Thursday, March 3, 2022

The Babylon Bee Strikes Again

The Babylon Bee is a satirical site that pokes fun of politics and religion. Every so often, they poke fun at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title of one of their recent efforts says it all:

Member Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints Wishes There Were A Shorter Way To Say Member Of The Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter-Day Saints

Of course, if their really wanted to point out the problem, they would have pointed out that this is much worse in Greek: μελος της Εκκλησιας του Ιησου Χριστου των Αγιων των Τελευταιων Ημερων. The Greek phrase has twenty-four syllables twice as many as the twelve of the English phrase.


Monday, November 8, 2021

Kudos to Jeffrey Chadwick

I was pleased to see that de Gruyter has published a Festschrift in honor of my BYU colleague Jeffrey Chadwick. He is a faculty member of the Department of Church History and Doctrine at Brigham Young University. Since he is an archaeologist who regularly digs in Israel, this has always seemed an unusual arrangement. The Festschrift is archaeologically oriented. I am pleased to see the de Gruyter is allowing individuals to order again.

Congratulations!

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Cowardice, Courage, and Cancellation

 Bari Weiss has a worthwhile analysis of cancellation culture entitled "We Got Here Because of Cowardice. We Get Out With Courage." There are two quotes worth highlighting:

The first is about one of the contributing factors to cancellation culture:

The revolution has been met with almost no resistance by those who have the title CEO or leader or president or principal in front of their names. The refusal of the adults in the room to speak the truth, their refusal to say no to efforts to undermine the mission of their institutions, their fear of being called a bad name and that fear trumping their responsibility—that is how we got here.

The second is a suggestion for a solution to the problem:

All that had to change for the entire story to turn out differently was for the person in charge, the person tasked with being a steward for the newspaper or the magazine or the college or the school district or the private high school or the kindergarten, to say: No.

Cancellation culture has been around for a long time, though not under that name nor necessarily pushing the same political program. Here is an account from two millennia ago that survives in Greek:

Πρωΐας δὲ γενομένης συμβούλιον ἔλαβον πάντες οἱ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι τοῦ λαοῦ κατὰ τοῦ Ἰησοῦ ὥστε θανατῶσαι αὐτόν· καὶ δήσαντες αὐτὸν ἀπήγαγον καὶ παρέδωκαν αὐτὸν Ποντίῳ Πιλάτῳ τῷ ἡγεμόνι. . . .

Ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἐστάθη ἔμπροσθεν τοῦ ἡγεμόνος· καὶ ἐπηρώτησεν αὐτὸν ὁ ἡγεμὼν λέγων, Σὺ εἶ ὁ βασιλεὺς τῶν Ἰουδαίων; ὁ δὲ Ἰησοῦς ἔφη, αὐτῷ Σὺ λέγεις. καὶ ἐν τῷ κατηγορεῖσθαι αὐτὸν ὑπὸ τῶν ἀρχιερέων καὶ πρεσβυτέρων οὐδὲν ἀπεκρίνατο. τότε λέγει αὐτῷ ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Οὐκ ἀκούεις πόσα σου καταμαρτυροῦσιν; καὶ οὐκ ἀπεκρίθη αὐτῷ πρὸς οὐδὲ ἓν ῥῆμα, ὥστε θαυμάζειν τὸν ἡγεμόνα λίαν.

Κατὰ δὲ ἑορτὴν εἰώθει ὁ ἡγεμὼν ἀπολύειν ἕνα τῷ ὄχλῳ δέσμιον ὃν ἤθελον. εἶχον δὲ τότε δέσμιον ἐπίσημον λεγόμενον  Βαραββᾶν. συνηγμένων οὖν αὐτῶν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν, τὸν Βαραββᾶν ἢ Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; ᾔδει γὰρ ὅτι διὰ φθόνον παρέδωκαν αὐτόν. Καθημένου δὲ αὐτοῦ ἐπὶ τοῦ βήματος ἀπέστειλεν πρὸς αὐτὸν ἡ γυνὴ αὐτοῦ λέγουσα, Μηδὲν σοὶ καὶ τῷ δικαίῳ ἐκείνῳ, πολλὰ γὰρ ἔπαθον σήμερον κατ’ ὄναρ δι’ αὐτόν.

Οἱ δὲ ἀρχιερεῖς καὶ οἱ πρεσβύτεροι ἔπεισαν τοὺς ὄχλους ἵνα αἰτήσωνται τὸν Βαραββᾶν τὸν δὲ Ἰησοῦν ἀπολέσωσιν. ἀποκριθεὶς δὲ ὁ ἡγεμὼν εἶπεν αὐτοῖς, Τίνα θέλετε ἀπὸ τῶν δύο ἀπολύσω ὑμῖν; οἱ δὲ εἶπαν, Τὸν Βαραββᾶν. λέγει αὐτοῖς ὁ Πιλᾶτος, Τί οὖν ποιήσω Ἰησοῦν τὸν λεγόμενον Χριστόν; λέγουσιν αὐτῷ πάντες, Σταυρωθήτω. ὁ δὲ ἡγεμών ἔφη, Τί γὰρ κακὸν ἐποίησεν; οἱ δὲ περισσῶς ἔκραζον λέγοντες, Σταυρωθήτω. ἰδὼν δὲ ὁ Πιλᾶτος ὅτι οὐδὲν ὠφελεῖ ἀλλὰ μᾶλλον θόρυβος γίνεται, λαβὼν ὕδωρ ἀπενίψατο τὰς χεῖρας ἀπέναντι τοῦ ὄχλου, λέγων, Ἀθῷός εἰμι ἀπὸ τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ δικαίου τούτου· ὑμεῖς ὄψεσθε.

When it was morning all the high priest and elders of the people took council against Jesus so that they could kill him, and, having bound him, they led him forth and delivered him to the ruler, Pontius Pilate. . . .

Jesus stood before the ruler and the ruler asked him saying: Are you the king of the Jews? Jesus said: So you say. And he did not begin to respond to his condemnation by the high priests and elders. Then Pilate said to him: Can't you hear how much they testify against you? And he did not answer him, so that the ruler was very surprised.

During the feast, it was customary for the ruler to release a prisoner, whom they wanted, to the mob. He then had a prisoner, a cutthroat called Bar-Abba. Having conferred with them, Pilate asked them: Whom would you like me to release to you: Bar-Abba or Jesus, who is called Christ? For he knew that they delivered him because of envy. While he was sitting on the dias, his wife sent to him saying: This righteous man is no affair for you, for I have suffered much today in a dream because of him.

The high priests and the elders persuaded the mob to ask for Bar-Abba, and to destroy Jesus. The leader asked them: Whom of the two should I release to them. They said: Bar-Abba. Pilate said to them: What then should I do to Jesus, who is called Christ. Everyone said to him: Let him be crucified. The ruler said: What crime has he done? They shouted louder: Let him be crucified. When Pilate saw that it was was no use, but rather that it would cause a bigger ruckus, he took water and washed his hands before the mob, saying: I am guiltless for the blood of this righteous man; you see to it. (Matthew 27:1–2, 11–24)

To this, we can add the appropriate observation worth pondering by those who capitulate to the mob today:

Pilate sought to refuse responsibility for deciding about Christ, but Pilate’s hands were never dirtier than just after he had washed them. (Neal A. Maxwell, "Why Not Now?" Ensign (November 1974))
 

Friday, October 15, 2021

Some Thoughts from the Cancelled

Two thoughtful pieces on cancel culture appeared recently, both written by individuals who have been cancelled. 

The first is by Dorian Abbot, a professor in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. He tells about how a group of graduate students in his department decided to attack him behind his back and “demanded that my teaching and research be restricted in a way that would cripple my ability to function as a scientist.”

Then:

my detractors developed a new strategy to try to isolate me and intimidate everyone else into silence: They argued on Twitter that I should not be invited to give science seminars at other universities and coordinated replacement speakers. This is an effective and increasingly common way to ratchet up the cost of dissenting because disseminating new work to colleagues is an important part of the scientific endeavor.

Sure enough, this strategy was employed when I was chosen to give the Carlson Lecture at MIT — a major honor in my field. It is an annual public talk given to a large audience and my topic was “climate and the potential for life on other planets.” On September 22, a new Twitter mob, composed of a group of MIT students, postdocs, and recent alumni, demanded that I be uninvited.

It worked. And quickly.

MIT caved.

The root of Professor Abbot's problem was that he advocated that individuals should be rewarded for merit rather than the superficial and irrelevant classification to which they belonged. This diversity from the students' ideology cannot be tolerated.

The second piece was written by Philip Carl Salzman, an Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University. He argues that the urge to cancel is influenced by a number of contributing factors:

One is that the targets tend to be successful, high-ranking, and often popular, boasting achievements in scholarship and teaching. A second is that they make some people uncomfortable by being too demanding, or too forthright in expressing opinions, or too friendly. Lower-status individuals, students, and colleagues gain prominence by attacking high-status individuals, especially if the attack is in the name of some imaginary application of “social justice.” “Once it becomes clear that attention and praise can be garnered from organizing an attack on someone’s reputation, plenty of people discover that they have an interest in doing so.”

From what I have seen, this seems to be true. I have also noticed, however, that those who attempt to gain attention and praise for attacking others quickly lose that attention and praise because they have no actual accomplishment to stand on. It reminds me of some lines from Pindar:

σοφὸς ὁ πολλὰ εἰδὼς φυᾷ· μαθόντες δὲ λάβροι 

παγγλοωσσία, κόρακες ὥς, ἄκραντα γαρύετον 

Διὸς πρὸς ὄρνιχα θεῖον. 

The nature of the wise is readily apparent, but the violent ravings of the student, is like crows uselessly cawing at the divine bird of Zeus. (Pindar, Olypmian Odes 2.86-88)

The administrators who cave to this remind me of a story that Herodotus told of Thrasybulus:

πέμψας γὰρ παρὰ Θρασύβουλον κήρυκα ἐπυνθάνετο ὅντινα ἂν τρόπον ἀσφαλέστατον καταστησάμενος τῶν πρηγμάτων κάλλιστα τὴν πόλιν ἐπιτροπεύοι. Θρασύβουλος δὲ τὸν ἐλθόντα παρὰ τοῦ Περιάνδρου ἐξῆγε ἔξω τοῦ ἄστεος, ἐσβὰς δὲ ἐς ἄρουραν ἐσπαρμένην ἅμα τε διεξήιε τὸ λήιον ἐπειρωτῶν τε καὶ ἀναποδίζων τὸν κήρυκα κατὰ τὴν ἀπὸ Κορίνθου ἄπιξιν, καὶ ἐκόλουε αἰεὶ ὅκως τινὰ ἴδοι τῶν ἀσταχύων ὑπερέχοντα, κολούων δὲ ἔρριπτε, ἐς ὃ τοῦ ληίου τὸ κάλλιστόν τε καὶ βαθύτατον διέφθειρε τρόπῳ τοιούτω: 

For, having sent a herald to Thrasybulus, he wanted to learn the way he might most safely arrange affairs in his city for the best results. Thrasybulus went and led the messenger from Periander out of the city, and when he had entered a sown field, he went through the crop asking and interrogating the messenger the reason he had left Corinth, and he was always cutting down the ears of grain that were taller, and having cut them off, cast them away, and this fashion he destroyed the best and most abundant of the crop. (Herodotus, Histories 5.92F.2)

That may be the preferred way to keep order, but it also promotes mediocrity. But this is standard fare. Hermodorus was expelled from Ephesus for excelling at something: “If he must excel, let him go and excel over somebody else!” Thus we are back to Hugh Nibley's prescient piece “How to Have a Quiet Campus, Antique Style.”


Saturday, August 14, 2021

David C. Mongomery

David Montgomery passed away this past month. I took three classes from him as an undergraduate: two on the history of the Middle East, and a senior seminar in history. 

I learned a number of things from him. One of the things I learned from him is that one cannot properly do a history of a movement (political, religious, whatever) without knowing something about the actual people involved. This can present a number of difficulties when dealing with ancient history, but is also a problem in modern society.

I regret not taking his class on the Turkish language the one time I had a chance, but that may not have been productive at the time. I grew to appreciate his level-headed approach.

Another thing I learned from Professor Montgomery was a comment he made about the abilities of undergraduates. He said that when he first started teaching that students had no problem taking in class essay tests and that they could easily write ten pages in the class hour. He said that sometime in the seventies, they suddenly stopped being able to do that. One of the older professors I had still did that. He expected students to write five one pages essays in an hour. That was our test.

I remember meeting Professor Montgomery almost twenty years ago. He had just retired. He told me that he was forced to retire because the department chair wanted to hire someone young who would be cheaper. Ironically, after almost twenty years the history department at BYU has still not found a permanent replacement for Professor Montgomery. His presence will be missed.


Monday, July 26, 2021

Robert Kreich Ritner Jr. (1953-2021)

I just learned that Robert Kriech Ritner, Jr. passed away yesterday. Professor Ritner served as my dissertation advisor until Yale University removed him from the position. [This was not at my request.] An official obituary has been posted. This is very sad.

I do not think I ever held Professor Ritner in the contempt or disdain in which he came to hold me. Still, I will share some positive memories of Professor Ritner.

I met Professor Ritner for the first time at my first international conference. It was devoted to magic in the ancient world and was held in August 1992 in Kansas. I had already been accepted to study under him at Yale. 

One of the essentials I learned from Professor Ritner was demotic paleography. When he was a graduate student, Ritner worked on the Chicago Demotic Dictionary. One of his jobs was to take an exacto knife to photographs of papyri and to separate every demotic word. From that, he learned to account for every speck of ink on the papyrus and he taught us to do the same.

I appreciated how he tried to integrate the archaeology, texts, and art of Egypt. Too many disciplines fail to do so, and Egyptology is not as good as it once was in doing so.

Professor Ritner was an engaging lecturer. He knew how to entertain an audience. Professor Ritner was very skilled at turning a phrase. While this mostly came out in his more vituperative passages, he occasionally turned it with felicitous results into his translations. [Some of us have some measure of appreciation for well-crafted vituperation.]

Professor Ritner was very ambitious. Twenty-five to thirty years ago he intended to publish a number of unpublished texts, such as OIC 25389 and another manuscript of the Bentresh Stele, along with the definitive study of tribalism in the Libyan period and a demotic paleography. [I do not know what the publication status is, but one can always be hopeful that the manuscript is waiting at the editors.]

[It was always an informative experience to read a demotic text with Professor Ritner. I had previously had a class in demotic but not from someone who did paleography; there was a huge difference. The readings of the text would be accompanied with an erudite commentary on secondary literature related to the passage in the text. He also generously shared with the class Edgerton's Chicago House copies of the Setna I text, which were generally easier to read than photocopies of the photographs in Spiegelberg's edition.]

My condolences to his family.


[Updates in brackets]

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

The Tomb of Aratus

A news report discusses how the tomb of the astronomer Aratus was discovered at Zımbıllı Tepe in Turkey. Why is this important?

Aratus was an astronomer who wrote about astronomy in poetry. His most famous work is the Phaenomena

Astronomical poetry is out of fashion these days. Most people live in places in the world where light pollution blots out most of the stars in the night sky so they do not feel the need to wax poetic about the view.

Most of what makes Aratus important, at least to Christians, is that the apostle Paul quoted him in his discourse on Mars Hill (Acts 17:28). At the beginning of the Phaenomena (line 5 to be precise), Aratus says:

Τοῦ γὰρ καὶ γένος ἐσμέν.

For we are his [God's] γένος.

The term γένος can mean "offspring," or "descendants" in the biological sense. It can also be used metaphorically as "household." It can also mean "species," which is also a biological sense, and the modern biological term genus is related to it. 

The context of this statement in Aratus is this:

ἐκ Διὸς ἀρχώμεσθα, τὸν οὐδέποτ᾽ ἄνδρες ἐῶμεν 

ἄρρητον: μεσταὶ δέ Διὸς πᾶσαι μὲν ἀγυιαί, 

πᾶσαι δ᾽ ἀνθρώπων ἀγοραί, μεστὴ δὲ θάλασσα 

καὶ λιμένες: πάντη δὲ Διὸς κεχρήμεθα πάντες. 

τοῦ γάρ καὶ γένος εἰμέν:

We will start from God (Zeus), who, since we are men, should never go unmentioned. All roads, all marketplaces of men, are filled with God, all seas and lakes. We proclaim God always in all ways, for we are his γένος.

Aratus's expression takes a definite side on the relationship between humans and God and Paul cites it approvingly. It is not clear that Paul's thought corresponds well with the general view of post-Nicean Christianity. It does, however, work fairly well with Latter-day Saint thought.