Thursday, November 05, 2015

Joseph's Pyramids and American Popular History

Yes, Ben Carson, who is officially running for President, is happily telling people that the pyramids are not actually pharaohs' tombs, but grain storage built by Joseph from the Book of Genesis. Never mind that there are (for example) sarcophagi in the pyramids. And never mind that the Bible doesn't actually say anything about Joseph building pyramids or in fact building anything (Genesis Ch. 41). Ben Carson isn't worried about archaeology or facts. He sees the rival theory that, yes, aliens from outer space built the pyramids as the main intellectual threat to his position.  I'm not here to discuss how ridiculous Carson's position is. The real problem is that large numbers of Americans believe things almost as stupid as this. Carson is only one outlier in our country's deep and rich tradition of historical ignorance.

We pay lots of attention to Biblical literalists' attacks on science, especially on the science of evolution and therefore on the disciplines of biology and geology. But we politely overlook the pervasive religious attacks on history. As a country, we shy away from public contradiction of the Bible's historical claims. If anything, secular American culture amplifies the historical misinformation found in the Bible.

Let me say, before I go any further, that I am a believing and practicing Christian. I am not writing this because I am opposed to Christianity or to Judaism. I went to Bible study last night. But being honest in my faith means being honest about the things in my own tradition's sacred writings that are not credible as accounts of literal events, the things that I would never accept as reliable in someone else's religious scriptures. Faith is a way of making sense of the world around us, not a way to distort or deny the world. A belief system that has to defend itself against facts is not an expression of faith, but of fear.

I am fortunate that I almost never run into the problem of religious pseudo-history in my classroom. But occasionally, when I teach a survey course on English literature before 1800, I run into a student who has picked up some misinformation from the modern neo-Pagan movement (although these students are not always self-identified pagans or Wiccans). These students will take for granted that in, say, 1400 AD there was a secret but organized and flourishing practice of Celtic paganism in Britain. This is not even close to the truth. Modern paganism was invented over the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, over a thousand years after the pre-Christian Celtic religions died out. (Many odd, disjointed bits of pre-Christian culture and folklore did survive, but certainly nobody was worshiping Medb or Belinus for all that time.) While the students might have come by that misinformation from a religious source, deference to their religion does not (and really cannot) extend to allowing them to assert imaginary facts. A Wiccan student doesn't get a free pass to claim that there were Druids running around Chestershire during the period of the Crusades, because that didn't happen.

It would be a different story if we uncovered physical evidence of pagan worship in late-medieval Chester. Fifteen hundred years of an ongoing religious practice across the British Isles would inevitably leave traces behind for archaeologists to uncover. But none of that stuff is there. And there would also be documented references, sooner or later. (The ancient Greeks had a whole bunch of secret, initiates-only religious practices, but they still documented that they had them. Even when a culture doesn't write all of its secrets down, it still writes things like "Never write down the secrets.") And when my studies lead to read myths or legends from extinct religions, I don't take those texts at their word if archaeological evidence contradicts them. Ancient Irish legend is full of warrior heroes driving chariots, but archaeology in Ireland never turns up any chariots. The obvious conclusion is that pre-Christian Irish warriors did not have chariots. (Maybe these legends have been influenced by cultural contact with Greek and Roman epic; I don't know enough to test that theory.) Likewise, the Romans have their beloved Aeneas story, in which their nation was founded by a courageous band of Trojan refugees who sailed to Italy, but the archaeological evidence tells a different story. The digs show Rome growing out of one small Latin tribe, ethnically similar to the other Latin tribes in its area. They weren't from somewhere else.

This is all fine, because no one worships Jupiter or claims to be descended from Aeneas these days. But the Book of Exodus also tells a story of a tribe traveling from a foreign land to their destined home. And there is no archaeological evidence to back that story up. This is generally considered impolite to say, and you can go a long, long time in this country without hearing it mentioned in the mass media. But it is the truth. There is no factual evidence for the Bible's story about a the nation of Israel living as slaves in Egypt, or of an Israelite migration out of Egypt. (My best understanding of the current evidence, which is a long way from my field, is that archaeologists can see the early Jews emerging among settlements of ethnically-similar groups and gradually becoming a separate people. I'm told that part of how you can trace their emergence is that some settlements no longer have any pig bones.) If I am going to be truthful with myself, I need to read the Book of Exodus as symbolism rather than history, because there is no more historical evidence for my faith's story about Moses than there is for the Romans' story about Aeneas.

Most Americans know pretty clearly that the description of the creation in the Book of Genesis and the story of Noah's flood are not backed by modern science. Relatively few Americans know that the description of the Israelites fleeing Egypt is not backed by modern history. I don't simply mean that the miracles in Exodus, the plagues and the parting of the Red Sea, are not literally true. I mean that there is no reason to believe that the Jews came from Egypt, or had been in Egypt at all. This certainly includes the patriarch Joseph from the Book of Genesis. But to mention that in the United States is to risk giving offense.

In fact, you can routinely see Biblical accounts of history presented as fact on allegedly educational cable channels, This was true long before those channels sank to the levels of reality-show dreck where the free market has currently consigned them, and it certainly hasn't gotten better. I have watched self-described historical documentaries show the "informational" map showing the Jews' path out of Egypt. And certainly, no one even hinted that there were any serious historians or archaeologists who doubted the accuracy of the Exodus narrative, let alone that most or all serious scholars doubt it. There was no percentage in that. You could only offend viewers (of at least two major religions) who don't want to hear that the Biblical story isn't true.

Let me suggest, in passing, that one of the greatest moral lessons in the Book of Exodus is that faith means heeding exactly the message that you least want to hear. If Moses didn't listen to things he did not want to hear, he would have just turned away from that burning bush and kept walking, because it Exodus makes it very clear that Moses does not want any of what the bush is selling. But the uncomfortable truths are the ones we most need to face. If I turned away from the unwelcome truth that the Book of Exodus is symbolic rather than historically accurate, I would be turning away from one of Exodus's most crucial moral lessons. Using Exodus as a guide to history but turning away from it as a guide to morals strikes me as the worst possible way to read that book.

So here we are in an America where we teach very little history and, worse still, where we indulge our fellow Americans' inaccurate beliefs about history if they got their bad information from a religious text. All of this is done in the service of protecting believers from better knowledge of their own scriptures, of allowing them to read rich, complex religious texts naively and without reflection. And our secular, commercial, profit-driven media actively participates in those religious fictions, because you can make great profits changing money in the temple. The next time you hear complaints that Christians are persecuted by America's "secular culture," and those complaints are due as soon as someone puts up the first "Happy Holidays" sign, remember that America's secular culture promotes Christians' pseudo-history as fact on TV.

It's not just that Ben Carson has an extra-scriptural fantasy about Joseph building the pyramids. It's that many educated, secular Americans don't realize that Joseph was never in Egypt at all. At the other extreme, there are self-described secularists who dismiss everything in the Bible as a fantasy and cannot distinguish historical figures like David or Ahab from legendary figures like Isaac or Joseph. (This is like treating Henry VIII and King Arthur, or Paul Revere and Paul Bunyan, as equally real.)

And in our willful common ignorance, other forms of ignorance flourish: the unending fantasy archaeology of North America, seeking for lost white American ancestors, the pseudo-historical origin myths promoted by people like Elijah Muhammed or Joseph Smith, the inane quest for "ancient astronauts." It promotes sectarian fantasies, like the attempt to rewrite the Founders' religious positions to align them with Christian sects that had not yet been founded, and secular  fantasies: the conspiracy theories about Freemasons and the search for Sasquatch. Ben Carson is ridiculous, but our society has actively and consistently promoted bogus history for a very long time. Carson is just a quicker student than the rest of us.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

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