Acharya S (aka D.M. Murdock) responded to my post on That Luxor Thing, with a number of weirdly paranoid claims, but one valid criticism, and a few incorrect criticisms and more bad arguments, and it is worth addressing these in this new post. To read her entry in this exchange see Parallelophobia, Personal Attacks and Professional Jealousy: A Response to Richard Carrier’s ‘That Luxor Thing’.
Paranoia vs. Professionalism
One of the reasons Murdock’s methodology goes off the rails is that she assumes everyone is out to get her and that there is always some sort of evil conspiracy against her work. Which insulates her from listening to criticism and correcting the way she does things. That is one of the surest ways to fail as a scholar. It likely also prevents her from having useful dialogs with experts in ancient history. Which is the surest way to make yourself irrelevant as a scholar. But that’s her own lookout.
What concerns me more is her mean-spirited paranoia. For example, she says of me that “He’s releasing a new book about mythicism; hence, he’s trying to get attention by attacking others in the field who seem to have a significant following, in order to garner those followers to himself.” Huh? Why on earth does she come to that conclusion? It’s not even logical, much less in evidence. I’m not interested in “followers” (although by her expressed fear, she evidently is; which is more characteristic of a guru than a scholar). I am interested in persuading academic professionals that a particular theory is true, or at least plausible enough to treat as respectably as other theories in the field. Every time I attempt to do that, I have the sloppy methodology of other mythers thrown in my face as a reason to dismiss all mythicism, and I have to spend a great deal of additional time explaining why my methods are valid and that mythicism can be supported with valid arguments. (I have also had mythers’ unfriendly paranoia cited at me by professors in the field, forcing me to also prove I don’t act like that–I had dismissed that claim about Murdock in the past, but now seeing it flung at me, evidently the scholars who mentioned it to me were correct about it; this is not doing her or mythicism any good, it makes them both look like tinfoil hat.)
By contrast, I have said many times that Earl Doherty’s approach is the most methodological and theoretically sound of any so far (despite only some minor flaws), and I have adapted his theory into its most defensible variant, and I always recommend his book The Jesus Puzzle as the best case yet made for mythicism. My review of his work mentioned all the ways it was correct, and all the ways it could be improved. In what way does this fit Murdock’s theory about me? Contrary to her paranoid fantasies, I address the validity of facts and methodology, praise where praise is due, censure where censure is due. Instead, Murdock thinks this is a political game whereby we should all “up vote” and “positively review” each others work, and never be “adversarial.” That is a perfect example of why her methodology sucks. That is not how a professional should ever behave. You can never make progress toward any true knowledge if you never criticize or call out error, if you show no interest in the validity of the methods being employed, if you show no desire to root out errors and improve methodologies. If it’s all a “back slapping” game whereby our only aim is to promote each others’ book sales, then we are not scholars. We’re hucksters.
Thus, Murdock intimates that she will now negatively review any books I produce, simply because I did not play her game (which is ironic, as it implies a level of vendetta and dishonesty in her that she projects onto me, to the eternal satisfaction of Sigmund Freud). Instead, I acted like actual scholars act: we criticize each other’s work, specifically so as to identify error and improve our methods and conclusions as a collective enterprise. Instead of being objective and simply evaluating works on their merits, Murdock says she “could have” positively reviewed my work as she did Doherty’s and Price’s, that I “could have benefited likewise,” had I “not chosen to be adversarial.” So, simply because I dared criticize her, now she will trash my work or ignore it, like a pouting child. Not behave, apparently, like a professional. (Notably, “personal attacks” is in the title of her post, yet between us, the only personal attacks I see are hers against me, impugning my motives and honesty; she fails to adduce any actual personal attacks from me against her.)
Her paranoid behavior continues to show when she assumes I was making an argument of “Guilt by Association” when I mentioned the bad scholarship of Kersey Graves as something to be aware of (even though linking to my past work on similar subjects, particularly to inform the public, is a common practice of mine, and I never once said she was relying on Graves or even like him, apart from the single fact of seeing parallels where there are none). She then weirdly implies some sort of vague defense of Graves, rather than agreeing with me that Graves’s scholarship sucks, while simultaneously insisting she doesn’t rely on him, which I never implied she did. It’s all very confusing. Is Graves’ scholarship reliable, or not? She then goes on to chest pump about all her amazing work that I ignore. It’s not exactly the behavior of a person who believes in being objective or resolving disagreements.
Murdock also seems obsessed with radical counter-consensus claims, rather than showing any humility or caution in exploring them. For example, she says Ph.D.d scholars (whom she doesn’t name) agree with her that “Christian scribes at Alexandria copied Buddhist texts for much of their source material. Carrier endorses The Case Against Q, but these Buddhist scholars are quite certain they have found Q, so let us sit back and watch the fireworks.” Indeed. When this gets in a peer reviewed journal in the field, I will read it. When will that be exactly? Because I would be most eager to use this as evidence in my own book. The thing is, I find the claim dubious. As will most experts in the field. The proper procedure in that case is to admit you have some convincing of experts to do, that until it gets properly vetted it might not hold up to scrutiny, and that you should go through proper channels and methods to seek that scrutiny, and see what comes out. Instead the arrogance and certainty she exhibits on this point is another example of her bad methodology. It’s a set up for verification bias and a failure to detect and correct errors of method and inference.
This is not the correct way to behave as a scholar. It is anathema to sound methodology. And it’s guaranteed to get you ignored by the very people you should be aiming to persuade: the expert community as a whole.
The Valid Criticism
Even so, Murdock corrects me on one error of fact, and that I gladly concede and I apologize for getting it wrong: the actual inscription in the Luxor temple was probably produced almost a century after Hatshepsut, and thus not commissioned by the same queen as I had mistakenly reported. I have revised my original post to reflect this. It does not change my conclusion (as I now explain there), but it does soften it a little, since it would be much easier to prove that the inscriptions refer to the same story if they were commissioned by the same person; being a century apart opens up the possibility at least that the second commissioner changed the story in fundamental ways. But I do not see any evidence that this is what happened. Murdock relies on an elaborate system of speculations to conclude that the second story is not an abbreviation of the first but a substantial rewrite that has changed its fundamental character.
Normally a radical reinterpretation like that would be published under peer review so experts can consider it and criticize it if it is found wanting. An analogous example is the theory once advanced that the Marduk resurrection narrative recovered in clay tablets was a political satire of actual Marduk cult and that his “death” was meant to be an insult and not an actual part of ceremony and belief. This was published under peer review, then duly criticized by further articles under peer review, with the end result that it was found to be completely untenable, and it is now accepted that the death-and-resurrection of Marduk was a real part of Marduk cult, which long predated Christianity (and would still have been a component of cult at Tyre, which the Gospels claim Jesus visited, and which was right adjacent to Judea and a major trade hub for Judeans, so it can’t be claimed that Jews had never heard of it). This is how conclusions in the field become acceptable and usable as evidence to build theories on.
The analogy is that (I presume) Murdock agrees that the theory attacking the Marduk resurrection narrative was false and should have been rejected. But if we followed her methodology, it would have become “the theory” simply because someone (her analog) simply insisted it’s correct, and that their reinterpretation of the evidence is obviously correct, and that anyone who criticizes it is only doing so out of envy or to sell books, and therefore not only can all criticisms be ignored and all critics denounced as ignorant, but there is no need for any consensus to develop in the expert community at all before declaring this a proven fact. By that methodology, we would have rejected Marduk’s resurrection as a precedent for Christianity, exactly the opposite of what Murdock would want. Instead, the theory went through a correct process of professional presentation and consensus evaluation, and thus, thankfully for her, was rejected. If you want a radical new theory to be accepted, you have to go through the same process. Because it is precisely by surviving that process that a claim becomes established knowledge. Otherwise it just remains an outside fringe claim built on two parts speculation and one part arrogant certitude.
In this case, not only has her radical reinterpretation not gone through this process, it looks prima facie implausible. The Luxor inscriptions are self-evidently abbreviations of the other (they are uniformly shorter and lift identical phrases), not rewrites–in which what has changed would have to be explicitly asserted, precisely because otherwise everyone would assume the already-familiar story is what was being referenced. But the Luxor accounts do not actually assert that any part of the story has changed. They just tell the same story in a lot fewer words. This is how we work with myths and texts routinely: when we find an abbreviated version of the labors of Hercules, we interpret it in light of more elaborate versions, which fill in what has been cut short. We do not attempt to argue that, even though nothing different is explicitly being said, that nevertheless the story has radically changed. That is improper methodology. Because it goes against all natural probability, and rests on a number of ad hoc assumptions not firmly in evidence (which intrinsically reduces the prior probability of any hypothesis, because a simpler hypothesis, which does not need them, is inherently more likely, yet explains the evidence just as well: the reason this follows is among the methodological principles I demonstrate in Proving History).
Nevertheless, I admit I was wrong about one fact in this analysis, and I have now corrected it. Which is another of the methodological principles I articulate in Proving History (Rule 12, page 39).
The Invalid Criticisms
The rest of her commentary is barely worth the trouble of reading. Nothing else in it makes any valid point against what I said. Contrary to Murdock’s rebuttal, for example, I did not say anything follows from the images, but in fact made the opposite point, that like an illustrated bible, the images do not tell the whole story but only fractional snapshots. We therefore must rely on the inscriptions. Hence my argument above, and my own quotation of the actual Luxor inscription itself as an example. Likewise the idea that “no” mythical beings have genitalia (even though the phallus of Osiris, which impregnated Isis, was a major component of that cult, and we have inscriptions from Egypt depicting divine copulation) is simply not tenable. It is fallacious to argue that some impregnations were effected by other means (e.g. Zeus as a shower of gold), therefore all divine impregnations were effected by other means. This kind of hasty generalization is another example of bad methodology.
In attempting to bypass that point with the additional argument that even if they did have sex (a “having it both ways” approach to making her point, which is not intrinsically fallacious, but starts to look so here), “sex between an Egyptian god and a mortal woman is not all its cracked up to be” (whatever that is supposed to mean, and however it is supposed to be relevant to my point I don’t know; even the Luxor inscription, as I quoted, does not seem to suggest it was anything but a very amazing and very physical experience) and that, she says, in any case “both stories represent a godly act that produces a divine offspring.” But if that is all she is reducing her argument to, then her argument collapses altogether. Because there are hundreds of stories across dozens of cultures “that represent a godly act that produces a divine offspring.” That is in fact a necessary element of all demigod narratives whatever. So how then are we to suppose Christians needed the Luxor narrative to get theirs from?
This was the very point I made in my last post: divine acts impregnating females to produce divine sons were a ubiquitous element of pagan cultures all around the Jews, and of Hellenistic kingship narratives (most famously Alexander the Great). There was nothing even peculiarly Egyptian about them, much less “Luxorian.” Murdock’s further point that the Egyptian tales might have influenced these is actually a point I myself made: its irrelevant (since we want to know what the Christians borrowed from, not what their borrowee borrowed from, which might not have even been known to the Christians, as I explained) and unprovable (from the evidence we have we cannot demonstrate that this wasn’t just a ubiquitous cultural trope, or that these Egyptian ideas weren’t influenced by foreign ideas instead of the other way around). So why bother with it?
Murdock still has not cited any living Egyptologist who regards the Luxor narratives as a nonphysical (nonsexual) experience, yet taunts me with claims that she has. Instead she cites Wikipedia (not an Egyptologist), and even that does not say this (as the text she highlights only describes the pictures, not the text, and doesn’t say anything about the experience not being sexual). Again, this is not sound methodology. She then does this a lot, citing this or that Egyptologist saying one thing (with which I have never disagreed), then claiming it means what she says, but the quote doesn’t say that. You can’t cite an authority as affirming x, by quoting them saying y. Indeed, you shouldn’t even want to. (And I must warn anyone who might be thinking of “editing” the Wikipedia article to “support” her: I know how to read Wikipedia editing histories.)
And even despite all that weirdness, Murdock then backpedals and says “the debate remains whether the Egyptians themselves perceived their gods as having literal sex with mortals, or in general was the concept more spiritual or allegorical” (The debate where? What living Egyptologist is debating this?). We actually know something about this: all ancient texts about the allegorization of myths that discuss what “the people themselves” believed say that “the people themselves” not only took the myths literally but were sometimes so offended by the suggestion of allegorizing them that some scholars advised their peers to avoid mentioning this in public (see Strabo, Geography 1.2.8 and Heliodorus, Aethiopica 9.9.5; Seneca’s On Superstition, as quoted in Augustine’s City of God 6.10, presents an example; similar observations are made in Plutarch’s On Isis and Osiris and his On Superstition; Origen had something to say about it, too; Socrates was even executed by the state in part for the alleged “crime” of suggesting the state gods and myths not be taken literally).
The allegorical meaning of a narrative was often a component of mysteries that higher ranking members would learn; while the rank and file (and outsiders) would be lured and taught by the myths as literal texts. Thus, both “readings” of a narrative could exist at the same time. Even sometimes in the same mind: the allegory could be read as the meaning of a literal event. All three modes (literal reading, allegorical reading, and simultaneously both) are exhibited throughout Philo’s treatises on Allegorical Interpretation. So it is pointless to handwave about a “debate” over whether the allegories were taken literally or not. It was both. And the story was still there, and still had all its cultural connotations regardless. That’s why no Christian would “allegorically” have said Yahweh impregnated Mary with a phallus or that she fondled and smelled him in her bed. That would have been repugnant, just as I said. By contrast, sexless impregnations were plenty to be had from all surrounding cultures, so why are we assuming Christians were inspired by Egyptian tales specifically, or indeed the Luxor inscriptions specifically? Murdock’s answers to that question are not well founded.
Finally, Murdock spends a lot of time showing that divine birth narratives were all over Egypt. Well, yes. They were all over Tyre and Syria and Greece and Rome and Arabia and everywhere else, too. That’s my point. You can’t argue “it was everywhere, therefore it came from Egypt,” and since it was everywhere, it can’t be argued that Christians were influenced specifically by Egyptian versions of it. For example, per my previous post’s analysis, such a thesis does not explain the presence of magi in Matthew’s story, but a derivation from the OT does. When we account for every element that way, we end up with only one thing left over that’s held in common with Luxor: a God impregnating a woman to produce his Son. Which is not uniquely Egyptian but a universal trope repeated everywhere in every culture of the time. (Which is why it is odd she accuses me in her title of “parallelophobia,” even though I explicitly said even in that post that some such parallels were obvious and in fact more likely influences on the Christian story; so how am I parallelophobe, again?)
Her methodology throughout all this is simply not sound, and would not impress any expert I know. It clearly annoys her when I say that, but that doesn’t make it untrue.
Case in Point
I will close with a prime example of what I mean. At one point in her long post Murdock quotes a medieval author (Proclus) as saying that Cleopatra claimed to have been a virgin who never had sex with anyone yet gave birth to a divine son (which I suppose means Caesarion, although apparently she had several kids). That is simply not in the text.
Proclus says nothing about Cleopatra; nor is he talking about Isis, but Neith (Murdock often assumes that because these goddesses were merged or conflated in some cases, that therefore they are always the same goddess with always the same associated properties and stories, which is not correct reasoning; they are often referred to as working together–and thus often regarded as different goddesses–and their stories, relationships, and powers were often distinguished in some times and places even as they were merged in others); and what Proclus does say isn’t about virginity, even though Neith was indeed a virgin goddess, who gave birth to gods spontaneously, i.e. without the involvement of any other God (see Barbara Lesko, The Great Goddesses of Egypt, pp. 45-63)–which would not make this a passage relevant to Murdock’s thesis.
Just as importantly, no such claim is to be found anywhere near the actual time of Cleopatra (whereas the claim that her son was born to Julius Caesar, in the fully traditional way, she trumpeted high and low), and is not made even in Proclus (despite Murdock being so certain it was, for what reason I don’t know). So this is simply not a plausible claim, and the way Murdock argues for it exemplifies everything that is wrong with her methodology. Not least in failing to notice or mention that Proclus is not talking about Cleopatra. An occasional mistake like that, duly corrected, might be no big deal (if she does correct it). But it’s not like this is an isolated example. And the further one digs into her case here, the worse it gets…
You can read the text yourself: Proclus, Commentary on Plato’s Timaeus 1.98 (5th century A.D.). The section starts as his commentary on section 21e, where he begins explaining who the Neith is whom Plato mentions as the goddess who founded Sais (Plato, Timaeus 21e), identified with the virgin Athena. When Proclus gets to the relevant quote, this is the context:
But the Egyptians relate, that in the adytum of the Goddess there was this inscription, “I am the things that are, that will be, and that have been. No one has ever laid open the garment by which I am concealed. The fruit which I brought forth was the sun.” The Goddess, therefore, being demiurgic, and at the same time apparent and unapparent, has an allotment in the heavens, and illuminates generation with forms.
(According to the linked translation; I’ll provide my own shortly.) Proclus clearly understands the passage as referring to Neith’s ability to spontaneously give birth to elements of creation (as a demiurge); this is not a reference to any merger with the Isis narrative. The goddesses were merged or conflated from time to time, but that did not always result in all properties and stories being combined, and such a merger is not occurring in this inscription as far as I can see. Even so, Murdock tries to read virginity into it by translating “garment” as “undergarment” but that is not a correct translation (or is a misleading one, if readers are misled by it to think “undergarment” means “nickers” when in fact it means tunic or top).
For instance, Plutarch said some think this goddess is Isis, quoting a different version of the same inscription, or perhaps a different but related inscription (without mention of the birth part), in On Isis and Osiris 354c. Plutarch’s version reads (my translation) “I am all that has been and is and will be and my robe (peplon, an outer-garment, not an under-garment) no mortal has uncovered (apekalypsen, which means “revealed” as in made public).” Thus only mortals have not lifted her veil; no reference to giving birth (so we can’t assess how Plutarch would have rendered that part, if it then existed); some different wording throughout; and undergarments are not meant, nor sex or virginity, but a revealing of mysteries. The version that appears in Proclus reads (my translation) “that which is and will be and was, I am; my dress (chitôn, a tunic, which is not an undergarment in our sense of the word) no one has uncovered (again, apekalupsen); I bear the fruit, the sun comes to be” (whether the fruit meant is the sun, or all the things she creates, of which the sun is one, is unclear from the wording, but either way she gives birth to the sun). In neither case is there a reference to her “undergarments” staying put. The verb and imagery is of the mystery religions, her secrets being kept. And in the Proclean version the emphasis is on her spontaneous creative power. There is no reference to a divine father.
In her book (Christ in Egypt, p. 147) Murdock quotes a hundred-year-old article (even though you should not do that) by William Emmette Coleman (an army clerk and avid spiritualist with no known credentials and dubious reliability: see Jeffrey Lavoie, The Theosophical Society: The History of a Spiritualist Movement, pp. 269-74) who profusely insists this is about virginity and that every expert would agree. But does he name any? And what about now, 120 years later? Murdock names no one. Apparently Murdock thinks that what one amateur was “confident” every Egyptologist would say 120 years ago cannot possibly have been wrong then, nor have changed at all in 120 years. This is not how to support a conclusion. And it is maddening to run into this method of arguing a point again and again.
This is simply not how good scholarship works.
I will conclude with this: it is precisely because of these threads of research and analysis, which tediously take up my time for no purpose, only to reveal how unreliable Murdock is, in reporting, sourcing, and discussing facts, and in drawing inferences from what she quotes, that I don’t want to engage in these debates. If I were to repeat this for every claim she makes, and every claim every myther made, I would be occupied with this for hundreds of years. All to no purpose. I would rather start from the evidence itself, and recent peer reviewed scholarship by well-qualified specialists, and build my own case using a methodology I know to be sound. That is hard enough. It has taken me years (only now near to completion…Proving History is out in a few weeks, and I expect to have a reviewable first draft of Historicity by end of April). I am not going to waste any more time with “other people’s” shoddy scholarship. If someone else out there wants to do this, all the power to you. But from here on out I am disengaging. I will not bother “checking” any more of Murdock’s facts. Nor will I “debate” any of this, unless you can confirm I have made an actual, provable error (as I did make one, noted above). I am always interested in getting things right. But I am not interested in being someone else’s fact check boy. And I’m certainly not interested in Murdock’s paranoid aspersions or the trolling of her fanatical followers. Do keep that in mind.