Tag Archives: Historiography

What do I do With Origen?

This is not the first time this question has been asked. Heck, the Church asked it for a couple of centuries before Justinian had him condemned in 553 at the Council of Constantinople. My perspective’s a bit different.

If you’ve been following my reading/blogging on Early Christianity posts you know that at the moment I’m reading forward from first century Christian origins (though many will say the date of the true origin is the same as for Judaism). I’m planning to do this fairly intensely until I get to Nicaea. My post-Nicaean level of knowledge is quite a bit higher so from that point I’ll be in more of a gap filling mode rather than this wholesale gobbling up of everything.

So here we have Origen. He’s prominent. He wrote from the early to the mid-3rd Century. He started his career in Alexandria and ended it in Caesarea. I should be able to go through his stuff and use him as another example of what Christians were thinking during that period, right?

Not so fast. Most of Origen’s writings come to us through early 5th century Latin translations by Rufinus of Aquileia. Rufinus has been roundly criticized by various folks, as early as his contemporary, Jerome, for mistranslation to the point of making wholesale changes to Origen’s text and completely altering his meaning.

To provide a little background, Rufinus’ Orthodoxy came into question in the late 4th century. One of the criticisms leveled against him was that he had not been a strong enough critic of Origen. There was this whole conflict between Jerome and Rufinus which I’ll need to read more on to fully discuss. I have read Claudian and he hates Rufinus passionately, though this has much more to do with Claudian being Stilicho’s panegyrist and the conflict between East and West/Arcadian and Honorius than religious reasons. 1 In any case, with his Orthodoxy still an open question, Rufinus was accused of amending Origen’s text. Jerome had access to the Greek and provided some translations of his own demonstrating these changes(these amounted to a small fraction of Rufinus’ translations).

There’s a LOT more to this but the essence is I don’t know what to do with Origen. I don’t think I can use him as an example of 3rd century Christian thought, not reliably, as what we have from him isn’t (probably) completely his own words and ideas. At the same time, Rufinus didn’t totally rewrite him so we can’t use him as an example of early 5th-century thought either.

What can be done, since Rufinus’ translation is what was handed down to posterity, is talk about Origen’s influence on Early Christianity or, more correctly, the influence of Origen-Rufinus. I can touch on this a little but as I haven’t completely gone through Jerome and Augustine (and other writings of Rufinus) I can’t assess this all that well either. In the end, I’ll probably limit myself to a single topical post on Origen’s writings, then hope to link back to them once I begin reading up on the late 4th/early 5th centuries. I’ll mention prominent concepts and areas were he got himself into trouble but the caution has to be made that it may not be that he got himself into trouble but that Rufinus got him in trouble (150 years after he died).

One area this highlights is the importance of critically analyzing sources. I think, though I have questions about my qualifications to do so, that I’ll probably put together a post on the use of sources. And for Origen, I’m going to focus less on specific ideas, as I did with Tertullian, and spend more time talking about broader concepts. I’m not terribly happy about this but I’m less happy about picking something specific which Origen talks about and say, “This is what 3rd century Christians thought.”

1 See Claudian, Against Rufinus(In Rufinum). He sprinkles criticism in elsewhere too.

Claudian, Maurice Platnauer, trans., Claudian (2 Volumes). Cambridge: Loeb Classical Library (1922).

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Posted by on February 8, 2014 in Historiography, Religion


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Why I’m not a(n) Historian

I’ve recently been involved in an off-blog e-mail exchange with someone who initially contacted me thinking I’m a historian. This is not the first time this has happened but this morning, while being snowed in for about the 5th time this winter, seems like a good time to explain why I am not in more detail. I have always tried very hard not to give this perception and have commented frequently that I am not, never have been, and likely never will be a historian. I’m going to try to rank my reasons in order of importance. 1

1. I cannot read source material in its original language. This is the elephant in the room. All I can read is translations. Not only that but any time you read a translation, you’re reading the translator’s interpretation of the source. I comment on sources a lot. I enjoy reading them and have reached the point where, rather than read multiple secondary sources and THEN read the primary/contemporary sources, I’d rather read the sources first, then find out what modern historians think about them. This is, I think, an important evolution in my knowledge of history, that I’m comfortable enough in my own assessments to do this. It is likely the one area which causes the most misconceptions that I may be a historian. I’m not. Unless I can read, assess, and interpret the earliest extant version of source material for myself, not through the eyes of others, I am not a historian. This is more than a rule for me; it’s a law. 2

2. I haven’t been trained. I think I’ve learned a fair amount on my own (not to say that others haven’t been kind enough to help me) but there’s a lot to be said for formal education. You are required to submit work to an authority who will return this to you after providing a critical assessment. You will need to hone your craft through a fairly rigorous review process. This is also a reason why advanced degrees matter. This isn’t as much of a go/no go criterion as number 1. I do think someone without a degree can become a historian. You can submit publications for review, work with historians on projects and observe and learn from their methods, etc. You certainly can learn a new language(or a very old one). It’s not a “you’re dead on the spot if you can’t do this” type of qualification like the inability to read sources but for me it’s pretty strong. I can read books on historical methodology and I’ll learn a lot. But without another party evaluating what I’ve done a big part of the process is missing.

3. I’m not paid for it. I think labels and titles have some importance (if I believed otherwise this post wouldn’t exist). Before I got myself a real job I used to be a horse trainer. I used to tell amateurs all the time that if they knew horses very well they could probably train their horse as well as I could, it just would take longer. I was riding 10 or more horses a day, doing this 12-14 hours/day six days a week. The sheer number of experiences I had with horses, each with his/her own little idiosyncrasies, meant I could figure out what was going on and what to do more quickly. What I could get done in 90 or 120 days would probably take them 6-8 months. If these amateurs chose to do this that didn’t make them horse trainers but people who trained a horse or two. There’s a difference between someone who derives his or her income from something and someone who does not. In this case one is a historian, the other (even if he/she can read sources and has been trained) is someone who does history. I will not get 100% agreement on this one, but I think the fact that someone believes that what you do has economic value means something. For me, if I’m not getting paid for it, I’m not a member of a profession.

When I started this post I thought I’d have a much longer list but once I began thinking on it I decided that just about everything I had fit under one of these categories. For example, part of being a historian is being a member of the profession which means you’re submitting material for publication, review, and critique. This actually fits under #2 (receiving assessments and critiques), at a different point in one’s career.

Also, I haven’t listed things which might make you a good vs a bad historian. The best example of this I can think of is professional development. I would say that a good historian tries to stay current. He or she will attend professional conferences, remain current on developments in his or her area(s) of expertise, etc. Someone who fails to do this does not necessarily cease to be a historian, he or she just likely isn’t a very good one.

I have reached the point where I think I can assess the validity of a historian’s argument and his/her methodology. I take some pride in this and it’s taken me a long time to reach this point. It’s a nice skill though I still have a lot to learn about it. But it doesn’t make me a historian.

1 By history I mean assessing the past using written source material (including inscriptions and art). Archaeologists are involved with studies all the time which they evaluate and interpret, frequently without a single textual piece of evidence. For me, while there’s a ton of overlap and members of each profession should at least be conversant with the others’ methods, this does not make an archaeologist a historian (though some people are both).

2 I don’t want to imply that a historian, in writing, must have personally read every single source on a topic to construct an argument, just that he or she must be able to go back to a source to assess it if they find another historian’s interpretation questionable.


Posted by on January 26, 2014 in Amateur Tips


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Semi-Random Thoughts, a Little on Tertullian and a Bit on Historical Models

I really have fallen off on my posting lately. I just have a lot going on, some of it personal and some professional. I’ll leave the personal alone, for now, but on the professional side I’ve moved from working in this office to working in this office. This is a parallel transfer, not a move up or down, other than now being head of the office (so maybe it is a bit of a step up) but it’s a new location, new co-workers, and new clientele. I can’t swear that my posting frequency will radically increase in the near future, however the main reason, overall, for this post is to get myself back in the habit. I have a few days off around Christmas and maybe I’ll put something together, or at least finish that second post on Irenaeus which I started last August.

For the past several weeks I’ve been reading Tertullian. This has been a slog. There is some interesting material but there’s been an unfortunate side effect. I don’t like him. Personally.

Obviously I don’t know the man, but from what I’ve read (which is all but the about 50 pages I have left from the Ante-Nicene Fathers Series) I’ve developed a personal distaste for him. This is important, and unfortunate. I think it’s very important to try, as well as we can, to understand, at least a little, where historical figures were coming from and develop some empathy for them. I’m having trouble doing this with Tertullian. He is so absolute, so rigorous, so unwilling to entertain the legitimacy of any opinion but his own, even from other Church authorities, that I can’t seem to get my empathy mode going. As yet another point highlighting my own ignorance, before going through his material I’d read how Tertullian is often referred to as, “The first of the Latin Theologians.” Silly me – I thought this meant he was the first to write his stuff in Latin. I now think – and I have a secondary book on him to read to confirm if this is the case – that this means that he is the first to adopt a completely different method of argument from prior Greek authors. Maybe method is a bit wrong as he does use philosophical arguments, but he doesn’t believe the writings of the ancient philosophers contain any hint of wisdom and he doesn’t say, “This is what I think, here’s why and you should consider this,” but rather, “This is what I think, here’s why, and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong.” Whether he felt this way when he wasn’t writing or not is another thing but all I can go by is what’s in print. I’ll have more analysis of him later but I wanted to get this preamble out of the way to warn you of this basic fact; I don’t like Tertullian. On a visceral level. So far as I can recall, this is a first when it comes to a source author.

To add to this potpourri of a post, a few months ago several posts were written which discussed new findings which were at odds with established historical models. I’ve mentioned several times that as I learn more I’ve come to increasingly distrust models. It’s not so much that patterns didn’t exist – they did. And I don’t see the problem with using them in books or in teaching. You can’t just teach everything so some synthesis is necessary. But so often it seems that researchers have a preexisting bias toward a model and view any new findings through this model-tinted lens. Katy Meyers has a very good post on Bones Don’t Lie about discovering that some Etruscan skeletal remains had been wrongly identified re their sex and how this is indicative of how modern bias and a reliance on models can lead researchers down the wrong path. This post becomes really good about halfway through it, just beyond the second image. Rosemary Joyce at Ancient Bodies, Ancient Lives also wrote an interesting post about this same discovery.

You know, when I started writing the above paragraph I was sure I could come up with another post or two on the same basic theme but my memory of who wrote what seems to be flawed. Instead I’ll offer two new blogs I’ve come across:

James Palmer has a blog, merovingianworld which I’ve found interesting. I have one of his books, Anglo-Saxons in a Frankish World, 690-900 on my to-read shelf and have come across his name plenty of times but haven’t read much of his stuff.

From an American-centric perspective, in her blog, Manuscript Road Trip, Lisa Fagan Davis has been taking a virtual tour where she discusses holdings of medieval manuscripts in the United States on a state-by state basis. Lisa is co-author of an online resource, Directory of Institutions in the United States and Canada with Pre-1600 Manuscript Holdings so she’s well qualified to embark on this trip. Oh, and if you know of anything in North Dakota, please let her know.

That’s it for now. Hopefully I’ll have more to come shortly and if you know of a way for me to start feeling warm and fuzzy towards Tertullian, let me know.


Posted by on December 22, 2013 in Blogology, Historiography, Other Blogs, Resources


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Book Review: The Historical Jesus in Context

The Review

Before I get to the review for this book I want to throw in a few quick comments (click on the above link if you want to skip this). First, it has been over a year since I posted a review. The reason for this is fairly simple. Ever since I began a concerted effort to read about Early Christianity I have largely encountered books I feel unqualified to write a review of. I’ve offered comments as something has caught my attention but for the most part I haven’t felt myself able to give an opinion on the quality of a book.1

Second, more related to the review which will follow is that I have never doubted the existence of a historical Jesus. My reasons, not being a Biblical scholar or even highly familiar with first century AD religion or source material discussions, have centered around one basic fact. He is too frequently mentioned in sources dating from a period too close to his death for him to not have existed. I have read/heard arguments such as, “We have nothing he wrote himself,” or, “There are no monuments or inscriptions dating from when he was alive with his name on them,” or even, “Nothing was written about him by someone who knew him personally.” This last is more debatable but it’s generally believed that the Gospel and other source authors were not among Jesus’ disciples.2

These are unrealistic standards. If we were to judge the existence of all people mentioned in source material similarly, history would be an empty thing. Non-elites didn’t write, or have monuments built to them. If we need to strike Jesus from history as someone who actually lived, then history will need to be rewritten in terms that will eliminate the existence of most non-elite individuals, and many elites. By the standards used to judge the probability of someone’s existence, there is plenty of evidence that a man named Jesus, a traveling teacher/preacher/rabbi in Judea, existed near the beginning of the first century. Within 10-15 years of his death, accounts of Jesus were told to large numbers of people who would have had every reason to be skeptical of this individual’s existence if they had not been pretty certain that he had lived. From a historical perspective, there are literally buckets of references to Jesus, chronologically close enough to when he lived to make his existence highly probable.

This does not mean that he is identical to the person we meet through the Gospels. As with any other source of that period, particularly written several decades after the subject lived, we have almost certainly been presented with an idealized Jesus(though I don’t buy arguments that he didn’t at all resemble this portrayal). The Gospel authors had their biases and must be evaluated with this in mind. Much of what is included in them is likely based on oral traditions which are generally less reliable (though numerous oral traditions that generally agree with one another should be viewed as another factor in favor of his having lived). Individuals in the 2nd or 3rd centuries may have redacted the Gospels to add additional details. And I have never had any urge to publicly debate the miracle stories. If you were to ask me if it is possible for a person to walk on water, feed thousands of people from a few loaves of bread and a couple of little fish, heal people without ever meeting them, or rise from the dead I would say no. I would also say I have no problem with anyone who wants to believe these things(and for all you know I may believe these things). Those are matters of faith and I try very hard never to argue with someone over faith, except very close friends.

When it comes to Jesus, I find myself more interested in questions such as whether he actually ran the moneylenders and shopkeepers out of the Temple (let’s face it – he did something to piss the establishment off, to the extent that they executed him). How radical was he, with his devaluation of some matters of Jewish Law? And I enjoy discussions of how apocalyptic Jesus was or whether much of this was entered into his life by the authors of the Gospels, writing as they did (likely) shortly following the destruction of the Temple by Roman authorities.

So with all that out of the way, let’s get to the review.

The Review


Levine, Amy-Jill, Allison, Dale C. Jr. and Crossan, John Dominic, eds., The Historical Jesus in Context, Princeton, Princeton University Press (2006). ISBN: 978-0-69100-992-9.

This is a collection of 28 essays designed to, as the title says, provide a context for Jesus’ life. As Levine says in her introduction, this book, “… provides information on cultural contexts within which Jesus was understood and perhaps even understood himself.” (1) How does Jesus, the man, teacher, rabbi and messiah fit into first-century Jewish and Roman society? Is he a radical outlier or can parallels be drawn between him and others of his time? How do the concepts, themes and ideas found in the Gospels compare with prominent themes from Jesus’ period? Where might some of these concepts, themes and ideas have originated from?

The essays in this volume are as follows:

  • Introduction by Amy-Jill Levine
  • 1. “Archaeological Contributions to the Study of Jesus and the Gospels,” Jonathan L. Reed
  • 2. “Josephus on John the Baptist and Other Jewish Prophets of Deliverance,” Craig A. Evans
  • 3. “Abba and Father: Imperial Theology in the Contexts of Jesus and the Gospels,” Mary Rose D’Angelo
  • 4. “Miraculous Conceptions and Births in Mediterranean Antiquity,” Charles H. Talbert
  • 5. “First and Second Enoch: A Cry Against Oppression and the Promise of Deliverance,” George W. E. Nickelsburg
  • 6. “Jesus and the Dead Sea Scrolls,” Peter Flint
  • 7. “The Chreia,” David B. Gowler
  • 8. “The Galilean Charismatic and Rabbinic Piety: The Holy Man in the Talmudic Literature,” Alan J. Avery-Peck
  • 9. “Miracle Stories: The God Asclepius, the Pythagorean Philosophers, and the Roman Rulers,” Wendy Cotter, C.S.J.
  • 10. “The Mithras Liturgy,” Marvin Meyer
  • 11. “Apuleius of Madauros,” Ian H. Henderson
  • 12. “The Parable in the Hebrew Bible and Rabbinic Literature,” Gary G. Porton
  • 13. “The Aesop Tradition,” Lawrence M. Wills
  • 14. “Targum, Jesus, and the Gospels,” Bruce Chilton
  • 15. “The Psalms of Solomon,” Joseph L. Trafton
  • 16. “Moral and Ritual Piety,” Jonathan Klawans
  • 17. “Gospel and Talmud,” Herbert W. Basser
  • 18. “Philo of Alexandria,” Gregory E. Sterling
  • 19. “The Law of Roman Divorce in the Time of Christ,” Thomas A. J. McGinn
  • 20. “Associations in the Ancient World,” John S. Kloppenborg
  • 21. “Anointing Traditions,” Teresa J. Hornsby
  • 22. “The Passover Haggadah,” Calum Carmichael
  • 23. “Joseph and Aseneth: Food as an Identity Marker,” Randall D. Chesnutt
  • 24. “The Pliny and Trajan Correspondence,” Bradley M. Peper and Mark DelCogliano
  • 25. “Imitations of Greek Epic in the Gospels,” Dennis R. MacDonald
  • 26. “Narratives of Noble Death,” Robert Doran
  • 27. “Isiah 53:1-12 (Septuagint),” Ben Witherington III
  • 28. “Thallus on the Crucifixion,” Dale C. Allison Jr.

Each chapter follows a similar pattern. It discusses a particular facet of ancient Jewish or Roman life, talks about source material related to that facet, and then provides translated sources demonstrating what was discussed. Occasionally these may be full sources but more often they are a selection. These materials are then compared and contrasted with how Jesus was portrayed, primarily in the Gospels.

The book is not what I’d call a popular history but it is written at a fairly basic level. I don’t know for sure but it looks like something designed for use in an introductory undergraduate course on source and textual analysis in Early Christianity. A negative of this book is it’s not footnoted though most sources are referenced in the text. As I do not intend to deeply explore issues related to this topic, this was less of a negative for me than it would be for some books.

As can be seen from the Table of Contents, the breadth of topics is considerable. The portrayal of Christ as a messianic figure, his use of parables as teaching tools, comparing his miracle stories with others of the period, exploring Jesus’ knowledge of Jewish scriptures and how he uses them, and discussions of his lack of concern with Jewish ritual impurity (compared with moral impurity) are covered, as well as other topics. I will briefly touch on some of the topics and essays which were of most interest to me.

Craig Evans analyzed the writings of Josephus to determine how prominently messianic figures appear in first-century Jewish culture. Josephus is negatively disposed to these individuals however he mentions several of them and, in contrast, he discusses John the Baptist in favorable terms. In essence, Jesus as a messiah is not out of place during this time and place.

Charles Talbert’s chapter was one of my favorites. He discusses multiple cases of miraculous conception in ancient literature, some of them fairly prominent such as Achilles as the son of the God Thetis and Hercules as the son of Zeus. Of more interest, and possibly more applicable to the portrayal of Jesus, are figures such as Pythagorus, Alexander the Great, and Plato. Talbert spends some time discussing how divine begetting was often attributed to an individual who had lived a particularly notable life. Arrian, in Anabasis 7.30 says of Alexander, “And so not even I can suppose that a man quite beyond all other men was born without some divine influence.” (84) In discussing a passage from Diogenes Laertius’ Lives of the Eminent Philosophers 3.45 Talbert says, “One could not do what Plato did had he not been the offspring of a God! One reason the ancients used stories of miraculous conceptions and births was as an explanation of the superiority of the individual.” (85) For me, while I was certainly aware of miraculous conceptions in ancient literature, I had never grouped the birth of Christ with these.

Peter Flint compares how Jesus is portrayed in the Gospels with passages found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. The Essenes had several messianic figures and in many ways their lives parallel the account of Jesus. However they differ in a couple of key points and Flint disagrees with prior analyses which describe an Essene precedent for either a killed Messiah or a sacrificial crucifixion to redeem man from sins.

Gary Porton, Bruce Chilton and Herbert Basser discuss prominent Jewish literature elements and their use by Jesus in the Gospels. Porton discusses parables found in rabbinic literature and believes that, “… one would expect the ‘historical’ Jesus to have taught throughout his life by parables.” (209). Chilton talks about a type of literature known as Targum. These are scriptural paraphrases where the general meaning of Hebrew scripture is rendered into the Aramaic most commonly in use in first-century scripture. He demonstrates that Jesus was well aware of and extensively used this literary form, indicating an extensive knowledge of Hebrew scripture. He also discusses one particular instance where the Greek translation provided by Luke misrepresents the Aramaic original. In Luke 4:16-30 Jesus is nearly stoned after speaking in a synagogue. Based on Luke, Jesus appears to provide a fairly traditional interpretation of Isiah however based on pronoun confusion, he is actually proclaiming himself not just as a divinely inspired preacher but as a full-on messiah who will personally see to the redemption of the souls of men from captivity. (252-4) Interestingly, Chilton describes a Jesus who knew and used Targum however he almost never used identical language and how he used scripture, “… shows that an innovative tendency is characteristic of his style of teaching.” (252) Basser describes how Jesus followed talmudic and rabbinic forms of teaching and argument, however his message in the Gospels is different from Judaic teachings.

A very useful chapter for me was authored by Jonathan Klawans. He discusses the difference between ritual purity and moral purity and how Jesus emphasized the importance of the latter but was not as concerned with the former. Ritual impurities are those which do not represent sin. For example, a woman is ritually impure during menstruation, however this does not demonstrate sin, just that she should avoid the temple during these times (interestingly, male genital emissions are also considered ritually impure). An individual who helped bury someone is ritually impure but not sinful – the dead must be cared for and buried – he or she must ritually cleanse him- or herself before entering the temple. In contrast, moral impurity such as sexual transgressions, bloodshed, and idolatry are sinful and result in long-lasting defilement which may not be removed simply by a ritual cleansing. Throughout the Gospels, Christ expresses little concern for ritual impurity. He and his disciples eat without first washing their hands, heal on the Sabbath and gather grain to eat on the Sabbath, all items prohibited under Jewish Law. Yet he is very concerned with greed, murder, adultery, etc. Klawans provides a useful analysis of Mark 7:1-23 in discussing this.

There were a few essays I considered less useful. I found Dennis MacDonald’s argument that the Gospels made extensive use of Greek epics unconvincing. The fact that Hector and Christ both died is certainly true however I do not see where the denial by Achilles to grant Priam his body resembles the account of Christ’s death, burial and resurrection, similarly the death of Turnus in the Aenid. Marvin Meyer’s discussion and translation of the Mithras Liturgy was interesting, however he failed to adequately connect it to first-century Judaism which left me wondering what the point of the chapter was.

This is a good book. For me, it did what it was intended to do – provide me a contextual basis from which I could draw more insight into Jesus’ life, or at least his life as it is portrayed in the Gospels. Jesus comes across as a man of his times, a preacher/teacher who uses traditional Jewish literature, teaching methods, and whose messages are, in many cases, traditional. However he also comes across as a remarkable individual, even accounting for possible later redactions of the Gospels. While he uses traditional methods, much of his message is innovative. While bathing to remove ritual impurity is an every day aspect of Jewish life, the Gospel accounts provide a new, one-time-only, “baptism for life” for the remission of sins. Jesus breaks with Jewish authorities on what constitutes impurity. Once one recalls that in Rome, Emperors were commonly worshiped as deities, Jesus’ famous “Render unto God what is God and unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” becomes a subversive denial of the Emperor’s divinity. Christ, depending on your viewpoint, was either an innovator or a radical, perhaps both. He was enough of each to earn the enmity of the Jewish establishment to the point of being executed.

There are areas left unexamined. In particular, I would have appreciated an account of Roman judicial practice in Judea during the period and an examination of how Christ’s trial, sentence and execution compared with normal judicial procedures. I have read where the trial and sentence is considered to have taken place very quickly and would have enjoyed a discussion of this. I would have also enjoyed more discussions such as Bruce Chilton’s discussing Aramaic/Greek translations and how this impacts determining the origin of Gospel accounts.3

This book will be valuable for a person who is just beginning his or her examination of first-century Christianity. My one recommendation is that you first read the canonical Gospels. These are frequently referred to and the Gospel accounts are compared and contrasted with other examples of ancient literature throughout.

1 It’s sheer coincidence that I’m posting something about Jesus on Christmas Day. I happened to finish this book over the weekend. Funny how that works out.

2 This is the biggest change in my preconceptions; that the Gospel authors were not Jesus’ companions. In essence, while some believe that Mark (considered the earliest Gospel) may have been written around 50 AD, most place it closer to about 70. The real disqualifier is that the Gospels were written in fairly high quality Greek. Jesus’ companions are unlikely to have known Greek and even more unlikely to have been able to write it.

3 One of the ways historians try to figure out when something in a Gospel account originated is by trying to reverse translate it from Greek into Aramaic. There are passages in the Greek which make no sense in Aramaic demonstrating, probably, something which was added a bit later, up to when the Gospel was written (later redactions are an entirely different matter). And there are stories which appear to make much more sense in Aramaic, indicating a fairly early origin. Of course most make sense both ways. And quite often the Gospels and Paul retain an original Aramaic word or phrase.


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My Particular Form of Age Discrimination

I’m writing this on the morning of December 17. If I have any clue as to how to time-delay posts, by the time you read this I’ll be on a hospital table getting my first new body part (prepping my life for this has reduced my time to post or comment the past few days). I’ve thought of bringing my laptop to the hospital and have about decided not to. Anyway, for the next couple of weeks one of three things may happen; I may be bored once I get home and send out buckets of posts; I may send out buckets of posts but be so narc’d on painkillers that once I sober up I’ll read what I wrote in my drug-induced state and delete them in horror or; I won’t be posting much of anything for several weeks. Much of this will depend on how comfortable I am sitting in my home office chair. Though I have an air card, wireless keyboard, wireless mouse and the thought of hooking my laptop up to my big-screen TV so I have full computer access from my recliner has crossed my mind (to this point I’ve rejected that option – I think it would qualify me as the laziest man in the world).

Anyway, I’m about a hundred pages from finishing Alan Cameron’s The Last Pagans of Rome. I’m hoping to put up a review if I’m sober enough and wanted to get something off my chest before I put it together.

I have a tendency to purchase, almost exclusively, newer books on history. At this point in time my wishlist numbers 881 books. I have various criteria I use when I’m considering what to buy (my to-read list of books on my shelves is 159 so whether I need more books is another topic for discussion). Among those is how recently it was published. At this point, if a book, other than a primary/contemporary source, was published prior to 2000 it’s highly unlikely that I’ll end up buying it (new – used is another story). I want the most recent information. I’ve mentioned before how this has resulted in my neglecting to buy books which I’ve found to be extremely valuable. It has also occasionally resulted in a situation I’ll use Cameron to illustrate.

Much of Cameron is concerned with debunking what he considers to be an inaccurate depiction of pagan revivals; periods after 382 where pagans organized some sort of concerted resistance to Christianity. I’ll discuss the specifics (hopefully) in more detail in the review.

The problem is that I’ve never read anything which has argued for this sort of revival. Now I haven’t read a ton of secondary stuff covering the early part of this time period (for Cameron this mostly covers from Gratian’s removal of the Altar of Victory from the Senate House in 382 to Macrobius’ Saturnalia written around 430) but I have read some. And I’ve read several sources from the period (in translation) such as Prudentius, Ausonius, and Claudian. I don’t recall them as being overly concerned with a Pagan revival. In fact, without checking my notes, the foremost impression Prudentius’ Contra Symmachus has left me with is the level of respect the author shows for Symmachus, though he disagrees with Pagan beliefs.

Based on what Cameron footnotes, it appears that this type of thinking was more prevalent among historians in the 1990’s and earlier. If it has been at the forefront of more recent books, it hasn’t been in what I’ve read. This may change as I read more deeply into the period but when I began reading Cameron and found out what he intended to argue, or counter-argue to be more precise, my initial response was, “Huh?”. I simply had not read anything arguing for a pagan revival during the 50 years after Gratian removed the Altar of Victory (and removed public support for Pagan rituals).

This has occasionally happened before. The main reason I decided to post on it is that I don’t want to talk about it in any detail later as I think it will detract from my review, but I know I’ll have the urge to say something. This has now been said and is not something I need to cover in depth later.

I’ll catch you folks on the other side after I gain the ability to set off airport metal detectors (and walk rather than lurch).


Posted by on December 19, 2011 in Blogology, Books, Religion


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Online Medieval Resources and Really Cool Stuff Other Folks have Written

Before I get to the post I want to note that other bloggers will now find my comments signed as “Medieval History Geek” rather than as Curt Emanuel. This isn’t a move toward anonymity or anything. We’re going to be developing a blog for work and I don’t want people going to that blog to somehow run across my description of my knowledge level for this blog which basically says “I have no training and really am not qualified to say much of anything on this topic but I think it’s fun and interesting so I’m going to anyway.” When it comes to my job, I am trained and I do know what I’m talking about (for the most part anyway) so I’m going to use my real name for that blogger profile and MHG for this one and hope to avoid any confusion.

Posts to Check Out

Before I start putting together Kalamazoo summary posts I want to put up a quick post one discussing some online resources. 1 First, and something I’ve been remiss about lately, are good posts from other blogs.

Guy Halsall has two recent posts I strongly encourage people to read, Warfare and Society in the Early Medieval West and Warfare, the “State” and Change Around 600. For the latter post, take a look at it and see what you think about what it says on defining an entity as a state in the medieval period. This is something I am uncertain of myself and unable to say what I think of the various “state” opinions out there as I find myself swinging between arguments however this post made me think about it quite a bit which, for me, is a pretty strong recommendation in itself. 2

For the earlier post I want to pull out an excerpt and emphasize a point that over the last few years I’ve come to believe is essential for looking at all aspects of medieval history.

“Talking about all this as an issue of Roman continuity or new barbarian methods entirely – as I see it – misses the point. This was neither the take-over of western Europe by immigrant barbarian military societies with new social and military practices and nor was it – evidently – a simple continuation of the Roman regular army. It was an evolution that took place within the particular, distinct circumstances of the fifth and sixth centuries.

This general point, about seeing early medieval warfare in its own terms, applies to another common view of the period, which would understands it by extending the observed features of central and later medieval warfare backwards into our era. Thus it is sometimes said that battles were rare in this period. They were risky and therefore they were not generally sought. Instead sieges were the most important feature of warfare. This is, as far as I can see, a reasonable description of warfare in the age of castles and knights, from the eleventh century, perhaps the tenth, through to the end of the Middle Ages, but, as I will argue later, it is quite mistaken for the period between the sixth century and the ninth.”

This points to something I’ve come to believe very strongly; that examining aspects of history independently and without contamination from knowledge of other aspects, is essential to gain the most unbiased information possible (every single Human, historian or not, has biases) for the aspect under study. Chris Wickham in Framing the Early Middle Ages was highly influential in my believing in this for geographic regions, that they need to be examined on their own terms before you start looking for other regions to compare/contrast/group them with. I’ve mentioned before how Dr. Halsall, in Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 helped me to realize that the same holds true for other pieces of evidence – each piece needs to be examined independently, on its own terms, before looking at it in relationship to other pieces. Here he applies this same reasoning with regards to warfare – don’t allow your knowledge of other periods to contaminate (I don’t think this too strong a word) how you perceive or examine the period you are investigating.

The reason these things are important to me is so I can assess what I’m reading. As I’ve (hopefully) made plain, I am not a historian. I am not engaged in historical research. Among other reasons (there are a lot of them but this is the most critical), I do not have the skills, particularly the language skills, to investigate source material in their original language, even if I had access to them. So what I do is read stuff – stuff written by historians. For me to asses what I think of their work, how much influence it should have on me, I need to be able, as much as possible, to evaluate their argument. A critical component of that is their use of evidence. Now I can’t examine the evidence itself so it’s the argument, as presented in their writings, that I have to look at.

I apologize for the digression in the previous paragraph but I try to throw something like this in every now and then so you can figure out where I’m coming from, particularly since, based on site traffic, there seem to be some new folks reading this blog recently.

New Online Resources

Right before Kalamazoo I posted about the Digital Poster Session. I had a chance to briefly look at the booths (it was a shame more people weren’t there) before the Cistercian session I attended and some seriously good online resources were displayed. I’ll note that I’m highlighting the ones which myself, with no Latin or Medieval languages skills, found interesting. Others may well be as or more useful to professionals, or serious amateurs with those skills I lack.

Cusanus Portal – This site is devoted to resources related to Nicholas of Cusa. The main site is in German but some information in English is also available.

Early English Laws – This is a project to provide online translations and editions of all English law codes and related texts produced prior to the Magna Carta in 1215. They do not have anything up yet but are looking for people to help with the translations so if you have language knowledge in Medieval Latin, Old English, Old French, etc., I encourage you to contact them and offer your assistance.

St. Gall Monastery Plan – I know; you read the title and think, “The plan of St Gall? I can already find that online“. In some ways I think the title does this site a disservice, though it will likely show up well on internet searches. First, the plan will be displayed in over a hundred images, providing far more detail than has previously been available. However the treasure is, “Besides a variety of digital representations of the plan itself, the site includes a graphic representation of how the plan was physically made, detailed information on each of the component elements of the plan, and transcriptions and translations of its inscriptions. In addition, the site contains a series of extensive data bases including one presenting physical objects found across Europe that add to our understanding of Carolingian monasticism, one devoted to the terminology of Carolingian material culture, descriptions of all known Carolingian religious edifices, and an extensive bibliography on both the Plan itself and Carolingian monastic culture generally.” I think this will be a wonderful resource.

1 Uh, sorry – when I started I thought this would be a short, quick post. Then my enthusiasm got the better of me. And it’s still too short to really talk about uses of evidence which I’m very interested in.

2 Steve Muhlberger recently posted a link to an interesting essay by Susan Reynolds on this topic. I’d encourage you to also look at the articles she mentions in it.

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-780521-435437.

Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965.


Posted by on May 17, 2011 in Conferences, Other Blogs, Resources


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Predicting the Future Course of Events based on the Past

I’ve tended to stay away from these types of questions for two reasons. First is that I’m not that smart. Second is that to really begin to explore them would take journal-length articles. These kind of things are quite complex. If I was going to discuss the evidence in any kind of detail I’d end up with 20,000 words (or more). Instead I’m going to try to provide a brief description of my thoughts and hope it makes sense.

Yesterday I was eating with a few friends – not lunch exactly and not dinner either. What is it when you eat at 3:30 PM?

So we’re having our usual pseudo-philosophical discussion (one of the usuals anyway – I think we’ve solved every problem the world has ever had at one point or other) and this statement comes up, “The United States is on its way down. If you compare us with the ending of the Roman Empire there are all kinds of parallels. We’re going to go the same route.”

Ok, this came from a friend and at least he’s thinking about history so I was gentle with him, but this happens to be a pet peeve. Funny thing is, even though it’s a peeve, I sort of half-believed it 20 years ago. Kind of cool that the world keeps repeating itself, huh? The question of why something I sort of believed has become a peeve may raise some interesting questions about myself but I’m ignoring that here too.

So here, on this blog, I’m going to explain why I believe the above statement, or any similar statement, is fundamentally wrong. I don’t think my friend reads this so if I verge into rant mode I won’t be jeopardizing my party invites – the guy cooks a pork loin that is insanely good. Plus he’s smart, funny, helps me carry heavy stuff upstairs sometimes, and wrong about this.

Now I realize that my friend’s Roman Empire statement is a nice conversation-starter and, hopefully, makes people think. Unfortunately, as viewed from my self-appointed status as the thought police, at least when it comes to ancient/medieval history among my friends, it’s wrong and promotes wrong-thinking (think-speak anyone?) by providing a cute statement which does not encourage closer examination. If I thought that statement would inspire people to really look into its validity I’d feel less bad about it. And that’s before debating whether it’s even factually true since in the east the Empire was alive and well for over another century and alive if reduced for nearly a millennium.

So I’m going to re-phrase my friend’s statement into a more general one and take a look at why I disagree with it. That statement is, “By examining the evolution of a culture/society from the distant past we are able to accurately predict the course of a modern culture/society.”

I need to add a couple of qualifiers here. First, I’m talking about large-scale societal transformation on the scale of societies/polities/nation-states and when applied to a specific culture/society. I’m not talking about whether a lecturer on military tactics can use, say, Julian’s 363 invasion of Persia and subsequent disaster as an example of why it’s essential that any military commander a) secure his line or lines of retreat and b) ensure that his lines of supply and communications are open. We can look at smaller-scale events and learn some things and use them as an object lessons. We can even look at issues such as the roots of prejudice and discrimination or the tendency of threatened societies toward ultra-conservatism (in this case conservatism means a tendency to look inward and retreat to the core values of the society while reacting defensively to external influences) or the outcomes when a more technologically advanced society encounters a more technologically primitive society and learn from these.

Second, I am not saying this means we shouldn’t look at past events and learn everything we can from them. I just think that the sort of predictive statement I opened with doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Examine the past but be careful how we apply it to the present. 1

I haven’t seen a lot of this put up by professional historians, but the Rome-USA comparison pops up quite frequently. Rather than putting up links, I invite you to do a web search using the term, “United States Roman Empire parallels” and see what comes up.

Instead of quoting websites as examples of this train of thought, let me provide this excerpt from the dust jacket of Victor Davis Hanson’s A War Like no Other:

Hanson’s perceptive analysis of events and personalities raises many thought-provoking questions: Were Athens and Sparta like the United States and the Soviet Union, two superpowers battling to the death? Is the Peloponnesian War echoed in the endless, frustrating conflicts of Vietnam, Northern Ireland, and the current Middle East — or was it more like America’s own Civil War, a brutal rift that rent the fabric of a glorious society, or even this century’s “red state-blue state” schism between liberals and conservatives, a cultural war that manifestly controls military policies? Hanson daringly brings the facts to life and unearths the often surprising ways in which the past informs the present. 2

When I get in discussions about this (I almost framed this post as a dialogue) I tend to throw out a laundry list of societal differences and why this makes meaningful comparisons, to the point of predicting the future course of events, useless. For example, I’ll ask:

Did the Romans have:

Stock exchanges
International commodity markets
Instantaneous communication
A representative democracy 3
Social networking
Mass media
A large, relatively informed middle class
Universal education (at least in theory) for young people
Statutory protections for the under-privileged and under-represented
A society that operated far above subsistence level for the bulk of its population
A relatively uniform society which spoke the same language throughout and shared the same general values

and so on. I then follow up with, “With all of these differences between the two societies, not to mention the differences in the people themselves, how can you think that this sort of statement is valid?”

I could list aspects of Roman society which we do not have as well. Of course the Romans did have some of these, as well as social welfare programs but in their form they were very different from those present in today’s society, enough so to, in my opinion, to make a predictive analysis pretty useless. There are just too many differences — major, fundamental differences — between these two societies to make these sorts of comparisons valid. 4 There are also differences between the people inhabiting the societies but I’m planning another post related to this (addressing another of the common statements, “People ‘back then’ were just like us”).

My other point would simply be that societies are just too complex to draw these kinds of parallels. There are far too many unknowns, uncertainties and possibilities. As an example, in the 1930’s the United States was an inward-looking country reluctant to get involved in the affairs of others, to the point of refusing to join The League of Nations. By 1950 we were willing to maintain a huge standing military and involve ourselves in armed conflicts half a world away. This exertion of military and economic force is a massive sea change when compared to our post-WWI past. Would anyone have predicted it? With hindsight you may be able to draw a parallel with the US being bombed at Pearl Harbor and Rome and the Punic Wars and the impact these events had on the respective polities’ projection of force (I think this is a pretty big stretch myself) but in, say, 1932 would anyone have predicted how altered US foreign policy would become in less than two decades?

I don’t want this post to become an essay or anything but I wanted to provide a couple of reasons why I believe that looking at past events and trying to predict future behavior from them is a useless endeavor. The differences between ancient/medieval societies and people and those of our time are simply too great, and our level of knowledge about those societies too meager. 5

To sum this up, I believe that studying history can give us insights into how people in the past behaved, why they made decisions and, on a larger scale, giving us at least some information on the transformation of societies (I refuse to use the term “rise and fall” here). It can provide us with some information on the decision-making processes of states and even individuals. However I believe that it is a mistake to try to apply this knowledge in a predictive way to future events. When we’re talking about the distant past, there’s just too much that is unknown and the societies involved, both past and present, too complex and containing too many variables. 6

1 I also think, in general, that history does repeat itself, imperfectly. However it’s a huge leap to go from looking at extremely broad, general trends and decide these make predictions of a specific culture appropriate.

2 Hanson, Victor Davis, A War Like no Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War. New York: Random House (2005). Dust Jacket (how do you reference the dust jacket?) ISBN: 9-781400-060955. I received this book as a gift while recovering from surgery a few years ago. It’s a good read and I learned a fair amount from it (hopefully stuff I shouldn’t unlearn) but I recall how frequently Hanson makes these types of comparisons. I was ready to look through the book for examples to quote when lo and behold, the dust jacket gave me everything I wanted.

3 Technically, because the US has a constitution which provides certain protections to certain people and groups we’re not a 100% Representative Democracy but a Constitutional Republic but I find if I use that term in a conversation I end up having to explain what it is and I lose my message.

4 I’m not even going to get into whether the characteristics these people commonly attribute to the later Roman Empire are valid or, if valid, whether they should be considered a major contributor to its end.

5 I want to again stress that this doesn’t mean I don’t think we can learn anything from history, just that using it in this sort of predictive manner doesn’t work in my opinion. I also want to stress that there’s a big difference in looking at societies separated by hundreds or thousands of years compared with, say, looking at American policies from the 1970’s to inform us on what may happen today or predicting an individual’s future behavior based on his or her past behavior.

6 One other item related to historical method is how important I’ve come to believe it is to examine different aspects of history independent of other aspects first and not make comparisons or group different events/aspects until an issue/event/aspect has first been examined independently in detail. I’ve mentioned before how influential Chris Wickham’s studying societies on a smaller regional level, “each on its own terms,” in Framing the Early Middle Ages has been for me. I’ve also talked about Guy Halsall’s Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568 and how well he explained the need to examine different pieces of evidence independently of one another and not allowing other evidence to infringe on (contaminate is a very good word) the initial examination. See pages 153-61 though Halsall raises this point several times. Some day, when I’m smarter, I want to make some posts about how different historians utilize evidence in their work as this absolutely fascinates me.

Other references:

Halsall, Guy, Barbarian Migrations and the Roman West, 376-568. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press (2008). ISBN: 9-780521-435437.

Wickham, Chris, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean, 400-800. Oxford: Oxford University Press (2006). ISBN: 9-780199-212965

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Posted by on May 9, 2011 in Historiography


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