History and the Divine Sphere: Homer, Herodotus, and Thucydides

Last academic quarter I taught discussion sections for a course on Classical Greece, in which we studied Greek literature during the 5th century BCE, including the works of Herodotus (c. 484-425 BCE) — the first Western historian — and the historian Thucydides (c. 460-395 BCE) — who wrote only a generation after Herodotus. Part of what interests me about studying these authors is seeing how historical discourse first emerged as a formalized genre in antiquity. Furthermore, it is interesting to study the literature that came before Herodotus, to see how historical prose is different from previous mythology set in the past, such as Homer’s Iliad (8th century BCE). Both Herodotus and the Iliad discuss past events set in real places, but Herodotus writes in a critical and investigative style, employing historical methodology that drastically increases his reliability. I have written here before about the literary conventions and techniques that distinguish historical writing from other genres of ancient literature, but, in teaching sections for this course, I realized another very important aspect of historical writing that sets it apart from myth and storytelling.

For anyone who has read the Iliad, a distinctive aspect of the epic is that it relates events set both in the divine and human spheres. The poet narrates both the actions of mortals, who are in battle around the city of Troy, and the role of the gods, who are set on Olympus. The poet frequently transitions between these two spheres, so that when Zeus makes a decision on Olympus, we can see its effect down on Earth. For example, when Zeus decides to send a false dream to Agamemnon in Il. 2.1-47, telling him to attack the Trojans, the poet relates both Zeus’ plan to send the dream from Olympus and the dream reaching Agamemnon himself on Earth:

“Now all the other gods and men, lords of chariots, slumbered the whole night through, but Zeus was not holden of sweet sleep, for he was pondering in his heart how he might do honor to Achilles and lay many low beside the ships of the Achaeans. And this plan seemed to his mind the best, to send to Agamemnon, son of Atreus, a baneful dream.”

The poet thus explores the motivations of the gods through scenes and dialogues in which they relate their plans and perspective. The Iliad, which is a pre-historical epic, thus combines the divine sphere of the gods in Olympus with events on Earth, when telling a story about the past.

One of the first things I taught my students when we studied Herodotus’s Histories is an aspect of his work that scholars have long recognized: Herodotus does not describe events set in the the divine sphere. As a historian, Herodotus’ inquiry was limited solely to what evidence he could find for human events here on Earth. Unlike the poet, Herodotus did not have access to the gods, and thus, unlike the Iliad, his history is told solely from the mortal perspective. Herodotus would still include miracles and prophecies in his narrative, but we never see the gods operating behind the scenes. At most, the mortals can only witness miraculous events in his narrative, but they cannot see the gods or divine motives behind them. Thucydides is even more secular, as he removes miracles altogether from his narrative, and discusses historical events solely from a political and natural perspective. There are no gods, miracles, or divine forces in Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War. Bear in mind that both of these authors are the earliest historians in Western history. They represent a trend in historical writing that literally goes all the way back to its earliest foundations.

Apologists, in arguing that they can “historically” prove the resurrection, often face the problem that miracles, like supernatural resurrections, are horribly improbable events. A common apologetic response to this problem is that the resurrection of Jesus is not so improbable, if God wants to raise Jesus from the dead. However, all the way from the time of Herodotus, historians have not had access to the will of the gods. In claiming that historians can claim that God wants to raise Jesus from the dead, apologists are thus violating a convention of historical discourse that has roots in the earliest developments of history as a formal method and literary genre.

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Posted in Classics, History, Philosophy | 5 Comments

Attacking a Straw Man: John Montgomery and Ross Clifford Target Κέλσος in Lieu of Richard Packham

John Warwick Montgomery is a juridical apologist who has spent much of his career popularizing the argument that jural analogies and legal reasoning can be applied in defense of the Christian scriptures and the resurrection of Jesus. One of his articles, “The Jury Returns: A Juridical Defense of Christianity,” can be accessed online, and Montgomery is also the editor of his online journal, Global Journal of Classical Theology.

Now, as people who read this blog should well know, I am a strong critic of the argument that we can use “historical” evidence to prove the resurrection of Jesus. That remains, in my opinion, first and foremost a theological and philosophical question. But I can at least partially see where some historical apologists are coming from. The New Testament consists of ancient texts, to which we can apply historical methodology. I do not think, however, that historical evidence can be used to prove paranormal claims, like the resurrection of Jesus.

That is my opinion of historical apologetics. It should be clear that, in no way whatsoever, do I think that we can treat the NT books as “legal documents” nor any other texts from ancient history, including Pagan ones. Ancient literature was not produced in a context or style that makes it useful for legal testimony or courtroom investigation. Anything we say about the historical Jesus must rely on historical (not legal) methodology alone, and the resurrection of Jesus is beyond the scope of both historical and legal methodology as a philosophical question.

With that in mind, I was glad to read the work of retired attorney Richard Packham, whose published article, “Critique of John Warwick Montgomery’s Arguments for the Legal Evidence for Christianity,” provides an excellent rebuttal to Montgomery’s legal arguments, drawing from Packham’s professional experience in law.

In Montgomery’s journal, Global Journal of Classical Theology, an author named Boyd Pehrson wrote a response to Packham’s critique in January 2003. Mr. Packham wrote a response to Pehrson’s article, titled “Response to Pehrson,” on his personal website. As of March 20th, 2008, Packham was no longer able to find Perhrson’s article online, and it appears that Montgomery has removed it from his online journal [1].

About a year and a half ago I wrote a short article on Κέλσος, titled “Objection! The Resurrection of Jesus Is Not a Court Case!,” in which, since I am not a legal expert, I summarize Packham’s arguments against juridical apologetics. I state at the top of the article:

“I will summarize Packham’s main points (which are his and not mine) below…”

Since my blog post was the summary of another article, I was rather surprised recently to learn that John Montgomery’s journal is now planning an article, written by Ross Clifford, principal of Morling Baptist Theological College in Australia, in response to my blog article:

“The first issue of Volume 12 of the Global Journal will focus upon the defense of classical Christian faith and its implications for religious freedom.  A recent web article by graduate student Matthew Ferguson trashing legal apologetics has been welcomed in atheistic and non-Christian circles; the legally-trained Principal of Australia’s Morling College, Dr. Ross Clifford, will provide a detailed refutation of Ferguson’s position.”

http://phc.edu/gj_coming_next_issue_12-1.php

Now, this came as quite a surprise to me, since Montgomery’s journal has already critiqued Packham’s article (and apparently removed the critique when Packham responded), and now they are writing a second critique targeted at my blog post, which is only a summary of Packham’s original article. This strikes me as a rather unoriginal way to critique Packham a second time, while disguising it has a rebuttal to my blog post, which, again, is only a brief point-by-point summary of Packham’s article (and clearly stated to be so in the text).

I emailed both John Montgomery and Ross Clifford about this problem, and their response truly amazed me.

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Are the Gospels Ancient Biographies? Part 1: The Spectrum of Ancient Βίοι

As I announced in a previous post, this summer I will be doing a blog series evaluating the comparison of the canonical NT Gospels with the genre of Graeco-Roman biography in antiquity. Ancient biography is one of my major research areas in Classics, and I wrote my M.A. thesis on the ancient biographer Suetonius Tranquillus. For this first post I will be discussing the variety of ancient βίοι that we know of from both extant manuscripts and fragments across a span of roughly a millennium (from the development of Greek biography in the 5th, 4th, and 3rd centuries BCE to the predominance of Christian biography in the 4th century CE). In order to assess whether the Gospels could be ancient βίοι, one needs to be familiar with the genre as a whole, and, as such, this survey will outline some of the most important exempla of Graeco-Roman biography in antiquity and the major stages of the genre’s development.

The comparison of the NT Gospels with the genre of Graeco-Roman biography has become more popular in recent decades, as scholars search for literary antecedents and parallels between the Gospels and other ancient texts. Prior to modern scholarship, the Gospels were regarded as sacred scripture, and, not surprisingly, were often thought to be sui generis (“of one’s own kind”) in their literary genre, as sacred and inspired texts were generally considered to be different from human ones. Since scholars have been studying the Gospels in a secular and academic setting, however, alongside other literature from antiquity, the Gospels have been treated more as human texts. Since literature is never produced in a vacuum, the question of the Gospels’ literary antecedents and broader genre has become a major issue in evaluating them as ancient literature.

The two most notable studies to make the comparison between the Gospels and ancient βίοι are Richard Burridge’s What Are the Gospels?: A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography (in English) and Dirk Frickenschmidt’s Evangelium als Biographie: die vier Evangelien im Rahmen antiker Erzählkunst (in German, translated: “Gospel Biography: the Four Gospels in the Context of Ancient Storytelling”). Both studies make the comparison by identifying structural similarities and common features in ancient biographies, and seeking to identify similar structures and features in the Gospels. Burridge’s study is based on a canon of ten ancient biographical texts. Five are pre-Christian: Isocrates’ Evagoras, Xenophon’s Agesilaus, Satyrus’ Euripides, Nepos’ Atticus, and Philo’s Moses. Five belong to the Christian era: Tacitus’ Agricola, Plutarch’s Cato Minor, Suetonius’ Lives of the Caesars, Lucian’s Demonax, and Philostratus’ Apollonius. Frickenschmidt’s study is based on an even larger canon of 142 ancient biographical texts (of which, 50 are by Plutarch, 25 by Nepos, 23 by Diogenes Laertius, and 13 by Suetonius).

In the next blog I will be focusing on the arguments that Burridge and Frickenschmidt use to make their comparison. Before that, this blog will focus more on the genre of Graeco-Roman biography outside of the Gospels, in order to understand some of the texts used in the canons of Burridge’s and Frickenschmidt’s studies.

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Posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, History | 1 Comment

Κέλσος Ranked 75th Bible Blog of Summer 2014

I just saw the Summer 2014 Report of Peter Kirby (Early Christian Writings), which ranks the top Bible blogs on the web by traffic. Kirby explains:

“As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand.”

The report includes the rankings of over 200 Bible blogs, out of which Κέλσος ranked number 75. Considering that this blog has only been around for just over a year and a half, this ranking was higher than I expected.

A big thanks is due to all of the visitors who have boosted this site’s traffic! Thanks to you all, Κέλσος is now ranked among the top 100 Bible blogs on the web!

-Matthew Ferguson

As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf

As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf

As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf

As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf
As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf
As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf
As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf
As in the last report (and like the one before it and the one before that), the method here uses Alexa rankings very strictly whenever they are available. For some sites (i.e., Patheos and Livejournal), where Alexa doesn’t have separate data on each blog, the position has been reckoned by hand. – See more at: http://peterkirby.com/top-50-summer-2014.html#sthash.Sk46oGKV.dpuf
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History and the Paranormal

You have probably heard it said before that history, as an epistemology, cannot prove miracles. I also have argued previously that history is methodologically naturalist, in that, while it does not preclude the supernatural from existing, it cannot provide warrant for supernatural claims about the past. Although I think that both of these statements are correct, I think the distinction being drawn has often been imperfectly explained.

Rather, the principle in question should more correctly be stated: history can say nothing about “paranormal” events occurring in the past.

According to the Parapsychological Association (Glossary) a paranormal event is “any phenomenon that in one or more respects exceeds the limits of what is deemed physically possible according to current scientific assumptions.” More generally, the word “paranormal” is derived from the Greek παρά (“beside” or “beyond”) + normal. Paranormal events are, by definition, extraordinary in that the exceed the limitations of existing knowledge.

There are many “paranormal” events that are not “supernatural,” such as alien abductions or Sasquatch sightings. Both alien abductions and Sasquatches could be completely natural, and yet neither has any scientific evidence for its occurrence. However, all supernatural events belong to the broader category of the paranormal, in that supernatural claims, such as those about ghosts, psychic predictions, or miracles, are not currently accepted by any scientific consensus or majority. Supernatural events exceed the limitations of professionally accepted scientific knowledge.

Paranormal and SupernaturalHistory cannot establish any claims that are paranormal, but this is not due to any special prejudice against miracles or the supernatural.

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Posted in History, Philosophy, Science | 23 Comments

Summer Plans and a Couple New Papers

Last week I finally finished the Spring quarter and academic year at UC Irvine, thus leaving me with a whole three and a half months of summer ahead. I know that it seems rather belated for my summer to begin in late-June, but I will not be resuming classes again until October. Plus, today is technically the Summer Solstice! This last quarter was rather busy (80 pages of seminar papers that I wrote, plus over a hundred undergrad finals that I had to grade last week, which took enough time to span all five of Peter Jackson’s Tolkien films playing in the background, around some 15 hours or so).

This summer will likewise be very busy, as I will be working on three major projects:

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Posted in Announcements, Classics | 4 Comments

More Κέλσος and Civitas Humana Coming in June

The finals period is approaching for the Spring quarter in the UC system. That means writing seminar papers for me, in addition to grading undergraduate exams, and other end of the year business. As such, I will be away from blogging for the rest of May and the beginning of June (yes, the “Spring” quarter does not end until June in the UC system, which is very late compared to other university calendars). Comments are still welcome, but, since I will be busy, expect some lag in my response time.

In the meantime, I have just posted the next part in my series on Civitas Humana dealing with the metaphysics in metaphysical naturalism, which is titled “Cosmology and Time in Metaphysical Naturalism.”

In other good news, I also have just had an abstract accepted to present at the 112th annual PAMLA (Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association) conference in Riverside, CA. The theme of the conference is “Familiar Spirits” and it will deal with issues of the mystical and the supernatural. I have been accepted to present on the topic of metaphysically defining the natural vs. the supernatural. My paper will elaborate on my previous blog article “Defining the ‘Natural’ in Metaphysical Naturalism.”

When I get to June, I will also begin the writing of my book project, tentatively titled Doubting Christianity: Is Unbelief Unreasonable?, this summer. Things will be very busy ahead, but there are a lot of exciting projects that I am working on. Thanks to everyone who has been reading and following the blog!

-Matthew Ferguson

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