Undisputed! Ignatius, Skepticism, and the Problem of Ignorance

The title may be a little confusing; what do any of those things have to do with each other?  Well, as it turns out, this post is a bit of a critique of the ‘criterion of disputation.’  This criterion goes that if a particular person, place, or event in antiquity wasn’t contested (that is to say, their existence or their happening wasn’t called into question) by other contemporaries, that the person, place, or event must have been historical.  If we broke the argument down into a syllogism, it would look like this:

 P1. If (insert name here) did not exist, a first century text would mention it.

 P2. No first century text mentions it.

 C1. Therefore (person) existed [i.e. (individual/group) did not not exist].

But this is just not a sound argument, nor is it helpful.  For starters, this criterion uses too many generalizations–it’s a special plea because it fails to prove accurate in many, if not most, of the cases one would think to use it.  For example, Romulus.

At some point in early Rome (we don’t know when precisely) there grew a belief in a demi-god, a patriarch, of the city of Rome.  Was it within the first 50 years?  The first 100 years?  Maybe later?  We are pretty sure that Rome became a Republic sometime in the 6th century BCE, and that it is traditionally said to have been ruled by several kings prior to it becoming a republic and that it was founded perhaps 200 years earlier.  The first mention of Romulus is in the 4th century BCE and our earliest history of Rome comes from Diocles around the same time.  So there is some length of time between when the city was first established and when the patriarch was given to myth. I’ve dealt with the problem of proximity before, but clearly I need to readdress it at some point in light of some additional considerations, but more on that soon.  What should be remembered here is that nobody doubted the historicity of Romulus; his existence went undisputed.  Interestingly enough, not only did his existence go undisputed, some of his miraculous deeds did get disputed.  For example, Plutarch disputed whether or not he had really risen from the dead–but his existence was never disputed.

Likewise, and I’ve written on this before, Palaephatus wrote in his introduction to his work Πeρὶ ἀpίstων:

Now some people, who have no acquaintance with philosophy or science, are too credulous and believe everything that is said to them.  Others, of a more subtle and inquisitive nature, totally disbelieve that any of these tales ever happened.  My own belief is that there is a reality behind all stories.  For names alone without stories would hardly have arisen: first there must have been deeds and there-after stories about them.

Palaephatus lists a great deal of “true stories” behind the myths.   In his work, he writes that Centaurs were real people, but rather than being half-horse and half-man, the stories arose from them being the first group of people to ride horseback (before then, he says, people only used horses to pull chariots)!  And of course the truth behind the Trojan horse is not that a group of Greeks jumped free from it and attacked the city, but that the Trojans tore down parts of their wall to accommodate the horse, thereby allowing the Greeks to enter through the opening!

And then, of course, there is Euhemerus himself (from whom the word ‘euhemerism’ derives).  Euhemerus argued that the gods of the Greeks were mythologized historical Kings.  Again, the gods were not disputed to have existed, but their mythology stripped and they were placed within the context of a historical setting.

But we should bring this back home a little bit; we should consider Ignatius as a model here.  Ignatius supposedly wrote several letters defending Christianity in his lifetime and is attested to have lived from about the early-mid first century to the early second century CE.  Later Christian historians write on him and tell us about his life, more about his martyrdom.  No one in antiquity doubts his historicity.  But I am doubtful that such a figure as Ignatius existed historically (I’d say there is about a 30-40% chance that such a figure existed–and that is being generous).  In fact, I don’t believe there is any way such a figure, if he did exist, wrote anything (or, if such a figure did write something, then it might be argued but at a later date).  Let me break this down for you so you can better understand what I’m arguing here.

When I say I am 30-40% sure of Ignatius’ historicity, for example, I’m not denying his existence outright.  I must stress that; I’m not denying his historicity completely.  I’m stating that the limitations of our evidence doesn’t ipso facto suggest Ignatius didn’t exist, but they certainly don’t help or support the case for his existence.  For example, are we really to accept that Ignatius was captured by Romans in the second century for practicing a ‘false religion’, only to be supplied by those same Romans with a seemingly endless amount of ink and papyri just to write about his same forbidden religion?  And are we then to assume that his letters were kept or sent out by these same Romans (which Ignatius considers rather mean-spirited and cruel to him)?  Are we to believe he had other ‘illegal Christian’ visitors, let in by the Roman guards (the same guards holding him for being a Christian), to secure these letters before he was eaten by lions?  Keep in mind, he is supposedly surrounded by all sorts of wild beasts heading toward the Colosseum to be martyred!  I just don’t buy it.  Maybe you do.  I do not.

And then there is that whole pesky thing about Christians being persecuted in the early second century.  Pliny didn’t even know what a Christian was and he should!  He held enough high positions and judicial positions that if there were some edict against Christianity he would know about it!  And yet the way Ignatius discusses his captivity, one would think that the Romans were just hunting Christians down. This calls into question not only the authenticity of the letters, but also the person.  For what more do we know of him except from later Christian tradition?  Of that later tradition, it is no more valid or useful than the letters themselves.  So I don’t think my estimation of about 30-40% is too low or too skeptical.  In fact I’m probably being more generous than I should given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.

But I could make an even stronger case that the historical validity of things were simply not questioned in antiquity.  And examples are readily found in the New Testament itself.  All of the pastorals are written in the names of people which may or may not have any historical significance.  That is to say, was Nicodemus a historical figure?  And what of Simon Magus in Acts?  Certainly some must doubt the historicity of these individuals.  But who contested them?  Who in antiquity wrote on the ahistoricity of Nicodemus or Simon Magus?  Indeed, their traditions were merely exemplified.  Many of these traditions were created within a generation of the events, some contemporaries probably still lived to dispute them if they wanted to do so.  Yet we have no evidence that anyone sought to dispute them.

Now, keeping in mind that we have letters attested to have been written by Ignatius, my estimation of 50/50 for the historicity of Jesus is not just generous, it is allowing for an acceptance of a lot of unknowns.  In fact, in many respects, a 50/50 for Jesus’ historicity presumes a lot–it takes the conservative estimations of the evidence more than the liberal ones.  I’m allowing, in fact, for the possibility that some traditions may be based on historical events or people.  But I’m also saying that the state of the evidence doesn’t permit us to be sure enough to permit anything more than a 50/50.  Maybe that will change when better evidence presents itself.  I’m leaving room for such possibilities.  But I’m not straight out denying the traditions.  And that is the difference here between my skepticism and someone who is a denialist.  And I would put a lot of mythicists in the denialist camp.

Now, most academics are skeptical to some degree.  Skepticism is healthy and useful.  But what this shows is that there is a danger in not being skeptical enough.  That doesn’t mean to suggest that we need to be hyper skeptical where our doubt borders on denialism–that is not what I’m suggesting, and there is a clear difference between that sort of skepticism and what I recommend.  My concern is that there are too many arguments made without consideration for the elephant in the room; too many scholars who are not following through with their own conclusions.  And I believe it is a general fear of becoming too skeptical; too sensitive to the limitations of our evidence.  My concern is that the limitations of our textual evidence is taken for granted–and some may say it isn’t, because they’re using evidence and argument.  But if our text is our evidence, and the text is subject to fictionalization, almost completely in the sense of the Gospels, what does that say about the state of the evidence?  And what does that say about the value of the criterion of disputation?

I tend to think the greater danger is in merely taking the information within our texts for granted, that is to say, simply relying upon consensus rather than doing any of the leg work to verify the validity of a consensus.  For example, I trust my doctors, but I still look into the medication they prescribe me just to make sure I know what I’m taking.  If I have questions, I consult my doctor or get a second opinion (or a third or fourth).  And when a scientist presents a study on evolution, I look into it as well because I don’t know whether that scientist is presenting credible arguments from the evidence–even if his premise (evolution) is one with which I agree.  Another example of this is when geologists try to suggest that a gust of wind is responsible for the parting of the sea during the crossing of the Israelites from Egypt or that an earthquake can accurate point to the exact day of the crucifixion.  Doing one’s due diligence is not something to be ridiculed, in my humble opinion. Being a responsible scholar depends on ones familiarity with the basics–not just the knowledge that everyone agrees with them.

All I want to see is more honesty.  My goal in all of this is to simply keep the conversation open.  Maybe one day we’ll have evidence which will close it, but I don’t think we currently do.  I think there are multiple ways to interpret the data which are all just as useful and realistic and possible.  But what this criterion does is shut out the alternate realistic possibility that people in antiquity rarely disputed traditions–because traditions were more important than the fact of them.  The same could be said of Tea Party candidates today who believe that the early founding fathers of this country established a Christian nation, that Jefferson was a religious fellow; tradition (even if that tradition was just created) is more important than the facts.

The criterion of disputation doesn’t allow for the facts; it presumes things about it that we can provide ample evidence against.  And those who use it should always be cautious.

Related Articles: Minimalism and Ancient Historiography


Defining Mythicism: The Signs Gospel and the Figure of Jesus

James McGrath highlights a post by the blog Synoptic Solutions on the Signs Gospel and the figure of Jesus.  I tend to think the post is a little ridiculous.  Here is the offending snippet:

In the Signs Gospel, Jesus is not being portrayed as a god on earth. Instead, he is portrayed as very human–a miraculous human, but a human nonetheless. Like the rabbis, he is not quite historical, yet he is not mythical, either. Instead, he is legendary. And so I propose that this is the correct model for understanding the historical Jesus. He is a legendary figure–but that does not mean he is an imaginary figure. Indeed, it means just the opposite: it means that he was most certainly historical.

There are several problems with this statement overall (e.g., the so-called Signs Gospel itself, the certainty of the claims being made about the Signs Gospel, portrayal of Jesus, the problems associated with Gos. of John, claims about the historicity of the figure of Jesus, and so on). First, and most importantly, the ‘Signs Gospel’ is hypothetical.  Like the sayings Gospel ‘Q’, the Signs Gospel is little more than a collected group of events (re: miraculous works) compiled by certain scholars (some who fall into line with confessional theology) as to seemingly avoid the problems associated with dependency (that is to say, that the Gospels are not independent traditions based upon eyewitness testimony); and we all know there are several very good (I would say ‘unassailable’) reasons to stop pretending ‘Q’ exists (ahem…).  For those unfamiliar with the Signs Gospel and the proposed value of the Gos. of John in historical Jesus studies, according to D. Moody Smith remarks (Johannine Christianity, p. 63):

“It is now rather widely agreed that the Fourth Evangelist drew upon a miracle tradition or written source(s) substantially independent of the synoptics, whether or not he had any knowledge of one or more of those gospels. Since the epoch-making commentary of Rudolf Bultmann, the hypothesis of a semeia– (or miracle) source has gained rather wide acceptance.”


“Whether such a miracle source can be precisely isolated and identified, as Bultmann and some who follow him think, is a question we need not decide here. The demonstration of the existence of a source (or sources) is not entirely dependent upon the possibility of isolating it with certainty and precision throughout the Gospel.”

The problem with D.M. Smith’s statement is that I am not so sure it is as ‘widely agreed’ that John used the Signs Gospel as he makes it appear (I will also not get into his other apologetic-esque comments here; Crossley does a good job of that in the article mentioned below).   I am not sure what is taking place with the John, Jesus, and History Project (JJH) via the SBL, but just judging from James Crossley’s paper (forthcoming in my volume with Thomas L. Thompson) it seems that suggesting that Jesus was a historical figure based upon this Gospel is a difficult task indeed (if not entirely futile, despite what the JJH project suggests).  One has to make gross presuppositions about the state of the evidence (i.e. you have to start from the conclusion that the Gospels present accurate representations of the historical Jesus first, which is a position that runs rather counter to historical-critical methods).   In addition, the Gos. of John might actually not have been composed until sometime in the early second century (but no later than the p52’s terminus ad quem, c. 150 CE), rather than at the turn of that century as it was once thought.

Though, even if it had been written earlier, like around the turn of the second century CE, it does not follow that one can judge the figure of Jesus, let alone propose a whole new model (!), based solely on a single narrative and hypothetical document.  It seems rather presumptuous, if not downright arrogant, to suggest firmly (and with such certainty!) that Jesus was indeed historical from the most miraculous, ludicrous, and late of the canonical Gospels.  And to top it off, the author begs us to presume the existence of a hypothetical document as secondary evidence for his position!

While it might be that the Gospels are legendary, mythologized narratives about a historical person, it is folly to ignore all existing narratives besides the Gos. of John whilst making the outrageous claim that Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized.  This is nothing more than begging the question: if all of these factors (Signs Gospel did exist as a source for John, John did have source material from an eyewitness, tradition stemmed from a historical core, John is the primary witness to historical tradition, etc…) are true, Jesus was a historical figure, mythologized (essentially amounting to nothing more than the Chewbacca Defense: “Chewbacca is a Wookiee from the planet Kashyyyk. But Chewbacca lives on the planet Endor. Now think about it; that does not make sense!”).  But as the song goes, “well, that’s a far cry from the truth.”  We can only say so much from the evidence.  And when one is proposing a hypothetical document, even one that is largely accepted, the proposal can only be hypothetical (as a conclusion can only be as strong as the evidence).  To a large extent, this does prove, quite directly, that there are instances of bias in historical Jesus scholarship and with the question over historical value of the canonical Gospels.

Although there is hardly much need for additional evidence; it is clear that historical Jesus scholarship has its own share of failings.  Crossley notes, for example (and do read the whole article):

[T]he study of the historical Jesus is overwhelmingly concerned with fact finding, description and descriptive interpretation in its various forms, with little concern for questions such as why the Jesus movement emerged when and where it did and why this movement subsequently led to a new religion. By Eric Hobsbawm’s standards (see epigraph) most of these historical Jesus writers would come perilously close to being guilty of ‘antiquarian empiricism’ and more than one historical Jesus scholar might be guilty of writing what Hobsbawm dismissed as the ‘Victorian tome’ so typical of biography.

Aside from these challenges, there are numerous other problematic oversights in the post.  The author blogs the similarities of the miraculous signs from Greco-Jewish traditions but ignores those similar motifs found in the Hebrew Bible.  Where is the discussion or even mention of the same trope found in Ps. 107:23-30?

Some went down to the sea in ships,
doing business on the great waters;
they saw the deeds of the LORD,
his wondrous works in the deep.
For he commanded and raised the stormy wind,
which lifted up the waves of the sea.
They mounted up to heaven; they went down to the depths;
their courage melted away in their evil plight;
they reeled and staggered like drunken men
and were at their wits’ end.
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He made the storm be still,
and the waves of the sea were hushed.
Then they were glad that the waters were quiet,
and he brought them to their desired haven.

I would note as well that Ps. 107 contains other miraculous forms of redemption, through healing of the sick, and the feeding of the multitude (part of the ‘Signs’ which some believe came from this hypothetical source):

Some wandered in desert wastelands,
finding no way to a city where they could settle.
They were hungry and thirsty,
and their lives ebbed away.
Then they cried out to the LORD in their trouble,
and he delivered them from their distress.
He led them by a straight way
to a city where they could settle.
Let them give thanks to the LORD for his unfailing love
and his wonderful deeds for mankind,
for he satisfies the thirsty
and fills the hungry with good things.

And of course, one cannot forget the play of the Elisha/Elijah narratives at work in the miracle scenes.  The calming of the storm also has roots in Elijah’s challenge to the Baal worshipers, where Yahweh is portrayed as a God who has control over the storms, in direct conflict with Baal, another storm God.  The feeding of the multitude motif can also be found in the Elisha/Elijah narratives (2 Kings 4:38-41 with Elisha’s magic flour, and with Elijah 1 Kings 17:8-16), as is the healing of the sick/resurrection of the dead miracle stories (i.e., 1 Kings 17:17-24 where Elijah raised the widow’s son and Elisha and the Shunamite woman’s son in 2 Kings 4:18-37).  These miracle stories need not come from another hypothetical source (as fictional as it might indeed be), but from long-held tropes and motifs found in ancient Jewish literature.  John’s ability to take Mark’s Gospel and build upon it is not unknown.

On the subject of absorbing Mark wholly, the author also uses a bit of hyperbole when he states “since we know the Markan author used SG as a source.”  In fact, since these miracles are found in the Hebrew Bible, Mark’s source is probably also the scriptures.  There is no need to fabricate an entirely hypothetical Gospel just to account for the motifs.  And John need only have a copy of Mark, Matthew, and Luke to build upon the scenes (which many believe he did).  The best example for this is the scene at the tomb of Jesus.  Richard Carrier explains it (go to the link for a footnoted version):

So we start with Mark. It is little known among the laity, but in fact the ending of Mark, everything after verse 16:8, does not actually exist in the earliest versions of that Gospel that survive. It was added some time late in the 2nd century or even later. Before that, as far as we can tell, Mark ended at verse 16:8. But that means his Gospel ended only with an empty tomb, and a pronouncement by a mysterious young man that Jesus would be seen in Galilee–nothing is said of how he would be seen. This was clearly unsatisfactory for the growing powerful arm of the Church a century later, which had staked its claim on a physical resurrection, against competing segments of the Church usually collectively referred to as the Gnostics (though not always accurately). So an ending was added that quickly pinned some physical appearances of Jesus onto the story, and for good measure put in the mouth of Christ rabid condemnations of those who didn’t believe it. But when we consider the original story, it supports the notion that the original belief was of a spiritual rather than a physical event. The empty tomb for Mark was likely meant to be a symbol, not a historical reality, but even if he was repeating what was told him as true, it was not unusual in the ancient world for the bodies of heroes who became gods to vanish from this world: being deified entailed being taken up into heaven, as happened to men as diverse as Hercules and Apollonius of Tyana, and Mark’s story of an empty tomb would simply represent that expectation.

A decade or two passes, and then Matthew appears. As this Gospel tells it, there was a vast earthquake, and instead of a mere boy standing around beside an already-opened tomb, an angel–blazing like lightning–descended from the sky and paralyzed two guards that happened to be there, rolled away the stone single handedly before several witnesses–and then announced that Jesus will appear in Galilee. Obviously we are seeing a clear case of legendary embellishment of the otherwise simple story in Mark. Then in Matthew a report is given (similar to what was later added to Mark), where, contrary to the angel’s announcement, Jesus immediately meets the women that attended to his grave and repeats what the angel said. Matthew is careful to add a hint that this was a physical Jesus, having the women grovel and grab his feet as he speaks.

Then, maybe a little later still, Luke appears, and suddenly what was a vague and perhaps symbolic allusion to an ascension in Mark has now become a bodily appearance, complete with a dramatic reenactment of Peter rushing to the tomb and seeing the empty death shroud for himself. As happened in Matthew, other details have grown. The one young man of Mark, which became a flying angel in Matthew, in this account has suddenly become two men, this time not merely in white, but in dazzling raiment. And to make the new story even more suspicious as a doctrinal invention, Jesus goes out of his way to say he is not a vision, and proves it by asking the Disciples to touch him, and then by eating a fish. And though both Mark and Matthew said the visions would happen in Galilee, Luke changes the story, and places this particular experience in the more populous and prestigious Jerusalem.

Finally along comes John, perhaps after another decade or more. Now the legend has grown full flower, and instead of one boy, or two men, or one angel, now we have two angels at the empty tomb. And outdoing Luke in style, John has Jesus prove he is solid by showing his wounds, and breathing on people, and even obliging the Doubting Thomas by letting him put his fingers into the very wounds themselves. Like Luke, the most grandiose appearances to the Disciples happen in Jerusalem, not Galilee as Mark originally claimed. In all, John devotes more space and detail than either Luke or Matthew to demonstrations of the physicality of the resurrection, details nowhere present or even implied in Mark. It is obvious that John is trying very hard to create proof that the resurrection was the physical raising of a corpse, and at the end of a steady growth of fable, he takes license to make up a lot of details.

I had thought we were moving away from such cut-and-paste mentalities in scholarship; how is the Signs Gospel that much different than Thomas Jefferson’s New Testament?  Sure, we can make Jesus anything we want just by trimming out the miraculous bits and combining all the instances where a particular motif or trope holds sway, calling it the hypothetical ‘Whatever Gospel’, and get people to sign off on the idea.  The problem with this is quite simple: it removes context and as I have shown it allows for the collector of these verses, the redactor of this new hypothetical text, to ignore very important subcontexts, narrative functions, and intertextuality in the original text.

‘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

Alexander the Great and Jesus: An Irresponsible Comment

James McGrath should know better.  I enjoy the humor and I get the joke, but most people won’t.  This comment betrays an irresponsibility in academia and it needs to be corrected.  Here is the comment on his blog:

Paul Cartledge’s book on Alexander the Great is quoted by Chuck Grantham in a recent blog post:

It has been well said that the search for the historical Alexander is something like the search for the historical Jesus. Many contemporaries had an interest in preserving a version of what he said and did, but none of the subject’s actual words have been certainly preserved verbatim; and those writers whose words have survived all had an interest in recording, or creating, a particular image of their hero- or villain- for the edification of their contemporaries or posterity. With the result that the searches for both tend to be massively controversial.

What, hasn’t this guy read all the mythicist websites? Doesn’t he know that there is a consensus among mythicists that historians don’t hold views of this sort? He’s a professor of history at Cambridge University, for crying out loud!

Presumably he has no need to worry about the opinion of mythicists, since he doesn’t have a blog… :-)

Paul Cartledge, Provoker of Mythicists? Alexander the Great and Jesus.

Oh, James.  Once again you draw false analogies.  Those who attempt to pretend there is any similarity in evidence between that for Jesus and that for Alexander the Great only show their naivety (and in some cases, like E.P. Sanders who actually argues that there is more evidence for Jesus than Alexander, their ignorance).

For the sake of argument alone, if one takes into account all the evidence for Alexander the Great, a well documented and attested figure in history, there is simply no comparison between him and the figure of Jesus. Take any one Gospel (or all four, if one would like) and examine it next to Arrian’s history of Alexander’s campaigns. Even as late as Arrian is, Arrian uses methods that surpass the methods (if any at all) used by the Gospel authors. For example, Arrian compares his sources which consisted of eyewitness (written) accounts from Alexander’s generals (he explicitly cites his sources, even if they are now lost) and tells us why he is choosing one account of an event over the other, or why one seems to hold more weight. (1) Further, many of the citations Arrian uses are known from other contemporary and later sources. (2)  In addition to Arrian’s work, there are still perhaps hundreds of extant contemporary attestations of Alexander the Great from manuscripts, (3) artwork (busts of him; we have copies of originals done from his life), coins, and inscriptions (many contemporaneous). (4) There are also other lesser evidences (but hardly anywhere near the sort of dubious or questionable evidence we might have for Jesus) like letters of Alexander and Aristotle and Philip and Speusippus, and the hundreds of quotations of contemporaries and eyewitnesses that survive in later works, most of which are hard to dispute.  If we had this sort of evidence for Jesus’ life and ministry, there would be no need to question his historical significance (or, perhaps, his historicity at all).

One may make the argument that we cannot expect this sort of evidence for a historical Jesus, as he’d be relatively insignificant compared to a figure such as Alexander the Great. That’s very true, assuming a historical, itinerant, impoverished Jesus. So then the question becomes one of contradiction. Why would a scholar so desire to suggest, erroneously, that the evidence for a historical Jesus is greater than that of Alexander (or even on par with it!) when the fact is, quite clearly, that the evidence for Alexander is so superior to that of any provided for Jesus? Not only is it superior, but it is improbable—near impossible perhaps—that a historian should expect anything similar between Alexander and a insignificant historical Jesus as far as evidence goes. Yet this is the sort of statement so commonly heard by both scholars and apologists alike that often allows the wool to be pulled over the eyes of the uninformed reader. It is intellectually dishonest and, perhaps, irresponsible statements like these and others that perpetuate the conclusion among…well, almost everyone, that the historicity of Jesus is an established fact.  Jesus has become for many both inside and outside the field a “concrete entity with recognizable parameters.” (5)

I would caution James that such comments are irresponsible; the lay reader with no background in history might not recognize the humor and frankly that is something of which James needs to be made aware.  These sorts of hyperbolic statements do nothing but breed distrust in a conversation already rank with that problem.  They are nothing but trouble.  I enjoy James’ blog a great deal and he has useful things to say; alas, this is not one of them.


(1)     He also compares conflicting accounts for the reader; e.g. Anabasis Alexandri 3.30.4-6.

(2)     While I hold Arrian’s methods high, they fall short of modern standards. Even though Arrian 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) If a “good” ancient historian like Arrian can still succumb to these sorts of biases, one should be concerned with how much bias affects those ancient historians of lesser quality.

(3)     The authors preserved who were contemporaries of Alexander and mention him or facts about him include: Isocrates, Demosthenes, Aeschines, Hyperides, Dinarchus, Theocritus, Theophrastus, and Menander.

(4)     Not only are there inscriptions dedicated to Alexander the Great and his victories which are contemporaneous to him, several inscriptions commissioned by Alexander himself still exist; e.g., there is one at the British Museum from Priene in Asia Minor, dedicated to Athena Polias. See B.F. Cook, Greek inscriptions (1987), p. 21-22.

(5)     Mark Goodacre, The Case Against Q (2002), p. 9; Though Goodacre is talking about academic opinion of the hypothetical nature of the Q document, his opinion of academia also applies here.

Defining Mythicism: Some Quick Remarks

I will be working on the second part of this series, in a dialogue with James McGrath (and some others), and will hopefully post this up tonight or tomorrow.  I have been hesitant to rush this series through for a variety of reasons, but the main reason is that I need to figure out the direction I am coming from first before I can critically argue for it.  The next part of the series will work out the rhetoric of the debate which, in my humble opinion, really needs to be evaluated before any sort of real discussion can happen.  The figure of Jesus is an important issue to many people and, because of its contentious nature (all labels aside), has a bad habit of inciting all sorts of contexts and rhetoric which don’t really belong; at least they don’t belong in every instance.

Anthropology and the Bible – Emanuel Pfoh

I’m quite excited!  Emanuel Pfoh’s edited volume Anthropology and the Bible: Critical Perspectives (Piscataway: Gorgias Press, 2010) arrived today!  This is quite the read and I hope to dive right in sometime within the next week or so.  Review is forthcoming.  Judging from the ToC this book already looks ambitious, but with contributors like Emanuel himself, as well as Niels Peter Lemche, David Chalcraft, Anne Katrine Gudme, Philippe Guillaume, Eveline van der Steen, and Philippe Wajdenbaum, there is no doubt that it has exceeded its original potential.  Here is a snippet from Gorgias Press:

The papers in this anthology represent the proceedings of the Anthropology and the Bible session from the European Association of Biblical Studies Annual Meeting held in Lincoln, UK (July 2009). The main aim of the session is to foster critical uses of social anthropology for reading biblical scholarship and ancient Near Eastern studies related to the Bible as well. The papers of this volume reflect all these perspectives and stand as a critical renewal of the uses of anthropology and sociology in biblical scholarship in distinction to social-science approaches.

And the ToC:

  • Table of Contents (page 5)
  • Acknowledgments (page 7)
  • Abbreviations (page 9)
  • List of Contributors (page 11)
  • Introduction (page 13)
    • Introduction: Anthropology and the Bible Revisited (page 15)
      • Presentation (page 15)
      • Anthropology, Sociology and the Bible in the 19th and 20th Centuries (page 16)
      • Contributions (page 21)
  • Method (page 25)
    • Anthropology and Biblical Studies:A Critical Manifesto (page 27)
      • Anthropology as a Main Analytical Perspective for the Historian (page 27)
      • Interpretive Strategies: Emic and Etic in Biblical Interpretation (page 31)
        • 1) Emic Perspectives (page 32)
          • 1.1. Literal Readings (page 32)
          • 1.2. Rationalistic Paraphrases (page 33)
          • 1.3. A Contextual Approach (a): From Within the Text (page 33)
        • 2) Etic Perspectives (page 35)
          • 2.1. A Contextual Approach (page 35)
          • 2.2. An Historical Anthropological Perspective (page 36)
            • 2.2.1. An anthropology of the dynamics of political power (page 37)
            • 2.2.2. An anthropology of Palestines ethnicities (page 38)
            • 2.2.3. A socio-anthropology of Palestines religious imagination and practices (page 39)
            • 2.2.4. An anthropology of Palestines economics (page 40)
            • 2.2.5. An anthropology of the biblical mythic universe (page 41)
      • The Social Background of Texts and of the Interpreters of Texts (page 42)
        • 1) The Original Interpreters (page 42)
        • 2) The Received View (page 43)
        • 3) The Historiographical Context of Biblical Studies (page 43)
    • Is Sociology Also Among the Social Sciences? Some Personal Reflections on Sociological Approaches in Biblical Studies (page 49)
      • 1. Is Sociology Also a Social Science? (page 49)
      • 2. Sociology Unique Amongst the Social Sciences (page 52)
      • 3. Epistemological and Ontological Differences (page 57)
      • 4. The Differences Made By and to the Social Science Used and the Need to Report Back (page 59)
      • 5. The Body of Theory and Creativity (page 60)
      • 6. The Sociological Imagination and Grounded Theory (page 62)
      • 7. The Sociological Vocation (page 67)
      • 8. Two Essential Components of the Sociological Imagination (page 69)
        • 8.1. The Social as Significant Variable (page 69)
        • 8.2. The Nature of Modernity (page 70)
      • 9. Ideal Types, Comparative Historical Research and the Sociology of Texts: a Neo-Weberian Approach (page 73)
      • 10. Finallyƒ Sociology and Reception History of the Bible (page 76)
      • Bibliography (page 77)
    • Modes of Religion: An Alternative to Popular/Official Religion (page 89)
  • Criticism (page 103)
    • Avraham Faust, Israels Ethnogenesis, and Social Anthropology (page 105)
  • Case Studies (page 117)
    • The Hidden Benefits of Patronage: Debt (page 119)
      • Antichresis (page 124)
      • Plentiful Land (page 125)
      • Illusory Usury (page 127)
      • Patronage (page 130)
      • Debt: The Ethnographic View (page 130)
      • Debt: An Essential Ingredient of Patronage (page 132)
      • Inequality and Reciprocity (page 138)
    • David as a Tribal Hero: Reshaping Oral Traditions (page 139)
      • Bibliography (page 147)
    • Jacob and David, the Bibles Literary Twins (page 149)
  • Index of Authors (page 171)
  • Index of References (page 177)


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