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. 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.

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 Twenty-five to thirty years ago he intended to publish a number of unpublished texts, such as OIC 25389 and another manuscript of the Bentresh Stele, along with the definitive study of tribalism in the Libyan period and a demotic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.

My condolences to his family.

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.


Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Study as Complaining

The following quotation identifies what academics are doing when they engage in various disciplines that end in "studies." Note that the authors of this quotation are not the usual suspects. They come from the academy, not outside it.

These fields vary widely, though they have enough in common to be readily identifiable: they are usually entitled "critical X" or "X studies," where X is whatever they want to complain about, disrupt, and modify, in accordance with the postmodern knowledge and political principles. (Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay, Cynical Theories [Durham, North Carolina: Pitchstone Publishing, 2020], 180.)

This leads to an important observation that those involved in such "studies" fields are engaged in "an approach that otherwise very much resembles that of a support group that asserts itself as rigorous" (ibid., 179). I have sat through a number of those "support group" meetings. Fortunately, my current position allows me to avoid them.

Friday, April 30, 2021

Rumaging Through Some Reports

I recently went through the 2020 SAT Suite of Assessments Annual Report. On page 6 of this document is a list of average SAT scores broken down by the proposed major that students claim to want to enter. What would really be interesting is to look at SAT scores of students based on what they actually graduate in. Nevertheless there are a number of surprises in the data.

It is no surprise that the average Math score for a presumptive math major (648) is higher than the average Math score for a presumptive English major (535). What might be surprising is that the average Evidence-Based Reading and Writing (ERW) score for prospective math majors (599) also beats that of the average prospective English major (587). One expects the English majors to own that category, but the average prospective Physical Science major (598), Social Science major (595), and Humanities major (589), all do better, though perhaps not significantly so.

The 2020 report was not as informative as the SAT 2016 College-Bound Seniors Total Group Profile Report. So the rest of this information will be taken from the earlier report.

If one wants to do well on the SAT, what sorts of classes help one prepare?

  • Take as much English as you can. On average every year of English was worth an additional 25 points on the Mathematics portion of the exam. But it was also worth about the same on Critical Reading and the Writing. (The test has been restructured in the intervening time.) This is not terribly surprising since the tests have always been heavily weighted towards English majors.
  • Every year of a foreign language was worth about 30 points on Critical Reading, 20-40 points on Writing, and about 40 points on Mathematics.
  • The best language to take for Critical Reading was Latin, followed by Chinese and German. The best language for Mathematics was Chinese, followed by Latin and Japanese. The best language for writing is Latin, followed by Chinese and Greek.
  • Taking two years of math is better for the average Mathematics score than taking three years, but it is much better to take at least four. More math courses also help on all other portions of the SAT.
  • Surprisingly, natural science courses do not help in the Mathematics section but Social Science courses do slightly.

One can take the totals scores of prospective majors and rank majors by the perceived intelligence needed to get into the major. (Again, it would be more interesting to see the scores of those who actually graduated in a given major). This does not predict the intelligence of any given individual who proposes to major in a subject, but rather the average ability of an aspirant:

  • In the 1700s range were: Interdisciplinary studies and Mathematics.
  • In the 1600s range were: English, Physical Sciences, Social Sciences, Foreign Languages, Humanities, Engineering, Computer Science, and Biology.
  • In the 1500s range were: Library Sciences, Philosophy, Area Studies, History, Theology, Environmental Sciences, Law, Communications, and Business.
  • In the 1400s range were: Performing Arts, Architecture, Psychology, Health, Education, Transportation, and the Military.
  • In the 1300s range were: Agriculture, Administration, Family Science, Security, Recreation, and Culinary Services.
  • In the 1200s range were: Construction and Technicians.
What should we make of the fact that prospective bureaucrats did worse on the SAT than prospective farmers?

Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Gordon B. Hinckley on the Hofmann Forgeries

For many years whenever the Mark Hofmann's story comes up, there is talk about how leaders of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were duped. 

Two decades ago, I put together a manuscript examining the use of Hofmann forgeries in writing about Latter-day Saint history. I looked at what historians, Church leaders, and critics of the Church said about the forgeries and how they used them. I probably did not get everything, but I got a broad enough look at the subject that I had a feel for the lay of the land and how the various groups interacted and how they used the material.

In the Hofmann case, pretty much only Geroge Throckmorton comes out looking good. Mormon historians (which is what they called themselves then) looked really bad. But Church leaders actually do not look bad if one takes the time to actually read what they said. To illustrate this, I will list the public statements of Gordon B. Hinckley, originally a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, then a member of the First Presidency, and much later, President of the Church.

In the April 1981 conference, Elder Gordon B. Hinckley, then a member of the Quroum of the Twelve, decided “to say a few word this afternoon about the recently discovered transcript of a blessing, reported to have been given January 17, 1844, to Joseph Smith to his eleven-year-old son.” Elder Hinckley was cautious about the authenticity of the document making statements like: “The document is evidently in the handwriting of Thomas Bullock.” “Take for instance this man, Thomas Bullock, whose hand evidently recorded the document we are discussing. If he wrote that blessing, he knew about it. . . . Would he have been willing to pay so heavy a price for his membership in the Church and to have suffered so much to advance its cause as a missionary at the call of Brigham Young if he had any doubt that President Young was the proper leader of the Church and that this right belonged to another according to a blessing which he had in his possession and which he had written with his own pen?” Elder Hinckley reasonably concluded that the Hofmann forgery “is not a record of ordination to an office,” and “it does not seriously raise any question concerning the succession in the presidency through the Council of the Twelve Apostles.” (Gordon B. Hinckley, “The Joseph Smith III Document and the Keys of the Kingdom,” Ensign 11/5 (May 1981): 20-22, emphasis added.)

In a news release announcing the so-called Salamander Letter on 28 April 1985, President Hinckley said that even though “there is no indication that it is a forgery. This does not preclude the possibility that it may have been forged” because “no one, of course can be certain that Martin Harris wrote the document.” (Gordon B. Hinckely, News Release, 28 April 1985, cited in Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign 17/10 (October 1987): 64.)

On 23 June 1985, Gordon B. Hinckley gave a fireside to the young adults of the Church where he addressed the issue of the Hofmann documents. Even “assuming that [the letters] are authentic,” President Hickley noted, “they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.” (“Fireside Counsel: Be Faithful, Clean, Strong in Prayer,” Ensign 15/9 (September 1985): 72.)

In September 1985, a month before the Hofmann forgeries literally blew up, Gordon B. Hinckley, then Second Councilor in the First Presidency, addressed the issue of the Salamander letter in his First Presidency Message (Gordon B. Hinckely, “Keep the Faith,” Ensign 15/9 (September 1985): 4-5, emphasis added.). The caution he used is noteworthy:

As most of you know, recently there have been great stirrings over two old letters. One was purportedly written in 1825 by Joseph Smith to Josiah Stowell. If it is genuine, it is the oldest known product of Joseph Smith’s handwriting. . . . The other carries the date of October 23, 1830, and was purportedly written by Martin Harris to W. W. Phelps.
I acquired for the Church both of these letters, the first by purchase. The second was given to the Church by its generous owner. I am, of course, familiar with both letters, having held them in my hands and having read them in their original form. It was I, also, who made the decision to make them public. Copies were issued to the media, and both have received wide publicity.

I knew there would be a great fuss. Scholars have pored over them, discussed them, written about them, differed in their opinions, and even argued about them.
I am glad we have them. They are interesting documents of whose authenticity we are not certain and may never be. However, assuming that they are authentic, they are valuable writings of the period out of which they have come. But they have no real relevancy to the question of the authenticity of the Church or of the divine origin of the Book of Mormon.

President Hinckley, in his last statement was very much prophetic. He also asked:

Shall two men, their character, their faith, their lives, the testimonies to which they gave voice to the end of their days, be judged by a few words on a sheet of paper that may or may not have been written by the one and received by the other?

Besides noting that the documents might not be authentic, President Hinckley also noted the use to which these documents had been put:

A few dissidents, apostates, and excommunicants have marshaled their resources in an effort to belittle and demean this work—its history, its doctrine, its practices. Some have stooped to falsehood, misrepresentation, and mockery. A few weak ones have been taken in by their sophistry. . . . They are poking into all the crevices of our history, ferreting out little things of small import and magnifying them into great issues of public discussion, working the media in an effort to give credibility to their efforts.

None of this is new, of course. From the day that Joseph Smith walked out of the grove in the year 1820, critics and enemies—generation after generation of them—have worked and reworked the same old materials. They have minutely explored the environment in which Joseph Smith lived in an effort to rationalize—some on the basis of folk magic and the occult—the remarkable things which he did. Early in this fishing expedition, one of them gathered affidavits from neighbors and associates in an effort to undermine the character of Joseph Smith. This old bale of straw has been dished up again and again as if it were something new. They have raked over every available word that he spoke or wrote, and they then in turn have written long tomes and delivered long lectures trying to explain the mystery of this character and his work.

There have been cycles of this during the past 165 years. They have ebbed and flowed. Now were are in another peak era, which also will pass. . . .

As I have mentioned, from the beginning of this work there has been opposition. There have been apostates. There have been scholars, some with balance and others with an axe to grind, who have raked over every bit of evidence available concerning Joseph Smith, the prophet of this dispensation. I plead with you, do not let yourselves be numbered among the critics, among the dissidents, among the apostates.

President Hinckley correctly noted that the effort to recycle the Hurlbut-Howe affidavits, or to connect Joseph Smith with “folk magic and the occult” was “an effort to rationalize,” and that some who claim to be scholars have “an axe to grind.”

After the forgeries came out, Elder Dallin H. Oaks wrote:

I hope some lessons will have been learned by the members of the Church and by historians, archivists, investors, and media personnel. I hope that we will all be less inclined to act and speak precipitously and more inclined to reserve judgment about the significance of so-called new historical discoveries.

I have appreciated the caution expressed by Church leaders during the succession of document discoveries, a caution not always followed by historians, investors, magazines, newspapers, and television reporters. President Gordon B. Hinckley repeatedly cautioned that the Church did not know these documents were authentic. (Dallin H. Oaks, “Recent Events Involving Church History and Forged Documents,” Ensign 17/10 (October 1987): 69.)

That same month, in the Sunday Morning Session of General Conference, President Gordon B. Hinckley, then First Councilor in the First Presidency, summarized the Hofmann forgeries (Gordon B. Hinckley, “Lord, Increase Our Faith,” Ensign 17/11 (November 1987): 52-53):

As most of you know, in the last four of five years we have passed through an interesting episode in the history of the Church. There came into our hands two letters that were seized upon by the media when we announced them. They were trumpeted across much of the world as documents that would challenge the authenticity of the Church. In announcing them we stated that they really had nothing to do with the essentials of our history. . . . Now, as you know, these letters, together with other documents, have been acknowledged by their forger to be total frauds and part of an evil and devious design which culminated in the murder of two individuals.

He also wondered “what those whose faith was shaken have thought since the forger confessed to his evil work.”

President Hinckley then turned his attention to the historians:

Out of this earlier episode has now arisen another phenomenon. It is described as the writing of a “new history” of the Church as distinguished from the “old history.” It represents, among other things, an effort to ferret out every element of folk magic and the occult in the environment in which Joseph Smith lived to explain what he did and why.
I have no doubt there was folk magic practiced in those days. Without question there were superstitions and the superstitious. . . . There is even some in this age of so-called enlightenment. . . . The fact that there were superstitions among the people in the days of Joseph Smith is not evidence whatever that the Church came of such superstition.
Joseph Smith himself wrote or dictated his history. It is his testimony of what occurred, and he sealed that testimony with his life. It is written in language clear and unmistakable. . . . The present effort of trying to find some other explanation for the organization of the Church, for the origin of the Book of Mormon, and for the priesthood with its keys and powers will be similar to other anti-Mormon fads which have come and blossomed and faded.

For President Hinckley—who has been working with Latter-day Saint history for decades at that point—to include the work of Mormon historians with “other anti-Mormon fads” sends a particularly strong signal. Hinckley also recognized that the idea of connecting Joseph Smith with ‘magic’ came “out of” the Hofmann forgeries. 

Those who want to make accusations about Church leaders in the Hofmann case should at least read what they have written rather than baseless accusations by individuals who are either promoting an agenda, or trying to cover up their own mistakes.


Monday, March 22, 2021

The Generous Man

Recently a friend reported to me the story of someone who claims to be a full-tithe payer without actually paying any tithing. It reminded me of a story told about seventy years ago by George Albert Smith in the July 1947 Improvement Era (p. 357). This story has also been quoted in the Ensign in 1982, General Conference in 1986, and again in 2002.

One day on the street I met a friend whom I had known since boyhood. I had not visited with him for some time, and I was interested in being brought up to date concerning his life, his problems, and his faith, therefore I invited him to go to a conference in Utah County with me. He drove his fine car (the make of car I was driving had not been received into society at that time). He took his wife, and I took mine. . . .

As we drove home, he turned to me and said: . . . "You know I have heard many things in this conference, but there is only one thing that I do not understand the way you do."

I said: "What is it?"

"Well," he said, "it is about paying tithing."

He thought I would ask him how he paid his tithing, but I did not. I thought if he wanted to tell me, he would. He said: "Would you like me to tell you how I pay my tithing?"

I said, "If you want to, you may."

"Well," he said, "if I make ten thousand dollars in a year, I put a thousand dollars in the bank for tithing. I know why it's there. Then when the bishop comes and wants me to make a contribution for the chapel or give him a check for a missionary who is going away, if I think he needs the money, I give him a check. If a family in the ward is in distress and needs coal or food or clothing or anything else, I write out a check. If I find a boy or girl who is having difficulty getting through school in the East, I send a check. Little by little I exhaust the thousand dollars, and every dollar of it has gone where I know it has done good. Now what do you think of that?"

"Well," I said, "do you want me to tell you what I think of it?"

He said, "Yes."

I said: "I think you are a very generous man with someone else's property." And he nearly tipped the car over.

He said, "What do you mean?"

I said, "You have an idea that you have paid your tithing?"

"Yes." he said.

I said: "You have not paid any tithing. You have told me what you have done with the Lord's money, but you have not told me that you have given anyone a penny of your own. He is the best partner you have in the world. He gives you everything you have, even the air you breathe. He has said you should take one-tenth of what comes to you and give it to the Church as directed by the Lord. You haven't done that; you have taken your best partner's money, and have given it away."

Well, I will tell you there was quiet in the car for some time. . . .

About a month after that I met him on the street. He came up, put his arm in mine, and said: "Brother Smith, I am paying my tithing the same way you do." I was very happy to hear that.