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.


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.”


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.

Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Princeton Eliminates any Reason to Hire its Classics Students

A friend sent me notice of a (slightly garbled) news report from Princeton. Apparently it is true. According to the Princeton Alumni Weekly, Princeton has eliminated "the requirement for classics majors to take Greek or Latin." 

In classics, two major changes were made. The “classics” track, which required an intermediate proficiency in Greek or Latin to enter the concentration, was eliminated, as was the requirement for students to take Greek or Latin. Students still are encouraged to take either language if it is relevant to their interests in the department. The breadth of offerings remains the same, said Josh Billings, director of undergraduate studies and professor of classics. The changes ultimately give students more opportunities to major in classics. 

Since Greek and Latin are the basis for any major in classics, a classics major who graduates knowing neither does not qualify as a classics major.

Back in the nineteenth century, both Greek and Latin were required to be admitted to college. First, the general requirement for entrance was dropped, but one could at least expect a classics major to know them. Now, apparently, Ivy League classics graduates can graduate without knowing either. Does this mean that Princeton classics graduates are guilty of false advertising, or is it Princeton itself that is?

Many years ago, BYU had that problem (long ago rectified) and Hugh Nibley had a withering critique of it:

The indispensable key to the past is language, and in our Utah schools we have always affected a unique and intense interest in the ancient world. We have tried to open the lock without the key: only in Utah can you take advanced courses in the fine points of Greek literature from a man who does not know a word of Greek, but who, in the name of scholarship, has driven hundreds of young people from the Church (I have run into them everywhere); only here can you attend public lectures on the Dead Sea Scrolls by savants who cannot read a line of them; only here can you study classical and Near Eastern civilization and thought under experts to whom a line of Horace or the Talmud might as well be Chinese; only here can you listen to discourses on the philology of the Tower of Babel by authorities who know no language but English, and so on and so on--it is unbelievable. (Hugh Nibley, "Nobody to Blame," Eloquent Witness [Provo, Utah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies, 2008], 132-33).

This may not necessarily be true of BYU now (though it is still true of Mormon historians), but apparently, this will now be true of Princeton and Princeton graduates.

You speak for others when you protest that you are wasting your time taking required courses that never go very deep and keep you from learning the things you should. Such courses exist in all graduate schools--for the sake of the teachers, not the students. The idea is that a large number of courses and a large staff teaching them make a good college. But forty sparrows do not make an eagle, forty house cats do not make a lion, and forty survey courses do not make a scholar. Moreover, if you bring together forty men, each of whom knows a little Latin or math, the result is not the equivalent of consulting just one person with a good knowledge of those subjects. (Nibley, "Nobody to Blame," 135.)

Apparently consulting forty Princeton grads will not be the equivalent of consulting just one person with a good knowledge of Greek or Latin.

Perhaps the Princeton alumni had the most interesting comments. Mark Davies noted:

“Classics lite” would be a good description of this major, but perhaps “classical civilization” would do, in order to distinguish the “classics” majors who are literate in both Greek and Latin. How elitist! Pardon my cynicism, but a classics faculty about three times as large as the one I knew clearly aims to increase enrollments for its own benefit. The paucity of minorities in traditional classics is a matter of economics, not racism.

Stephen William Foster claimed:

It is difficult indeed to understand how that change would “provide new perspectives” or “make the field better.” Apart from keeping these languages as our collective cultural heritage, attracting students who have not had Greek or Latin in high school is no argument for the change; many high schools have not offered those languages in decades, while this change would make that even less likely due to fewer people being able to teach it. . . .

Eliminating the language requirement is a deterioration of rigor rather than an improvement. It undermines Princeton’s mission as a standard-bearer of excellence in scholarly endeavor. Shame on the faculty for its shortsightedness.

J. David Garmon argued:

Undoubtedly, the humanities have faced increasing challenges over the years attracting students; and the rigors of even intermediate proficiency in Latin or Greek are well known to anyone who has attempted it. However, for the classics department to abandon the foundation of its discipline is like an engineering department abandoning mathematics and physics — two notoriously rigorous areas of study — in hopes of creating a “more vibrant intellectual community.”

A truly vibrant and intellectually honest community must always demand rigor and integrity in its self-examination, which in this case would require acknowledging, however heartbreaking it might be, that the classics department is no longer able to attract the intellectual horsepower it once did and that it is dumbing down its curriculum in keeping with the current “tastes” of undergraduates. Evading a clear statement of this difficult realty is a departure from the values of integrity and honesty that are the bedrock of any intellectual endeavor and is a disservice to the community of scholars who dedicate their lives to the pursuit of truth.

In my experience, "creating a vibrant intellectual community" is a euphemism for "a wholesale abandoning of intellectual rigor in pursuit of a political ideology."

Then again, this is the classics department at Princeton, whose classics professors have been involved in questionable conduct (here, here, here, here, and here), and accused of sexual harassment. So perhaps one should not be surprised.

I can list some of my own reasons why Greek and Latin are worth learning.

  1. There are only a handful of languages which will unlock the key to thousands of years of history in multiple locations (which sadly eliminates Egyptian): Akkadian, Greek, Latin, Chinese, and Arabic.
  2. If you know Latin, you can wander all over Europe and actually read inscriptions left at places.
  3. When your child comes up to you and asks the meaning of this song that he is singing, you might be able to answer him.
  4. In graduate school, we were assigned to read a particular manuscript, the introduction to which was written two hundred years ago, and so, of course, was in Latin. As the only Egyptologist in the room who had had any Latin, I had to provide a translation at sight.
  5. I use Greek constantly. Working in Greco-Roman Egypt, Greek is simply a necessity.
  6. While many of the texts are translated, it is usually more difficult to find a translation than the original text. For some texts, however, there are no translations.
  7. Knowing the original language makes it possible to determine when some of the translations are wrong, or suspect. 
  8. When working with a text like the Septuagint (which is an ancient translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek), every reason that one would want consult the Septuagint is only available in Greek.

I recommend studying Greek and Latin given the chance. I cannot recommend doing so at Princeton.

My reaction to the news was to go do the one thing that a Princeton classics graduate will not be able to do. Go read some Latin.