“Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Stew” Is Now on the Secular Web!

This summer I have been sending out a number of articles to publishers, and one has just recently been published on the Secular Web. I have reworked my old blog post “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Soup” into a Secular Web article, addressing the question of what evidence would be sufficient to persuade a reasonably skeptical person of Jesus’ resurrection.

The new article, titled “Griffin Beak, Mermaid Fin, and Dragon Blood Stew” (I thought that “stew” had a better ring to it than “soup”), can now be accessed online in the Secular Web Kiosk.

In other good news, I turned 27 just two days ago on September 18 (my birthday is on the same day that the emperor Domitian was assassinated). This article was published just shortly before my birthday, so I consider it a good achievement for year 26. Hopefully this will be followed by more publications ahead, which will be announced here.

-Matthew Ferguson

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Fall Quarter and Where I’m at with My Book Project

I will be starting Fall quarter at UCI in the beginning of October (yes, the UC system starts school that late), and I want to give an update about some of the work that I have both behind and in front of me, including where I am on my book project, tentatively titled “Doubting Christianity: Is Unbelief Unreasonable?” (hitherto referred to as DC).

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Some Cool PowerPoint Slides on Roman History and the Bible

This week I finished teaching my first independent university course, for which I  constructed my own website and curriculum. I have previously taught Latin and Greek courses from prepared syllabi, as well as discussion sections for courses on Greek and Roman history, but this is the first time that I got to construct an entire course curriculum on my own.

The course I taught was an introduction course to the Roman Empire, titled “CLAS/HIST 37B: Roman Empire.” As part of teaching this course I had to produce a large number of PowerPoint slides for each class lecture. There were 15 lectures total (each covering a 2 hour class). For each lecture, I made a PowerPoint presentation with about 20-25 slides (adding up to an approximate 300-375 slides total).

I have decided to leave the course website up, both because I plan to use it for future job applications and for anyone who is interested in reading the material:


If you are interested in checking out some cool PowerPoint slides, which cover approximately 300 years of Roman history (c. 49 BCE – 235 CE), you can find them on the course website under “Lecture Slides.” The slides actually cover even more years than that, since I incorporated a fair amount of broader world history into the course.

On a similar note: a couple of years ago, when I was completing my M.A. in Classics (emphasis in Ancient History) at the University of Arizona, I was asked by a professor teaching an Early Christianity course to give a presentation about the books of the Christian Bible. In the presentation I gave overviews of all 66 books of the Protestant Bible, as well the 73 books of the Catholic Bible, and other apocrypha.

If you are interested, you can read the slides from my presentation, “The Biblical Scriptures,” here as well.

-Matthew Ferguson

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A New Volume on Suetonius in English

As part of my blog series on ancient biography, I thought that it would be fitting to discuss a new volume that was published just earlier this summer (July 3, 2014) on the Roman biographer Suetonius Tranquillus.

SuetoniusThe new volume Suetonius the Biographer: Studies in the Roman Lives provides a much needed collection of  essays on Suetonius in English. I say that these essays are “much needed” in light of the fact that there as been a dearth of studies on Suetonius in English over the last several decades. The most recent English monographs on the author Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s Suetonius: the Scholar and His Caesars and Barry Baldwin’s Suetonius — were both published in 1983. In addition to those, Richard Lounsbury published a short work on Suetonius — The Arts of Suetonius: An Introduction — back in 1987. But, aside from those, Suetonius has largely been neglected in English scholarship for about the last three decades. Even in foreign scholarship Suetonius has been neglected. Jacques Gascou’s Suétone historien is the largest study on Suetonius’ style in French (or any language for that matter), but even this monograph was published back in 1984. In German, Helmut Gugel’s Studien zur biographischen Technik Suetons has many good structural observations about Suetonius’ organization of material, but was published way back in in 1977. Clearly, Suetonius has needed some fresh scholarship, so I am really glad to see this new volume in English.

The volume is edited by Tristan Power and Roy Gibson. I have been following Power’s scholarship for some time in my graduate studies. Over the last several years, Power has published a number of short articles on different aspects of Suetonius’ works, which have been very helpful for my own research. I received my M.A. in Classics at the University of Arizona in 2012 after completing a master’s thesis on Suetonius’ biographical structure. This new Suetonius volume discusses a number of topics similar with my recent graduate work, which I will discuss below.

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Posted in Ancient Biography, Classics, Reviews | 1 Comment

FtBCon 3 Rescheduled

I hate to bear bad news, but the Freethought Blogs 2014 online conference has been postponed to a later date.

I have actually known for a couple days now, but I have been waiting to see if they would announce the new date of the conference before this weekend. However, since I was originally scheduled to present tomorrow, I need to announce today that I will not presenting at the time and date that I had stated in a previous post.

I will update this post when a new date has been chosen. Right now January 2015 looks like it will likely be the new date range for the conference, but I do not know.

Sorry for any disappointment, but I will still eventually be presenting my talk, “Reasonable Skepticism verses Hyper-Skepticism: Understanding the Difference in Evaluating Ancient History,” just at a later date than originally planned.

-Matthew Ferguson

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Speaking at FtBCon 3

[This conference has been rescheduled. Please see my blog announcement about the new date.]

I will be giving a solo talk at the Freethought Blogs 2014 online conference, which will take place August 22-24. I am currently scheduled to present at 12pm on Sunday, August 24.

ftbcon3_wordpressThe title of my talk is “Reasonable Skepticism verses Hyper-Skepticism: Understanding the Difference in Evaluating Ancient History.” As you can probably gather from the title, the talk will be about historical methodology and will particularly address the apologetic claim that non-believers are “hyper-skeptical” in their treatment of the NT and the evidence for Jesus.

In the talk I will be providing criteria whereby historians can exercise reasonable skepticism towards certain ancient claims and texts, which will be fleshed out by examples from Pagan and Christian literature alike. By showing how historians would exercise skepticism towards any other set of ancient texts in the same situation as the NT accounts of Jesus’ resurrection, I will be demonstrating how non-believers are not hyper-skeptical in doubting the ancient tale that Jesus rose from the dead.

The talk should also make use of some of the research in my recent seminar paper “The Propaganda of Accession of the Roman Emperor Galba.” I’ll be posting here again with more details as the event approaches.

-Matthew Ferguson

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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 | 13 Comments