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Tony Grist

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Forgeries And Lies [Jun. 26th, 2011|12:17 pm]
Tony Grist
A few days ago I dismissed the Christian scriptures- rather cavalierly- as a collection of lies and forgeries. Since then I've been doing what I can to substantiate or disprove the allegation- and it has been borne in upon me that nothing that has come down to us from the ancient world is any better. Lies and forgeries are all we have. Try pinning down any personality, any supposed event and you find you're gazing into a mass of swirling coffee grounds. Take just one example. There was once a famous library in Alexandria. Sometime between the time of the Ptolomeys and the modern era it disappeared. So what happened? Four possibilities are recorded: that it was destroyed by Julius Caesar in 48 BC, by Aurelian in the 3rd century, by the Patriach Theophilus in AD 391 and by the Arabs in AD 624 or sometime thereafter. So were there four successive libraries and four successive destructions?  In the end you begin to wonder whether there was ever a library at all.

Thanks to the destruction of that same library- supposing it ever existed- very few books have come down to us from Antiquity. Those we possess are corrupt, pseudonymous and of uncertain date.  Ancient writers were unconstrained by scholarly ethics. Ancient historians did their research by scouring the market place for rumour.  Also, they made things up. Just about the only ancient writings you can trust are the poems.

So when did humankind start keeping tolerably accurate records of its doings? Difficult. I think the invention of printing had a lot to do with it. Suddenly books were widely available and the keeping and questioning of the written record became a matter not just for one or two scholars, but for anyone who could read.  Thank God for Gutenburg. Even so, I don't believe anything like a modern literary and scholastic culture emerged until the 18th century- with the French encyclopaedists and the hangers-out in the London coffee houses.
What a young civilisation we are.

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Comments:
[User Picture]From: veronikos
2011-06-26 12:04 pm (UTC)
I think you would really enjoy listening to some of the Yale University Open Courses. Ancient Greek History is under the History Department, and there are classes on both Old and New Testament under Religious Studies. Donald Kagan, who does Greek History, is fantastic!

http://oyc.yale.edu/
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-26 12:09 pm (UTC)
Thank you, yes. The more I learn the more I realise I don't know.
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[User Picture]From: internet_sampo
2011-06-26 01:16 pm (UTC)
Well, we've kept records so poorly that something like this

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phantom_time_hypothesis

can actually be considered.

I recognize that we are meticulous record keepers when it comes to money and crime but pretty sloppy in everything else and wars seem to wipe the records clean every century or so. But given our ability to confabulate rumors into fact I wouldn't be surprised that some of the famous lost things (e.g. the Ark of the Covenant) wasn't a rumor or fable confabulated into truth. Another example which comes to my only-awaking brain (it's Sunday morning here) is the Shroud of Turin. I've done some reading on it and the most likely provenance is that it was a Eastern Orthodox icon (a representation made by an artist) which was sold to a Western European noble because he mistook the representation as the real thing.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-26 02:01 pm (UTC)
I love the phantom time hypothesis.

The last thing I read about the Turin shroud said Giotto painted it.
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[User Picture]From: solar_diablo
2011-06-26 01:32 pm (UTC)
Lies and forgeries are all we have. Try pinning down any personality, any supposed event and you find you're gazing into a mass of swirling coffee lees.

Pretty much. It's just that in a postmodern age the dominant paradigm gets the largest serving of critique and condemnation.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-26 02:03 pm (UTC)
Fair enough. There's much less mileage to be had out of arguing that Socrates never existed.
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[User Picture]From: airstrip
2011-06-26 01:54 pm (UTC)
The library itself is actually pretty well-attested, largely because Alexandria was a major trade port. I think the general consensus is that all but the Arab destruction are true, largely because the library isn't much mentioned after Aurelian and is assumed liquidated under Constantine.

Keep in mind, by the late 200s, Rome is rapidly collapsing with a sort of emperor-of-the-week problem.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-26 02:06 pm (UTC)
So it only got itself destroyed three times.....

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[User Picture]From: airstrip
2011-06-26 02:32 pm (UTC)
Yeah. On your larger point, I don't think it's so much "lies and forgeries" as "gossip and rumor". None of it is ever quite false, really, but never securely true.
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[User Picture]From: poliphilo
2011-06-26 03:20 pm (UTC)
They didn't have our culture of scholarship. Things that we would consider blatantly dishonest were common practice. You didn't know what the victorious general has said so you invented a speech for him and no-one called "foul".
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[User Picture]From: airstrip
2011-06-26 03:33 pm (UTC)
They also didn't have important ideas about science or history, either. I think it's too often overlooked just how much "knowing something" is a modern invention. The ancient world was more about "doing something", usually political and typically petty.
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[User Picture]From: ooxc
2011-06-27 07:11 am (UTC)
Isn't that coming back? You've only to read the comments online about newspaper articles to see examples of this.
Also, a thirteen-year-old recently gave me a long written account of a real event. When I questioned a detail, he assured me that it was what he thought might have happened, and that his teacher was very pleased with him for thinking of it. When i suggested that it would be as well to make clear that the detail was his own, he looked completely baffled and reiterated that his teacher was very pleased with him for thinking of it
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[User Picture]From: methodius
2011-06-27 05:29 am (UTC)
Such is modernity.

And now postmodernity is waiting in the wings to supersede it. Reality isn't what it used to be.
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[User Picture]From: daisytells
2011-06-27 07:02 pm (UTC)
History is constantly being rewritten. Examples: the Ronald Reagan presidency, the Vietnam War. Those of us who are old enough to remember how it really was are now accused of senility. Ah, well!
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