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Problem of authorship in the New Testament

Posted in Bible, Christianity by Alex L. on December 16, 2016

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Biblical scholars today think that several of Paul the Apostle’s epistles in the New Testament (e.g. Letter to the Hebrews) were probably not written by him. In recent apologetics videos that I have been watching, Muslims term these letters “forgeries.” To a modern reader of the Bible, this definitely poses a problem. Do we consider the books of the New Testament that have been misattributed (and phrases that have been added by later authors, such as 1 John 5:7) forgeries? If not, how are we to reconcile our modern quest for truth with the apparently lax historical standards of some New Testament authors?

In other words, are these books and passages in question truly problematic? Yes and no, I think. They are troublesome from the perspective of our modern requirements for truth and transparency, which train us to frown upon individuals in the past who have attributed works to Paul that were not written by him (and added passages to other books that were not originally there). But there is more to the story. Literary genres in the past were different than they are today. Attributing a work to a known figure may have been a form of humility that ascribed respect to the named person while minimizing the author’s own importance.

But I’d like to propose a greater point. Christians believe that the books of the New Testament were inspired by the Holy Spirit. The same (perhaps even more so) can be said for the compilers of the biblical canon. Did the compilers of the canon know that some of the letters attributed to Paul (and other added passages) were not authentic? I would have to study the history of the Ecumenical Councils to answer that question. (more…)

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New books about women in history (2014-16)

Posted in African, American, Books by Alex L. on December 14, 2016

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In the past, women have not often been the focus of historical studies. The following books shed light on their role in past struggles and events.

The first work is by Rebecca Traister and is titled, All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation. Women in the United States are waiting longer to get married today. But the phenomenon of “single ladies” traces its history back to at least the 19th century, where the history of single women was intertwined with struggles such as temperance and abolition. It’s worth looking at this history to understand demographic changes today.

The second book is Cokie Roberts’s Capital Dames: The Civil War and the Women of Washington, 1848-1868, released in 2015.  After a war, women have often gained more independence throughout modern history because of their important role on the home front during the conflict. From Southern women leaving Washington, D.C. at the outbreak of the Civil War to the flood of Northern women coming to the capital to help out with the war effort, Roberts examines the changing place of American women during these tumultuous years.

Finally, we have The Woman Who Would Be King: Hatshepsut’s Rise to Power in Ancient Egypt by Kara Cooney, which was published in 2014. This is the story of ancient Egypt’s longest-ruling female pharaoh, who cross-dressed the part of a king. Cooney looks at the political power plays that helped Hatshepsut rise to power (and stay there) and seeks to solve the mystery of why those that followed her sought to erase her from public memory.

Personal areas of focus in history

Posted in Academia, Reading by Alex L. on December 12, 2016

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About a year ago, I created a list for myself of personal areas of focus in history. Each item on the list was based approximately around a hypothetical “lifetime” that may have taken place at an interesting period of history. The idea was to help me immerse myself in this handful of “lifetimes” and to become an expert of sorts in the social milieu that was around at that particular time.

In practical terms, this was meant as a guide to focus my history reading and follow the threads of key themes. Another way to look at it is a set of specializations in history for myself, though I am no academic. This list should also shed light on my biases and why I choose to feature certain books and articles over others on this blog and on the History Considered Podcast. So without further ado, I’m going to share my list below.

  1. Classical Greece, c. 428-347 B.C. From Plato’s birth to his death, with a special focus on what contributed to the flourishing and decline of Athens.
  2. Antebellum United States, c. 1787-1865. From the Constitutional Convention to the end of the Civil War, with a special focus on debates about the Constitution.
  3. Late Imperial and Revolutionary Russia, c. 1855-1928. From the reign of Alexander II to the end of the New Economic Policy (NIP), with a special focus on how revolutionary workers’ movements were taken over by an authoritarian regime.
  4. World Wars, c. 1870-1945. From the Franco-Prussian War to the end of World War II, with a special focus on public policy debates among Allied nations about how to deal with Hitler’s Germany before the outbreak of war.
  5. Current Events, c. 1985+. From perestroika to today, with a broad focus.

New books about early U.S. history (Fall 2016)

Posted in American, Books by Alex L. on December 9, 2016

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Today we take a look at a selection of new books about U.S. history before the 20th century.

First up, we have Daniel K. Richter’s work titled, Trade, Land, Power: The Struggle for Eastern North America. From what I can tell, there are relatively few works being published about early colonial history. Richter’s book examines the different conceptions of trade, land, and power between Native Americans and Europeans on the North American continent, and how these different conceptions played out as the Europeans began to dominate their neighbors. In October, the paperback version of this book came out, which was originally published in 2013.

Next is Angelic Music: The Story of Benjamin Franklin’s Glass Armonica by Corey Mead. Have you ever rolled your fingers over the rim of a wine glass to produce a tone? Benjamin Franklin invented a musical instrument based around this idea–the glass armonica–that became so popular that the great composers of the day (such as Mozart and Beethoven) wrote music for it. Published by Simon and Schuster in October, this is a work of popular musical history, which makes it unique in my eyes.

Also published this October but by Knopf is Peter Cozzens’s The Earth Is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. As one Amazon reviewer put it in writing about this Amazon Best Book of November 2016, “the Indians weren’t all good and the white people weren’t all bad.” The history of the American West is complicated, and this comprehensive (at 576 pages) new work picks it apart in a fresh way.

Activism works

Posted in Politics, Television by Alex L. on December 7, 2016

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Political activism isn’t a very sexy topic. The crowds of demonstrators, the clashes with police, the long and slow struggle with marginal gains: these lack the heroic glory of the battlefield. With failure to effect change happening as often as success (if not more), one may be tempted to say that activism is ineffective. But I had a paradigm shift about this issue earlier this year when I watched a TYT interview with Van Jones.

In this video, Van Jones talks about why progressives failed to push their agenda forward after Obama was elected. His claim was that social change only comes in America when grassroots political movements pressure the president and Congress to act on a certain issue. This has been borne out in history with such movements as abolition, women’s suffrage, and the struggles for civil rights. The grassroots groups, says Van Jones, relaxed their efforts after Obama was elected, and so failed to provide the necessary push to effect social change.

This argument made me realize the foundational importance of political activism for progressive social change: electing a president or a congressperson is not enough. Another person who keenly feels this idea is Bernie Sanders. Since the beginning of his meteoric rise in popularity during the previous election season, he had argued that he sought to build a movement rather than just run a campaign. It could only take a social movement, he would say, to effect real change in the United States. Sanders has recently come out with a new book about this struggle, titled Our Revolution. (more…)

Apologetics in the park

Posted in Christianity, Islam, Television by Alex L. on December 6, 2016

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The internet often seems like one faceless mass of websites and media without any discernible communities. But if you look carefully, one can find micro-communities embedded within this fabric on such websites as Twitch and YouTube. One such example I stumbled into is a small community on YouTube of religious apologists, of different faiths, who often vehemently disagree and try to disprove each other. My first point of contact with this virtual village was the channel of David Woods.

A self-admitted sociopath turned Christian, Woods now practices Christian apologetics on YouTube with abrasive (in my opinion) zeal. But what does it entail to do apologetics on YouTube? I’ve found apologetics videos of generally three different types in my exploration of this community: (a) videos defending certain doctrines of one’s faith, (b) video criticizing doctrines of other faiths, and (c) videos of debates between Christians and Muslims or either of them against atheists. This latter category mostly features formal debates usually on college campuses.

But one interesting subset of this third category are religious debates in the park. I encountered this on the Muslim EFDawah channel, which I found through the grapevine of the apologetics community on YouTube. There, a group of Muslims apologists go to Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park (London) and engage in rapid-fire discourses with all takers who seek such a challenge (usually with Christians but sometimes with an atheist). I watched a few of these exchanges between Hamza Myatt, an Englishman who converted to Islam, and others.  (more…)

Harmony of the Bible?

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Podcasts by Alex L. on December 2, 2016

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For those interested in Scripture, I highly recommend The Bible as Literature Podcast. In a recent episode (149), the hosts (whom I know personally) make the case that reading the Bible literally (though without prooftexting) is a good thing. In fact, they call out those that “[spout] platitudes about the ‘dangers’ of taking the Bible literally.” In this post, I will examine this claim and why I have a difficult time coming to grips with it.

On the surface, there are admittedly many strange and discomforting passages in the Bible, especially in the Hebrew Scriptures. The intellectual underpinnings of the exegetical view above, it seems to me, is the assumption that the unsavory parts of the Bible can be explained away by using the literary context surrounding the offending passages. In other words, if the Bible is saying something “bad,” then you haven’t read that section of the Bible correctly. The mistake that the fundamentalist makes, this view goes, is to prooftext and thereby ignore what the context of their chosen passages is, missing the greater picture. Another related axiom that can be implied from listening to the podcast (as I understand it) is that the individual books of the Bible also harmonize into a cohesive whole, producing one singular message of goodness about God.

I find these assumptions difficult to accept (though I try) for reasons of historical context. Mores change. The past seems more barbaric to us than the present as civilization progresses to reduce rates of disease, poverty, illness, homelessness, ignorance, and other ills. An alternate view of the Bible emerges than that put forward in the podcast. The Bible, rather, is a collection of works spanning centuries and the older books of the Hebrew Scriptures are murky waters filled with questionable moral standards from a time of primitive understanding and tribal justice. We should take into account not only the literary context but also the historical context and recognize that some stories in the Bible are good and others come from a time less civilized than our own. (more…)

Populism or nationalism?

Posted in Economics, Politics by Alex L. on November 30, 2016

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The election of Donald Trump took almost everyone (who followed the prior campaign news) by surprise. One of those who did see it coming was Cenk Uygur, the host of the progressive online news show, The Young Turks (TYT). His claim was that there was a mood of populism in the country of which Donald Trump took advantage. In a recent edition of The Economist, on the other hand, the writers of that magazine made the case that there was a mood of nationalism sweeping across the United States (and, indeed, the Western world). So which is it: did the election of Donald Trump signal a populist or a nationalist mood in the country?

One theory goes that the populace was simply dissatisfied with the current state of affairs in the country, and a leader who appealed to these feelings of discontent (i.e. a populist) could turn this negative political energy in a direction of his or her own choosing. It just so happened that Donald Trump turned this dissafected mood in a nationalist direction. This is the point of view of TYT.

Another theory is that there is a true feeling of nationalism brewing into which Trump managed to tap. This is the point of view of The Economist in their Nov 19 edition. The writers there make a distinction between two types of nationalism. Civic nationalism is the good kind that inspires universal values of caring for what is in one’s realm of responsibility. Ethnic nationalism, the bad kind, is accompanied by habits of exclusivity and xenophobia. There is a stew of nationalist feelings, the theory goes, and it’s up to the leaders of the country to turn it in one direction or another. Donald Trump marches to the drum of ethnic nationalism. (more…)

A balanced media diet

Posted in Journals, Politics, Reading, Television by Alex L. on November 28, 2016

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Every presidential election cycle, I get interested in politics all over again. This recent election was no different. But apart from conversation with politically-minded friends, something has to fuel and sustain the interest over the long months of the build-up to the election: informative and entertaining media sources. During the many months before November 2016, the go-to media source for me was The Young Turks, an online news show.

TYT is a progressive daily (Monday through Friday) show that is freely available live on YouTube. It has pros and cons for me. The big benefit is the commentary of Cenk Uygur, the outspoken founder and co-host. Like a more aggressive Noam Chomsky, Cenk cuts through the noise of establishment rhetoric to tune into a rarefied perspective about what’s really going on behind the scenes in the halls of power (it rarely looks pretty). The drawback of the show is a lack of intelligent conservative perspectives to provide a counterpoint to Cenk’s commentary. Cenk and his co-hosts (who rarely disagree with him on substantial issues) are always “right” and listening to TYT exclusively can lead one to develop political blinders, in my opinion.

There are intelligent counterpoints out there, though. Recently, I picked up The Economist from the bookshelves of Barnes and Noble. I used to read The Economist weekly back in college, but let my subscription lapse some years ago. Like TYT, the magazine has a self-confident tone backed by factual evidence. There are some areas where The Economist agrees with TYT, such as on the threat of climate change. On other issues–such as support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and whether the Democratic Party should go in a populist direction–these two media sources disagree. (more…)

HC 004 – “Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century” by H.J. Kim

Posted in American, Ancient, Podcasts, Politics by Alex L. on August 8, 2016

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In the fourth episode of the History Considered Podcast, I discuss new books critical of the right wing in American politics. I also conduct an overview of a new article from the Journal of Ancient History about the contemporary study of Herodotus. Please send your feedback about the podcast to historyconsidered [at] gmail [dot] com.

Listen: HC 004 – Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century.mp3

The works that I mention in the podcast are as follows:
Right-Wing Critics of American Conservatism by George Hawley (2016)
Why the Right Went Wrong by E.J. Dionne Jr. (2016)
Dark Money by Jane Mayer (2016)
“Herodotean Studies in the Twenty-First Century,” Journal of Ancient History, by Hyun Jin Kim (2016)