The need for a methodology

Battle of the Pyramids, July 21, 1798, oil on canvas
Antoine-Jean Gros (1810)

Blogger keeps telling me of blogs it thinks are related to mine, here. They cover a huge range of speculations, usually offering secular, non-theist explanations for sacred texts - usually biblical. Thanks, Google, but you're wasting your analytical time, and here's why.

Few people - it seems and I hope - can still believe in gods, magic, the supernatural - the stuff of religion. (Of course some still do and some will still buy into ponzi schemes, believe Bush was right about Iraq, download viruses, follow horoscopes, buy "alternative medicine" and use 1,2,3,4,5 for a password: there are always ignoramuses, super-credulous and idiots.) But generally and at least in the world I inhabit, people are educated, literate and sensible - quite a lot are very bright, far brighter than me - and they realise that prayer doesn't wok, angels don't stand guard over us, sacred texts were all written by people, and billions of us were born into hell, with short, unpleasant lives and often painful ends.

So all that religious claptrap needs some explaining, after all, it's been around a long time and our modern world is still based on it. Our doctors and scientists are produced in many of the same, great institutions as the priests. In the UK at least, bishops still rule over us and the Roman Church still rules the lives of a billion or so.

It is only natural, then, for enquiring minds to wonder: was there ever any truth in what we were taught and if so, what could it be?

The solution for just about everyone is to go back to the books and try to make some sort of sense out of them, to rationalise 'the facts'. This is when the scholarly approach discovers that others travelled this path long before. My two favourite books on this are:
  • The Origin of All Religious Worship by Charles Fran├žois Dupuis (1798) containing "An Explanation of the Fable, in which the Sun is worshipped under the name of Christ".
This is what happens when scientific minds liberated from religious oppression discover ancient Egypt, as happened with the French Revolution, then Bonaparte. England put a stop to all that.
  • The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion (retitled The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion in its second edition) by Sir James George Frazer (1890)
The Victorian period saw a great flourishing of comparative study of mythology and religion, as science advanced and travel across the world became easier. There was also a productive period in biblical scholarship.

Today, with the internet and Wikipedia, every skeptical and enquiring mind can quickly and easily see the comparisons and draw their own, usually facile conclusions. Their one hallmark - actually a hurdle over which they trip - is this: though they believe they can sort mythological gods from history, they are unable to sort mythology itself from history.

Yes, there were no historical men called Serapis, or Mithras; there really were men - from pharaohs to caesars - who (falsely) claimed divinity for themselves: that bit was easy.

This discernment begins to fall apart when reading of Pythagoras and Alexander the Great, for even most scholars have little idea that they were divine and also lack virtually all historicity.

Then what about Buddha, Krishna, Jesus Christ, Muhammad the Prophet? Now the going gets tough.

Faced with such daunting questions of historicity, the easy road beckons: go to the experts, the professors of history, the big, reliable names from leading universities and the television screen: they must know. At that point, the aspiring scholar is lost in academe's glittering web of false assumptions.

They will read of books, laws and edicts, whole histories of and from antiquity, crowded with saints, philosophers-turned saints, martyrs, popes, great theologians and heretics, schisms and apocrypha, and they are told how most of these existed. The Catholic Encylopaedia will obligingly admit that many accounts - gospels and Acts even - were faked, and this reassures - the rest must be reliable, surely!?

The poor, investigating scholar grasps what they can, not understanding, not even imagining, how they are grasping at straws. The sad fact is that history and the textual tradition are two, very separate things - and this is true for all major religions.

The proper study of history sets guidelines - rules actually - on how to treat what in the vernacular is known as gossip, or in a court of law as secondhand evidence, hearsay.

There is no direct evidence for Jesus, Christ, the life of such person, or his death; there is no direct, contemporaneous evidence for anything Christian - people, faith, or institutions - or for heresies, until centuries later in the modern era.

There is no Clement, Justin Martyr, Eusebius of Caesarea, Lactantius, or any other Church Father, or author of the textual tradition. And that also applies to the many Christians treated in the so-called histories and anti-heresies bearing their name. Not only are they all fictional, if our great scholars understood anything important for the period they claim expertise, they would realise that none could have existed. And neither could the books they were supposed to have written.

This is what sinks all our erstwhile intellectual giants, intent on explaining their brilliant hypotheses to us. They build on sand - and it's very soggy.

Before anyone starts out on their great adventure, to point out to us the obvious parallels and similarities, regurgitating observations made centuries ago and better, they need to learn and adopt a methodology:
A methodology does not set out to provide solutions but offers the theoretical underpinning for understanding which method, set of methods or so called “best practices” can be applied to a specific case.
When reading an unreliably-dated ancient text claiming anonymously and with no support to be copied from an earlier - which not only does not exist, but for which there is no other evidence that it ever existed - and by an author who has no historicity at all, our putative scholar needs an accepted guideline, or rule, on how to treat it. This should not be a problem, for historiography contains such - all that is needed is to read the rule, then apply. It really is that simple.

If there were something tangible to consider, then perhaps there would be real work involved, but there very rarely is.

In my own study, for the last three or four years, I have had to check the possible historicity of every ancient source; it's been sometimes troublesome, though necessary and rewarding. The result is how come I differentiate frequently between history and the textual tradition; it is how I know my history is reliable and that of others is either cripplingly incomplete, often wrong, or just mythological and then, largely a fraud.

As historians of religions and antiquity usually cannot follow the rules of their own field, I think they need to be chucked along with the fetid, scummy bathwater they produce and call history.

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