Knitting Fans, Behold Some Awesome Ancient Roman Tech!

There’s this guy, you see, who knitted his way to a solution to an infamous problem in Roman history. This might be a bit premature (since academic journals haven’t weighed in yet), but I am persuaded that the mystery of the ancient Roman dodecahedrons has been solved. And why I’m persuaded affords a handy example for teaching how Bayesian reasoning works in making good historical inferences.

A What?

Photograph of a bronze dodecahedron recovered from the ancient Roman Empire, described in the text.I suppose I should begin by explaining what a “mysterious ancient Roman dodecahedron” is. It’s not just any dodecahedron from ancient Rome (I’ll show you an unrelated example shortly), but a very peculiarly consistent oddity that no one has been able to explain (mainly because no writing survives mentioning it). It’s a common object. Some hundred or so have been found, originating in the 2nd century A.D. and spanning a couple of centuries afterward. But only in France and northern and eastern Europe. It’s weird looking. And has peculiar features. Some are of stone manufacture, but most are cast bronze.

Another example like the one above, this one lacks the grooves mentioned in the text.Some typical examples (one from Wikipedia, another from the Birmingham Musem) are shown to the right. Each is a twelve-sided hollow object, the sides generally symmetrical (an isohedron, so it looks a little like a twelve-sided die, something old-school role-playing-gamers will recognize), but every side has a circular hole in it, and the holes are different sizes, but the pattern of sizes (the sequence and arrangement) is the same on every object, even though the size of the object (and thus size of the holes) varies considerably, from kind of tiny (one and a half inches total diameter) to about the size of what would have then been a large adult fist (a little over four inches). The holes also sometimes have a sequence of parallel carved rings around them (sort of like gutters or guidelines in the face of the object), but many do not, so these appear to be a decorative flourish (a typical accent found in Roman tech of the time, where common utilitarian objects can be prettied up with some artsy flourishes like that).

But importantly, every corner of these objects has a solid knob sticking out of it, a bollard narrower at its base than at its tip (many of these just look like attached spheres), for twenty knobs in all. This most of all prevents the twelve-sided die analogy from quite being right, that plus the fact that the holes being of different size means each face has a different weight. They also aren’t inscribed with anything…a fact that is far more crucial to determining their purpose than you might at first think.

Just search “Roman dedocahedron” in Google Images and you’ll find dozens of examples. And yet…

[Read more...]

Magical Earthquake Ray Beams Caused the Shroud of Turin

Oh, yeah, baby. Someone pointed out to me in a comment on another post that people are circulating a story now that some Italian scientists have “proved” that the Shroud of Turin is authentic because its carbon date was altered by neutron radiation from a giant earthquake in Judea in exactly 33 A.D. (which they also know to have been exactly 8.2 on the Richter scale, thanks to, uh, ancient Roman seismometers or something). This claim even appears, without any skepticism, at Science Daily. And somehow, upending the whole world order, the duly skeptical report on this tale comes from Fox News! The original study claiming these absurd things is A. Carpinteri, G. Lacidogna, and O. Borla, Is the Shroud of Turin in Relation to the Old Jerusalem Historical Earthquake? Meccanica (February 2014).

That is either a joke article, or these Italians at the Politecnico di Torino are some of the goofiest cranks in human history (it appears to be the latter, but it’s hard to tell–if this is a Poe, it’s pretty good; whereas the paper’s lead author appears to be an established crank). [Read more...]

Hitler Homer Bible Christ: A Surprise New Book by Richard Carrier

While waiting for Sheffield to finish and release On the Historicity of Jesus (the book everyone is waiting for, presently projected for late March or early April), I decided to produce my own anthology of all my published papers on history. That volume, Hitler Homer Bible Christ: The Historical Papers of Richard Carrier 1995-2013, is now available, in print and kindle.

The publication description reads as follows (emphasis added):

Richard Carrier, Ph.D., philosopher, historian, blogger, has published a number of papers in the field of ancient history and biblical studies. He has also written several books and chapters on diverse subjects, and has been blogging and speaking since 2006. He is known the world over for all the above. But here, together for the first time, are all of Dr. Carrier’s peer reviewed academic journal articles in history through the year 2013, collected with his best magazine articles, research papers and blog posts on the same subjects. Many have been uniquely revised for this publication. Others are inaccessible except through libraries or paywalls. Twenty chapters include his seminal papers on the scandal of Hitler’s Table Talk, the Jerry Vardaman microletter farce, and the testimonies to Christ in Josephus, Tacitus, and Thallus, as well as Carrier’s journalistic foray into ancient pyramid quackery, his work on the historical & textual errancy of the bible, and more.

Cover of Hitler Homer Bible Christ. Olive or brown with dark greek falling leaves is the only graphic. The rest is just the title, subtitle at the top, and author at the bottom all in white lettering.The biggest attraction will be the fact that my peer reviewed paper showing that the reference to Christ in Tacitus is an interpolation, which is slated to appear in the academic journal Vigiliae Christianae later this year, is included in this volume, as well as my two other peer reviewed, academically published papers on the historicity question, the one on Thallus not having mentioned Jesus, and the other on the two references to Jesus in Josephus being interpolations (the one deliberate, the other accidental), published in the Journal of Greco-Roman Christianity and Judaism and the Journal of Early Christian Studies, respectively.

Also included is my brief but now hard-to-find article for The History Teacher published years ago, and all the articles I published in The Skeptical Inquirer (on the FOX special promoting pyramidiocy, and the two articles on the Jerry Vardaman microletters debacle), and most interestingly for some, my game-changing, peer-reviewed article in the academic journal German Studies Review, exposing the dubious nature of the still-only English translation of Hitler’s Table Talk, largely bogus quotes from which make Hitler look more atheistic than he was. Of particular value to anyone who keeps seeing those quotes repeated and wants ready access to the definitive take-down. I have also included a new afterword on the impact that paper had on Hitler studies, and expanding the analysis to include all the passages you’ll find cited from the Table Talk (and even some quotations elsewhere) to argue Hitler was godless.

All of the above are hard to find or get. I only have the rights to publish them in an anthology of my own works. So I did.

I have also included several online articles, from my blog and elsewhere, many revised for this volume, to produce a handy collection of my best and most useful work in the field of history. The table of contents reads as follows:

– Doing History –

1 :: The Function of the Historian in Society

2 :: History Before 1950

3 :: Experimental History

4 :: B.C.A.D.C.E.B.C.E.

– History Done –

5 :: Heroic Values in Classical Literary Depictions of the Soul: Heroes and Ghosts in Virgil, Homer, and Tso Ch’iu-ming

6 :: Herod the Procurator and Christian Apologetics

7 :: Herod the Procurator: Was Herod the Great a Roman Governor of Syria?

8 :: On the Dual Office of Procurator and Prefect

– Debunking the Bogus –

9 :: Flash! Fox News Reports that Aliens May Have Built the Pyramids of Egypt!

10 :: Pseudohistory in Jerry Vardaman’s Magic Coins: The Nonsense of Micrographic Letters

11 :: More on Vardaman’s Microletters

12 :: Hitler’s Table Talk: Troubling Finds

– The Vexed Bible –

13 :: Ignatian Vexation

14 :: Pauline Interpolations

15 :: Luke vs. Matthew on the Year of Christ’s Birth

16 :: Mark 16:9-20 as Forgery or Fabrication

– The Troublesome Evidence for Jesus –

17 :: The Nazareth Inscription

18 :: Thallus and the Darkness at Christ’s Death

19 :: Origen, Eusebius, and the Accidental Interpolation in Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 20.200

20 :: The Prospect of a Christian Interpolation in Tacitus, Annals 15.44

In all, Hitler Homer clocks in at 395 pages.

I already have a contract to produce an audio version of Hitler Homer. Recording will likely begin in a month or so. The audiobook will thus be available probably mid-year. (Meanwhile, I spent most of last week in the studio finishing the recording of Proving History, which you can expect to be released on audio in just a few months. Sheffield wants to do an audio edition of On the Historicity of Jesus but so far hasn’t discussed arrangements with me, so alas, I have no idea when that will be available.)

Skeptical Humanities

I’ve found several websites dedicated to applying the principles of rational and evidence-based skepticism to subjects in the humanities. I’m looking for more. I’d like to expand the following list with any website that is worth bookmarking in this area, so everyone, please feel free to make recommendations in comments. I’m only looking for sites that regularly do this, and meet roughly the same criteria of utility and standards as those in the following list, and that are broader than single-issue sites.

Of course everyone knows Snopes.com. You might not think of it as a skeptical humanities site, but what Barbara and David Mikkelson do there is address journalism and urban folklore and history, which are solidly in the humanities.

And everyone knows FactCheck.org and PolitiFact.com (and its related PunditFact). They apply skepticism to journalism and advertising and propaganda, which is again skepticism in the humanities, yet often overlooked because we tend to compartmentalize politics as its own animal.

But fewer know about BadArchaeology.com. Run by archaeologists Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews and James Doeser, they also have an affiliated blog. I don’t consider this a single-issue site, since archaeology is broad enough in scope to make bookmarking the site in general worthwhile.

Similar to that is PaleoBabble, a prolific blog by Mike Heiser (a doctor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies) addressing bogus claims in archaeology and ancient history, mostly in relation to ancient aliens and other conspiracy theories about antiquity, but it ranges widely in that area. [Be aware that Heiser's position on traditional biblical religion might be less skeptical, though he does write skeptically about such fringe subjects as bible codes and apocalypticism.]

And in a different vein is Jourdemayne, by Skeptic magazine UK’s current editor Deborah Hyde, which applies skeptical analysis to folklore and legends (from vampires and werewolves to witches and whatnot).

But even broader is SkepticalHumanities.com. This ranges all over the humanities, from linguistics to art, philosophy, history, literature, rhetoric, aesthetics, literary criticism, pop culture, folklore, and cultural studies. Its many contributors (currently Bob Blaskiewicz, Eve Siebert, Mark Newbrook, and Jenna Marie Griffith) are doctors in English, Linguistics, and Visual Arts (or almost a doctor in that last case).

Are there more out there like this that I’m missing? Let me know!

Since my original post, here are my favorite additions from commenter recommendations:

Slate Star Codex. Applies skepticism to claims in and about “cognitive science, psychology, history, politics, medicine, religion, statistics, transhumanism” but also subjects like feminism and sociology. Which reminds me to also add our own…

Heteronormative Patriarchy for Men. Applies skepticism to both feminist and anti-feminist claims and rhetoric, and to claims about sociology, economics, and other related subjects in the study of gender, culture and justice.

Evidence Based EFL. Applies skepticism to all kinds of claims about language, education and the use of words. (See a recent post there about the reason for the blog. The author remains anonymous, but is clearly an expert in language instruction, and if I were to guess, they are an English teacher in Japan.)

JasonColavito. Applies skepticism to claims in history and folklore, from ancient aliens to psychic history to other fringe claims about the bible (like “Was Noah a Merman?” which is a really good example of the depth of historical context Colavito provides in his analysis of these fringe claims). Colavito is an author and a distinguished double-major in anthropology and journalism, and uses this background expertly to explore “the connections between science, pseudoscience, and speculative fiction.”

The Renaissance Mathematicus. Applies skepticism to claims in the history of science and mathematics (mainly 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, but occasionally ranging more widely). This blog is full of great skeptical writing on a large range of subjects and claims within its purview.

New at LacusCurius & Livius. Applies skepticism to claims about ancient history (principally Western, sometimes biblical). Has a handy list of common errors well worth exploring. But everything there should be used with caution. I found problems with some of the entries I looked at, generally key information is omitted that would qualify what is claimed. For example, on the flat earth myth, it’s true most educated elites in antiquity knew the earth was a sphere, but the masses often did not or even rejected the idea, and some of the most highly educated elites, like Lactantius, outright opposed the idea, calling it ridiculous (and Lactantius was and remained a revered Christian author throughout the Middle Ages). Accordingly, it’s entirely plausible that the illiterate crew of Columbus thought the earth was flat, but not likely that his financial backers did. This is the kind of information this site should be including. But as long as you are aware that its entries might not be complete, they have a lot of useful discussion and sourcing.

FiveThirtyEight. Nate Silver’s column for the New York Times online, which has many contributors besides himself, a decent example of explaining mathematical results to humanities folk, often applying fact-based “mathematical” skepticism to topics in politics, journalism, and economics, with a touch of history. Good one for dissecting opinion polls and their use and abuse.

 

Miracles & Historical Method

Fan photo of Dr. Carrier in shadow before stage screen showing slide that says 'Conclusion: Christians Were Big Ass Liars'Video of my talk for this year’s Skepticon is now available on YouTube. See Miracles and Historical Method. Description:

Carrier talks about how to think critically about history generally, using miracles as an entertaining example. Builds on his talk last year on Bayes’ Theorem, but this time it’s more about method than math, and surveys a lot of real-world examples of miracles from the ancient world (pagan, Jewish and Christian). Summarizes some of what is covered in much more detail in his book.

Glorious Smackdown of the 10/42 Apologetic

Have you heard the argument that Jesus must have existed because “42 ancient sources record Jesus 150 years within his lifetime, whereas only 10 mention the contemporary Roman emperor Tiberius,” and since we consider that enough to believe Tiberius existed, we should conclude Jesus existed? I know, you are already detecting umteen things wrong with that argument. But sometimes someone comes along who so gloriously destroys an argument like this you just have to sit back in awe and smile. [Read more...]

The Jesus Tomb and Bayes’ Theorem

Finally, a mathematician actually gets the math right on the Jesus Tomb hypothesis. Conclusion? We have not found the tomb of Jesus. For those who already know the backstory and want to jump right to it, read Bayes’ Theorem and the “Jesus Family Tomb” by physicist Randy Ingermanson. He approached the problem like a physicist dealing with any old problem in data analysis (the problem is not so much different from how particle accelerator data are analyzed). He was assisted by political scientist Jay Cost, another who has good experience running Bayesian models like this. This expands on Ingermanson’s work on this published under peer review as Randall Ingermanson, “Discussion of: Statistical Analysis of an Archaeological Find,” Annals of Applied Statistics 2.1 (2008): 84-90 (responding to Feuerverger).

Backstory: James Tabor and some others have been pushing the claim that a tomb uncovered in the Talpiot district of Jerusalem (hence now called the Talpiot tomb) is the actual burial place of Jesus (and we not only have his “coffin,” but his DNA! As well as evidence he had a child named Judas by Mary Magdalene, also buried therein, also with her DNA!), and they published a book and a documentary arguing their case. (I’m just being colloquial. The tomb’s not full of coffins, of course, but ossuaries, a cultural analog). They had a mathematician backing them (Dr. Andrey Feuerverger), but his math has been consistently bogus from day one. For example, even though we have vastly better odds of randomly getting a name in a group of ten-to-thirty bodies than in a group of five, he kept running the math for five, even though there were ten-to-thirty bodies buried in that tomb. He also adopted a number of dubious (and some outright refuted) factual assumptions (for example, regarding the names of the women in the tomb: see, as one instance, the penultimate paragraph of my previous article on this tomb). By these devices, he found the odds were 600 to 1 in favor of this being the actual tomb of Jesus.

What happened: Ingermanson and Cost apply the correct math (Bayes’ Theorem, valid historical premises, proper treatment of variables, and correct mathematical models, e.g. acknowledging that more than five people were buried there). They find that by standard historical assumptions, the odds are 1 in 19,000 against the Talpiot tomb being the tomb of Jesus, and even by more generous assumptions the odds are 1 in 1,100 against (I put my own assumptions into their model and came up with 1 in 200 against), while even the most fanatical “I desperately want this to be the tomb of Jesus” estimator can only get odds of 1 in 18 that the Talpiot tomb is the tomb of Jesus. Thus, it probably isn’t, even if we are ridiculously generous to the hypothesis that it is.

So much for that. Done and dusted.

20 Questions

Are there “20 Questions Atheists Struggle to Answer” ? I was asked how I respond to Peter Saunders’ claim that there are, and how I would respond to those questions. According to God’s Advocate, Saunders thinks “there have not been any decent responses to [these twenty questions] in the past 40yrs,” but evidently he isn’t bothering to read any of the best answers available or even to find out what they are. The questions themselves are pretty much boiler plate, and consist mostly of fallacious loaded questions that ignore the established science behind nearly every one. I noticed that my work over the years has answered every one, except a few that are so lame I really can’t believe he thinks they need a better answer than science has already provided (at least with respect to whether atheism is true–I think science can always know or learn more about anything, but at a certain point you know enough to know God is not involved in whatever it is).

So here are my answers to his twenty questions… [Read more...]

Amazing Proofs of Jesus!

There seems to be an odd rise the last year or so in forgeries or other bogus claims of “archaeological” finds attesting to first century Christianity. In actual fact, we have no (that’s zero) archaeological evidence pertaining to Jesus or Christians from the first century (and very, very little even from the second). But last year there was a claim of some mysterious find of “lead codices” that was quickly exploded by experts as a fraud (see my summary: Lead Tablets of Jesus!).

And this year already two wild claims have started circulating. First, that a “first century” manuscript of the Gospel of Mark has been found (claimed by the quasi-fundamentalist Christian scholar Dan Wallace, during a debate with Bart Ehrman), by which is meant, a tiny fragment of a few incomplete words (shown at right, if this is the manuscript in question; you see, no one has come forward as its owner or stated even where it is, not even Wallace, who nevertheless wants to make a big splash with a book about it next year–there is always some money-making angle with these things).

Like the lead codices story, which became big international news before anyone was consulted who actually knows what they are talking about, this, too, has quickly become news, already garnering an article in Forbes (and, I’m told, even making TV news). But alas, it’s dubious for two reasons: first, no one will say where the manuscript is (it therefore is unlikely to be in any academic institution; as such it would already have an accession number and alphanumeric identifier, and of course they would insist on being identified); second, if the image circulating is the same fragment (the image’s authenticity has not been established; it appears to have been “leaked” by a “private collector,” supposedly its owner), it’s far more likely to be a fake than an authentic manuscript at all, much less from the first century (indeed as a forgery, it’s so crappy, the best argument against it being fake is that it was so badly faked: the papyrus shows no fray lines, the scribal lines are not evenly spaced, the lettering is inconsistent, and there are no other typical indicators of authenticity). Several heavy-hitting experts have weighed in on this, all in the “give me a break” column. You can find links to their reports on Thomas Verenna’s blog (here and here).

And now a new claim is going around that an early “first century” tomb has been found in Jerusalem that provides the earliest evidence of Christianity ever found. This was a discovery made by the same bozos who touted the “Jesus tomb” a while back (more on that shortly), and I’m really bothered by James Tabor’s continual involvement with them. He’s a great guy, but he’s really not coming off well here. The only evidence that this is any such thing as they claim (other than just another Jewish tomb) is a barely intelligible inscription and a barely decipherable carving. Each in turn:

(1) The inscription is in Greek and “might” say “God Yahweh Raises [Agb]” or some such, but doesn’t. The verb is not in fact there. Tabor just “conjectures” that hypsô is an abbreviated third person form of the verb hypsô [hypsôsen] and that it means “to raise up,” but the verb hypsô actually means to “lift up” as in “exalt,” and there are other things hypsô could be an abbreviation for (like hyps[ist]ô, “to the highest”), and it could even just be the verb hypsô, “I exalt [thee]” and so on (e.g., the agb could be hagiô, the omega ligatured to the iota, in which case it’s “to the holy and most high,” etc.). Point is, it’s unclear. Moreover, even if it were a verb of resurrection (though this would be the rarest verb used for that, even in Christian literature), the entire point of Jews reburying the bones of their dead in ossuaries was to facilitate their resurrection; so declaring that God would raise the inhabitant (possibly the person whose name begins with Agb) is exactly in line with Jewish thinking and thus not at all indicative of any peculiarly Christian sentiment.

(2) The carving is being claimed as a fat-headed stick-figure man in the mouth of a weird fish, and therefore the earliest known depiction of Jonah in the Whale, known in later centuries as a common Christian symbol of personal salvation and resurrection. But as experts have pointed out, it is far more likely an amateur carving of a nephesh, or Jewish tomb monument, with eaves and pinnacle, a common motif on Jewish ossuaries of the period, or even more likely an amphora or krater (depending on how much importance is placed on which end is up: for a good example of a reconstruction, and useful commentary on the whole fiasco, see Mark Goodacre on James Charlesworth on Talpiot Tomb B). That this is more obvious is that as a fish the drawing is bizarre (little tiny absurdly itty bitty fins; scales that look coincidentally more like architectural decoration), but as a nephesh or amphora much less so; even the so-called “man” would have to be a freak (as it is, depicting Jonah with a three foot dick; a head swollen to the size of a medicine ball; and ambiguous arms). This is very unlikely to be a depiction of Jonah in the Whale.

For, again, a gallery of heavy-hitting experts all weighing in on the “give me a break” column, see Thomas Verenna’s roundup post, which includes links (here). The most important are Robert Cargill and Eric Myers and the most educational for laymen (albeit much longer) is by Christ Rollston, which also gets you up to speed on the backstory. Needless to say, this bogus “find” is linked to a heavily-marketed book, The Jesus Discovery: The New Archaeological Find That Reveals the Birth of Christianity, by James D. Tabor. But given that he has been so thoroughly disgraced by expert analysis on this (and yet gives the book an absurdly confident title like that), I can only assume he has tenure, as otherwise he would cease to be employed by now. This is really beyond the pale.

It’s even more discrediting that Tabor still stands by the “Jesus Tomb Wingnut Team” interpretation of an inscription in the other Talpiot tomb as “Mariamene” (as supposedly a variant of Mariamne, supposedly a distinctive spelling of Mary Magdalene), when it is unmistakably Mariamê kai Mara, “Miriam and Mara,” one very common Jewish name, the other unconnected to Jesus. An earlier epigrapher confused a single letter as nu (N) which is actually kappa [K], the one being an upside down version of the other (a common mistake even for an expert to make who might be getting tired trudging through hundreds of inscriptions). This is so glaringly obvious there can be no reasonable dispute in the matter. Yet he keeps on claiming it says Mariamene. Lately he has been willing to allow that it “might” say Mariame kai Mara…after I pointed this out. But why didn’t he notice it before? The many statistical analyses run for the names in the tomb are also horribly fallacious (the conjunction of names there given the actual population in the tomb is simply not improbable enough to ensure this tomb has any connection with Jesus), but he can’t be expected to understand that (he’s not a mathematician and hasn’t studied statistics or statistical logic). But surely he can read Greek properly. He seems more inclined to stick to the guns of a bizarre theory than actually admit it’s too bizarre to be credible. That was not the “lost tomb of Jesus” ; and neither is this “new” find connected to Christianity.

The lesson to learn here is never to trust the media, much less the rumor mill, when claims of an amazing new find like this crop up. Wait for the evidence to actually be presented, for many independent experts to actually analyze it. Then see what survives. Usually, nothing.