Tuesday, January 26, 2010

AD 1200

At some point in the mid or late 1970's I read the novel Marathon Manby William Goldman. I don't know whether I read the novel before or after the movieof the same name was released in 1976, starring Dustin Hoffman, Lawrence Olivier, Roy Scheider and William Devane. In any case, I read the book before I saw the movie. I'm pretty sure I read it before 1978. Let's say I read it in 1977. What else happened in 1977? The Shah still ruled in Iran. Jimmy Carter was inaguarated as President and began the diplomatic efforts which would lead to the Camp David peace accords, and a Nobel Peace Peize shared by Prseident Sadat and Prime Minister Begin, the following year. Annie Hall was released. Jackson Browne's album Running on Emptywas released, and Paul Simon's Greatest Hits, Etc.,and the debut albums by The Clashand Elvis Costello.

I'm brainstorming here, trying to think of all the events from 1977 that I can, in order to flesh out the date, make it something with more depth and richness than a mere number. The title character of Marathon Man did this with some date. He was an avid amateur runner, he idolized great marathoners of the past and wished to emulate them, although he himself had not yet run a marathon. He was insecure about his running ability. He was much more confident in his ability as an historian. He was working on a doctorate at Columbia. It was hard to tell how accurate his opinion of his own strengths and weaknesses were, as the story was told strictly from his point of view. It's hard for a person to know what he or she does well or poorly. Grades and races and prizes and reviews and other measures of success sometimes help us out with our estimations of ourselves. Sometimes they don't.

I have no idea whether Goldman had any accurate idea of how an historian went about his or her work. Still, I picked up the habit of brainstorming for events for a specific date from his fictional historian protagonist, and have found it very useful.

I also picked up the sarcastic sentence "Give the genius a box of fucking Mars bars" from the same fictional doctoral candidate, his bitter reply to someone trying to console hom over the recent and violent death of a loved one. Some phrases, like that one, just stick in my mind and I love them and quote them over and over. Not always with attribution. But if I've ever insulted you by saying "Give the genius a box of fucking Mars bars!" when you were trying to help me out with some insight or piece of information, now you know where I got it. And: sorry about that.

What was going on in AD 1200?

The Crusaders had lost Jerusalem to the Turks a few years previously, after holding it from 1099 to 1187; it would be a few more years before the Fourth Crusade would wrest Constantinople from the Byzantines, sack it savagely, and set up an entity based there known as the "Latin Empire," which was quite small as empires go, and would not outlast the 13th century. Francis of Assisi was a teenager, a Francophile quite enthusiastic about troubadours, and not yet a monk. Dominic of Osma had been a monk for a few years and had given away his posessions, but had not yet founded the Dominican order. The Fransican Roger Baconand the Dominican Thomas Aquinaswould not be born for a few years yet. The great Moslem scholar Averroes,whose writings were to have such a huge impact upon the philosophy of Bacon, Aquinas and so many other 13th century philosophers, Western and otherwise, had died in 1198. Albertus Magnus,Aquinas' mentor, may have been as old as 7, or he may not have been born for another 6 years, we aren't sure.

The troubadours were very popular in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal, and the Minnesang, inspired by the troubadour phenomenon, was flourishing in Germany. Use of written French was already quite widespread; other vernacular languages were not not written very much, apart from troubadour songs, Minnesang and courtly romances. French was the only written vernacular which had began to challenge the dominance of Latin in Western Europe.

Marco Polo wouldn't be born for another half-century. Western European exploration of lands they considered exotic was still pretty much confined to the Mediterranean and the Holy Land.

Genghis Khan was 38 years old and had gone far in his efforts to unify the Mongol tribes in Central Asia, but had not yet begun upon his great wars of conquest of other nations. The Song dynasty ruled in China, the Sultanate of Khwarezm in Iran, the Ghurid Sultanate in northern India.

In the Americas the Mayans were centuries past their political and cultural height, the Incan empire and the forerunners of that of the Aztecs were just coming to be. Scholars debate whether there was already an Iroquois League. Most theorize that it would not come to be for over two centuries.

I don't really know squat about pre-Columbian societies. I know far less than squat about Africa.

I don't know a concise and convincing answer if someone were to read this essay and ask me why he or she should care about any of this. I think that about the best I could do would be to say that I had a lot of fun writing this, and that I hope it was of some interest to you. If not, I'm sorry, really I am. Ideally, you the reader are now stimulated to delve into research about all of these things brought together by their proximity to the date AD, 1200, as I am. That's the effect at which I aimed.

Sunday, January 10, 2010


As I mentioned in previous posts, "minimalism" is a term used used in Biblical archaeology to describe someone who ascribes a later date to the writing of the Old Testament, while a "maximalist" ascribes an earlier date. Maximalists also ascribe more historical accuracy to the Old Testament. Regarding Moses as an historical figure is somewhat maximalist. Regarding Abraham as an historical figure is very maximalist.

Simcha Jacobovici, also known, at least on the History Channels, as the Naked Archaeologist, is certainly no Minimalist. I believe he goes too far in the other direction, putting much too much faith in the historical accuracy of both the Old and New Testaments.

A few thoughts about Jacobovici. First of all, is it just me or is it kind of creepy of him to call himself the Naked Archaeologist? I for one do not enjoy picturing him naked.

Maybe that's just me. So much for the "naked" part, now let us come to the "archaeologist" part. According to Wiki, "[...]he holds a B.A. in Philosophy from McGill University and an M.A. in International Relations from the University of Toronto." No archaeology degrees, it seems, but I should be the last person to dismiss a person on the grounds of the lack of academic credentials. It's not as deceptive as Dr Laura and Dr Phil calling themselves doctors. "Doctor" refers to a specific credential, "archaeologist" refers to a profession.

Still, the question remains, just as if would in the case of someone who happened to hold a Doctorate in archaeology: how seriously can Jacobovici be taken as an archaeologist? It appears that other archaeologists do not always regard him as one of their own. In the "Naked Archaeologist" program on the so-called (by Jacobovici and others) James ossuary on the History Channels, there was a scene where Jacobovici met with Israel Finkelstein, who is one of the most highly-regarded Biblical archaeologists in the world. Finkelstein would be placed in the minimalist camp by some, but he's far from the most minimal there's ever been.

Jacobovici regards the Jesus family tomb to be exactly that, or at the very least that a very solid claim can be made that it is the tomb of the Jesus of Nazareth of the New Testament, and his family, and that the James ossuary contains the bones of James, brother of Jesus, because there is an inscription on the side of it which states exactly that. Jacobovici co-wrote a bestselling book entitled The Jesus Family Tomb: The Evidence Behind the Discovery No One Wanted to Find. (Oh, by the way -- these academics who don't want sensational finds to be found? They don't exist. A book title like that should set off your BS detector right away.) With a foreword by... James Cameron. Yes, the director of Aliens and Titanic and Avatar, that James Cameron. No forewords by any archaeologists.

Most archaeologists, on the other hand, including Israel Finkelstein, regard the James ossuary to be a hoax, and are of the opinion that there is no serious reason, nada, none, to suspect that the Jesus family tomb has anything to do with the New Testament Jesus.

So anyway, on the Naked Archaeologist episode about the "James Ossuary," there was a brief scene where Jacobovici sat down with Finkelstein to discuss to discuss the James ossuary. Finkelstein stated his opinion that by far the most likely explanation for the existence of the ossuary in its present state was that someone had taken an ancient ossuary and carved a misleading inscription on its side in order to make a lot of money. Jacobovici stated his opinion that by far the most likely explanation was that the ossuary had been found as is. And then there was a very striking moment when they both fell silent, and each looked at the other with a look which seemed to say, "There's no reasoning with this joker."

As you may have guessed, I'm with Finkelstein on this one. I think that Jacobovici is to archaeology, and the History Channels are to informative nonfictional broadcasting, what Dan Brown is to the study of history: a huge impediment and source of confusion and misinformation.

When it comes to the Jesus family tomb and the James ossuary, if one has no information except for Jacobovici's episode of "The Naked Archaeologist" -- in which Jacobovici talks very little with archaeologists, and mostly with dealers in Biblical antiquities, who naturally make more money the more that people believe in the authenticity of alleged Biblical relics in general -- one may have gotten the impression that these artifacts represent a breakthrough in archaeology and may represents a tangible physical link to the family of Jesus. If one reads actual archaeologists on the subject of the Jesus family tomb and the James ossuary, one finds a lot claims that Jacobovici sensationalizes, oversimplifies, distorts, misquotes and generally annoys.

Naturally, the only plausible explanation for this is that all the other archaeologists want to be rich, famous documentary filmmakers and pal around with James Cameron, and so they lash out in impotent envious rage. OW! OW! MY EYES! OH. Oh dear, just gave myself a near-fatal case of eyeroll there.

What Happened?

There are some fanatical anti-Islam extremists who draw all sorts of extreme and fanatical conclusions from the meeting of the Mufti and Hitler -- or perhaps it's more accurate to say: from this picture

of the two. I wonder if the whole brouhaha would ever have developed if they didn't have this photo which they can whip out in lieu of this or that argument. I mean, lots of people met with Hitler, but it seems that not every one had or her picture taken with him.

Maybe I shouldn't extrapolate too much from my own stoopid Internet debating experience: I wasted a lot of time online arguing with one person in particular who had all sorts of extreme anti-religious beliefs. I'm an atheist myself, but that doesn't mean that I stop talking to someone and condemn then if they're not atheistic, or assign all of the blame for every problem I ever become aware of to religion.

This guy did. I would describe his attitude toward Islam as a medieval Western one, except that that would be unfair to some medieval Westerners. Anyway, more than a few of his posts in our debate would consist of that picture, as if that picture ended all reasonable debate.

He was also Mr. Judaism-was-invented-no-earlier-than-300-BC. And an anti-Mason conspiracy "theorist," in quotes so as not to insult by association those people who have actually theorized about things. He would scour the web looking for anti-Muslim, anti-Catholic, anti-Mason and radical Minimalist material, (Minimalist as the term is understood in biblical studies: Minimalists argue for a later date of composition of the Old Testament, Maximalists for an earlier date. Arguing that NONE of the books of the OT existed in ANY written form before 300 BC is quite radically Minimalist -- and, it seems to me, antisemitic. But that's a whole other topic -- but there are some very prominent Biblical scholars who take such positions.) And he would post it uncritically. I had to wonder how much he ever actually read of what he linked and copied and pasted, because the various texts contradicted each other quite a lot.

He linked a few things from a website called jesusneverexisted.com. I think it's quite a plausible theory, a theory which most biblical scholars to this day dismiss much too hastily, that Jesus never existed, that the figure of Jesus in the New Testament and other primary Christian texts could be a composite of wishful thinking and bits and pieces from Mithraism, Buddhism, Platonism and Zoroastroism, with perhaps some biographical details from some actual Jewish preacher or preachers thrown in, perhaps named Jesus -- there were a lot of wandering Jewish preachers at the time, and there a lot of Jews named Jeshua (Jesus), and a whole lot named Joshua, one letter away from Jeshua. A lot of that primary material was written after AD 70, when the Romans sacked Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, exiled Jews, and, just to add insult to injury, renamed Judea and Israel Palastine, after the Philistines, the ancestral enemies of the Jews. All of which was extremely traumatic for religious Jews. It is a natural human tendency, in times of severe trauma, to escape into fantasy-worlds, to seek comfort from heroes, real and imagined, to believe that everything will miraculously be set right again.

It's a plausible theory that Jesus may never have existed, but it's far from having been conclusively proven. The evidence for His existence is slim, but slim evidence of something has never constituted proof of the opposite. If someone insists that they know that He never existed, then they seem rather silly to me. If they call their website jesusneverexisted.com than they seem very silly to me. And they are announcing that they are not interested in debating a point which remains eminently debateable. And they are guilty of some of the very things which constitute a rational argument against religion, such as uncritically accepting any arguments which they are able to fit in a primitive way into their own worldview.

Sort of like another simpleton I knew at the time who was radically pro-Catholic. Both of these guys insisted that Hitler was a Catholic. Technically, this is true, because Hitler was baptized as a baby, and never went to the trouble of officially cutting his tie to the Catholic Church. But I think that describing Hitler's insane murderousness as specifically Catholic is weak. The antireligious nut said that Hitler's supposed Catholicism demonstrated the evil of the Catholic Church, of which the Third Reich was but a tiny part.

The Catholic apologist nut said that it showed that the Nazis weren't really so bad. He also showed pictures of Bob Dylan and Pope John Paul II, showed them as proof that Dylan had remained a Christian since his famous conversion in the late '70's. In reply, I contended that Dylan had gone through a born-again phase and then gotten over it, and posted pictures like this

with snarky remarks like, "Hey look! Arafat was a Christian! Who knew?" but of course the guy was not enlightened by my efforts.

I even posted a link to an interview from the '90's where Dylan said that the born-again thing was a phase, and that he was no longer a Christian. Did the guy admit he was wrong? No, he pointed out that in the interview Dylan said he still considered himself religious, and claimed that I had said Dylan was an atheist. Which I hadn't.

History is a very long and detailed answer, or attempts at an answer, to the very basic human question, "What happened?" Most of us would probably agree that it is essential to human life to answer that question to some considerable degree. At what point it's no longer so important to search for a more detailed answer -- is a question which doesn't interest me much. I spend a lot of time reading historical works, and things written long ago, including works of history written long ago. It gives me pleasure.

It's pretty hard to prove anything to me, one way or the other. My life and actions are pretty much based on assumptions which are subject to change at any time. Like with the Giant Hardon Thingy over there in that there Europe these days: I assume that probably most or all of the physicists associated with that and other supercolliders are very smart, sensible, responsible people who are not endangering us and the world as we know it. But no-one has completely convinced me that there could be no horrible unforeseen consequences of such work. And I'm not completely ignorant about physics.

On all sorts of historical topics, I see a lot of really egregious simpleminded stuff passing itself off as history these days. I don't know whether there are lower standards of scholarship and more pseudohistory today than a few decades ago; very possibly I'm simply more aware of it than I used to be just because I'm much more interested in history now. There sure is a lot of simpleminded crap on the History Channels. Before I hooked up in 2008, I had not had non-broadcast television in my home since 1992, when there was only one History Channel. It seems to me in retrospect that the History Channel was more serious back then, but I totally can't back up that impression. These days, though -- Mother of Sweating Jesus! as Hunter S Thompson said. There are a lot of "psychic" shows on the History Channels and other channels, a lot of air time given to charlatans and conspiracy nuts and others who just don't have their facts and figures straight. Don't get me started. Too late. Sorry. Whatever.

In the case of the historical Jesus as with any other historical question, I think that the more we know, the better. I don't want to prove that He did exist or didn't -- I want a more detailed answer, whether it tends more toward yes or more toward no. I want more detail, whether it supports my preconceived notions and strengthens my arguments, or weakens them. In any case, I don't believe in coming back from the dead after a couple of days, or magically multiplying a half-basket's worth of bread and fish into enough to feed a huge crowd, or walking on water, or curing horrible diseases by laying hands on someone and praying to a God in Whom I also don't believe, or any of that sort of foolishness. But whether or not there was a Jesus who came from Nazareth and preached to many people and was eventually ordered executed by Pontius Pilate, that much I don't know. I think that Jesus and Christianity are particularly relevant and important subjects of historical inquiry, because of the very fact that Christianity has persisted for an extremely long time, and because there are about 2 billions Christians alive today, give or take.

Not to dismiss the importance of Socrates and Plato and Zoroaster and Buddha and Mithras and Moses and Mani and Mohamed and Nanak and others. They are all important for the same reason Jesus is: because of their popularity and influence. Whether they existed or not. Whether those who say they follow them really know what they teached or not. Whether one finds them sympathetic or awful or both or neither.

What do we really know? How do we know? A serious historian looks for primary sources, accounts written as near the events described as possible. He looks for multiple sources and compares them. He tries to understand any biases the writers of those sources may have had. He considers what other historians have made of those sources. He looks for help from archaeology and other sciences, and from the study of art. Oftentimes he learns much from fiction and poetry. (Fiction is sometimes a lot more non-fictional than non-fiction. Just because it's an author's stated intention to present facts is no guarantee that he'll be any good at it.)

Friday, January 1, 2010

Existentialism, Faith, Spinoza

I think it's interesting that the most prominent existentialist thinkers have tended either to be passionately devout Christians such as Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, or emphatically atheist like Heidegger, Nietzsche and Sartre, and yet, apart from the specific question of God, their points of view and philosophical arguments harmonize quite well.

I think those two Christian existentialists, Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, are also the last... I was going to say, "the last Christians whom non-Christians generally consider to be great thinkers," but of course that's not true. Since Dostoyevsky there have been Eliot and Yeats and Karl Barth -- I don't know if a lot of non-Christians actually know and admire the work of Karl Barth, but I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt -- and Kazantzakis and a few others. Still, if you look at the number of Christians in the Western Canon, around the mid-19th century they very suddenly shrink from a torrent to a dribble.

One never knows, of course, how many of the earlier torrent didn't actually believe in God or Christ, but merely wished to avoid persecution for speaking clearly and sensibly and publicly on the subject of religion. As far back as the 17th century, Spinoza and Hobbes expressed themselves in about as clearly an atheistic way as was possible without endangering their lives and limbs. Even so, Spinoza was formally excommunicated from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. They had a formal ceremony in the Amsterdam synagogue, in which, according to Bertrand Russell, who seems to me to have been pretty good at getting the details right, Spinoza, was

"cursed with all the curses in Deuteronomy and with the curse that Elisha pronounced on the children who, in consequence, were torn to pieces by the she-bears." -- A History of Western Philosophy, 1946 & 1961, p.552.

According to Wikipedia, this is a translation of a preface to the community's ban, originally written in Portugese:

The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.

All of Spinoza's works were also placed on the Catholic Index.

So far I have not been able to find out what, if any, actual impact the bans by the Jews and the Catholics had on Spinoza's life.

Smoking Ban in NC!

I just saw that North Carolina has banned smoking in bars and restaurants. (This is big news because a lot of tobacco is raised in NC.) The ban goes into effect tomorrow, Saturday, January 2, 2010. Recently the University of Michigan Health Systems, UMHS -- that's what they call the hospital -- went completely smoke-free, at all their many buildings and all the open space in between them. After this happened I saw a young man staging a protest, sitting outside in the cold on or near UMHS grounds -- I'm not sure exactly where University territory in general stops and hospital territory starts. Also, I'm not sure there wasn't some big University smoking ban instituted along with the ban at the hospital -- and smoking at a folding table next to a sign inviting others to join him. I was tempted to get into it with him. ("Really?! Really?! This is the best thing you can think of to protest about?") I left him alone, though. I used to smoke. I remember vividly what it was like to jones for nicotine.

I understand the argument against smoking bans in public places, but I don't agree with it. I don't think the info about secondhand smoke killing people is all bullshit, and I think asking people to find other jobs somewhere else if they don't like the smoke, is worse than asking smokers to search and search for some place where they can be all alone to do their thing like the social lepers they have become.

Getting back to North Carolina -- is there any sort of concerted effort to help and encourage tobacco farmers to, you know -- grow something else already facryingoutlond for gosh sakes? To cut down on the "They tuck ur jabs!" factor? Maybe there is a huge effort of this kind which has been in place for a very long time. I just haven't heard of it. (I haven't researched the question.) Seems like that would be the sort of thing you'd want to do. To get at the root of the situation and address the most legitimate objections which could be raised to this paradigm shift taking place in the world. I dunno. Ya know?