Five Jesus Books

There are quite a few different ideas about the “Historical Jesus”. I run into people who know just one of them and think it’s the only one. Almost always they’re surprised and disappointed that this is an open question.

Me, I’m not much of a believer. I tell people I didn’t get the True Believer gene. I think most people in my generation will get that cultural references. Younger folks, probably not.

Another way of saying the same thing is “Neither accept nor reject.” That’s supposed to be an old saying but I hear it only rarely. Maybe.

Laurasian Novel

Have you ever had the feeling that the religious stories we have might be older—far older—than anyone imagines?

"Focusing on the oldest available texts, buttressed by data from archeology, comparative linguistics and human population genetics, Michael Witzel reconstructs a single original African source for our collective myths, dating back some 100,000 years. Identifying features shared by this "Out of Africa" mythology and its northern Eurasian offshoots, Witzel suggests that these common myths--recounted by the communities of the "African Eve"--are the earliest evidence of ancient spirituality. Moreover these common features, Witzel shows, survive today in all major religions."

Oxford’s abstract of the book’s Introduction says:

"This introductory chapter explores the definition, scope, and past investigations of myth: a “true” narrative that tells of cosmology and society as well as of the human condition and that is frequently employed to explain and justify social circumstance. Worldwide similarities between individual myths are habitually explained by diffusion or by common human psychic traits (Jungian archetypes). However, the current Laurasian proposal supersedes these approaches as it involves a whole system of myths, notably one characterized by a narrative structure (story line) from the creation of the world to its end. The Laurasian scheme also supersedes the Jungian proposal because the actual formulation of myths and their arrangement in a complex narrative system are located on higher planes than that of the archetypes. The artistic arrangement of myths in Laurasia (and beyond) is explored and traced back in time to the Mesolithic or Upper Paleolithic period. Finally, the history of the Laurasian scheme is sketched, from the Paleolithic until today."

Witzel’s theory is controversial. How can our stories go back so far? Yet, it makes sense intuitively there must have been a continuous oral transmission for much of human history, as malleable and changeable as that transmission must have been.

More Information

  • E. J. Michael Witzel. “Introduction (Abstract).” The Origins of the World’s Mythologies. Oxford Scholarship Online <>. Retrieved May 13, 2020.

Cosmic Aeroplane

I have fond memories of the Cosmic Aeroplane in Salt Lake City. Many times, I lived only a block or two away, and years at a time I was there almost every Saturday.

"Salt Lake’s Cosmic Aeroplane (1967-1991) was a major nexus of cultural changes that were rippling through the youth culture in America in the mid- to late ’60s. The Civil Rights Movement—an insane war that still had the support of the country at large—the birth of the modern day environmental movement—the call of psychedelics and the mind-opening possibilities they presented—a growing interest in Eastern philosophies—and an abiding interest in the new music of the day: These concerns coalesced in a little store that expanded the minds of many people who walked through its doors."

When we bought The Metaphysical Bookstore in Denver in 2008, we faced a problem of brand identity. Just about every other New Age store in Denver and the world had named themselves [Something] Metaphysical Bookstore. I would have loved to rename ours Cosmic Aeroplane. I knew we wouldn’t, probably wouldn’t, but I tried to find the old owners anyway to see what it would take to license the name. Legally, we wouldn’t have needed to get their permission but it would have made a better story, as well as being more honest and ethical.

Instead we changed the name to Shining Lotus Metaphysical Bookstore, from the Rocky Mountains, which the Utes called the Shining Mountains.

Genealogy & Public History

A few days ago I wrote about public history (Defining Public History, May 22, 2020). Now I’m thinking about the relationship between genealogy and public history.

Remember, public history is typically defined as history work prepared for a non-professional audience. It’s implied that the public historian is a professional, applying professional standards.

So, what about genealogists? Notice how the language herds our thoughts away from seeing genealogists as historians. We have an image of genealogists as old, retired people, often women, often White, puttering around with women’s clubs like Mayflower Descendants and Daughters of the American Revolution. We don’t accord them the status of historians, because historians do real work.

I did some poking around to see if someone has a response, here. I didn’t find an answer but I did find a discussion at National Council on Public History. Perfect. a discussion can be more interesting than an answer.

Here’s the set up.

Jerome de Groot gave the plenary address at a conference of International Federation for Public History in October 2014. He raised the issue (Jerome de Groot. “On Genealogy.” The Public Historian (2015) 37 (3):102–127).

“This article argues for the importance of genealogy and family history to contemporary understanding and experience of the past. Through looking at various ways that genealogy might be undertaken and imagined, the article argues that this important area needs to be further conceptualized and studied by public historians. The article looks at the implications inherent in the broad shift to global online genealogy and family history. The argument is interrogative and assertive in order to provoke debate amongst public historians about how we might investigate, theorize, and interrogate genealogy and family history further in the future.”

"In 'On Genealogy,' a revision of the plenary address delivered in October 2014 at the International Federation for Public History’s conference in Amsterdam, Jerome de Groot argues that widespread popular interest in genealogy, and the availability of massive amounts of information online, challenge established historiography and public history practice. He invites other public historians to contribute to a debate about how we might 'investigate, theorize, and interrogate' the implications of this explosion of interest in genealogy. We invited four scholars to contribute to this discussion."

So here are the four scholars. (Note, they are scholars. The agenda here is for public history to extend its dominion over genealogy, not for genealogists to lay claim to being public historians. Not criticizing. They all seem to be aware, Knevel perhaps more explicitly than the others.) We’ll do just the first paragraph of each. Click through if you want to see how each writer develops their response to de Groot’s challenge.

First, Sara Trevisan, “History and tradition: Genealogical practice before 1700” (Aug. 7, 2015).

"In today’s genealogical search, lack of evidence on a family ancestor signifies the impossibility to assess any further their role within the structure of our genealogical tree. Genealogy is to us 'a gesture to completeness that is continually thwarted by the limitations of the archive,' and thus shows us that knowledge can have an end. The search for family origins is therefore destined to remain ever unfulfilled and frustrated due to the epistemology of 'historical truth' by which it is ultimately guided. Yet, until the second part of the seventeenth century–when the principles of historical method still had not fully taken hold–the 'mythical' aspect of family origins was an integral part of genealogical reconstruction. This was especially true for monarchs and noble families."

Second, Paul Knevel, “Genealogy from below” (Aug. 14, 2015).

"As could be expected by the author of the broad and lucid Consuming History, Jerome de Groot demonstrates in his article in The Public Historian an amazing ability to discuss thoroughly topics and themes that would for others take book-length or even career-length considerations. 'Genealogy and Public History' thus not only deals with the various ways that genealogy and family history could be undertaken and imagined by various people and groups but also with such large and profound issues as the impact and construction of 'knowledge infrastructures' in a digital age, the silencing character of the archive, the ethical sides of dealing with the dead, the neo-liberalisation of public space generated by commercial websites, 'digital labour,' and many other themes and ideas. The result is a clever, multi-layered, insightful, and thought-provoking essay that challenges public historians to rethink today’s digital historical culture and practices, their own role, and the activities of millions of people (see the stunning figures mentioned by De Groot) who are doing genealogy and family history and thus trying to connect themselves with the past. Consequently, it is impossible to address in this short reaction all the topics and themes raised in De Groot’s article."

Third, Regina Poertner, “Genealogy, public history, and cyber kinship” (Aug. 21, 2015).

"To date, historians’ debates on the impact of new technologies have focused primarily on the challenges to the academic profession, raising important questions about, for example, the future tools and methods of professional historical research, the visualisation and archiving of data, sharing of digital resources and research outputs, and more generally the ways in which the current digital revolution is changing our perception of who we are and what we do. The article by Jerome De Groot broadens this debate to encompass the public as the consumer and producer of a new brand of public history in the making: digital genealogical research has become a lucrative commercial venture–significantly, without clearly demarcated national borders–and is becoming the remit of the amateur historian who simultaneously is the object and author of the 'curated self.'"

Fourth, Carolina Jonsson Malm, “Genealogy and the problem of biological essentialism” (Sept. 10, 2015).

"There are many possible explanations as to why genealogy has become one of the most popular hobbies in our time. The last decades’ growing interest in local history and life stories could be one. The increasing public awareness of genetics and the potential of genetic engineering another. People’s sense of rootlessness and lack of social relations in a rapidly changing world yet another. Whatever the reason, it is undeniable that genealogy has become almost a social movement, involving millions of people around the world. In his article, 'On Genealogy,' Jerome de Groot suggests that genealogy in many ways can be described as 'a democratization of access to the past.' As a result of the new digital technology and the improved accessibility of public records, anyone with time and inclination can search for their ancestors in databases and online. People whose lives and fates are not part of the traditional academic historiography are uncovered. Everyone gets their fifteen minutes–at least in the family historian’s genealogical tree."

Interesting articles, all. But they aren’t answering the question I’m asking. They are looking at what it means that there are people doing genealogy. I would like to have found discussions about how public historians are or could be working to normalize genealogy as routine public history.

Medieval Irish Genealogies

A good orientation to the problem of trusting medieval Irish genealogies. Don’t make the mistake of copying what you find online. It’s all very interesting, but it’s not vetted genealogy.

Donnchadh Ó Corráin, “Creating the Past: The Early Irish Genealogical Tradition” in Chronicon 1 (1997) 2: 1-32.

ABSTRACT: Traditionally Irish early medieval genealogies were seen as the product of oral tradition, recorded at an early period by monastic writers. This is mistaken. No doubt there was an oral genealogical knowledge, but the genealogical record is modelled on the Old Testament genealogies.

Whites As Slaves in Colonial America

I hear more and more people pushing the idea that White indentured servants in Colonial America were the same as Black slaves.

This was one of the problems I had with Scottish Prisoners’ of War Society. The Executive Director, Teresa Rust-Hamilton supported the idea that chattel slavery wasn’t really so bad because our Scottish ancestors who came as prisoners from Dunbar and Worcester were essentially slaves in America because they were indentured servants.

The idea there is an equivalence between slaves and indentured servants is gaining popularity among racists in America. There is no support for it in the primary sources and zero support for it among academic historians.

Talking about Mormons

I’ve been waiting for the dust to settle on this madcap idea of not saying “Mormon” when you mean “Mormon”. That’s President Nelson’s personal demon. My gut says be polite and look the other way.

Now, we have some guidance from the Associated Press, via the Salt Lake Tribune, and in my case found on Mormonism Research Ministry a year after it was news.

SALT LAKE CITY, UT. The Associated Press, which published a journalistic style and guide book, has decided to make changes in light of the request made last year by President Russell M. Nelson. The news organization says that the full name of the church (“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints”) should be used for the initial reference in an article, with “the church,” “church members,” and “members of the faith” preferred on second and later references. However, the AP did not agree to refer to the church as “the Church of Jesus Christ” or “the Church” on subsequent references, which Nelson requested. In addition, the AP said that the use of the adjective or noun “Mormon” can be used when “necessary for space or clarity or in quotations or proper names.” (Salt Lake Tribune, March 8, 2019)

Quitting Mormon

I don’t remember exactly when I left the Mormon church. 1982 or 1983, probably. I was living in the Avenues area of Salt Lake.

The Home Teachers stopped by for the first time ever. I tried to put them off. They weren’t having it. They got pushy. I pushed back. We got to the point where I told them to remove me from the membership rolls. They asked me to write a letter. I wrote it while they waited.

Then for the next 6 weeks I was deluged with procedural garbage. It drove me nuts. I had the firm idea that when I said I wanted out they should have to let me out then left me alone. Nothing doing. Not in the Church, not in those days.

They held a Bishop’s court. I didn’t go. I’m sure they called or wrote to me about the outcome, but I was focused on saying “Leave me alone!” I have no idea what happened.

About a year ago I started trying to find out whether I was Excommunicated or Disfellowshipped. I wrote to Church HQ in Salt Lake. Never heard back. I asked my local Bishop. He did some checking, said he can’t find any info, and suggested I to write to Church HQ in Salt Lake.

(Confidentially, I think he’s afraid I might want to come back and it might put him in the middle of a controversy about gays in the Church.)

Today I was cleaning out my bookmarks. I came across this one: (Ready to leave the Church? Let us help.)

Resigning from the Mormon church (Church of Jesus Christ of Latter day Saints) can be a tedious and painful process. If you've decided that you no longer want to be a member of the church, resigning on your own can result in unwanted contact from church leaders and multiple requests before your resignation is finally processed. We provide a free service that lets you resign without the hassle.

I can’t think why I might have saved that one. Proof, maybe, that other people have hassles if they try to leave. Or maybe I wanted to share it with some of my relatives who stay only because they don’t want to deal with it.

Defining Public History

Maybe it seems odd to call someone a historian who is not a professor of history giving lectures and writing books.

It’s not odd at all. There is academic history, and there is public history. Not really different things, but broadly different ways of engaging with history.

"Academics tend to think of public history as a field of study, like one of the nearly 300 specialized subjects that the American Historical Association lists when it asks its members to identify their research and teaching interests. More socially engaged historians, on the other hand, consider public history a calling designed "to help people write, create, and understand their own history." Still others believe public history should influence the formulation of public policy. But a majority probably just defines the field by the workplace: academic history, they assume, is practiced within the university, public history elsewhere." (Weible 2008; citation removed)

For the most part, public historians are those who work for museums, corporations, and the like. They are employed as professionals whose job is to do work related to history. If they weren’t so employed, they’d be independent historians.

But there’s some professional angst here, at least among academic historians.

"The question is: if historians in and out of the academy are trained in the same institutions, if they share an educational mission, and if they produce work that holds up to professional scrutiny, then what is the difference between public historians and more traditional ones?" (Weible 2008)

There’s a struggle here. The audience for academic historians is other academic historians. That’s the very essence of peer-reviewed work. On the other hand, the audience for public historians is, commonly, the public.

And there’s the danger. The consumers for whom public history is created are not historians. The result is a kind of history that is market-driven and democratic. There is a risk, then, that it will be less rigorous academically.

"Consider for a moment that most historians know that the Founding Fathers were more influenced by the Enlightenment than by the Bible, that the Holocaust really happened, and that Saddam Hussein never planned the attacks of September 11th. There are, of course, lots of people who understand things differently. Why? Possibly because they are influenced by those who interpret the past more loudly—if less rationally—than others, often on radio, television, and the internet, or in churches, bars, and political campaigns. If we have learned nothing else in recent years, it is that history is very powerful and can be dangerous in the wrong hands, whether in local communities or the nation's capital. It seems that in an idealized marketplace in which everyone is his or her own expert and all ideas are equal, self-proclaimed champions of democracy can legitimize their potentially unlimited authority, not by grounding their truth in objective, scientifically determined facts, but by concocting and selling self-serving histories that play on public fears, prejudices, and greed." (Weible 2008) 

I’ve seen a variety of answers over the years, but none of them satisfactory. I tell people that if they don’t have a background in history and historiography, the best way to judge quality is to look for general agreement among historians.

If someone tells you the Merovingian dynasty were descendants of Jesus, it’s easy enough to figure out this is a minority conclusion, and one that’s universally rejected by academic historians. Go ahead and enjoy the story, but don’t sign on to become a True Believer.

Old Ballads; Oral History

Milman Parry was a Harvard professor. In the 1930s he traveled through Yugoslavia, collecting ballads and folk songs. As a result of his research into these particular forms of oral history, he developed the idea that Homer’s poems have a formulaic structure that shows they were originally oral compositions.

This is one of the stories he collected.

"[There are] two lovers kept apart by a meddling mother who doesn’t want her son to marry beneath him. He is forced to marry someone else, and, in keeping with local custom, the couple is locked into a bedroom on their wedding night. Instead of consummating the marriage, however, the young man sings to the new bride and explains that she will never replace his true love. At the conclusion of the song, the young man dies on the spot.
"The bride, though upset, cannot leave the room until morning. When the mother enters the room in triumph, she sees instead that her son has died. In place of a celebration the bereft mother prepares a funeral procession, which passes by the window of the young man’s true love. Her heart breaks apart at the sight, and she dies instantly. The two are buried in adjacent graves, from which two trees sprout and grow intertwined."

Very tragic, very romantic. It’s supposed to be a true story, but actually it’s not although it’s based on remembered events.

When Parry investigated the story he discovered that an old woman in the next village was one of the tragic young lovers. She was still alive, and furthermore, the villagers of her generation knew she was still alive and also knew she was the woman who died in the song.

I’ve mentioned this story before. Most recently in Daughter of Time (Apr. 21, 2020). We read this story in college. Probably for European Ethnology, although I could be wrong about that.

The story, partly true and partly fiction, holds an important cautionary lesson for genealogists about the evolution of oral history: there is a tendency over time for stories to improve.

Details fall away. The plot changes in subtle ways to make the story “better.” And the personality of the storyteller might also affect the story. Some people are better at “improving” stories than others.

In my opinion family traditions and oral history are always worth investigating, even when they are unlikely to be true or unlikely to add anything. There is no story about family history so silly or absurd that I won’t spend some time investigating, even if not a lot.

More Information