Sunday, June 25, 2017

CIVILITY: A Post-Mortem

  Civility is dead.  This has been commented on repeatedly in the media, and repeated on various social networking platforms.  The brutal political cycle of the last couple of years drove a stake through the heart of decency, to the point that I think we can honestly say the idea of principled, polite disagreement has becoming increasingly foreign in Americas' public discourse.  There have been times in the past when we have been almost as polarized as we are today, and there have been times when we have been almost as rude as we are today, but barring the restoration of dueling, I don't see how we can get much worse than we are now when it comes to public discourse.  I mean, even Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton wrote each other respectful letters about their disagreements before they strapped on their pistols and shot at each other!

   I'm a historian by temperament and training.  As such, I've always tried to look at the big picture and not fall into the "things are worse now than they have ever been" trap.  In many ways, we live in better times today than our ancestors did.  People aren't routinely lynched for the crime of being black, people with mental, sexual, or socially "different" lifestyles are no longer stoned, burned at the stake, or sentenced to years of electroshock therapy.  Slavery has been legally abolished throughout the civilized world. Women can vote.  We have air conditioning (and it Texas summers, that is a HUGE technological blessing!). In so many marvelous ways, we in the Western world live better than human beings have been able to since the dawn of time.

    So why can't we be nicer to each other?

    For years I have drawn cartoons and pasted them to the whiteboard in my classroom for my students to read.  Some are just plain silly, and some are me trying to make a point with a dollop of humor.  Last fall I drew one showing three men having a debate.  The two on each side were shouting at each other.  One said: "You're a commie liberal Muslim-hugging snowflake!" while the other shouted: "You're a racist, homophobic right-wing teabagger!"  Then the guy in the middle spoke up and said:  "Can't you see that you are both loyal Americans who love this country but have different ideas about how it ought to be run?"  At that, the other two looked at him and screamed in chorus:  "What's wrong with you???"

    That sums up a lot of it.  We have slanted "fake news" websites right and left, the complete marginalization of the traditional media, and the constant self-affirmation that comes from social media circles whose members all share the same political beliefs. This is compounded by the number of complete nutjobs from all fringes of the political spectrum who bog down serious consideration of issues with conspiracy theories so ridiculous that no one should give them the time of day. The result is that real truth is more elusive now than ever.  So otherwise rational human beings are convinced that Bush and Cheney conspired with Israel and "big oil" to murder 3000 people on 9/11, or that Barack Obama is a closet Muslim who deliberately weakened America to help groups like ISIS establish a global caliphate, or that "Big Pharma"  (Rule number one of demonization: reduce a vast, complex industry owned by multiple interests to one word, then put "Big" in front of it!) is hiding dozens of "cures" for cancer in order to make more money by keeping people sick.  Put all this together, throw in a healthy dose of pure ignorance, mix in generational anxiety over America's ever-changing social mores, and what do you wind up with?  Tens of thousands of people whose minds are completely closed to any explanation of events that does not suit their world view; who have lost all sense of nuance and complexity and embrace a simplistic, black-and-white view of the universe which is populated only be true-believing Patriots and The Others - an evil, vast group of villains conspiring to destroy Mom, apple pie, baseball, the Pledge of Allegiance, and the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders.

   Gone are the days when Ronald Reagan and Tip O'Neill could go at each other hammer and tongs from nine to five on Capitol Hill and then have cocktails at the White House that evening, when Bill Clinton could bash the Republican Congress on the campaign trail and still poach their best ideas, sign them into law, and then take credit for them when they worked.  Now we are so polarized that ANY effort by people on either side of the political aisle attempt to work out some form of compromise to actually get something done, they are demonized as an "establishment sellout."

    Well, as a historian, I can tell every one of you, both left and right - America as a nation was built on compromise! Our Constitution itself is nothing more than a bundle of compromises arrived at by a group of men deeply divided on the fundamental nature of our country - were we a confederation of sovereign states or a single nation made up of locally autonomous political districts? They couldn't agree on everything, so the document our nation is built on deliberately left many questions to be worked out in the future, by practice, trial, and error.

   Can we bring civility back?  Maybe.  The best way to start is by us as individuals being civil to each other.  Don't call people names because they disagree with you.  Don't post inflammatory political articles until you verify whether or not they are factual - and even then, consider whether or not repeating this material will do anything to improve the situation it complains about.  If someone posts something derogatory of offensive about a position you embrace, or a politician you admire, instead of shooting back with hateful invective, read it carefully. Research it to see if the claims it makes are true or not. Ask the person if they have ever considered the opposite point of view.  TALK, don't yell.  We've yelled at each other enough.

   Civility may be dead in America today.  But it doesn't have to stay that way.

Thursday, June 15, 2017


    I have long said that, if the four Gospels found in the New Testament - Matthew, Mark, Luke and John - were not the founding documents of Christianity, virtually no one except a few crackpots would challenge their authenticity or their historical accuracy.  After all, they are better attested than any other work of the ancient world, by far.  The closest rival is Homer's Odyssey, of which there are some 700 Greek manuscripts, of which the oldest dates some 900 years after the original work's composition.  With the New Testament, on the other hand - well, there are 6000 Greek manuscripts, the oldest of which date within a generation of the originals.  Of those 6000 Greek manuscripts, over a third of them are our Gospels, including the oldest known fragment of the New Testament (for the moment) - the Rylands Papyrus Fragment, which contains six verses from John 18 and is generally dated around 110-125 AD (most scholars feel John was written around 95 AD).   That figure doesn't even begin to count the Syriac, Latin, and other languages into which the Gospels were copied within two centuries of their composition, or the thousands of quotes from the Gospels found in the writings of second and third generation Christian works from the Second Century.  While there are many variant readings in these hand-copied manuscripts, the variations are generally minor and there are only a handful of passages in the whole NT where the original wording is in any serious doubt.  In other words, when it comes to the four Gospels, we are pretty darned sure that the manuscripts we have today are virtually identical to the original works.

    But does that make them history?  Not necessarily.  There are many myths and legends of the ancient world which have been passed down that no one takes seriously.  We may study the great tales of Greek mythology, but we don't really believe that Zeus and Poseidon were real, or that they castrated their father Kronos, or that there really was a god-king named Osiris who ruled over Egypt and was sewed back together by his wife Isis after his jealous brother cut him into pieces.  Nor does anyone really think that Hercules was real, or that he performed the twelve labors legend ascribes to him.  So are the Gospels just mythology then?

    Well, take a look the first few verses of the Gospel of Luke:  "Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught."  That does not sound like a fairy tale, does it?  More like the introduction to a court briefing, or a historical essay.  Myths, by definition, are stories that form over a long period of time. Sometimes they conglomerate around an actual historical figure (there may have well been a man named Romulus who helped found the city of Rome), but they generally incorporate more and more fantastical details around that person until the historical figure at the heart of the myth is lost in a sea of tall tales, exaggeration, and hero worship. Invariably, the mythical figure lived long, long before the time when his tale was recorded.  Jesus was never represented in the Gospels as anything other than a real person, born in recent history, with known associates who passed along his teachings.

    Skeptics will tell you that the Jesus of the Bible was a mythologized historical figure.  The radical  Galilean teacher who drew a large following and then was crucified by the Romans had a series of tall tales woven around His person over many years, until He became a supernatural being who could heal the sick, raise the dead, walk on water, and ultimately conquer death itself.  Of course, for this to be true, two things have to be assumed about the Gospels: First, that they were not written by eyewitnesses or drawn from eyewitness testimony - since the real eyewitnesses would have known that all these ridiculous, supernatural stories about Jesus were just tall tales.  And secondly, that the Gospels were not written down until Jesus and his original followers were long gone and the myths had sufficient time to form and crystallize among the second and third and fourth generation followers of Jesus.

    The problem is, both of those assumptions are false.  I know, there is a cottage industry of books by skeptics like Bart Ehrman and John Shelby Spong and a host of others who will do their best to convince you that the Gospels were not written down for a very long time - maybe a century! - after the crucifixion.  But hard scholarship belies their claims.  First of all, a single century really isn't time for a fully blown myth to form.  Look at Suetonius' biography of Julius Caesar. It was written a hundred and fifty years after Caesar's death in 44 BC, but it is still considered one of the standard sources for Julius Caesar's life, and his account is generally considered accurate.  The fact is, all four Gospels were composed in the First Century AD.  Even if they were composed in the 90's AD, that puts them within 60 years of Jesus' death.  And the majority of scholars believe that the three Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) were written between 60 and 80 AD.  Certainly they were around by the 90's, since Clement of Rome quotes from all three in his letter to the church at Corinth, composed in 96 AD.  By the second century, all three of these Gospels were widely regarded as authoritative and apostolic in origin.  John's Gospel may indeed date to the 90's AD - but that comports well with several early accounts that John lived to be a very old man, over 100 at the time of his death, and that he wrote his Gospel near the end of his long life.  John also alludes to his unusual longevity at the end of his Gospel.

    During the Second, Third, and Fourth centuries there were numerous Gospels composed that claimed to be written by major figures in the life of Jesus.  There is a Gospel of Thomas, a Gospel of Judas, a Gospel of Peter, as well as a dozen or more others.  All of them were promoted by splinter sects - many of them by a group known as the Gnostics, who broke off from the mainstream apostolic church around the end of the First Century.  Not one of these Gospels was embraced by the mainstream church or accepted by the men known as the Apostolic Fathers - people like Clement, Ignatius, Polycarp, Papias, and Irenaeus, who were born in the latter part of the First Century and who could remember encountering the disciples of Jesus when they were young men.  All these men accepted the canonical Gospels and rejected the Gnostic works for the forgeries that they were.  All four of the Biblical Gospels were ALWAYS associated with the same names we hang on them today, so the traditions of authorship go back as far as the Gospels themselves.

   While the exact date the Synoptic Gospels were written may never be determined, the fact is that the arguments for early authorship actually carry a lot more weight than those for later authorship, when viewed objectively.  Let's look at Luke's works in closing.  Luke wrote two books in the New Testament - the Gospel that bears his name, and the Book of Acts.  Acts tells the story of the disciples of Jesus from the time of His resurrection right up until Paul's journey to Rome under arrest, having appealed his case to Caesar (Nero Caesar, to be precise) when he saw that he could not get a fair trial in Jerusalem.  The book ends with Paul still awaiting trial in Rome, receiving guests, and preaching the Gospel to all who come to see him.  The date would have been around 62 AD at that point.

    The next eight years were HUGE years for the early church.  The Great Fire of Rome broke out, Nero blamed the Christians for starting it and outlawed their faith, Peter and Paul were both put to death, along with some 20,000 Christians in the city of Rome alone.  James the brother of Jesus was killed by an angry mob in Jerusalem at the beginning of a great rebellion in Judea, and - oh, yeah!  The city of Jerusalem was sacked and burned by the Romans, and the great Temple of Herod was torn down to its foundations, exactly as Jesus had predicted in the Gospels.  Now, a careful historian like Luke, who records many, many details in his two books with painstaking accuracy - so much so that classical archeologist Sir William Ramsay regarded him as "a historian of the first rank." Why didn't Luke record any of these events that loomed so large in the history of the early church?

    Occam's Razor is an ancient premise that the simplest explanation is nearly always the most likely.  If we use that in this case, the answer becomes very clear: Luke didn't include the Great Fire, the deaths of Peter and Paul, or the destruction of the Temple in the Book of Acts because THEY HADN'T HAPPENED YET when he finished his books!  No other explanation of their omission makes more sense than this. So what does that mean?

   Well, it means that the Book of Acts was written before 62 AD.  That means the Gospel of Luke - his "former treatise," as Luke calls it in the introduction to Acts - would date even earlier, perhaps around 60 AD.  And since virtually all scholars agree that Luke used the Gospels of Mark and Matthew as sources for his own work - well, that means both of them were likely completed before 60 AD as well.  So let's do the math now - assuming Jesus was crucified in 33 AD, which most scholars feel is the most likely year, then that would place the three Synoptic Gospels as all having been written in the late 50's AD.  That's only 25 years after the fact!  We know, at that time, that James the brother of Jesus was still alive.  Peter and John were still alive.  Jesus' mother may well have outlived her son by as many as 20 years, so the Gospel writers would have had access to her version of events as well.  In short, all the major eyewitnesses of Jesus' life were likely still alive when the Gospels we have in our Bible today were written.

    You may believe or not believe them, as you see fit.  But one thing is perfectly clear - they are NOT myths, not by any scholarly accepted definition of the term.  They are early accounts of real events, composed by or with the testimony of eyewitnesses.  In short, they are HISTORY.

   Now, if you like historical FICTION, I have written a book that weaves the writing of Luke's works in with the history of the Roman Empire in the mid to late First Century AD.  If you enjoyed what I wrote above, or just like historical fiction and this time period in general - well, here's the Amazon link.  Enjoy!!

Thursday, June 8, 2017

GOING TO TEMPLE - And I'm Not Even Jewish!!

   Once a year, usually the first weekend in June, like grizzled salmon swimming upstream to spawn, Texas arrowhead collectors convene in the small town of Temple, about an hour north of Austin, for one of the largest Indian Artifact shows in North America.  Hosted by the Genuine Indian Relic Society, the gathering is held at the Mayborn Convention  Center on the north side of town - a sprawling civic center that is the size of two football fields and holds two hundred and fifty eight-foot-long tables, arranged in rows, groaning beneath the weight of tens of thousands of arrowheads, spear points, grooved axes, celts, scrapers, flint knives, fossils, rare minerals, Spanish artifacts, and every other sort of ancient tool you can imagine.

   I've gone to the Temple Show every year since it began.  Generally speaking, there are three kinds of people in the collecting world.  There are guys like me - the "arrowhead hunters" - who find all of our stuff ourselves and display our cases with pride, even if our artifacts aren't necessarily as pretty or as big as some of the stuff other guys have.  We go out and walk riverbeds and wade in creeks and hike plowed fields and comb shorelines to rescue these bits of the past, and we are DARNED proud of them!  Then there are the dealers. These are guys who buy entire collections for resale. They may keep a few pieces, but to them, an artifact is primarily a way to make a quick buck.   They will find some old farmer's collection and give him a few hundred dollars for it, which he will gratefully accept.  Then they will pull out one or two pieces that they want to keep, and put a price tag on all the rest.  When you consider that a single perfect Clovis or Scottsbluff point can sometimes be worth over $10,000, dealers can make big profits on their investments. But the vast majority if points in any personal finds collection are common examples of common types, so often dealers will buy an entire collection just to get a half dozen really good pieces.  Of course, they also get burned by fake relics sometimes, since people have been knapping out "modern" points since the 1890's!  Finally, there are the buyers.  These are guys with pretty big money who collect the best of the best, or maybe they are looking for specific artifact types.  Many of them don't sell at all, but they come to the show to scour collections of the "hunters" and "dealers" that are there.  Unlike the dealers, buyers will pay top dollar for a piece if it is something they really want, and they may chase the same artifact for years, gradually raising their price until the finder finally caves in and sells it.  (For the record, I try to keep most of my personal finds, but when the money gets downright stupid, it is, after all, just a rock I found on the ground!)

    So Thursday afternoon, June 1, 2017, I packed up my cases of points, boxes of fossils, and multiple copies of my books, and then Patty and I headed down to Temple together.  It's a three hour drive, and we got there around 9 pm and checked into our hotel.  We crashed almost immediately, since we'd put in a very busy day long before we left Greenville.  The next morning we got up, ate breakfast, went to the Mayborn Center, and set up my tables.  While I am primarily a hunter, I did sell a few of my very best personal finds back in the early 2000's when we were pretty poor and our daughters had a lot of medical bills.  Around 2008 I decided enough was enough - out of my ten all-time best personal finds, I had sold seven!  So I began buying a few points here and there, mainly on EBay, so that I could sell them at just enough of a markup to at least pay for going to the show.  More recently, after I became an author, my arrowhead business declined to the point (ha ha! pun!) that I pretty much quit buying.  I didn't have much sales inventory left at all  this year, in fact, so I after setting up I wandered over to the table of a dealer who is a good friend of mine and picked up a few pieces  that I knew I could turn a small profit on.  By noon I had sold one arrowhead, a nice fossil, and a sword that my daughter's boyfriend sold me the year before that I no longer wanted. Then it was time to go to Doug's!

     My friend Doug S. has a nice little ranch just east of Temple built on top of a large Indian camp.  We met in 2007 and he invited me to come out and dig for points on his place with him. He has found thousands of points there, some very nice.  Over the next ten years, I found maybe fifty or sixty nice points on his place, going down to hunt with him once or twice a year.  Honestly, most of the best camp is now dug out, and even with a screen table and a front end loader we only found one whole artifact this afternoon - a nice Clear Fork Gouge that my wife pulled off the screen.  But, it was a beautiful day, and we got to play in the dirt and have a little fun and hang out with some nice folks.
After that, we went to the hotel and cleaned up, ate a very nice dinner at Texas Road House, and then hit the sack early, watching a movie together in bed before fading off to sleep.  Saturday was going to be a big day!

   The next morning we rose early, grabbed a quick bite, and were at the Convention Center by 8 AM.  I uncovered my tables and set up.  I got to see a ton of old friends and some very beautiful artifacts (I never have time to walk around all I want; I'm too busy hustling books and stuff at my table!).  I sold seventeen of my novels, almost all my nicer fossils, and a few decent points, making enough money to pay for all the trip's expenses and come out about $200 in the black at the end of the day.  I saw collectors from all over America, got to hold some incredible artifacts, and thoroughly enjoyed seeing many of my friends again.  By four in the afternoon the show was winding down, and I began to slowly pack away my stuff.  We carried the heavy cases and frames of points and spears and boxes of rocks and stacks of books back out to the car, and by 6 PM we were on the road, headed north, back to home.

    But the call of the flint is strong, and I imagine that come next June, I'll be on I-35 heading south with a carload of flint and high hopes of rocks and friends and fossils and pointy things and adventures in the dirt . . .