told them probably a Bedouin water trough which morphed into a ‘ancient’ coffin lid. Shanks brought this to public attention in BAR with the headline ‘Jews, Save the Bones of your Ancestors’ and the money flowed in. As for the ‘bones of the ancestors’ c-14 dates  from AZ, showed that  two of the three, were from the late Pre-historic period, pushing , literacy, the DSS and Abraham and the clan back thousands of yrs.

Soon you will see something similiar this time it’s the $ign of Jonah, the Profit. National Geog.  same cast of characters as Talpiot tomb of Jesus (2007)  with a little help from folks at UNC-Charlotte.

Joe Zias
Science and Antiquity Group – Jerusalem
Jerusalem, Israel

Reactions to the BBC Report on the Lead Codices

For those who don’t know, the BBC has finally put out an article refuting a story they had published a few months ago on the Lead Codices, and for those of us who have been ‘on the case’ since the beginning, we feel it is about time.  There are some very useful parts to the article.  For example, on the lead codices in general, Kevin Connolly writes:

And they are astonishingly heavy. Some are no larger than a credit card but some are the size of large-format modern paperbacks. The largest that I handled probably weighed 4 or 5kg (about 10lbs).

You can see why the publishing industry was eventually won over by the flexibility and portability of paper.

But that is where the supply of undisputable concrete fact about the collection – which some people refer to as the “Lead Codices” – more or less runs out.

Indeed.  But there are some troubling bits.  I am aware that journalists have to give some consideration to bias and attempt to give a ‘balanced’ report when possible, but why does ‘balanced’ have to mean speculation?

Mysticism and magic swirl in the dark air as Mr. Saeda enlarges on the possibilities he sees in the codices.

They might contain the real story of the destruction of the Jewish Second Temple by the Romans, he says.

Or they could fill the gaps in our knowledge of the early Christian movement. They might even hold the key to universal happiness.

But they don’t give us this; no translations have been released to the public by any authority and nobody knows–least of all Mr. Saeda–what the translations will reveal.  But the translations are irrelevant.  Why?  Because these are fakes.  They are poor fakes at that, and many scholars have already noted the signs of this on their own blogs.

Still, Joe Zias makes an appearance in the article, where he remarks:

The golden rule in archaeology, he says, is simple – when you hear extraordinary claims, ask for extraordinary proof.

Mr Zias says the world of archaeology has changed since Hollywood gave us first Indiana Jones and then the Da Vinci code.

No longer is the archaeologist a nerdy toff with a shovel and a Shorter Oxford Dictionary of Latin. Suddenly he or she, is a swashbuckling figure solving the sinister mysteries of antiquity.

They are still searching for the Holy Grail of course – except that now the Holy Grail is not just the find itself but a story of danger and adventure in the process of searching that secures you a deal for a book or a documentary.

Give the whole article a read, but be sure to come back.  Back now?  Good.  Here are some of the reactions from the academic community on the Biblioblogosphere about the article.

Jim West writes:

The BBC may be slow, but when they finally get around to the topic they do a far better job than the Discovery Channel and the History Channel do!

Jim Davila remarks aptly while echoing my own feelings:

The BBC has known for a long time that the codices are fake. It looks to me as though they are trying to squeeze the last dregs out of the story, while laying the groundwork for eventually correcting it with the truth. They should have done that months ago and their conduct has been reprehensible.

Mark Goodacre chimes in:

One of the disappointing things here is the lack of reference to the earlier article by Robert Pigott, which needs explicit correction. After that article appeared on 29 March, I wrote a friendly email to Robert Pigott (5 April) explaining that the consensus among experts was that the codices were fakes, and offering to point him in the direction of some clear, helpful blog posts and articles by experts. He never replied.  Nevertheless, progress is progress even if it is done in this way by a different writer apparently unaware of previous mistakes.

I suspect more reactions will appear as the story circulates.  As for now, I’d like to direct everyone to my article on Bible and Interpretation as it contains all the details and links about this subject: Artifacts and the Media: Lead Codices and the Public Portrayal of History.

Gerd Lüdemann – The Death of the Biblical God

Gerd Lüdemann has a new article up on Bible and Interpretation’s website.  Here is a snippet:

Ultimately all this presents a problem for all three “Abrahamitic” religions. The Church, regarding herself as the New Israel, has always taken the Old Testament myth of Yahweh’s election and concern for Israel as a firmly established constituent of the Salvation history that culminates in Jesus Christ. But if the historical framework of the Old Testament is essentially fictitious, and both the biblical Israel and its exclusive God are theological constructs of exilic (beginning 587 BCE) or post-exilic (starting after 538 BCE) Judaism, then reading the Old Testament as the pre-history of Jesus and Muhammad becomes a whimsical affectation.

via The Bible and Interpretation – The Death of the Biblical God.

I’ve always enjoyed Lüdemann’s works, particularly on Paul.  Go check it out for yourself, it is compelling as it is useful to the discussion.

Terrorism: Why Don’t We Just Call it What it is?

A group of men take over passenger aircraft and ram them into buildings.  Another group of men kidnap people and hold them, some issue death threats, some attempt to assassinate someone.  Some people are killed by another group of men over their views on certain subjects.  Others occupy large areas of land that does not belong to them and shoot innocent civilians who only want their land back.  Most of these men are highly irritable, well-armed, and the will to do whatever it takes to inflict fear and terror in people.  All of these groups have something in common and it has nothing to do with religion.  It has to do with their goals.

Christian, Muslim, Israeli, Palestinian, American, Pakistani, whatever title you go by, if you commit an act meant to harm others while inspiring fear and terror, you are a terrorist.  Let us please call it what it is.  Why do we feel the need to cloud the issue by ignoring the acts of such depravity with labels which have nothing at all to do with the people committing the crime?  It is time we stopped calling all Muslims terrorists.  It is time to remember that Christians and Israelis are just as guilty of acts which can be considered ‘terrorist’.

As Bill Hamby highlights on his recent blog:

  • 1993: Operation Rescue, a Christian organization, got one of the targets on its “Wanted Posters.”  Dr. David Gunn is dead because of Christian terrorists.
  • 1994: Dr. John Britton and James Barrett became victims of Christian terrorist Reverend Paul Jennings Hill.
  • 1994: Shannon Lowney and Lee Ann Nichols were killed by Christian terrorist John Salvi.
  • 1996-98: Christian Terrorist Eric Rudolph killed at least two and injured more than 150 in a series of bombings, including Atlanta’s Olympic Centennial Park.
  • 1998: Christian terrorist James Kopp killed at least one and went on a series of anti-abortion shooting sprees, both in the U.S. and Canada.
  • 2009: Christian terrorist Scott Roeder killed Dr. George Tiller in Kansas.

These are just a few notable examples.  In total, there have been 17 attempted murders, 383 death threats, 153 incidents of assault or battery, and 3 kidnappings in America committed by Christian terrorists over the issue of abortion alone.

And more recently, Tea-Party advocate and conservative-Christian Anders Behring Breivik killed over 60 people, including teenagers.

But Hamby might be wrong; these aren’t really ‘Christian terrorists’.  They are just terrorists.  Plain and simple.  After all, we can’t call the Columbine massacre shooters ‘Heavy-Metal Rock terrorists’, we don’t call Jared Loughner a ‘political terrorist’.  They were just terrorists.  We should attempt to find the motives for these attrocities, if only to recognize the signs and plan accordingly.  But we shouldn’t seek to include labels that signify religion, race, or belief.  In truth, anyone can be a terrorist.  All they need is the will to committ violence against others, be mentally unstable, have a conviction that they are right, and the mentality that ‘if you’re not with me you’re against me.’  Race, religion, birthplace, or political viewpoint don’t play into it.  A crazy person with a gun is a crazy person with a gun.

All of this religious and political labeling does nothing but raise agendas, force division amongst us, and quite literally, lets the terrorists win.  So if you don’t want to let the terrorists win, stop buying into that same sort of delusional rhetoric they spout.

Defining Mythicism: A Few Questions for Historical Jesus Scholars

This is more of a musing, a pensive attempt at conversation away from the norm.  But here are some random questions, in the hopes of coaxing out deeper thoughts on the question, for historical Jesus scholars on the figure of Jesus.

  • If such a figure as Jesus existed, do you really think his this earthly, historical figure’s name was Jesus?  Or, is it possible this is a title for a figure who lived, for which the narrative is loosely based?  For example, like Romulus holds the name/title Quirinus (‘spear’) when he ascended and which, perhaps, Philippians 2:10 is in reference?
  • What parts of the Gospels are historical and which are tradition and what methods do you use to determine which is which?
  • Which testimony, from Christian sources, from outside the canon, do you find to be the most relevant for determining the historicity of the figure known as Jesus?
These are pretty random and simple, but I thought it might behoove some of my colleagues, who hold a more positive stance on historicity, to address some of these questions definitely.  Since I take an agnostic stance, I thought I should be the one to pose them rather than someone who, perhaps, would ask these questions to force a point.  I hope I have some friends in the community willing to address these remedial points!

Searching for Muses: Alexander the Great on Jesus?

Yes, someone legitimately searched for ‘alexander the great quotes on jesus‘ and got to my blog.  First, I really hope that they were not searching for quotes from Alexander the Great on the figure of Jesus.  I really, really, really hope they weren’t.  In fact, I’m going to delude myself into thinking people aren’t that ignorant and those just happened to be the words people threw together searching for some obscure subject or another.

But just in case, there is absolutely no way this search, assuming it is for quotes from Alexander on Jesus, will yield any useful results.  And this is so for a few reasons:

  1. Alexander the Great, as far as we know, didn’t write anything.  So we have no quotes, whatsoever, from Alexander.  We have lots of information from his Generals, from contemporary evidence, but nothing from Alexander himself.
  2. Jesus, assuming he existed on this earthly realm, is traditionally said to have been born c. 7-3 BCE.  Alexander the Great died in 323 BCE.  That is a difference of 316 years.  So, yeah, the reason why this search will not be useful is because Alexander was DEAD before Jesus is traditionally supposed to have been born!  To put that into some perspective, it would be like searching for quotes from Mustafa (from the year 1695 CE!) on Snookie from the Jersey Shore.  Yeah, ain’t gonna happen.

But good luck with that…

Some Clarifications on Heb. 2:17

I wanted to make this post separate of my apology to James, mainly because I feel that apologies should stand alone as they are, without dirtying them with lots of explanations and whatnot.  I hold firm to my apology to James and am glad to hear he accepted it, but now I must press on with some clarifications on my last few posts (also I have not been using accents with the Greek because I don’t feel like formatting the font of the Greek to Times New Roman in HTML so it shows nicer–its just too hot to put out much effort today).

(1) The problem I ran into with the Greek in Heb. 2:17 is that it’s rather ambiguous.  Grammatically, there is nothing wrong, per se, if the phrase κατα παντα were rendered as strengthening the verb οφειλω rather than ομοιοω.  And even some of the colleagues I talked to suggested that it was ambiguous, at best.  Even in the Latin Vulgate it is ambiguous (to which Tom Bolin remarks, ‘ambiguity=exegetical goldmine’, and he’s right).

(2) But Richard Carrier pointed me towards 1 Clement 38.4, where the similarly phrased ‘οφειλομεν κατα παντα ευχαριστειν αυτω’ can be found, and in context it renders similarly to how one might translate Heb. 2:17.  This, for me, cemented the translation.  One can render it as the KJV has it rendered, which is fine, but the meaning is the same as it is rendered in the NIV.  (Thanks also to Stephen Carlson for his help as well)

(3) The issue I realized I was having with James’ translation wasn’t so much with the formation of the phrase ‘in all things’, but with how that phrase was twisted to essentially ignore ‘in the likeness of his brethren’.  How James would have us interpret that phrase is to assume that Jesus was completely man but something else.  The issue with that, quite plainly, is that would imply that the author believed Jesus to be both, which is something you don’t start seeing in the Christian community until much later (the idea of Jesus being both God and man in a Creedal sense, which would have been completely foreign to the author of Hebrews, assuming he was writing in the first century).

(4) James wants to interpret this passage in a literal manner (i.e., that Jesus was a high priest to humanity), but this is, once more, an example of a historian anachronistically applying his rationalist mind to a text written for reasons unknown to us almost 2,000 years ago.  Instead, interpreting the priestliness of Jesus as an allegory, along with the illusion of his humanity, fits nicely within the allegorical context of the chapter itself, defined by his sacrifice and his defiance of death.  Indeed, this passage creates a intertextual parallel with the atonement leitmotif from Lev. 16, wherein he represents (as Tim Widowfield points out elsewhere) the sacrificial lamb, the second of the two–the other being humanity, whom he has taken a complete likeness to (and this is supported by the verb ομοιωθηναι, which represents it as though Jesus were wearing a costume), but had not become.

(5) As my 4th point implies, my original post to James (here) was not concerned with the rendering of ‘in all things’, but about James’ interpretation of ‘in the likeness of’.  As of now, that criticism still stands, regardless of the (rightful) inclusion of the phrase ‘in all things’.

Heb. 2:17 and οφειλω κατα παντα τοις αδελφοις ομοιωθηναι

It seems I owe James McGrath and apology.  (I’m sorry, James!) In an earlier post, I stated that words he had bolded in a translation did not appear in the text.  In fact they do appear in the Greek, but they can be read in a different order than how James’ translation had placed them and I hadn’t thought to consider the word order when I made the comment.  In my ignorance, I made a lapse. So I hope he can forgive that mistake on my part.

Though that is settled, I still have a contention with the way James is interpreting the text.  Heb. 2:17, even with the appropriate strengthening of ομοιωθηναι, should be read as ‘He had to be made in the likeness of his brothers in all respects.’   But reading ‘in all respects’ to mean ‘in every conceivable respect’ makes little sense given the context, since this sort of thinking implies a sort of Nicene creed (trinitarianism).  It is a bit anachronistic to presume that the author of Hebrews was thinking of Jesus as a human.  Indeed, not only is it anachronistic in the sense that such thinking is from late antiquity, but also stems from our position in history, looking back through three quests for the historical, earthly Jesus, long after the figure and character of Jesus has been ‘humanized’.  Even though I had been wrong about the word order in the translation, I was not wrong about its meaning, nor about its usefulness (since it still reads ‘in the likeness’, denoting that the author of Hebrews still saw Jesus as an a figure giving the illusion of a human).

I’m also a bit surprised that James used Hebrews as part of his treatise against Doherty on Paul, since Hebrews was not written by Paul and its dating and authorship are unknown (though the date is tentatively set during the early Christian period, mid-late first century).

That being said, I offer James my apologies once again, but stress that, as I’ve done before, he be more cautious with his wording in his polemics.

House of David? Be Careful With the Hyperbole

Honestly, I don’t understand why we have to overstate our positions and continue to insult people.  James writes:

An honest scholar will not say, to give a comparison, that “there is no evidence for a historical David,” but will acknowledge that there is indeed an inscription referring to a “house of David,”

via Exploring Our Matrix.

But, James, there are a LOT of honest scholars who would argue quite the opposite.  You might as well have just insulted most of the European academic institutions with this statement.  It ‘might’ be evidence of a historical David.  There are other readings of this that have been offered, and the context of this is still under debate and has been for over a decade.

Being honest means being able to acknowledge the limitations of one’s position, James.  An honest scholar wouldn’t dishonestly claim to have evidence for something they don’t; instead, one would use more cautious language when discussing the evidence.  One is, of course, acceptably permitted to state your opinion about the data (i.e. you find the evidence compelling that it refers to a historical David) but it is quite another thing all together to mislead people about it.

Someone who criticizes others for misleading people about the state of the evidence should not fall into the trap of doing the same thing in an attempt to counter those they criticize!

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