Thursday, September 15, 2016

Atheistically Speaking Podcast on Jesus Mythicism



Thomas Smith was kind enough to have me back on his "Atheistically Speaking" podcast for a two part discussion on Jesus Mythicism and why it's rejected by the vast majority of scholars:

Did Jesus Exist? Part One

Did Jesus Exist? Part Two

Needless to say, some of his audience are not pleased, though others seem more open-minded.  
 

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

"Inciting Incident" Podcast on History for Atheists



Al Laiman from the "Inciting Incident" podcast enjoyed my chat with Thomas Smith a few weeks ago and decided to have me as a guest on his show.  Unfortunately our first conversation failed to record, so we tried again last weekend and the podcast is now up.  We cover some of the same ground as I did with Thomas, though I go into a little more detail on the myths around Galileo and the Great Library of Alexandria.  We also discuss the likely psychology of why pseudo history appeals to people more than real history and look at the Jesus Myth thesis as a largely online phenomenon related to conspiracy theories.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Edward T. Babinski Objects


My interview with Thomas Smith on the "Atheistically Speaking" podcast last week has stirred up an interest in the topics we covered among some of Thomas' audience.  Inevitably, given that I had to skate over some topics pretty quickly, not everything I was saying seems to have been grasped fully by some listeners.  The part of the conversation on Galileo was very rushed and that is a complex subject, since many New Atheists find it hard to get their head around how, if Galileo was persecuted for a scientific idea, this doesn't mean the Church was "anti-science".  But I will be writing some more detailed analysis of the Galileo Affair as part of my "The New Atheist Bad History Great Myths" series, so hopefully I can make the complexities of how science, theology and politics became entangled in that case a bit more clear.

But one (I assume) listener had far more to object to than that.  Edward T. Babinski is a former fundamentalist Christian who has made a long journey back from evangelical Biblical literalism and belief in Creationism to a kind of spiritual agnosticism.  He says he abandoned Christianity after "reading .... books on biblical criticism and the development of Christian doctrine, and after studying evolutionists' criticisms of "scientific creationist" arguments" and is the author of Leaving the Fold: Testimonies of Former Fundamentalists (1995) and a contributor to John Loftus' collection of articles The Christian Delusion: Why Faith Fails (2010).

But like many non-believers who have reacted vehemently against their former beliefs, Ed Babinski seems to have absorbed a very strange and strenuously anti-Christian version of western history and seems quite upset when someone (i.e. me) comes along and says key elements of it may not be entirely true.

He's posted some long comments on my blog post on the "Atheistically Speaking" podcast, but because blog post comments don't lend themselves to a careful critique of what he's saying I'm going to publish his comments here and then go over what is wrong with them from a historical perspective.  I'm doing this for two reasons.  One, he argues positions which are taken as unalloyed truth by New Atheists and many former believers like Babinski (I used to accept some of them myself), so this is a good opportunity to dissect them and compare them to the evidence.  And two, Babinski himself seems like a very genuine guy and - possibly - open to adjusting his ideas.  Well, maybe.

So I'll begin with his first comment, which I published on my "Atheistically Speaking" post, in which Babinski quotes from a book he found:

"'The libraries [of Alexandria] were surely in decline under Christians who, following their triumph over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists, found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting. Their anger reached a fever pitch in the fourth century A.D.: Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis [a huge temple/library and part of the libraries of Alexandria] for a church; he set loose a mob of Christians, who destroyed the pagan temple, and perhaps, the books of its library as well …
The [rest of the] libraries of Alexandria probably shared a modest fate, moldering slowly through the centuries as people grew indifferent and even hostile to their contents. Ancient Greek, never a linguistic monolith in any case, became incomprehensible to Alexandrians of the Christian era with their mixture of Coptic, Aramaic, Hebrew, Latin, and Koine, or demotic Greek. Ignored by the generations to whom they were indecipherable, the scrolls would have been damaged … stolen, lost, and yes, burned. They were replaced by writings of the Fathers and Doctors of the church and by the thinning literature of the declining Roman world.'
— Matthew Battles, Library: An Unquiet History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), p.24,32"

This is something New Atheist types do a lot - they try to support an historical position or claim by quoting or citing someone else making the same claim.  Except if that person isn't a specialist in the field of history who is backing that assertion up with footnotes and references to relevant supporting source material and scholarship, this is simply ... someone else making the claim.  Given that many of the ideas and assumptions that make up New Atheist Bad History are based on common popular misconceptions about history, it's not hard to find some non-specialist repeating them somewhere, but that doesn't actually support the claim being made; it's just evidence of it echoing around among non-historians.

And this is exactly what we have here.  Matthew Battles  - the writer Babinski quotes - is currently Associate Director at Harvard's metaLAB, which has the mission of "the incubation of trans-disciplinary projects that blend new media, data, and scholarship in critical and reflective ways".  He has a B.A. in Anthropology and a M.A. in Creative Writing from Boston University.  So I imagine he's not a bad writer, but a historian specialising in the ancient world he is not.

And it shows.  He's essentially taken the Gibbonian myth of "Christians destroying the Great Library of Alexandria" and embroidered it a little.  He tells his readers that the libraries of Alexandria were "surely" in decline under Christians because they had triumphed "over pagans, Jews, and Neoplatonists" and so then "found the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting."  There are multiple problems with just this first sentence.

His initial claim that libraries in Alexandria were in decline with the rise of Christianity is at least partially correct, but not for the reason he states.  As I noted in my podcast with Thomas Smith, many temples held libraries and as more people converted to Christianity funds to these temples from rich donors began to dry up.  Since the maintenance of libraries was expensive it is very likely that these temple-based libraries did indeed decline.  This doesn't mean the books they contained were therefore destroyed or lost, however.  On the contrary, books were valuable objects and it is far more likely that they were sold or, in the cases of temples that were ransacked by Christian zealots as their congregations dwindled, simply looted and stolen.  And we also know that Alexandria remained a centre of learning and study at least until the Muslim conquest and that many of its libraries  - the ones not held in pagan temples - continued to be maintained.

But the real problem here is the idea that Christians would find "the Hellenic riches of the libraries discomfiting".  This is a mainstay of the New Atheist myth that Christianity hated all ancient pagan knowledge and sought to destroy it and that this large scale destruction and general antipathy "ushered in the Dark Ages".  This idea can be bolstered by the fact that at least some early Christian writers did regard the writings of "the Hellenes" distasteful and contrary to the Bible and did teach that pagan philosophy should be ignored.  The most famous statement in this regard that is usually cited is from Tertullian:


"What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from "the porch of Solomon," who had himself taught that "the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart." Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic, and dialectic composition!"(De praescriptione haereticorum, VII)

Actually, Tertullian himself was trained in dialectic and Greek philosophy and was happy to use that training in his own works.  And this quote, in context, is more about not mixing Greek philosophy in with Scriptural interpretation in disputations with Christian heretics, rather than a wholesale rejection of philosophy per se.  That aside, Tertullian did have a suspicion of any "mottled Christianity" that was a hybrid of pagan philosophy and the reported teachings of Jesus and this suspicion was reflected in or amplified by other Christian Patristic writers, some of whom rejected philosophy wholesale and taught Christians should reject it completely.

But by focusing only on these anti-philosophical stances those who claim Christianity destroyed ancient learning are only bothering to present one side of a vigorous debate within early Christian thought.  And, more importantly, they are emphasising the side that lost that debate.

Because at the same time that people like Tertullian were rejecting Greek learning, whether partially or wholly, other Christians were writing that it should be preserved and used as a gift from God.  Writing in Alexandria not long after Tertullian, Origen of Alexandria (c. 185-253) argued to one of his pupils:

"I wish to ask you to extract from the philosophy of the Greeks what may serve as a course of study or a preparation for Christianity, and from geometry and astronomy what will serve to explain the sacred Scriptures, in order that all that the sons of the philosophers are wont to say about geometry and music, grammar, rhetoric, and astronomy, as fellow-helpers to philosophy, we may say about philosophy itself, in relation to Christianity. Perhaps something of this kind is shadowed forth in what is written in Exodus from the mouth of God, that the children of Israel were commanded to ask from their neighbours, and those who dwelt with them, vessels of silver and gold, and raiment, in order that, by spoiling the Egyptians, they might have material for the preparation of the things which pertained to the service of God."(Letter to Gregory)
This idea, that Greek philosophy was a kind of precursor to Christianity and so should be studied for this reason, became known as the "Gold of the Egyptians" argument.  As Origen of Alexandria says above, just as the Israelites made use of the gold of Egypt, so Christians should carry off the best work of the pagan scholars.  Clement of Alexandria, writing a little earlier and again, it should be noted, writing in the scholarly centre of Alexandria, went further:


"We shall not err in alleging that all things necessary and profitable for life came to us from God, and that philosophy more especially was given to the Greeks, as a covenant peculiar to them -- being, as it is, a stepping-stone to the philosophy which is according to Christ"  (Stromata, VIII)

This idea also gained currency, with other writers noting that just as God had given the Jews a special gift for revelation and prophecy (which is why the Christian Bible contains the Torah and books of the Jewish prophets to this day), he also gave the Greeks a gift for logic and the rational analysis of ideas and the physical world.  John Damascene also noted Greek learning as a divine gift:


"I shall set forth the best contributions of the philosophers of the Greeks, because whatever there is of good has been given to men from above by God, since 'every best gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights' "(Philosophical Chapters, Preface)

Not every Greek philosophical idea or school of thought lent itself to this attitude, which is why the writers noted above and the others who advocated the same approach (which includes such leading Christian Patristic writers as Gregory Nazianzen, Basil of Caesarea, Justin Martyr and Augustine) speak of "extracting" Greek philosophy that represents "the best contributions of the philosophers".  But this rejection of the anti-philosophical Christian tradition won the day and this approach became the dominant attitude of Christian scholars from at least the late fourth century onward - which just happens to be exactly the time that Babinski's source is claiming that Christians in Alexandria, the home of both Origen and Clement quoted above, were supposedly finding Greek learning "discomforting".  So this Matthew Battles person clearly doesn't know what he's talking about.

It's also remarkable that he singles out "Neoplatonists" as the source of this imagined discomfiture.  Because of all the Greek philosophical schools, the Neo-Platonic school was actually the one Christianity embraced and absorbed with the most enthusiasm.  As Augustine noted in the early fifth century:

"If those who are called philosophers, especially the Platonists, have said things which are indeed true and are well accommodated to our faith, they should not be feared; rather, what they have said should be taken from them as from unjust possessors and converted to our use. Just as the Egyptians had not only idols and grave burdens which the people of Israel detested and avoided, so also they had vases and ornaments of gold and silver and clothing which the Israelites took with them secretly when they fled, as if to put them to a better use.  
 .... In the same way all the teachings of the pagans contain not only simulated and superstitious imaginings and grave burdens of unnecessary labour, which each one of us leaving the society of pagans under the leadership of Christ ought to abominate and avoid, but also liberal disciplines more suited to the uses of truth, and some most useful precepts concerning morals. Even some truths concerning the worship of one God are discovered among them. These are, as it were, their gold and silver"(On Christian Doctrine, XL.60)

So not only do we have here another statement of what had, by this time, become the standard attitude of Christian scholars to pagan learning as stated by the most influential writer on later medieval thought, but he actually singles out the Neo-Platonic school as being especially compatible with this approach.  He is hardly "discomfited" by Neo-Platonism and certainly isn't advocating destroying their works.  In fact, injunctions to destroy works of pagan learning can be found nowhere in any of the Christian writings of this time, even among those of the earlier sceptics who argued for a rejection of philosophy by Christians.

So Babinski's non-expert simply gets it all wrong.  Not only did the study of philosophy in Alexandria continue long after the demolition of the Serapeum - we find pagan philosophers like Aedisia, Hierocles, Asclepius of Tralles, Olympiodorus the Younger, Ammonius Hermiae and Hermias all flourishing there in the fifth century - but we also find pagans and Christians studying it alongside each other.  Hypatia had a number of Christian students, most famously Synesius who was later bishop of Ptolemais and his brother Euoptius.  So it's very difficult to reconcile any detailed grasp of the evidence with Battle's declarations above, including the weird stuff about literacy in Greek declining in Alexandria in this period; a claim that is simply bizarre.

Equally bizarre is his claim that the destruction of the Serapeum was motivated by the fact the bishop Theophilus "desired the site of the temple".  Exactly how Battle knows this I have no idea, since no such "desire" is mentioned anywhere in any of the sources.  When challenged on this point, Babinski commented again:


""Simply" over real estate? Sociologists of religion would point out that commanding more real estate for one's symbols and signs of worship is an essential part of the struggle of all religions to gain prominence, even predominance.  

On June 16, AD 391, the Christian Roman Emperor Theodosius I reiterated from Milan his prohibition against pagan worship (a similar decree had been directed to the urban prefect in Rome four months earlier). In a rescript addressed to the prefect and military governor in Egypt, he commanded that no person perform sacrifices, go to the temples, or revere the shrines (Codex Theodosianus, XVI.10.11). Socrates Scholasticus further claims that, in response to the solicitation of Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, the Emperor Theodosius issued an order that the temples themselves be destroyed (Ecclesiastical History, V.16). Riots were provoked by Bishop Theophilus after Christians began to desecrate and destroy a pagan temple and lampooned pagan holy idols in the streets. In those riots some Christians were killed, and probably some pagans as well, but the Christians called themselves martyrs. the Temple of Serapis was torn down by a Christian mob, to be replaced by a lofty martyr-ium (John of Nikiu, Chronicle, LXXVIII.42) and church (Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, VII.15.10) beside the old temple enclosure. 

Theophilus the bishop then had the other pagan temples in the city razed to the ground, "almost column by column." The images of the gods, records Socrates, were melted down to be made into pots and other utensils for the church (Ecclesiastical History, V.16).  

http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/serapeum.html 
http://penelope.uchicago.edu/~grout/encyclopaedia_romana/greece/paganism/daughter.html "

The fact that "sociologists of religion" may well point out that gaining dominance in public spaces is important in the kind of struggle that was going on between Christianity and paganism in Alexandria in the late fourth century and the fact that it may well be that this was what was going on in this case are fine, but that doesn't justify attributing this motive to the bishop Theophilus when that is not supported by the evidence.  That's pure speculation, not historical analysis of the evidence we have.  Matthew Battles, Babinski's source, doesn't say that "perhaps" this was what was happening or that such a struggle for public space was "maybe" part of this episode, which would be valid.  He just states it as a fact: "Theophilus, patriarch of Alexandria, desired the site of the temple of Serapis".  That's not historical analysis, that's fiction writing.

The rest of events listed in Babinski's comment above are all more or less true, though largely irrelevant.  That Christians tore down some pagan temples and melted down some pagan idols is about typical behaviour for the period, much like pagans feeding Christians to lions or burning them alive for the amusement of crowds was.  Babinski seems agitated by it for some reason, but I fail to see how it's relevant to the issue of Christian attitudes to pagan learning.

And, as I've shown above, the dominant attitude to pagan learning which had won out by this stage was one of general acceptance.  While Theophilus' mobs certainly destroyed some temples and idols, Christian scholars did not advocate the destruction of pagan books.  On the contrary, they advocated their preservation.  The idea that philosophy (which included logic, mathematics, astronomy and the beginnings of what we call "science") was the "handmaiden" to theology became commonplace.  In practice this meant not only that these things could be studied and preserved, but that they actively should.  As distinguished historian of science Edward Grant puts it:

"The handmaiden concept of Greek learning was widely adopted and became the standard Christian attitude toward secular learning.  .... With the total triumph of Christianity at the end of the fourth century, the Church might have reacted against pagan learning in general, and Greek philosophy in particular, finding much in the latter that was unacceptable or perhaps even offensive.  They might have launched a major effort to suppress pagan learning as a danger to the Church and its doctrines.  But they did not."(The Foundations of Modern Science in the Middle Agesp. 4)

"But they did not" suppress pagan learning.  They preserved it.  As a result, if anyone in our era has read any ancient work of logic, mathematics, physics, geometry, astronomy or, actually, any ancient work at all, they have a succession of ancient and medieval Christian scribes to thank for the privilege.

But this is precisely the opposite of the picture Babinski is determined to defend.  So he tried another quote:

"Institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed. The [Christian] emperorsʼ attacks had centered on the chief of them, Athens and Alexandria, in the late fourth century and were turned against them again toward the end of the fifth and in 529. [“529 A.D.” was the year that the School of Athens was closed by the decree of the Christian Roman Emperor Justinian, the same Justinian who also outlawed sodomy, because, “It is well known that buggery is a principal cause of earthquakes, and so must be prohibited.”—E.T.B.]. As to the initiators of the persecution, the [Christian] emperors themselves, a steady decline in their level of cultivation has been noticed. Thus books and philosophy were bound to fade from sight. 

After Constantine there existed an empire-wide instrument of education: the church. What bishops, even emperors, made plain, and what could be heard in broader terms from every pulpit, was an agreed upon teaching. Every witness, every listener should know the great danger to his soul in Platoʼs books, in Aristotleʼs, in any of the philosophical corpus handed down from the past. The same danger threatened anyone using his mind according to their manner, with analytical intent, ranging widely for the materials of understanding, and independent of divine imparted teachings. 

Another factor that arose specifically out of the ongoing conversion of the empire was the doctrine of demonic causation. The belief in the operation of maleficent forces on a large scale had to await Christianity; and it was of course Christianity that was to form the medieval and Byzantine world. 

Satanic agents were to be seen as the cause not only of wars and rebellions, persecution and heresy, storms at sea and earthquakes on land, but of a host of minor or major personal afflictions. So, in consequence, Christians were forever crossing themselves, whatever new action they set about, and painted crosses on their foreheads too, responding to their leadersʼ urging them to do so. It would protect them against all evil. 

— Ramsay MacMullen, Christianity and Paganism in the Fourth to Eighth Centuries"

At least MacMullen is an actual historian, being an eminent Classicist and emeritus professor of history at Yale.  But he has also been criticised for a degree of anti-Christian bias and for cherry-picking his evidence on the topic of Christian attitudes to pagan learning.  This can be demonstrated by comparing his examples in the quote Babinski gives to the multiple quotes from the Christian writers I give and cite above.  Again, he refers to some bishops etc. who made plain that Plato and Aristotle were a great danger to Christian souls, but fails to even mention that many others argued precisely the opposite, as we've seen.  Or that it was the latter who won the debate on this issue.  

The claim that "institutions of higher learning had been largely destroyed", however, is not just referring to selective evidence, it's total nonsense.  There was no closure of schools in Alexandria and, as I've noted above by reference to the plethora of pagan philosophers who flourished there, philosophy and proto-science were studied there by both pagans and Christians right up until the Arab conquest in 641 AD.  For example, John Philoponus (490-570 AD) was writing numerous commentaries on Aristotle and Proclus and refuting Aristotle's claims about the speeds of falling bodies there in the later sixth century, well after Justinian's time.  

The claim that "institutions of higher learning" in Athens were closed seems to refer to the closing of the Neo-Platonic academy of Porphyry - closed on order of the Emperor because it was vehemently anti-Christian, not because of any hatred of philosophy per se.  Other academies continued to flourish not just in Alexandria but also in Antioch, Ephesus and in Constantinople itself.  Plato, Aristotle and their many successors were taught in all of these schools, as they were in the great Nestorian Christian centres of learning outside of the Roman Empire.  Nestorian monks at the great academies of Nisibis and Jundishapur translated key works of Greek philosophy and proto-science into Syriac and it was from them that Muslim scholars got these works and translated them into Arabic.  This was the path - via Christian monks and Muslim falasifa - by which most of these works found their way back to Europe in the Middle Ages, sparking a revolution in thought that saw the rise of the medieval universities and the foundations of the later Scientific Revolution.

Babinski tried a few more comments but they generally drifted further and further from anything relevant to what I had said and so I didn't bother posting them to my "Atheistically Speaking" blog post.  One railed against:

"Christians seeking to persecute, outlaw, incite riots and violence against pagans, Jews and even fellow Christians; and also how Christian lambs, with the help of Christian Emperors, soon turned into lions, and how they eventually outlawed any Christian view other than the Trinity because all others are "insane" and must face the Emperor's wrath."

Exactly why Babinski is so upset by Christians persecuting fellow Christians many centuries ago I have no idea.  But incidents of actual violence against pagans were extremely rare.  The switching of Imperial patronage to Christianity meant that the pagan cults began to dwindle remarkably rapidly in the fourth century.  The old Imperial cults of the traditional Gero-Roman pantheon had been challenged by rival, foreign cults for centuries and Aurelian had recognised the need for a revitalised central religion when he made the cult of Sol Invictus, the "Unconquered Sun", the state religion in around 274 AD.  After Constantine's conversion to Christianity c. 312 AD the pagan sects declined still further as the big money flowed to the new faith; so much so that when Julian tried to reverse the trend during his short reign (361-363 AD) his attempts failed totally.  He himself writes ruefully of his visit to the famous grove of Apollo at Antioch in 362 AD and how he imagined the renowned pagan rites there:

" [I] imagined in my own mind the sort of procession it would be, like a man seeing visions in a dream, beasts for sacrifice, libations, choruses in honour of the god, incense, and the youths of your city there surrounding the shrine, their souls adorned with all holiness and themselves attired in white and splendid raiment”

Instead the emperor was met by one old priest who came to the increasingly dilapidated temple with a single goose from his garden as a paltry sacrifice. Not much violence was needed - paganism was dying of natural causes as people turned to the newly favoured faith of Christianity.

And while some people try to claim that this decline was caused by active persecution by Christian emperors, this is not supported by the evidence.  Christian imperial edicts about paganism came to ban public worship and state sponsorship of pagan rites, but pagans themselves were allowed to worship privately and hold whatever beliefs they wanted.  And we know this because we have plenty of works by pagans in this period - they were hardly disguising their beliefs.  And while we have plenty of evidence of books by "heretical" Christians being burned and of "heretics" being actively persecuted, we have nothing of the sort for pagans.  On the contrary, Christian apologists used the fact that their faith didn't persecute pagans the way pagans had persecuted Christians as an argument for the superiority of their faith.  Gregory of Nazianus asked "Have the Christians ever inflicted on your people anything similar to what you have so often inflicted on us?"  And John Chrysostom declared "No Christian emperor could ever issue decrees against you such as the devil-worshippers issued against us." This is not because Christians in this period were nice people, but rather because paganism declined so greatly and so rapidly over the course of the fourth century that it simply wasn't worth the effort.

But Babinksi still struggles to maintain the fiction that Christianity tried to suppress pagan learning, philosophy and proto-science.  He claims:

"The early Christian fathers you mentioned did praise Hellenistic learning. That was early on. Things turned darker after that."

"Early on"?  I quoted and cited Justin Martyr (c. 100-165 AD), Clement of Alexandria (150-215 AD), Origen (c. 184- c. 254 AD), Basil of Caesarea (c. 329-379 AD), Gregory Nazianzen (329-390 AD), Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD) and John of Damascus (675-749 AD).  Anyone looking at those date ranges can see that the people arguing for the preservation of Hellenic learning did not just do so "early on", and that this argument was made consistently across the centuries from the second to the eighth century and beyond.  In the western tradition this "Gold of the Egyptians" argument was taken up from Augustine and repeated by medieval scholars like Hugh of St Victor (1096-114), Peter Damian (1007-1072) and Bonaventure (1221-1274) until it was enshrined as a central principle of high medieval scholastic philosophy by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

But Babinksi has an alternative historical narrative whereby Augustine, who as we've seen was a key proponent of the idea of preserving pagan Hellenic learning, was somehow also the villain responsible for its suppression:

"Augustine taught that outside the church there was no salvation and even unbaptized babies were in Satan's thrall and damned if they died unbaptized. So naturally, church literature and church historians became the rule of the day with other types of learning being viewed as less necessary for one's salvation."

That's true, but it's quite a leap from "less necessary for one's salvation" to "not to be preserved or studied at all".  Augustine believed the former, without doubt, but he argued against the latter.  And in doing so he ensured that the fire of rational philosophy, logic and proto-science stayed alight in the centuries of invasion and chaos that then engulfed western Europe from soon after his time until at least the eleventh century.  It was Christian scholars like Cassiodorus and Boethius who preserved key works of logic and philosophy, including the logical works of Aristotle and Proclus, in the twilight of the sixth century before the real collapse of civilisation in the west descended.  And it was Christian monasteries and schools that kept these works as central texts in the period that followed until when things became less chaotic and later Christian scholars sought out the works that had been lost.  They went to Muslim Spain and Sicily and found them there - translated into Arabic from Greek editions preserved by Byzantine monks and the Syric editions preserved by the Nestorian monks mentioned above.  If Babinski can read these texts he has Christians to thank.

But he goes on to claim "in fact "curiosity" itself became a sin".  This is another misunderstanding of the evidence on his part.  Yes, there was a sin called curiositias.  But it was not what we would call "intellectual curiosity".  On the contrary, its opposing virtue was studiositas (studiousness), the serious pursuit of knowledge.  The "curiosity" that was frowned on was idle speculation on trivial things, such as gossip, rumours and minding others' business - all things which probably happened a lot in enclosed monastic communities.

The rest of Babinski's comments are even less relevant to anything I said.  He wants me to mention that the cosmology of the ancient Jews clearly included a flat earth.  I have no idea what noting something that is historically true has to do with a blog about common ideas that are historically untrue.  Similarly he makes much of the Church crushing religious dissent.  Given that this happened and is undisputed I have no idea why he's raising it with me.  The fact remains that this didn't include suppressing science and neither the Bruno case nor the Galileo case are examples of the Church doing so.  Quite a bit of what seems to get Babinski agitated are actually just old time Protestant beefs with the Catholic Church, which seems to indicate that he hasn't moved as far from his Pentecostal evangelical days than perhaps he thinks.

But his confused comments show how entrenched many of these common misconceptions about Christianity and pagan learning are.  It requires a deeper knowledge of the source material and scholarship and - more critically - an objective and dispassionate view to get a clearer and more accurate picture.  Unfortunately some people are still too emotionally entangled in their former Christian beliefs and their ongoing reaction against them to be able to analyse these subjects clearly.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"Atheistically Speaking" Podcast on History for Atheists



Last weekend I had a great time recording an interview on New Atheist Bad History with Thomas Smith for his "Atheistically Speaking" podcast.  You can hear the full interview HERE, with some bonus material if you become a patron of Thomas' show.  The conversation covered some of the more common New Atheist pseudo historical myths, including Giordano Bruno, the Great Library of Alexandria, Hypatia and the old "Christianity caused the 'Dark Ages'" nonsense.  Thomas seemed to be enjoying himself as much as I was and we didn't even get around to the Jesus Myth thesis.  It's very likely we'll be doing another show on that sometime in the future.  Enjoy.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Richard Carrier is Displeased

The Richard Carrier Action Figure (polyamorous ukulele sold separately)

It seems I've done something to upset Richard Carrier. Or rather, I've done something to get him to turn his nasal snark on me on behalf of his latest fawning minion.  For those who aren't aware of him, Richard Carrier is a New Atheist blogger who has a post-graduate degree in history from Columbia and who, once upon a time, had a decent chance at an academic career.  Unfortunately he blew it by wasting his time being a dilettante who self-published New Atheist anti-Christian polemic and dabbled in fields well outside his own; which meant he never built up the kind of publishing record essential for securing a recent doctorate graduate a university job.  Now that even he recognises that his academic career crashed and burned before it got off the ground, he styles himself as an "independent scholar", probably because that sounds a lot better than "perpetually unemployed blogger".

But in the minds of New Atheist true believers, far from being a failed academic (and more recently, thanks to some rather dubious life choices, itinerant beggar), Carrier is a towering figure of vast historical wisdom.  This is because if there is a tenet of New Atheist Bad History that needs defending, Richard Carrier is usually there to help.  Not surprisingly, Carrier is therefore a leading proponent of the Jesus Myth thesis, though given that this is a topic held in dismally low regard by real academics and one peddled mainly by cranks and loons, that's not much of an accolade.

Two years ago Carrier brought out what he felt was going to be a game-changer in the fringe side-issue debate about whether a historical Jesus existed at all.  His book, On the Historicity of Jesus: Why We Might Have Reason for Doubt (Sheffield-Phoenix, 2014), was the first peer-reviewed (well, kind of) monograph that argued against a historical Jesus in about a century and Carrier's New Atheist fans expected it to have a shattering impact on the field.  It didn't.  Apart from some detailed debunking of his dubious use of Bayes' Theorem to try to assess historical claims, the book has gone unnoticed and basically sunk without trace.  It has been cited by no-one and has attracted one lonely academic review, which is actually a feeble puff piece by the fawning minion mentioned above.  The book is a total clunker.

So the failure of his academic career and the disaster of his attempt at a groundbreaking opus has left the perennially unemployed Carrier with a lot of time on his hands.  Luckily he has a number of obsessive vendettas to keep him busy.  The main one of these is with leading New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman, though he also has a beef with me.  Recently, to his great joy, he was able to indulge in both at once.

Alleged "Asscrankery".  Or Something.

Carrier's obsessive one-way slanging match with Ehrman stems from the fact that Ehrman has committed two grievous sins against him; both as unforgivable as they are grave.  First, Ehrman dared to single Carrier out for criticism in his popular book Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (2012). Carrier responded with his usual tsunami of many words (see above about him having a lot of spare time), which did little more than try to establish some feeble nitpicks about issues peripheral to Ehrman's arguments.  Ehrman responded to these slightly crazed and highly prolix rants with two coolly urbane and entirely professional replies ( here and at greater length here) which, among other things, show why he is an esteemed and respected scholar and why Carrier ... isn't.  But then Ehrman committed his second, much worse sin.  As Carrier's responses become more sneering, more frenzied, more intense and even more tedious in their length, Ehrman did the unthinkable - he chose to completely ignore Carrier as a silly little nobody and simply didn't engage with him further.  And nothing angers a pathological narcissist like being ignored.  Mighty was Carrier's tiny wrath!

So, in the four years since, Carrier has continued to list Ehrman's many wicked sins, with all the shrillness of a myopically self-obsessed person who genuinely can't believe he's not being taken seriously.  Of course Ehrman is just one scholar at the top of the long list of people that Carrier has to attack, since anyone who has dared look sideways at Carrier, his fringe thesis, his failed book or any of his minuscule coterie of minions and parrots has been struck mighty blows from his tiny little fists.  Some anger him so much that he uses his skills in psychiatry to actually declare them insane, since genuine madness is the only explanation he can fathom for those who don't bow low before his manifest genius.

Given that I've criticised his arguments in the past and have been dismissive of one of his equally thin-skinned flunkies more recently, a few weeks ago Carrier decided to go two-for-one and attack both Ehrman and myself.  In a blog post gloriously titled "On the Gullibility of Bart Ehrman & the Asscrankery of Tim O’Neil" (sic), he attacks Ehrman for responding approvingly to a comment I made on Ehrman's own blog.  Of course, this was two whole years ago, but that's a blink of the eye on the timescale of Carrier's churning petty resentments.  

Since the section of Ehrman's blog where I made this terrible comment is open to subscribers only, here is the comment in question in full.  Critiquing Carrier's attempt at a dismissal of the reference to Jesus' brother James in Josephus' Antiquities - a fly in the Jesus Myth ointment, since non-existent celestial figures can't have historically attested flesh-and-blood brothers - I commented in response to someone else:
“Richard Carrier’s one piece of published, peer-reviewed work in this area of study is actually quite convincing,”
Or creaking and contrived. It’s riddled with problems. To begin with, for the Jesus at XX.9.1 to be the same person as the later mentioned high priest “Jesus, son of Damneus”, we have to believe that Ananus executed this son of Damneus’ brother and then very soon afterwards uses rich gifts so he “cultivated the friendship of Albinus, and of the high priest”. So we’re supposed to believe that within months of seeing Ananus kill his brother, the son of Damneus was cosying up to his brother’s murderer thanks to some gifts? This makes no sense. 
Then there’s the fact that dismissing the phrase “who was called Messiah” as a marginal gloss that found its way into the body of the text doesn’t go far enough to explain the textus receptus. Josephus is very consistent in the way he introduces new actors to his narrative and in the way he differentiates one from another. Nowhere does he introduce a person simply by their name (“Jesus”, minus the Messiah part) and then refer to them by an identifying appellation later (“Jesus, son of Damneus”). Yet that’s what Carrier’s contrived ad hoc work around requires. 
Finally there’s his blithe dismissal of the three verbatim quotes of the key “Jesus who was called Messiah” phrase by Origen on the grounds that Origen was somehow confusing Josephus with Hegisippus. Carrier claims this by saying what Origen claims Josephus “says” about the death of James can’t actually be found in Josephus. But Origen was an exegete, not a historian, and often claims his sources “say” things that aren’t there: he reads his exegesis into his material. Reading the passages in Josephus following Ant. XX.9.1 in this light shows how Origen definitely could have read the trope of “the fall of Jerusalem as punishment for the execution of James” into the text, as detailed by Waturu Mizagaki, “Origen and Josephus” in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (L.H. Feldman, G. Hata eds, Wayne State University Press, 1987) pp. 325-337). Oddly for a peer reviewed article, neither this key piece of research on Origen’s use of Josephus nor Feldman and Hata’s highly relevant collection of articles is anywhere to be found in Carrier’s footnotes. 
Carrier is a polemicist and this article shows it. And his final paragraphs where he pompously declares that all future discussion on the topic must now bow before his mighty findings are are hilarious as they are fatuous."
To which Ehrman had the unmitigated gall to respond "Terrific comments! Many thanks".  

A Gentleman's Guide to Admitting an Error - Essential Dos and Don'ts

Carrier responds to the first argument in my comment by saying "Um, no, Mr O'Neil (sic).  I think you have the wrong Ananus."  He notes my point depends on the high priest "Ananus", who executed James illegally and was therefore deposed, being the same who later curried favour with ben Damneus and says "O’Neil (sic) thinks this is the same Ananus who later courts Jesus ben Damneus. But O’Neil (sic) does not check his facts."  He goes on to argue that the high priest who cultivated the friendship of Jesus ben Damneus was not the deposed Ananus but an elder former high priest, Ananias (though his name is sometimes also given as "Ananus").  So he argues the priest who had James executed and the one who later got friendly with Jesus ben Damneus are not, in fact, the same person at all and my argument is therefore based on a false premise and so is totally wrong.

And this is all absolutely correct.

In making this argument I confused the (admittedly confusing) references to two people with the same name.  Which means my argument doesn't work.  Of course, as a "gotcha", this catch by Carrier would be much more effective if ... I hadn't already acknowledged the error.  Except, I had.  About a year ago.

You see, gentle reader, here's a key thing about being a grown up adult person: when someone shows you that you're wrong about something, you admit it.  You also thank them for doing so, acknowledge your error in public and, where you can, correct it.  So on June 26 last year a very kind and helpful commenter on my Armarium Magnum blog picked up my "Ananus/Ananias" mistake and alerted me to it. Far from censoring his comment, screaming abuse at him, trying to pretend he was wrong, or posting attacks on him while deliberately misspelling his surname, I did what adults and professionals do.  I went and checked the evidence again, with careful reference to the Greek, found he was right and then thanked him.  I publicly acknowledged the error and its implications and I then amended my argument on the blog post in question and wherever else I had made it that I could find (though I'd forgotten the Ehrman blog comment and possibly some others).  

Because that, gentle reader, is how an adult and a gentleman handles such things: with honesty, grace, dignity and - above all - due humility.

But in contrast, let's look at another example of someone being shown they got something wrong.   Way back in 2010 I found myself on the Internet Movie Database, debating some people who had seen the 2009 Alejandro Amenábar movie Agora, which perpetuated a number of pseudo historical myths.  One of these was the idea that a Christian mob "destroyed the Great Library of Alexandria" - a Gibbonian fiction beloved of New Atheists. One of the people defending this myth - a certain "Valjean24601" - invoked the inevitable Richard Carrier, who had defended the idea that when Roman soldiers and a Christian mob dismantled the Temple of Serapis in Alexandria in 391 AD, they destroyed the last remnant of the Great Library in the process.  This is despite no mention of any library in any of the five accounts of the destruction of the Serapeum and an earlier mention of the library collection there using the past tense, indicating that it was no longer there when the temple was destroyed.

In invoking Carrier, this "Valjean24601" kept referring to Carrier's argument that the earlier reference to the Serapeum's library collection using the past tense (that of Ammianus) was "almost verbatim" what a still earlier account had said (that of Aulus Gellius).  Except when "Valjean24601" said this they kept writing the phrase as "almmost verbatum".  So in my responses to them I repeatedly quoted the phrase they used as "almmost verbatum" and added a "sic", hoping they would eventually get the hint.  They never did, but let's just say "Valjean24601" wasn't the brightest bulb on the tree.

Years later several of Carrier's minor minions began claiming he had caught me "lying".  When questioned about this by others, the minions were unable to substantiate their claim, but when pressed it seemed my vile crime was imputing a misspelling to Carrier via a horribly fraudulent "sic".  This terrible crime, apparently, meant my criticisms of Carrier could be wholly dismissed.  Or something.  But the fact they couldn't demonstrate that this dreadful injustice had occurred left many puzzled, though the assertion continued to be made despite this.

Then, on March 4 2014, the Little Master himself dismissed a criticism by me thus:

"O’Neil (sic)  is a documented liar ... although the thread in which he blatantly lied has been, so far as I know, removed, I have a screenshot of it in my files"

I was alerted to this claim and was certainly keen to finally learn what my "blatant lie" was, but I also seriously doubted that Carrier actually had a screenshot of a something said about him in a discussion in which he took no part four years before.  So I challenged him to produce this evidence of my "lie".  To my amazement, he did - here it is.

(Pause for a moment, gentle reader, and contemplate that.  Here is a person who is so obsessed with himself that he keeps files of screenshots of mere mentions of his name so that he can produce them years later if required.  This is narcissism taken to dizzying giddy heights.)

Anyway, by producing this evidence all Carrier had done was proven he'd made a mistake.  The quote - "almmost verbatum"  - was me quoting "Valjean25601" and using the misspelling they kept using, with the added "(sic)" just as a hint to them.  I also emphasised this by putting the correctly spelled word  - "verbatim" - in italics later in my post, also as a hint.  Read in context, all this was perfectly clear.  But Carrier assumes that everything has to be solely about him.

All this was explained to Carrier, along with other evidence that he had simply made a mistake.  It was so perfectly clear that he'd made an error that I commented to others at the time that surely even Carrier would have to admit the mistake or look like a fatuous boob.  But he never ceases to amaze.  He just pretended he was right and brazenly refused to admit even this tiny error.

But, as I've noted above, pathological narcissists can't ever admit they are wrong.  This is why when he was recently called out for mischaracterising the publishers of his book on Jesus as "Sheffield-Phoenix, the publishing house of the University of Sheffield (UK)", instead of admitting that they are nothing of the sort he quietly edited his blog post so that it now reads "Sheffield-Phoenix, a publishing house at the University of Sheffield (UK)".  And it's why when he was caught cheating on his now ex-wife Jennifer - the long-suffering woman who financially supported this dilettante while he indulged in his full-time hobbies -  he waved his Magic Wand of Sophistry +10 Against Reality and transformed this into him bravely "coming out" as polyamorous.  Because "brave polyamorous person" sounds better than "cheating parasite".  Carrier lives in a kind of Ptolemaic universe, where everything orbits perpetually around ... him.

Is "called Messiah" really an addition to Antiquities XX.200?

If Carrier's criticisms of my comment on Ehrman's blog had stopped with the "Ananus/Ananias" error, he would have at least had a solid point.  But I made two other criticisms of his position on the Antiquities XX mention of Jesus, so he pushes on to tackle those as well.  And here's where the wheels really start to wobble.  In his blog post he goes on:


"But O’Neil (sic) also goes on to lie, as he usually does, with his next accusation: that my theory of an interpolation “requires” Josephus to have forgotten to designate the patronymic at first mention of a new Jesus. This is a lie, because it omits the fact that in my article I propose the text in fact originally read “James the brother of Jesus ben Damneus” and the scribe, believing a dittographic error had occurred (from the following line that contained “Jesus ben Damneus”), transposed the marginal note “the one called Christ” into its place, believing that to be the intended correction."

I "lie" when I say this?  Could it be that I'm summarising a fairly complex point about why I find Carrier's article's attempts at justifying his contrived postulations about what was added and, perhaps, taken out unconvincing? It's worth examining those arguments in detail to see if that's a more rational conclusion than some smear about me "lying".


Firstly, in Carrier's article in the Journal of Early Christian Studies he argues that the phrase "who was called Messiah" is "exactly the kind of thing that a scholar or scribe would add as an interlinear note to remind himself and future readers that—so the scribe believed—the Jesus here mentioned is Jesus Christ, as we would do today with an informative footnote or marginal note." (Carrier, "Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200", Journal of Early Christian Studies, Volume 20, Number 4, Winter 2012 pp. 489-514, p. 495).  But is it "exactly the kind of thing" we'd find in such a note?  Carrier doesn't bother to actually argue this, he just asserts it.  No alternatives are explored, no argument is made why other possible kinds of notes are somehow less likely - we're simply told that this is the case.  No attempt is made to explain, for example, why this (supposedly) marginal note agrees grammatically with the (supposed) main text, with λεγομενου Χριστου in the genitive so it's in the same case as Ιησους.  Surely that alone argues against the idea that this phrase is a marginal or interlinear note, but Carrier doesn't bother to even address any alternative ideas - a characteristic of his writing.

Though he does address the structure of the phrase a little in his second argument as to why this element is not original to Josephus' text, when he claims the idea it's a later note to the text is supported by the fact that it's a "a participial clause — remarkable brevity for something that would sooner otherwise spark a digression or cross-reference, had Josephus actually written those words." (p. 495).  But, again, he doesn't support this idea by showing other examples of known marginal glosses or interlinear notes, nor does he interrogate it by showing that other uses of the present participle λεγόμενος ("called") in Josephus do spark "a digression or cross-reference".  In fact, if we look at how Josephus uses that verb elsewhere we find that it usually looks exactly like what we find in the Antiquities XX passage, with a quick reference to someone or something being "called" something and no digression, cross reference or even explanation as to why it was "called" this at all.  For example:

 " ... he should find them between Jerusalem and the ascent of Engedi, at a place called 'the Eminence', and that he should not fight against them."(Antiquities IX.11) 

" ... Pacorus left with Herod two hundred horsemen, and ten men, who were called 'the Freemen'..."(Antiquities XIV.342) 

"Jonathan and his colleagues .... raised a report of their own contrivance, that Roman horsemen were seen at a place called 'Union', in the borders of Galilee ... "(Life 54)

In all of these examples we see Josephus using forms of the participle λεγόμενος to briefly note what people or places are "called" with no digressions or cross references at all.   And there is an even closer parallel found in the same book as the James reference:

"As soon as the king heard this news, he gave the high priesthood to Joseph, who was called Cabi, son of Simon, formerly high priest."(Antiquities, XX.196)

So why didn't Carrier look at these and other similar usages of this kind of phrase and make an actual argument why they are not marginal glosses and the XX.200 one is?  Assertion is not argument.

But Carrier's article is very strong on unsupported assertions.  He goes on to claim:

" [W]e would certainly find here an explanation of why this Jesus was called “Christ,” what that word meant .... and why Josephus thought it important to mention either, since the passage as written leaves no stated reason why either Jesus or his moniker Christ is mentioned at all." (p. 496)

But he doesn't explain why we should "certainly" find this.  And, as the multiple examples above show, this is dead wrong anyway.  Josephus often referred to people and places and say they were "called" something without bothering to explain why or what the thing they were "called" meant.  The text we have in Antiquities XX.200 reads perfectly naturally without any such explanation - he says Jesus was the one "called Messiah" precisely because, a few lines later, he mentions a second Jesus, this one "son of Damneus" and he wants to differentiate between them.  Josephus does this consistently in passages where he mentions two different people with the same name, which is something (given the number of Jewish figures or Seleucid kings with common names in his narrative) he does often (more on this below).

Carrier's third argument as to why the phrase "who was called Messiah" is not original notes that the same phrase is found in Matt 1.16.  He admits that the phrase was "not impossible for Josephus to construct on his own" (p. 497), but he assures his readers with his usual blithe confidence that it's "far more probable" it came from a Christian hand.  Again, this is just asserted, with no exploration of examples of the use of the phrase του λεγομενου Χριστου in Christian writings apart from Matt 1.16 to support this claim of probability.  This is perhaps because there are very few. Origen refers to Jesus as being "called Christ" in Contra Celsum I.66 and IV.28, as does Justin Martyr in First Apology XXX.  Apart from these examples, Christian writers actually tended to assert Jesus was the Messiah rather than referring to him merely being "called" such in an abstract way, for obvious reasons.  So this construction is actually highly unusual for any Christian writer and so distinctly odd for Carrier's hypothesised glosser.  But, yet again, Carrier doesn't bother exploring any of this.

In this fourth argument Carrier says that the phrase could not be original to Josephus because the passage in Antiquities XX.200 says the Jews were outraged at the death of this James.  So, he argues, it's "inexplicable" and "makes little sense" that this outrage would be on the behalf a member of a sect that was both "hated" and "illegal" and so this James can't be any Christian and must be someone else.  There are multiple problems with this argument.  To begin with, we have very little idea how "hated" the Jesus sect was in the 60s AD or even how distinct a "sect" it was within the Judaism of the time.  Even Acts, written some decades later and with the polemical purpose of showing the Jesus sect to be persecuted by the Jewish authorities, depicts its members preaching openly, teaching in the Temple itself, taking part in Jewish rituals there and being defended by at least some of the Sanhedrin.  The idea that the sect was actually "illegal" is even more difficult to defend since while the author of Acts plays up the afflictions of the Christians at the hands of the Jewish authorities, not even he claims they were anything but occasionally censured.

But leaving these unsubstantiated claims about Christians being "hated" and their sect being "illegal" aside, we can still read the reported outrage as making sense if this James was indeed a Christian.  After all, Josephus says that the action against Ananus was taken by "the most equitable of the citizens, and such as were the most uneasy at the breach of the laws" because "they disliked what was done".  So the text tells us that it was the "breach of the laws" that was the problem for these equitable citizens and even if the Jesus sect was "hated" or even "illegal", it's still perfectly reasonable that "equitable citizens" would object to them being treated in a way that was itself illegal.  Especially if some of these citizens also had a political beef with the High Priest and wanted a way to remove him.  So the text makes perfect sense as it stands.

Finally, Carrier claims the mention of the death of this James in Antiquities XX.200 "does not agree with any other account of the death of James the brother of Christ" (p. 497).  Here he is referring mainly to the only substantial account we have, that found in one of the fragments of Hegesippus.  But it's hard to tell why we should expect a passing mention of an execution that has few details at all, as we find in Josephus , to have much "agreement" with a detailed account, as we find in Hegesippus - there's simply not much in Josephus to overlay with Hegesippus.  Nor should we be surprised that Josephus' terse and fairly neutral account might be different in many respects to Hegesippus' florid Christian hagiography.  Nor would it be at all surprising that we would find some difference between the brief account by a citizen of Jerusalem who was 25 at the time and most likely in the city when the execution and its political aftermath occurred and that of a Christian chronicler who was born almost a century after the event was was writing up to half a century later again. 

Carrier concludes his five arguments for thinking that the "who was called the Messiah" is not original to Josephus' text by noting they are "not a conclusive proof" and admitting "[o]ne can advance explanations on all counts. The issue then becomes which explanation is the most probable".  And at this point the reader would expect him to examine that issue and look at the relative value of the alternative explanations, particularly if that reader is aware of some of the many problems with Carrier's arguments noted above.  But Carrier goes on "I will not delve any further into that debate" (p. 498).  Really?  How convenient.  Perhaps he was aware that such "delving" into alternative readings would expose his arguments' many flaws.  Once again, Carrier is better at shifty polemics than thorough and exacting scholarly analysis.  He has a point to get to and he doesn't want pesky things like alternative interpretations to distract from his pushing on to reach it.

So what about the supposed removal of an original phrase?

As we've seen, all five of Carrier's arguments for the phrase "who was called Messiah" as an interpolation have serious flaws and, despite his considerable efforts to make it appear otherwise, his overall case is weak. But it gets worse.  Because he not only has to argue that this phrase was a latter addition by a Christian scribe (via a hypothetical marginal note), he also has to come up with a way an original phrase that identified this Jesus as "son of Damneus" got removed and the supposed marginal note - "called the Messiah" - got put in its place.  The way he does this is contrived in the extreme:

"In fact, the text may have originally said, “the brother of Jesus ben Damneus, the name for whom was James, and some others.” Since “Jesus ben Damneus” appears again a few lines later (and as I have argued, it is more likely that Josephus actually meant this Jesus), a scribe who saw a marginal note “who was called Christ” (τοῦ λεγομένου Χριστοῦ) scribbled above “ben Damneus” (τὸν τοῦ Δαμναίου), regardless of how or why it came to be written there, may have inferred a dittography. This is a common scribal error where a copyist’s eye slips to a similar line a few lines down (by mistaking which “Jesus” he had left off at), then realizes he had picked up at the wrong place, but corrected himself and then wrote a superlinear phrase intended to replace the erroneous material. A later copyist would then interpret the earlier copyist’s correction as calling for the erasure of “ben Damneus” as a dittograph, omit the words, and replace it with the gloss, “who was called Christ.” " (p. 512)

Got all that?  So Carrier's thesis involves using his flawed five arguments against the authenticity of the "who was called Messiah" phrase, then the supposition that this was a marginal note and then this further supposition where another scribe erases the original "son of Damneus" and replaces it with "who was called Messiah". And he then pours scorn on me for not finding this tangle of contrived hypotheticals more than an ad hoc "just so story" confected to explain this passage away!

And note the word "may" in the first sentence of his thicket of suppositions above.  This whole idea of not just the scribal insertion of a marginal note, but the removal of an earlier identifier of this Jesus as "son of Damneus" is hurried into a dense paragraph on the second last page of Carrier's 25 page article, and it's qualified by a word that suggests this may or may not have happened.  Yet in his scornful blog post he is nowhere near this circumspect.  After a brief summary of his convoluted suppositions-piled-on-suppositions reconstruction of scribal additions and removals above he says:


"Thus, in no way does my 'contrived ad hoc work around' require proposing Josephus left that out. "

But this is undercut by that word "may" in his article, where he is forced to admit that this reconstruction is only a possibility and it may not have happened at all.  It seems Richard Carrier the writer of peer reviewed articles is much more careful about such things than the blogger Richard Carrier, who only has to perform for the peanut gallery of his deeply uncritical and gormless blog fans. I suppose it was a safe bet on his part that none of them would bother to go to read his article and see that the key point in the argument he claims I "lied" about was actually just a jumbled "maybe" crammed into one of the final paragraphs.

How Josephus uses identifying appellations

If Carrier's mere "maybe" isn't what happened, then his whole argument is - as I say in my comment on Ehrman's blog - in contradiction to the way Josephus identifies people via adding appellations to their name.  Nowhere in any of his works that I can find does Josephus refer to someone by their name alone when introducing them to his narrative for the first time (e.g. "James") and then refer to them by their name and an appellation a few sentences later (e.g. "James, son of Damneus").  For the very obvious reason that this would be highly confusing.

So it seems that Carrier's tangled alternative - the contrived one involving suppositions piled on suppositions and multiple imaginary scribes, which dangles by the slender thread of that little word "may" and is rushed into a contorted paragraph at the very end of his article - is critical to keeping his whole argument from collapsing.

Except this requires Josephus to do something else he seems to never do: use an appellation when introducing someone to the narrative and then use it again when mentioning them a few sentences later.  Here are some examples of Josephus introducing a person to his account and using patronymic appellations to identify them:

"And now King Agrippa took the [high] priesthood away from Simon Cantheras, and put Jonathan, the son of Ananus, into it again and owned that he was more worthy of the dignity than the other." (Antiquities, XIX.313)

Then five sentences later he refers to this Jonathan again (XIX.316).  Does he call him "Jonathan, the son of Ananus" this second time?  No, he simply calls him "Jonathan".  Here is a second example; one which was referred to on another point above:


"As soon as the king heard this news, he gave the high priesthood to Joseph, who was called Cabi, the son of Simon, formerly high priest." (Antiquities, XX.196)

A sentence later he refers to this Joseph again, but not as "Joseph, who was called Cabi" or as "Joseph, the son of Simon".  He simply calls him "Joseph".  We see the same pattern where Josephus refers to two people.  First he names them and identifies them with patronymics:


"There was one Judas, the son of Saripheus, and Matthias, the son of Margalothus, two of the most eloquent men among the Jews, and the most celebrated interpreters of the Jewish laws, and men well beloved by the people, because of their education of their youth; for all those that were studious of virtue frequented their lectures every day." (Antiquities, XVII.149)

Then a few lines later he refers to them again.  Again, he doesn't call them "the son of Saripheus" or "the son of Margalothus".  He simply calls them "Judas and Matthias" (XVII.151) and refers to them again this way at XVII.157.  Yet another example:


"The like accident befell Glaphyra his wife, who was the daughter of king Archelaus, who, as I said before, was married, while she was a virgin, to Alexander, the son of Herod, and brother of Archelaus." (Antiquities, XVII.349)

Again, in the following lines Alexander is simply called "Alexander" (XVII.350) and the appellation "the son of Herod" is not repeated.

There are many more examples, but it should be clear this pattern seems consistent.  Given this consistency, there is a critical problem with the idea that Josephus called this James "the son of Damneus" at XX.200 and this was removed later due to some confusion over him repeating that identifier some lines later at XX.203.  This doesn't seem to fit with the way Josephus identifies and refers to figures in his narrative.  So are there any circumstances in which he does repeat an identifier that he has used a little earlier in the same passage?

As it turns out, there are. Though unfortunately for Carrier they don't support his argument - quite the opposite.  

Like the various high priests, the Hasmonean rulers in Josephus' history tend to share a number of personal names in common, so - again - he uses patronyms to differentiate between them.  For example in Book XIV of Antiquities he refers to "Alexander, the son of Aristobulus" many times and once again we see the pattern noted above: he uses the patronymic appellation the first time this Alexander is mentioned and then in the immediately subsequent narrative refers to him simply as "Alexander", given that he's already identified who he means:

"Some time after this, when Alexander, the son of Aristobulus, made an incursion into Judea, Gabinius came from Rome into Syria, as commander of the Roman forces. He did many considerable actions; and particularly made war with Alexander, since Hyrcanus was not yet able to oppose his power, but was already attempting to rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, which Pompey had overthrown, although the Romans which were there restrained him from that his design." (Antiquities, XIV.82-83)

He goes on to refer to him simply as "Alexander" a further five times in the subsequent account: once more at XIV.83 and then XIV.84, XIV.85, XIV.89 and XIV.90.  He then moves on to a different anecdote about Aristobulus, so when he returns to Alexander he again calls him "Alexander, son  of Aristobulus" (XIV.100) and then refers to him again simply as "Alexander" the next time he is mentioned in the new anecdote (XIV.102).  We see the same thing further on in Book XIV - he moves onto other topics to do with Crassus and the Temple treasure before turning back to mention Alexander's death, whereupon he is referred to as "Alexander, the son of Aristobulus" once more (XIV.125).

The next section of his narrative concerns the activities of Julius Caesar in the east and two more Alexanders are mentioned, so Josephus is careful to differentiate them from Alexander son of Aristobulus by referring to them as "Alexander, son of Jason" and "Alexander, the son of Dositheus" (XIV.146).  The daughter of "Alexander, the son of Aristobulus" is mentioned at XIV.300, so Josephus is careful to call him that, especially since a further Alexander is mentioned at XIV.307, who in turn is designated "Alexander, the son of Theodorus".

So here we see a wider pattern where Josephus uses an identifying appellation when a figure with a common name is (i) introduced to an anecdote he is relating, (ii) is re-introduced at a later point after other narrative anecdotes have been related and (iii) when there are others with the same name being referred to in the same part of the narrative or soon after it.

If we take this and look once again at XX.200-203 we can see that a "Jesus" is mentioned at XX.200.  According to Carrier's "maybe", this is "Jesus, son of Damneus" and so the original text would have designated him as such here, with this being removed and then replaced by the alleged marginal note "who was called Messiah" by Carrier's complex series of hypothetical scribal emendations.  But then we get a "Jesus, the son of Damneus" mentioned at XX.203.  Which for Carrier's "maybe" to work means Josephus called him this twice within a couple of sentences.  But as we've seen, this was not Josephus' practice.  He does not repeat this kind of appellation unless he moves on to a new anecdote in this narrative or there is another figure with the same name in the narrative and he needs to differentiate between them.

This means he would have referred to "Jesus, the son of Damneus" at XX.200, but just used "Jesus" the next time this person is mentioned at XX.203.  And that means there would be no second "the son of Damneus" to imply a dittograph to the second of Carrier's hypothetical scribes. So his whole contrivance collapses.

If Josephus wanted to emphasise that the "Jesus" of XX.200 was the same one at XX.203 he would have used methods we see him use elsewhere.  For example:


"At length Zamaris the Babylonian, to whom Herod had given that country for a possession, died, having lived virtuously, and left children of a good character behind him; one of whom was Jacim, who was famous for his valor, and taught his Babylonians how to ride their horses; and a troop of them were guards to the forementioned kings." (Antiquities, XVII.29)

Or again:


"Now he and his posterity, who were in all fifteen, until king Antiochus Eupator, were under a democratical government for four hundred and fourteen years; and then the forementioned Antiochus, and Lysias the general of his army, deprived Onias, who was also called Menelaus, of the high priesthood, and slew him at Berea." (Antiquities, XX.234-35)

But he doesn't do this in XX.200-203.  The most likely conclusion then is to read the text as we have it (especially since Carrier's five arguments for "called Messiah" as an interpolation are so weak) and see the reference to "Jesus, who was called Messiah" at 200 and "Jesus, the son of Damneus" to be what Josephus does consistently when referring to different figures with the same name - identifying appellations that differentiate between two different people with the same name.  In other words, we should read the passage as virtually every Josephan scholar on the planet does, because it makes the most sense that way.  Occam's razor slices Carrier's contrived nonsense to ribbons.

GakuseiDon calls Carrier's Bluff

But here is where Carrier's post careens completely off the rails.  The final criticism I made of his article in my comment on Ehrman's blog was this:


"Finally there’s his blithe dismissal of the three verbatim quotes of the key “Jesus who was called Messiah” phrase by Origen on the grounds that Origen was somehow confusing Josephus with Hegesippus. Carrier claims this by saying what Origen claims Josephus “says” about the death of James can’t actually be found in Josephus. But Origen was an exegete, not a historian, and often claims his sources “say” things that aren’t there: he reads his exegesis into his material. Reading the passages in Josephus following Ant. XX.9.1 in this light shows how Origen definitely could have read the trope of “the fall of Jerusalem as punishment for the execution of James” into the text, as detailed by Waturu Mizagaki, “Origen and Josephus” in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity (L.H. Feldman, G. Hata eds, Wayne State University Press, 1987) pp. 325-337). Oddly for a peer reviewed article, neither this key piece of research on Origen’s use of Josephus nor Feldman and Hata’s highly relevant collection of articles is anywhere to be found in Carrier’s footnotes."

As we've seen, Carrier has a habit of not exploring or even completely ignoring alternatives to the theory he's peddling.  That's not unusual for a polemicist blogger with an ideological  axe to grind, especially one who is used to writing for a fawning and generally clueless audience that adds new dimensions to the word "uncritical".  For someone with pretensions to the title of "scholar", however, it's extremely sloppy.  The idea that Origen was reading his Christian exegesis into Josephus and so seeing things in the text that aren't actually there is a powerful alternative to the far more contrived explanation Carrier presents, yet he doesn't bother to even acknowledge it.  So how did Carrier deal with this criticism?  Bizarrely:

"No such argument is in Waturu Mizagaki, ‘Origen and Josephus’ in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity.
Ooops.
Literally. Mizagaki never argues for such a thing. At all. Much less in any “detailed” way."

Pause there for a moment, gentle reader, and ponder this.  I note an alternative argument to the one Carrier presents, criticise him for not accounting for it and, in doing so cite a specific paper in a specific collection, right down to the page references.  And Carrier responds that the argument I refer to so specifically is ... simply not there.  Even more weirdly, he then calls my citation of Mizagaki a "libel" (I've yet to hear from Mizagaki's lawyers).  Even someone who has not read Mizagaki's article would find themselves wondering why, if I was simply making this up, would I cite the article in such detail and leave myself wide open for anyone to check the article in question and see that there is "no such argument"?

And at least one reader did wonder just this.  "GakuseiDon", a very fair and well-read commentator on a range of historical Jesus issues around the Web, picked up on this in a post on Peter Kirby's Biblical Criticism and History board

"Now, because from experience I don't trust Carrier's use of his references, I looked up the reference to Mizagaki in Josephus, Judaism and Christianity. As Carrier notes, we find on p. 336 Mizagaki discussing the execution of James in Josephus with the following (my bolding below): 

'Origen does use Josephus' historical explanation of the fall of Jerusalem but expands it. Origen tries to find the real cause of the fall in Jesus Christ's death on the cross. Here Josephus' historical account is theologically interpreted. At this point, Origen's approach is by no means historical. He evaluates and employs Josephus' historical material within certain limitations. But even in this case Origen uses Josephus' historical material only for his theological purpose. To him, the fall of Jerusalem is an incident important within the framework of God's redemptive plan, which has to be related to Jesus' crucifixion. As we have seen, this applies also to Fragmenta in Lamentationes. Josephus' historical account, which has an apologetic trait, is incorporated by Origen in his history of theology, which has the identical trait. Such an attempt of Origen anticipates the "theology of history" that is vastly constructed by Augustine in De civitate Dei.' 

It seems to me that Mizagaki does indeed detail how Origen could have read the trope of the fall of Jerusalem as punishment for the execution of James into the text, exactly as O'Neill states. Carrier is right in that Mizagaki doesn't explicitly write that "this is the correct explanation", but it certainly reads that way. However Carrier is wrong to describe this as Mizagaki "simply describes what Origen says". There is more to it than that. Mizagaki points out that Origen is theologically interpreting Josephus' historical account, and thus shows how Origen sees Josephus providing the 'evidence' that the death of James led to the fall of Jerusalem."


GakuseiDon is absolutely right.  He asked the other posters on that board if he was somehow misreading Mizagaki and, despite it having a heavy population of Mythicists who usually rush to defend Carrier, he was met with ... silence.  Anyone can see from the quote GakuseiDon gives that Mizagaki does not simply describe "what Origen says", but makes a clear argument that Origen's reading was "by no means historical" and that he read his belief in "God's redemptive plan" into the passages from Josephus to which he refers.  And the quote from page 336 is not some passing observation - it represents the final eight sentences of his article.  In other words, it's the conclusion to what he has been arguing, drawing on other examples of where Origen claims Josephus "says" something that Josephus does not "say" at all.

So what on earth do we make of Carrier's bizarre claims that Mizagaki does't "argue [this] in any 'detailed' way", when anyone who bothers to read the article can see that is precisely what he does do?  What do we make of his equally weird claim that Mizagaki does not make a case for this idea being correct when his clear statement to that effect forms the final paragraph of his article?  What do we make of Carrier's claim that my noting what Mizagaki says in an article anyone can look up is somehow "libel"?

GakuseiDon is a nice guy, so his mild observation is "Dr Carrier seems to have misread O'Neill, Mizagaki, or both."  That's a very charitable interpretation.  A more plausible one is that Carrier was hoping that if he blustered and strutted and posted cocky little bursts of bombast enough he could bluff his way out of the fact that he'd done exactly what I'd said - not bothered to take account of a clear and much more parsimonious alternative to his thesis.  Or at least he was hoping that his peanut gallery of acolytes would accept his bluster as true and not bother a check things properly.  A pretty safe bet, as it happens.  

Of course, there is a word for that kind of falsehood.

But not content with this, Carrier pushes on to more cocky bluster:


"What’s weird is that the very next chapter in that same book, after Mizagaki’s completely irrelevant chapter that contains no such argument as O’Neil (sic) claims, is specifically on the martyrdom of James, by Zvi Baras. He discusses the passage in question on pp. 341-46. Five whole pages! Know what he says? That Origen’s claim that Josephus credited the fall of Jerusalem to the murder of this James is “a statement not supported by the text reproduced above or by any other extant version.” Done."

Done?  Well, no actually.  So he wades in deeper:


"Baras goes on to agree with me that Origen can only be confused. Josephus never said any such thing. Baras also mentions the theory that Origen confused Josephus and Hegesippus (the very theory I defend), and offers only one argument against it (that Origen would never make such a mistake)."

Given Carrier's blatant misrepresentation of Mizagaki above, our friend GakuseiDon smelled a rat here as well, so in a second post he went and checked Zvi Baras' article.  And lo and behold, what did he find?:


"So I go back to Josephus, Judaism and Christianity, and I find Baras' statement here (my bolding below): 

In the hands of Origen and Eusebius, this incident, defined as "the martyrdom of James," became, through Christian historiosophical interpretation, the main cause for the destruction of Jerusalem and of the Temple. Moreover, they went so far as to say that Josephus regarded this catastrophe as just punishment for the execution of James--a statement not supported by the text reproduced above or by any other extant version. But Origen did not stop there; he not only attributed to Josephus a statement unknown to us from any other source or version but also "corrected" Josephus' alleged statement in a way favorable to the Christian historiosophical point of view. 

The text that is reproduced above by Baras is the passage in Josephus concerning the trial and death of James. That the text in question does not support that the destruction of Jerusalem was in consequence of the execution of James is not controversial. So what is Carrier's "Done" comment in relation to? I have no idea how that helps him. I suspect that he thinks that Baras means there is nothing in Josephus at all to support Origen's reading, but that is wrong, since Baras later claims to find where Origen gets this idea from Josephus (see below)."


Once again, GakuseiDon is correct.  Baras is simply noting what everyone agrees: that what Origen claims Josephus "said" is not in Josephus.  But his next statement, ignored by Carrier, is that what Origen is doing is "correcting" what Josephus should have said to conform with Christian "historiosophy".  In other words, he is saying exactly what Mizagaki argues in his article: that Origen is reading exegesis into Josephus and seeing things that are not there.

GakuseiDon continues by quoting Carrier's next bit of bluster, where he claims "Baras makes no argument. He just states an assertion. And peer reviewers do not require us to cite undefended assertions."  But GakuseiDon notes that this too is nonsense:


"But Baras does make an argument. He argues contra Carrier that it is unlikely that Origen would mistake Josephus for Hegesippus. And he does believe that Origen derived his view from Josephus. Baras writes on page 344: 

In fact, I believe that we can now point to a specific place, or incident, in Josephus' own writings--unnoticed so far by scholars in this context--which led Origen to say that Josephus should have corrected his historical interpretation. 

For those interested, the full text of Baras' article on Origen and the death of James can be found on Google books .... You can decide for yourself how accurate Carrier is in his references to Mizagaki and Baras. Personally I have found him wrong or inaccurate too many times, so user beware!"


User beware indeed.  As for Carrier's weak defence that "peer reviewers do not require us to cite undefended assertions", proper scholarship does require you to be able to follow a footnote.  On p. 343 Baras dismisses the idea that Origen confused Hegesippus with Josephus and then says:


"I have already pointed out elsewhere that it seems more likely that the sequential events (hoc post hoc) in Hegesippus - namely, James' martyrdom and the siege - became for Origen causal events (hoc propter hoc)."

Footnote 33 then directs readers, or ones more careful than Carrier at least, to Baras' appendix in Society and Religion in the Second Temple Period, ed. Michael Avi-Yonah and Zvi Baras, 1977 where he does indeed make this argument (pp. 308-313).  Can't the great Dr Richard Carrier, PhD (who has, if you weren't aware gentle reader, a doctorate) follow a simple footnote?  

So as GakuseiDon says, "user beware".  Carrier is good at bluster and cocky bluffing but when you check his claims against the material under discussion you often find he .... well, he lies.

Polyamorous Ukulele Guy

It seems that Carrier thinks he can get away with this stuff because, like most deluded narcissists, he genuinely believes his own bullshit.  Only someone who did so could end an academic article for a peer reviewed journal with this level of bombastic fatuousness:


"The significance of this finding is manifold, but principally it removes this passage from the body of reliable evidence for the fate of Jesus’ family, the treatment of Christians in the first century, or Josephus’s attitude toward or knowledge of Christians. Likewise, future commentaries on the relevant texts of Origen and Josephus must take this finding into account, as must any treatments of the evidence for the historical Jesus. Most pressingly, all reference works that treat “James the brother of Jesus” must be emended to reflect this finding, particularly as this passage is the only evidence by which a date for this James’ death has been derived." (Carrier, "Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200", p. 514)

When that pyrotechnic display of immature pomposity was brought to Bart Ehrman's attention at the time he commented wryly, "No timidity there!"  But when I mocked it in my comment on Ehrman's blog Carrier of course sprang nimbly to his own defence:


"This is quite funny. Because it proves O’Neil (sic) is an amateur. Many journals require us to write these statements. And indeed this was one such case: the article I submitted had no such section. The peer reviewers insisted that I write it. To oblige them, I did."

Actually, this poor amateur is quite aware that articles often end with a summation of the potential significance of the argument's conclusion and that a reviewer or editor would suggest one if needed.  But the idea that it's normal for such a conclusion to declare that all future comment on the relevant texts need to take this obscure paper by a nobody into account and all reference works need to amended to "reflect this finding" is simply hilarious.  Most actual scholars, at the very least, pretend to some kind of modesty and humility.  Luckily for us he stopped short of ordering that heralds with trumpets of silver declare his genius from every street corner while he rides through all the land in a gilded chariot wearing a laurel crown and all other scholars bow low as he passes.  Perhaps that part was removed by the editor.

This is, remember, a guy who wasted the critical years after his graduation indulging in his hobbies (supported by his long-suffering wife) and so failed to secure any significant academic appointment.  A guy whose H-index rating is in the toilet.  And a guy who wrote that ringing endorsement of his own paper above four years ago and has since seen it cited by ... ummm, well, no-one.  As Carrier would say, "Ooops!"

But if anyone thinks I have been uncharitable to Carrier in this post, I can assure you that I am quite the opposite.  Literally.  You see, as I mentioned above, Carrier has separated from his wife Jenn after cheating on her and so cut himself off from his former gravy train.  So it seems his main sources of income are speaking fees at various atheist and skeptics gatherings and sponsorship via the Patreon crowd-funding site.  And it appears things aren't going so well for him.

His Patreon page tells us that he has luckily "escaped the interdepartmental politics and tanking fortunes of the formal academy to write independently and pursue his interests as an educator, activist, historian, and philosopher", which is a dizzying spin on "I've failed to get an actual academic job".  He also formerly listed his annual income there, which was shockingly low.  So being a kindly and noble sort of humanist, I have become a patron of Dr Richard Carrier, PhD (who has a doctorate).  It would be cruel to see the poor little chap waste away.

And it appears I've done so in the very nick of time!  Carrier, who has in recent years hitched himself to the bandwagon of "Atheism +" - a social justice advocacy sub-movement aimed at "countering misogyny, racism, homo/bi/transphobia, ableism and other such bigotry inside and outside of the atheist community" - has been an outspoken critic of sexism and sexual harassment in atheist circles.  He led the torches-and-pitchforks brigade against skeptic Michael Shermer when the latter was accused of sexual harassment and sexual assault at various skeptics events, writing another of his inventively titled posts, "Michael Shermer: Rapist or Sleaze? (Unless Box Checked for Other)".  In it he maintains a zero tolerance approach to those who are accused of such behaviour in the name if the principles of "Atheism +".

So many have noted the profound irony that it is now Carrier himself who has been accused of being a serial sexual harasser.  As a result, he's been banned as speaker from the Skepticon convention and has had his blog at FreethoughtBlogs suspended.

Thus it's the least I can do, given my highly successful career, extremely good income and more than comfortable lifestyle, to help out a man in need.  Apparently he is going to fight the harassment allegations in court and is no doubt assembling the best crack team of razor-sharp legal minds that a guy who barely clears $25k a year can afford.  And perhaps if he has some money left over from that he can buy himself a ukulele and go to a party to hang out with younger women.  He could probably do with some relaxation about now, poor little fellow.