Monday, April 30, 2007

History Before 1950

All too frequently I run into hacks inordinately fond of quoting obsolete historical scholarship, sometimes a hundred or more years old. I take them to task, for instance, in my summary critical review of the woefully unreliable work of Kersey Graves in my article Kersey Graves and The World's Sixteen Crucified Saviors (2003), whose infamous book is a fine example of how (with a few exceptions) antiquated historical scholarship is simply not to be trusted. Though I do not address there the few aspects of his work that actually have been vindicated by sound scholarship of later years, my generalized critique makes the point that it's only recent scholarship, pro or con, that is worth consulting. Graves shouldn't even be read, much less cited.

Among the many arguments I gave for this conclusion was one in particular about the history of history itself:

Graves' scholarship is obsolete, having been vastly improved upon by new methods, materials, discoveries, and textual criticism in the century since he worked. In fact, almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today.
I was subsequently asked in feedback what I meant by that. Not, that is, in reference just to Graves, but in apparently condemning the whole field of history even up to the middle of the 20th century. As I have made the same point in many other contexts, I gave a detailed reply to this question years ago. I now realize this is well worth publishing here, since it applies far beyond the case of Graves and relates a point I will continue to make again and again.

So here it is, with some minor editing:

The first day I arrived in the office of my graduate advisor at Columbia University, Professor William V. Harris, a very distinguished scholar of ancient history, one of the first things he said to me is (paraphrasing, since I can't recall his exact words--this was now about ten years ago), "Don't rely on anything written before 1950 or so unless you can confirm what it says from primary evidence or more recent scholarship." Point blank.
I have since found that his advice was quite apt. That doesn't mean we don't consult such texts (many crucial references were produced in the 1920's and 1940's that have never been revised) but generally we only use them as a "guide" back to the primary evidence or to check against later scholarship, etc. Hence the biggest exceptions are works that do little but present primary evidence (e.g. collections of inscriptions, critical textual apparati, etc.). Though there are a few exceptions in historical scholarship--but very few. For example, Ronald Syme's Roman Revolution (1939) is practically required reading on the Roman Civil Wars. Yet even then no historian would ever use Syme as a source without backing up whatever claim he is relying on with primary evidence or more recent scholarship. As there has been a lot challenging even Syme on various points. And again, Syme is exceptional.

Generally, the reasons for our attitude toward such early historical work are many, but here are four major ones:

  1. Historians were often, for some reason, more textually naive before the 1950's, trusting what historical texts and primary sources said too much, and trying too hard to make the evidence fit them. The situation has reversed since then, and archaeology is now more important, and multiple corroboration, and other methodological approaches are required (e.g. showing how a claim fits general cultural knowledge, and conceding uncertainty more often than previous historians did, etc.). As a result, a lot of what was argued before 1950 has been refuted or heavily qualified or modified. So you have to check and see in any given case if a claim still stands.
  2. A lot more evidence has come to light. For example: new Arabic texts relating to the history of science; papyrological finds pertaining to the Hellenistic period in Greece, the origins of Christianity, Roman history and economics, Egyptian government and society under Greek and Roman rule, etc.; plus documents recovered from Pompeii and Herculaneum and the Dead Sea and Nag Hammadi, and so on (heck, we're still recovering texts from Oxyrhynchus); etc. This evidence has often changed, sometimes radically, the findings of earlier decades. Since you cannot know in advance what has been revised in light of new evidence, you simply can't assume old works stand as written, and must check more recent work to confirm any conclusions.
  3. Social and cultural history were largely (though not completely) neglected before the 1950's, and when addressed, were approached with the less sophisticated tools of the time. Since then significant advances have been made in sociology, psychology, economics, and anthropology, which have changed the way we understand and study other cultures. This has made a significant impact on the study of the history of religions, of ancient economics, social relations and interactions, background assumptions and worldview studies, and so on. And since these things connect with and affect every historical event in some way, improvements in our understanding of culture and its various facets entail changes in the way we understand and interpret historical texts and events.
  4. Finally (though this list is not comprehensive) the methodology of historians has become more scientific after WWII. That is, historians have become more method-conscious, and more concerned about distinguishing opinion from fact, and causal theory from chronological sequence, and much more concerned with thorough documentation, relying as much as possible on primary evidence, and being very critical when forced to rely on scholarship instead. Citation of sources is more meticulous. For example, before the 1950's you will find a lot of historians making claims to fact that are really the opinions or theories of earlier historians--and often they won't even tell you that.

A really good example of these factors can be gleaned from reading my dissertation advisor's rather famous book (in our field, that is): William Harris, War and Imperialism in Republican Rome: 327-70 BC (1979, reprinted with a new preface in 1991). He basically shows how earlier historians were hugely wrong on this subject--which is really something, since political and military history was the major thing before the 1950's, so you would think that if they could get anything right, it would be that. But no--and precisely because the religious and cultural and economic contexts, for example, were not properly understood or properly taken into account.

Of course, Harris also refutes a lot of historians from the 60's and 70's, too, but how he does so is also what distinguishes this work (and most works of professional history today) from most pre-50's material: enormously copious (and meticulous) citations, references, and reliance on primary evidence, a careful distinction between fact and theory, and taking into account new discoveries and scholarship, especially (but not only) in the ancillary fields that study human nature and the nature of cultures and societies (psychology, sociology, economics, anthropology, etc.). Harris deploys the same superior methodology (and again refutes common conclusions of earlier eras) in his equally-definitive works Ancient Literacy (1989) and Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (2004).

And yet I still recall in high school, in the late 80's, being taught a theory of Roman imperialism that Harris had so soundly refuted in 1979 that his findings became the gold standard and remain unchallenged. And that wasn't the only thing I was taught in high school history classes that I later found out was not only false, but soundly refuted, by work well-predating my high school years. It seems that high school textbooks, and teachers, are still relying on obsolete historical scholarship. And that's a problem. But the solution is caution. Always double-check a claim or conclusion against more recent scholarship.

12 comments:

FreeThinker said...

Fascinating post, as always. Minor grammar point: no apostrophe needed when referencing decades (80s instead of 80's).

'80s might be OK since the apostrophe serves as a contraction.

Sorry. They call me the "apostrophe cop" here at the office!

petrich said...

Which I think is a refutation of an argument among certain Xian apologists that we are gapingly-mindedly credulous about every ancient text but the Bible.

But we do not automatically believe that Rome was founded by the son of a god and a virgin simply because a usually-useful source, Livy, had stated that.

And I wonder what thories of Rome's wars and revolution had been discredited. I'm not familiar with that controversy.

As to history of religion and how it fits in with the rest of society, I wonder what the revisions have been.

And what about Rodney Stark's works? I have a hard time swallowing his claims of the absolute moral superiority of historical Xianity.

Mark Plus said...

Richard, I wonder what you make of ecological approaches to understanding history, like Jared Diamond's?

Richard Carrier said...

FreeThinker: True, that's what you'll read in CMS 8.40. But not needed is not the same as not used, so I'll stick with being old school, Dawg!

Petrich: The theories that Harris refuted are, of course, summarized in his book.

One of them is the idea that Roman imperialism was an accident, that they were just defending themselves and ended up with an empire. Harris proves conclusively that the Romans set out to conquer the world, already as early as the 4th century B.C., and systematically mastered the art of accomplishing just that, and one of their tactics was making it look like they had just "defended themselves" into an empire. "Ooops! Gosh! Where'd that empire come from?"

That's just an example.

I've remarked on Rodney Stark in comments elsewhere on this blog. He is a superb sociologist, but a lousy historian.

Mark Plus: Ecological (and geographical) causation in history is real, and is essential to any complete analysis, but it is sometimes exaggerated. In fact, as a rule, specialists tend to exaggerate the importance of their own contributions. But that doesn't mean those factors didn't contribute.

This isn't new. The role of geography on the rise of successful democracies in Greece has been argued for over a hundred years, and technically can be found already in ancient historians, who were actually fond of finding eco-geographic causes to the point of excess.

But like all things, we've refined this search to a science, so we are now much better at identifying when ecology and geography really do play a part in driving or altering the course of history. Just don't get carried away with thinking that's the driving cause, as Diamond sometimes seems to imply.

Infidelis Maximus said...

Richard, I enjoy your blog and agree with much of what you say here. That said, I felt the need to respond in detail over on my blog: "On hacks and hacking." I'll be interested to hear your thoughts in response if you have time.

Richard Carrier said...

Infidelis Maximus, you've misrepresented some of my arguments and ignored others.

Let's start with the essential background point...

There are hundreds of thousands of books, and millions of articles, on the subject of history. It is simply impossible to even look at them all, much less skim them all, even less read them all. Just on the subject of the mystery religions prior to Christianity and the origins and development of Christianity in its Judeo-Pagan context, I am certain (especially if we don't discriminate) the books number over a thousand and the articles ten times that. We have to decide what to ignore, and where to focus our time, if we really want to learn anything useful in any historical subject, whether that or any other.

Therefore, scholars have informal criteria, which they pass on orally to their graduate students, regarding what you shouldn't even bother looking at, and how to direct your attention more profitably instead, since we all have limited resources in reading time. Graves is among the entire category of "wasted time." Chopping off that entire category cuts over 90% of the fat right from the start, and yet still leaves us with more worthwhile reading on any subject than we will ever live long enough to read. Why should I spend a minute on Graves, when I can more profitably spend a million hours, if I had them, reading more worthwhile books and articles on the same subject before I ever came to anything even a fraction as awful as Graves?

In contrast...

You recommend reading what actually misinforms people and offers next to no help to anyone in getting at the truth. In my opinion, you should instead be directing people to what you now know is more useful and reliable, rather than telling them to read what you now know is largely false or misleading, precisely because laymen have so little of the means and background knowledge to correct Graves' errors and pick out his successes.

Speaking as one who was a layman when he read Graves, I can honestly say that's true, and that I wish someone had told me not to bother. I'd love to have that time back, and to have spent it on a much better book, like Pagans and Christians or The Riddle of Resurrection.

So...

If what you want is an accessible, reasonably reliable critique of orthodox ideas of Christian origins, then MacMullen, Fox, Ehrmann, even Malina are far more worth anyone's time, and no less readable than Graves.

Or if you want something accessible and reasonably reliable on pre-Christian mystery religions, then read Klauck, Mettinger, Beck, Meyer, even Dodds.

Or if you want something that just gets people to thinking and questioning, then direct them to Ken's Guide to the Bible or The Bible Unearthed or even the writings of Doherty or Price, which despite their flaws are a thousand times superior to Graves, yet no less accessible to laymen.

But if what you want is an accessible, reasonably reliable defense of there being sixteen savior gods actually crucified before Christ, such books will never exist, because that claim is simply false.

I'm sure you agree at least with that much. Where we disagree, I suppose, is that in my view it is better to read nothing than what is 90% false and, worse, offers you no way to find out which 90%.

Of course, much better than reading nothing, is to read something that's actually good.

A second, and perhaps more important point...

You seem to confuse what I said about Graves with what I said about pre-50's scholarship--when it comes to the latter as a general category, not only did I never say "don't read any of that," but my entire thesis was: read from it selectively and with caution. Your false generalizing didn't even stop there, but you seem to have leaped to the strange assumption that what I said about Graves I meant even of everything written by laymen or semi-experts, which is certainly not anything I have argued.

So let me make sure you understand me now:

What I conclude about Graves is not what I conclude about all pre-50's scholarship, nor is it anything I have said about all contemporary lay or semi-expert scholarship.

As for Graves, though, I stand by and will repeat what I said, to everyone else reading this:

Do not waste your time reading him. Most of what you read there will fill your head with error, and his book will offer minimal to no help in clearing all that junk out of your head, while what he does get right, you won't have any way to know, nor any means of defending against criticism, as his treatment of sources is so dismal.

This is the same reason I don't even look at any of the books on pyramidiot theories I still get boneheads insisting I read every year. If I want to know about the real history of the pyramids, I only spend my time on reliable, useful works. So would you. The Graves thesis is no different than a badly written, badly sourced, frequently wrong history of the pyramids. There are easily a hundred things you ought to be reading before you should look at that, and by the time you finish those worthwhile readings, you won't need to read that. So why ever bother? Time is too precious. And there is so much more worthwhile reading out there.

As a scholar one of my moral obligations is to tell laymen what will only mislead them and will be of little help to them. In any quest for knowledge, Graves will hurt you more than help you, and will help you almost none at all. To say this is not arrogance. It's responsible good sense. I mean no offense. I only hope you can understand where I'm coming from here.

Infidelis Maximus said...

Richard,

Some points in response:

>>“Background point:”

1. I never said everything was worth reading. It’s a foregone conclusion that we have a finite amount of time and that some works are indeed not worth the time they would take to read. Others are highly questionable/require extensive fact-checking. We happen to disagree generally on whether scholarship before 1950 falls into this latter category, and specifically whether Graves falls into the former.

>>“In contrast:”

2. You know, I wish the world were that black and white. You think people like Graves and Lloyd Graham actually offer “next to no help in getting at the truth?” Is that what you’re saying? Like a lot of books, they’re a mixed bag of truth and falsehood, correct and incorrect points. In both their cases, they happened to have quite an assortment of flaws. However, that doesn’t mean they have no value in getting at the truth. On the contrary, they at least inspire one to look further, and they open up new thought vistas that a mind clouded by years of Christian indoctrination might never have considered. You making statements like this is just the type of generalization I’m talking about. Numerically, it’s like if something’s not at least a 5, it’s a zero to you.

>>“So:”

3. I regularly recommend these other authors, have written responses to critiques against them, and consider Ehrman probably my favorite religion author. Graves isn’t in the left margin of my blog because he doesn’t deserve to be. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t deserve to be read or that he wouldn’t be very appealing, eye-opening even, for a certain class of reader. Again, I don’t disagree that there are better books. I disagree about whether his is so poor as to be “90% false.” He might be half false, but 90%? I don’t think so. To take the metaphor further, even if there were only eight crucified saviors, that would still be quite earth-shattering to the average evangelical who is unaware that there ever were forerunners or parallels to Jesus in ancient times.

“Where we disagree, I suppose, is that in my view it is better to read nothing than what is 90% false”

No, we disagree (among other things) about the stringent standards you’re applying to determine that Graves is 90% false. I’d agree that something that’s 90% false isn’t worth reading or citing. I disagree about whether that applies to Graves. Perhaps to a scholar, claims that aren’t properly sourced are tantamount to false, but that’s not the case for laypeople, nor should it be.

>>“A second and perhaps more important point:”

4. You drew the connection between Graves and history before 1950 yourself:

“All too frequently I run into hacks inordinately fond of quoting obsolete historical scholarship, sometimes a hundred or more years old. I take them to task, for instance, in my summary critical review of the woefully unreliable work of Kersey Graves.”

You offer Graves as a case in point for your contention that “antiquated historical scholarship is simply not to be trusted.” Perhaps I misread you, but you appeared to be painting all of pre-1950s scholarship with the same broad brush. Correct me if I’m wrong, but what exactly did you mean by “antiquated?” I took it to mean pre-1950s. Perhaps you meant simply out-of-date. If so, how is one to know when a source is out-of-date?

You go on to make the generalization that “almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today.” What should one infer from this, Richard? That anyone who doesn’t share this view is not a real historian? Or, if they happen to be “inordinately fond” of citing this old scholarship, they are “hacks?” And would you have me read things that are outdated and untrustworthy? You say that what you meant was that we should “read from it selectively and with caution.” How does a layperson read “with caution?” Like you say, time is finite, so why spend it on works that are so untrustworthy and obsolete? It sounded to me like you were grouping these pre-1950 works in with folks like Graves, and I’ll bet I wasn’t the only one.

Re: laymen and amateur scholars: I didn’t say you said their work wasn’t worth reading. I said there seemed to be a hypercritical attitude underlying your comments, and that disturbed me. It seemed as though you were saying that a work having some imperfections automatically made it suspect. I still detect the same attitude in this latest response. Take, for example, your backhanded compliment of Bob Price. I’m sure he’ll be delighted to be classified in your “flawed” works category. I only hope we don’t see a critique of Bob’s work from you anytime soon. I hope you find better things to do, because that will surely have the same effect your thesis about Graves and pre-1950s scholarship is bound to have: to give Christian apologists valuable factoids and sound bites from one of unbelief’s big fish to toss out whenever their beliefs are challenged.

>>“So let me make sure you understand me now”

5. “What I conclude about Graves is not what I conclude about all pre-50's scholarship, nor is it anything I have said about all contemporary lay or semi-expert scholarship.”

You start the piece by using Graves as a case in point for your derision of pre-1950s history in general, so this is a little hard to swallow.

Taking only pre-1950s scholarship for the moment, tell me how I reconcile this claim with:

“almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today.”

If you’re suggesting that laypeople should read pre-1950 “cautiously” and “always double-check a claim or conclusion against more recent scholarship,” I have to ask: Do you expect them to actually do that? Most laypeople have neither the time nor the inclination to check a claim against multiple books and resources. They are, after all, laypeople. The salient point one would take away from what you’ve said is that the mass of these works is unreliable, which, as I’ve said, I find bothersome.

>>In any quest for knowledge, Graves will hurt you more than help you, and will help you almost none at all.

Again, that seems overly harsh. He does help establish the parallels between the Jesus story and pagan ones. The fact that other people do it better is beside the point.

>>To say this is not arrogance. It's responsible good sense. I mean no offense. I only hope you can understand where I'm coming from here.

I think I understand it better than I did. But I do think some of your generalizations are ripe for misinterpretation.

Even if the works of a Kersey Graves or a Lloyd Graham are sub par, I still think they’re worth reading by a certain class of reader. Heck, I recently reread TWSCS and found it mildly entertaining. Some of the stuff he says is so ridiculous as to be funny. But the overall position that there were pagan parallels to Christ is nothing to laugh about and something of which the vast majority of Christians are unaware.

petrich said...

Infidelis Maximus, you seem almost desperate to defend Kersey Graves's TWSCS despite its extremely shoddy "scholarship".

Could KG's writing style make his case seem very convincing, even if that appearance is only skin-deep?

If so, then all you KG admirers ought to try imitating it, but with higher-quality scholarship.

Like take some recent Jesus-myth scholarship and construct a narrative of the origins of Xianity from it -- and explain each bit of the narrative.

Argument by narrative is essentially specious, but narratives are good as illustrations, and they can be a good way of getting ideas to stick in people's minds.

The trouble is that we are up against Xian apologists who seem to think that argument by narrative is the bee's knees.

I recall reading somewhere that many early Xian apologists and theologians had been trained in rhetoric and much fewer in philosophy. And some time I ought to check that contention out.

And despite all their pretensions to science and rationality, many of their successors seem like that also.

Infidelis Maximus said...

I'm not desperate to defend Graves in the slightest. The point I was trying to make is that I think there's room for works like his in the 'permissible to read' category. Maybe the distribution looks something like this:

-------------------------> Popularity
| A B C D E F G H I
|10++BE++++++++++
|9++++++++++++BE+
|8++++++++RC+++++
|7++++++++SH+++++
|6++++++++++RD+RP
|5+++++++++++++CH
|4+++++++++++++++
|3+++++++KG++++++
|---don't bother----
|2+++++++++++++++
|1+++++++++++++++
V
Scholarship

Where BE=Bart Ehrman, RC=Richard, SH=Sam Harris, RD=Richard Dawkins, RP=Robert Price, CH=Christopher Hitchens, and KG=Kersey Graves

I just happen to think Graves is above the line of books people "shouldn't read let alone cite." He may be right on the line--no argument there--but I think he's in the read-worthy group.

I just recently reread TWSCS (a couple weeks ago) and laughed out loud at some of the nonsense. I hadn't read him since I was in my teens (and I was a Christian then), so this was a nice trip down memory lane. I was about to interview Acharya S on my blog, and she wrote the foreword to the recent reprint, so I purchased a copy of it so I could refamiliarize myself with it and ask her some semi-educated questions about it. No, it's not one of my favorite books. No, I won't reread it or recommend it. But I do respect the role Graves played in opening people's minds to the possibility that there might have been other Christs. To say he shouldn't even be read is just a bit much, IMO.

Richard Carrier said...

Infidelis Maximus said: I never said everything was worth reading.

I never said you said that. Next.

Infidelis Maximus said: You think people like Graves and Lloyd Graham actually offer "next to no help in getting at the truth?" Is that what you’re saying?

I never said anything about Graham. As for Graves, yes, that is what I said about his book. Next.

Infidelis Maximus said: Like a lot of books, they’re a mixed bag of truth and falsehood, correct and incorrect points. In both their cases, they happened to have quite an assortment of flaws. However, that doesn’t mean they have no value in getting at the truth. On the contrary, they at least inspire one to look further, and they open up new thought vistas that a mind clouded by years of Christian indoctrination might never have considered.

If the only value a book has is that it "inspires you to look further and opens vistas" then a good book that does that is better than a bad book that does that. That's my point: don't waste time on bad books, when you can get all the same benefits and a thousand times more by reading a good book instead.

Infidelis Maximus said: To take the metaphor further, even if there were only eight crucified saviors, that would still be quite earth-shattering to the average evangelical who is unaware that there ever were forerunners or parallels to Jesus in ancient times.

There are not even two, much less eight. Inanna is in fact the only savior god who was actually crucified. The fact that you confuse "died" with "crucified" is exactly the kind of muddled and disastrous thinking that a reading of Graves causes.

As a general rule, though, you should not even be reading a book that is 50% false. An acceptable rate of error is no more than 10%, and that's being extremely generous, especially when there are so many books that do so much better. Everything else should be consigned to the dustbin--with one general exception: some hopelessly bad books might still be worth reading if their source citation and mode of discussion is detailed enough that a reader can easily find out what in it is wrong and what right. But Graves doesn't even meet that bar.

Infidelis Maximus said: You drew the connection between Graves and history before 1950 yourself: "All too frequently I run into hacks inordinately fond of quoting obsolete historical scholarship, sometimes a hundred or more years old. I take them to task, for instance, in my summary critical review of the woefully unreliable work of Kersey Graves."

Where do I mention the year 1950 here? Where do I say all works before that (or any) date are obsolete? Where do I say they are all as bad as Graves?

Infidelis Maximus said: You offer Graves as a case in point for your contention that "antiquated historical scholarship is simply not to be trusted."

Notice how your quote here omits my qualification in parentheses immediately preceding the words you quote (not to mention all the qualifications that followed in later paragraphs). I will start deleting your comments if you are going to play games like this. Be honest from here on out, okay?

Infidelis Maximus said: You go on to make the generalization that "almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today." What should one infer from this, Richard?

First of all, I expect you to know what the word "almost" means. Secondly, I expect you to read the rest of my article, not just sentences out of context. Thirdly, I expect you to infer nothing beyond what I actually say.

Infidelis Maximus said: How does a layperson read "with caution?"

Easy: Find out from an expert (either in person, or from a modern monograph, or from a current academic reference book) what you should be reading on any subject that interests you, whether old or new, and start there. But if you bump into an old book first and read it for some reason and then want to know what to do with it, then you should only read it understanding that anything it says could very well be wrong and that you should check its claims against more modern scholarship before trusting anything it says (which, obviously, means that you will waste less of your time if you'd just read the modern stuff to begin with).

The additional categorical advice I give also helps (e.g. old philological works are generally more reliable than old historical works, though still warranting some caution--for example, critical editions of the text of Josephus have been considerably updated since the 19th century, one should be wary of trusting the Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon without checking their 1995 Supplement, etc.). And some old books can be judged better than others precisely to the degree that they anticipate modern methods (e.g. the more they distinguish facts from theories, the more meticulous they are in source citation, etc.).

Infidelis Maximus said: It seemed as though you were saying that a work having some imperfections automatically made it suspect.

Not some imperfections. Many. All books, even modern ones, have "some" imperfections. But a book that is a tangled mass of imperfections is a bad book. And in general those books should not be read. My article on Graves lists the many kinds of imperfections a historical work can be plagued with, and the number of imperfections of each kind as well as the number of kinds of imperfection, accumulate to condemn most books written before 1950, though in varying degrees, thus calling for extreme caution in most cases, and in some cases, outright abandonment. Graves is among the worst.

Infidelis Maximus said: [criticizing Bob Price] will surely have the same effect your thesis about Graves and pre-1950s scholarship is bound to have: to give Christian apologists valuable factoids and sound bites from one of unbelief’s big fish to toss out whenever their beliefs are challenged.

I wholly reject all reasoning of this kind. It is ideologically suicidal to think that saying what's wrong with someone else's work is a threat to freedom and truth simply because liars will misquote it. The best thing we can do for our movement is show the other side (and everyone in the middle) that we also condemn and criticize the lousy scholarship of Graves, and readily point out each other's own errors as well. We can never progress toward the truth, nor promote ourselves as believers in the truth, if we do not actively engage in tearing down and correcting what is false, no matter whose book we find it in. As I said (and you omitted), Price's work is a thousand times superior to Graves. But it is not infallible or flawless. Thus, to advance toward the truth one must identify what's flawed and discard or replace it, in his books as much as in any (including my own).

Infidelis Maximus said: If you’re suggesting that laypeople should read pre-1950 “cautiously” and “always double-check a claim or conclusion against more recent scholarship,” I have to ask: Do you expect them to actually do that?

Yes.

Of course, I would prefer they read current scholarship instead. But if they must read something old (and as I explicitly said, sometimes we have to, though not as often as many laymen seem to think), any reader must take every claim they read in an old book with all the caution I advise. In short, they should not walk away from that book assuming everything it told them was correct. To the contrary, they should assume that much of what it told them is incorrect, so that before using anything it says in any argument or in constructing any belief or conclusion, they should double-check first what more recent scholarship has to say about that same fact or theory.

But hey, want to save time? Just skip the old book and read something new instead. I mean, really, why bother doing anything else?

Infidelis Maximus said: [Graves] does help establish the parallels between the Jesus story and pagan ones. The fact that other people do it better is beside the point.

To the contrary: it is exactly the point. Because most of the "parallels" Graves claims between the Jesus story and pagan ones are either (a) completely bogus, (b) significantly dubious, (c) dangerously out of context, or (d) substantially misstated or misrepresented. Worse, his source citation and discussion is so awful, it is more often than not simply impossible to find out (especially for a laymen) which of his claims fall into (a), (b), (c), or (d), or are true as stated. Therefore, his book is useless. It does more harm than good because any reader will walk away with a hundred false and inaccurate facts in his head, which he will then go on mistaking as true. Unless he re-does all of Graves' research, which even you agree is usually beyond anyone's means.

See what I mean?

Infidelis Maximus said...

I wasn’t going to respond to any more of this as I felt I’d said all I had to say on the subject. We clearly disagree and will continue to. However, your threat to delete my comments if I continue to “play games like this” was insulting enough to demand a response from me. I’ve never played any games on this thread and have merely attempted to respond honestly to your remarks.

Just so that there are as few misunderstandings as possible going forward, I will excerpt your entire response below and include my responses to it via inline remarks. You can find these responses by searching for ***IM***.

Infidelis Maximus said: I never said everything was worth reading.

I never said you said that. Next.

***IM***
But you felt the need to make an obvious point (in your “essential background”) that would only have made sense if I had: “We have to decide what to ignore, and where to focus our time, if we really want to learn anything useful in any historical subject, whether that or any other.” No kidding? I was already well aware of the fact that not everything is worth reading. The point you make here was not “essential” at all, but comes across as condescending.
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Infidelis Maximus said: You think people like Graves and Lloyd Graham actually offer "next to no help in getting at the truth?" Is that what you’re saying?

I never said anything about Graham. As for Graves, yes, that is what I said about his book. Next.

***IM***
I mention Graham here because you said, “You recommend reading what actually misinforms people and offers next to no help to anyone in getting at the truth.” I mentioned Graves, Graham, and a couple others in my response to your original post over on my blog. I didn’t know who you were referring to exactly, but thought you might be bringing in the others. Regardless, we can focus only on Graves if you like.

Also, just to set the record straight, I _did not_ recommend reading Graves. I simply said that I felt he was not beneath being read. You are repeatedly misconstruing what I’ve said. I have only argued that, to a certain class of reader, Graves may indeed be worth reading.
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Infidelis Maximus said: Like a lot of books, they’re a mixed bag of truth and falsehood, correct and incorrect points. In both their cases, they happened to have quite an assortment of flaws. However, that doesn’t mean they have no value in getting at the truth. On the contrary, they at least inspire one to look further, and they open up new thought vistas that a mind clouded by years of Christian indoctrination might never have considered.

If the only value a book has is that it "inspires you to look further and opens vistas" then a good book that does that is better than a bad book that does that. That's my point: don't waste time on bad books, when you can get all the same benefits and a thousand times more by reading a good book instead.

***IM***
Whether a book “does that better” than some other book is subjective. It’s a matter of opinion. What appeals to me or to you as a reader might not appeal to others, and vice versa. I have merely argued for keeping a much wider range of options available than you seem to want to. Graves can stay in the library if he wants to. I have no problem with that. I won’t be recommending him to anyone, but I won’t try to stop them from reading him, either.
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Infidelis Maximus said: To take the metaphor further, even if there were only eight crucified saviors, that would still be quite earth-shattering to the average evangelical who is unaware that there ever were forerunners or parallels to Jesus in ancient times.

There are not even two, much less eight. Inanna is in fact the only savior god who was actually crucified. The fact that you confuse "died" with "crucified" is exactly the kind of muddled and disastrous thinking that a reading of Graves causes.

***IM***
Here is a fine example of your generalizations. I never said there were eight (or any other number). I specifically said I was speaking in metaphor. And I never confused “died” with “crucified.” I never said anything about that. I’m well aware that this crucified saviors bit has been exaggerated. All I’ve said is that people like Graves can open the mind to the notion that there were pagan parallels to Christ. Whether these parallels were actually crucified is another matter.
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As a general rule, though, you should not even be reading a book that is 50% false. An acceptable rate of error is no more than 10%, and that's being extremely generous, especially when there are so many books that do so much better. Everything else should be consigned to the dustbin--with one general exception: some hopelessly bad books might still be worth reading if their source citation and mode of discussion is detailed enough that a reader can easily find out what in it is wrong and what right. But Graves doesn't even meet that bar.

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I disagree with you here. There is room for what I’d call “pulp prose” in the world of unbelief. It doesn’t all have to be scholarly or of high quality to be useful. I will not be reading Graves or advising others to, but that isn’t to say (in my opinion) that someone else might not find him a really good read.
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Infidelis Maximus said: You drew the connection between Graves and history before 1950 yourself: "All too frequently I run into hacks inordinately fond of quoting obsolete historical scholarship, sometimes a hundred or more years old. I take them to task, for instance, in my summary critical review of the woefully unreliable work of Kersey Graves."

Where do I mention the year 1950 here? Where do I say all works before that (or any) date are obsolete? Where do I say they are all as bad as Graves?

***IM***
Richard, what’s the title of the article? Everything you say in it has some bearing on your point, or at least it should have. I interpreted this like I think most people would have. You didn’t say all works before 1950 were obsolete? OK, square that with this:

“Graves' scholarship is obsolete, having been vastly improved upon by new methods, materials, discoveries, and textual criticism in the century since he worked. In fact, almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today.”

This is your own citation from your own work—do you think I’ve misquoted you? Is there a subtle distinction between “outdated and untrustworthy” and “obsolete” that I’m missing? I think I interpreted this exactly as you said it. Whether that was an overgeneralization on your part is another question.
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Infidelis Maximus said: You offer Graves as a case in point for your contention that "antiquated historical scholarship is simply not to be trusted."

Notice how your quote here omits my qualification in parentheses immediately preceding the words you quote (not to mention all the qualifications that followed in later paragraphs). I will start deleting your comments if you are going to play games like this. Be honest from here on out, okay?

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I wasn’t dishonest, and I’m not playing any games. This remark of yours is even more insulting than the continuous stream of condescension that flows throughout your responses. As I’ve just shown above, I cited you as you cited yourself. I think I interpreted your remarks as most people would have: scholarship before 1950 is, like the work of Kersey Graves, not to be trusted.
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Infidelis Maximus said: You go on to make the generalization that "almost every historical work written before 1950 is regarded as outdated and untrustworthy by historians today." What should one infer from this, Richard?

First of all, I expect you to know what the word "almost" means. Secondly, I expect you to read the rest of my article, not just sentences out of context. Thirdly, I expect you to infer nothing beyond what I actually say.

***IM***
What important distinction am I missing that “almost” gives us here? If we removed the word from your statement, would it have a substantially different meaning? I don’t think so. It looks like a hedge word to me. You appear to be dismissing, with one broad stroke, the whole field of history before 1950. I don’t find your subsequent qualifications and explanations very effective; they seem to falter under the enormous weight of the obvious point you’re making. But perhaps that’s just me.

I also don’t think I took anything out of context. What I cited from you here is consonant with what you say throughout the article and with your overall thesis:

“I was subsequently asked in feedback what I meant by that. Not, that is, in reference just to Graves, but in apparently condemning the whole field of history even up to the middle of the 20th century.”

I’m glad to know I was not alone in interpreting your remarks this way.

“Professor William V. Harris...one of the first things he said to me is..."Don't rely on anything written before 1950 or so unless you can confirm what it says from primary evidence or more recent scholarship." Point blank.”

Etc.
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Infidelis Maximus said: How does a layperson read "with caution?"

Easy: Find out from an expert (either in person, or from a modern monograph, or from a current academic reference book) what you should be reading on any subject that interests you, whether old or new, and start there. But if you bump into an old book first and read it for some reason and then want to know what to do with it, then you should only read it understanding that anything it says could very well be wrong and that you should check its claims against more modern scholarship before trusting anything it says (which, obviously, means that you will waste less of your time if you'd just read the modern stuff to begin with).

***IM***
I don’t believe this is as easy as you make it sound. First, most laypeople wouldn’t be able to easily distinguish between scholarly works—many wouldn’t be able to tell them apart from those intended for popular consumption, for example. (I could give you a fine example, but I won’t do it here in this forum as I don’t want to publicly criticize that author’s work.) Most wouldn’t know what qualifies something as a “current academic reference book,” nor who is and is not an “expert.” Also, most laypeople have neither the time nor the inclination to read numerous books on a given subject and compare and contrast them. Most lack the tools and education necessary to read primary sources or even to ascertain generally whether a work is scholarly sound. Some wouldn’t even know that a given book was actually quite old. Old books are given makeovers and republished all the time; this has happened with Graves, for example.
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The additional categorical advice I give also helps (e.g. old philological works are generally more reliable than old historical works, though still warranting some caution--for example, critical editions of the text of Josephus have been considerably updated since the 19th century, one should be wary of trusting the Liddell & Scott Greek-English Lexicon without checking their 1995 Supplement, etc.). And some old books can be judged better than others precisely to the degree that they anticipate modern methods (e.g. the more they distinguish facts from theories, the more meticulous they are in source citation, etc.).

***IM***
Your comments here are probably quite meaningful to you, but what do you think they net out to for a layperson? What is a layperson supposed to do with your comment about Liddell & Scott? Do you really think most laypeople even use this book? I have my doubts. Do many laypeople actually read Josephus? I read an article where you eviscerated the despicable JP Holding (nicely done, BTW) where you surmised that he probably didn’t actually read Josephus. Do you think laypeople, as a rule, are different? Do you think they read Josephus themselves or merely what others write about him? I’d guess the latter, but that’s just me. If these remarks you’ve made don’t really apply to laypeople, to whom are they directed? What conclusions should they draw from your remarks? That some books, especially old ones, are unreliable? How are they supposed to know which is which?
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Infidelis Maximus said: It seemed as though you were saying that a work having some imperfections automatically made it suspect.

Not some imperfections. Many. All books, even modern ones, have "some" imperfections. But a book that is a tangled mass of imperfections is a bad book. And in general those books should not be read. My article on Graves lists the many kinds of imperfections a historical work can be plagued with, and the number of imperfections of each kind as well as the number of kinds of imperfection, accumulate to condemn most books written before 1950, though in varying degrees, thus calling for extreme caution in most cases, and in some cases, outright abandonment. Graves is among the worst.

***IM***
OK, fair point.
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Infidelis Maximus said: [criticizing Bob Price] will surely have the same effect your thesis about Graves and pre-1950s scholarship is bound to have: to give Christian apologists valuable factoids and sound bites from one of unbelief’s big fish to toss out whenever their beliefs are challenged.

I wholly reject all reasoning of this kind. It is ideologically suicidal to think that saying what's wrong with someone else's work is a threat to freedom and truth simply because liars will misquote it. The best thing we can do for our movement is show the other side (and everyone in the middle) that we also condemn and criticize the lousy scholarship of Graves, and readily point out each other's own errors as well. We can never progress toward the truth, nor promote ourselves as believers in the truth, if we do not actively engage in tearing down and correcting what is false, no matter whose book we find it in. As I said (and you omitted), Price's work is a thousand times superior to Graves. But it is not infallible or flawless. Thus, to advance toward the truth one must identify what's flawed and discard or replace it, in his books as much as in any (including my own).

***IM***
Let me ask you something. Given that, as you point out, we have a limited time in which to read (and write about) books, wouldn’t it make more sense to train your guns on topics about which the other side will not be so eager to quote you out of context? This is a practical concern, not a theoretical one. The more of this fratricide you do, the more it will be used against us. Contrary to what you say above, I don’t think you’re winning any points with the true believers out there by criticizing Graves or Price. You are merely giving them ammo to use against the cause of unbelief.

Also, I need to stop and respond to an aspersion you keep casting my way here. I _did not_ intentionally omit anything you said about Bob Price. I have _never_ in this thread intentionally misquoted you or misconstrued what I interpreted you to be saying. I have _not_ attempted to quote you out of context; it is standard practice with online correspondence to abbreviate prior posts in a thread when responding to them. I have a good deal of respect for you and your work and recommend it all the time. I do not have it out for you personally; I just disagree with you on this one thing. Moreover, this is not a scholarly work. It is a blog and (what I had considered up to this point) an honest discussion between people who happen to disagree. People don’t have to go to the library to get the full text of what you originally said. It is right here in this thread. You did indeed describe Price’s work as flawed. I only pointed out that those on the other side will love this and will use it against us. I honestly hope they don’t see your generalizations about Price’s work. I _don’t_ want to hide anything, but I also don’t want to have to deal with the order of magnitude amplification they will give your remarks before screaming them at me when I recommend this or that book of his. And I hope that he doesn’t follow suit and make general remarks without substantiation about your work being flawed. I hope we don’t get into a pissing match within the ranks of the top unbelief authors. We don’t need that.
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Infidelis Maximus said: If you’re suggesting that laypeople should read pre-1950 “cautiously” and “always double-check a claim or conclusion against more recent scholarship,” I have to ask: Do you expect them to actually do that?

Yes.

Of course, I would prefer they read current scholarship instead. But if they must read something old (and as I explicitly said, sometimes we have to, though not as often as many laymen seem to think), any reader must take every claim they read in an old book with all the caution I advise. In short, they should not walk away from that book assuming everything it told them was correct. To the contrary, they should assume that much of what it told them is incorrect, so that before using anything it says in any argument or in constructing any belief or conclusion, they should double-check first what more recent scholarship has to say about that same fact or theory.

But hey, want to save time? Just skip the old book and read something new instead. I mean, really, why bother doing anything else?

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Because laypeople may find it quite difficult to determine whether “something new” is actually better. Is Evidence That Demands a Verdict more reliable than the work of F.C. Baur? It is newer, after all. Is The Jesus Mysteries more reliable than Holy Blood, Holy Grail? It is newer. You might reply, “But those aren’t scholarly works.” And how exactly is a layperson supposed to know that? Your general dismissal of old works in favor of newer ones is ripe for causing confusion.
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Infidelis Maximus said: [Graves] does help establish the parallels between the Jesus story and pagan ones. The fact that other people do it better is beside the point.

To the contrary: it is exactly the point. Because most of the "parallels" Graves claims between the Jesus story and pagan ones are either (a) completely bogus, (b) significantly dubious, (c) dangerously out of context, or (d) substantially misstated or misrepresented. Worse, his source citation and discussion is so awful, it is more often than not simply impossible to find out (especially for a laymen) which of his claims fall into (a), (b), (c), or (d), or are true as stated. Therefore, his book is useless. It does more harm than good because any reader will walk away with a hundred false and inaccurate facts in his head, which he will then go on mistaking as true. Unless he re-does all of Graves' research, which even you agree is usually beyond anyone's means.

See what I mean?

***IM***
You’ve made many points in this exchange, not just one. I haven’t challenged that there are better authors and more recent scholarship than Graves. What I have steadfastly challenged is that Graves is not worth reading. The man’s work is still with us and still being talked about over a hundred years after his death. I can only hope that my own books will still be discussed a century after my death. He was influential, and I think it's unwise to advise people, in a public forum where such advice will almost certainly be inappropriately generalized, that he is not even worth picking up. I believe that’s a subjective question that is better left to the individual. As I have said before, I wish that you would aim your formidable talents at the unbelief side of the battlefield. I think we’d all be better off.

Just so we’re clear about what I’m saying and to avoid any further misunderstandings, let me net it out for you:

• People should be able to make up their own minds about whether something is worth reading. There is room in the unbelief library for a wide variety of works, including those that are barely worth the paper they’re printed on from a scholarly standpoint.

• Your advice about not trusting scholarship before 1950 without checking primary sources or more recent scholarship is not directly useful to most laypeople. Most do not have the time, inclination, or tools to consult primary sources or distinguish scholarship from pseudo-scholarship or non-scholarly works. That might be great advice to give a burgeoning scholar or grad student with a degree in history, but I don’t believe it is for laypeople.

• Believers will misconstrue your remarks and use them to paint all works questioning the uniqueness of the Jesus story with a broad brush. I’m willing to bet they’re already doing that.

• As a person who duels regularly with the idiots that make up the unbelief camp, I cringe at the thought of your work being used in the service of Jesus. What you write about and talk about is your own business, but, as an aside, I just wish you would train your guns on the bad guys. There is only so much time.

I find myself in the disagreeable position of defending someone like Graves on the grounds of letting people make up their own minds about whether he deserves to be read. I do not personally think much of Graves. As I said earlier in the thread, I reread TWSCS for an interview I was about to do on my blog and found parts of it laughably absurd. Even I know enough to see right through many of his claims and his ridiculous leaps of logic. I have never and will never recommend Graves to anyone. But it is another thing entirely to say that he doesn’t even deserve to be read by anyone. That takes it a bit too far, IMO. That is the gist of what I’ve been trying to say here.

Now, I’ve said about all I have to say on this. From this point forward, I’m not going to respond to any more insults. If you want to have more discussion about this and you can refrain from accusing me of being dishonest or otherwise intentionally maligning you, I might respond further. Otherwise, I’m done with this.

BTW, if you merely delete this post as you have threatened, I will be happy to post it on my own blog (along with the remarks that spawned it) in order to defend myself against the allegations you’ve made. I have never, in my entire life as far as I know, intentionally misquoted anyone or taken their remarks out of context, and I feel duty bound to respond to allegations that I have.
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Richard Carrier said...

Infidelis Maximus:

I don't believe laymen are as lame and incapable as you seem to think they are, I never said people shouldn't "be able to make up their own minds" (on any matter, this or otherwise), I don't agree with you at all about "shutting up" when we find each other's work flawed, and I haven't seen any matter of fact here on which I am in error. As for the rest, all my previous words (in the original post and in my subsequent comments) are already sufficient to correct or refute everything you said in your last post that I disagree with. And I agree with the rest. So there is nothing more to be said here.