Other Possibilities

So often someone sends me a solution to a genealogical knot, along with the expectation I will see it as the final answer. That’s surprisingly common with reconstructions of early medieval dynasties but it also happens with routine research into ordinary people.

My expectation is quite different. A good test of the evidence is whether, given what we know, could it reasonably have been any other way. If yes, then we have a theory not an answer.

It might surprise you that I learned this perspective from years of reading material about the search for the Historical Jesus. (That’s the connection to Easter, today.)

I came across an excellent example last night, reading before bed.

John Shelby Spong (former Episcopal bishop of Newark), writing about influences of the Old Testament on the Gospels. has a passage about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (“Palm Sunday”). The episode parallels Zechariah 9:9. The debate here is whether this is a prophecy or propaganda. Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophecy or did he set it up so he would be seen to fulfill it? Most people I know believe it was a set up.

After briefly scoping the debate, Spong surprises us with an insight that transforms the problem: “The argument of the traditionalists that Jesus must have deliberately and overtly acted out this image as a way of making a messianic statement is, in my mind, the last gasp of a literalist mentality that is in perpetual retreat from reality.

Wonderful. There are more than just the two alternatives we hear about everywhere in the literature.

Spong suggests a third alternative: the Gospel writers are telling a metaphorical story inspired by Messianic prophecies. In fact (he believes), the Gospels follow a story line suggested by both Isaiah and Zechariah. (Jesus For The Non-Religious (2008), 189).

Wonderful. Now we have a fuller range of possibilities. To my way of thinking, that means less certainty. Given the evidence we have, it could have been at least two different ways, and maybe three. That means we don’t really know. And that’s huge.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise alternative history works the same way. When I talk to anyone who has read Holy Blood, Holy Grail or anything on a related topic, I can pretty much bet the ranch they believe it. It’s rare, very rare, to find someone who also read something that challenged it and even rarer to find someone who read critically.

Bottom line: No matter the topic, everyone has a theory. And most people seem to believe the theory presented in the one and only book they read. A good genealogist will think of more possibilities, look for other reasonable theories, not try to cut off debate by being too sure, too soon.

Origins of Freemasonry

Like no one has ever written on this topic before. But, as it happens, I’m re-reading Freemasonry and Its Ancient Mystic Rites, by C. W. Leadbeater (1986, 1998). The Old Perv. So now I’m thinking about a familiar subject.

Freemasonry has its colorful origin myths. Those are fun, but the modern sensibility is pretty tame. The Illinois Grand Lodge is typical:

Since the middle of the 19th century, Masonic historians have sought the origins of the movement in a series of similar documents known as the Old Charges, dating from the Regius Poem in about 1425 to the beginning of the 18th century. Alluding to the membership of a lodge of operative masons, they relate a mythologized history of the craft, the duties of its grades, and the manner in which oaths of fidelity are to be taken on joining. The 15th century also sees the first evidence of ceremonial regalia.

There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organizations became today’s Masonic Lodges, but the earliest rituals and passwords known, from operative lodges around the turn of the 17th–18th centuries, show continuity with the rituals developed in the later 18th century by accepted or speculative Masons, as those members who did not practice the physical craft came to be known. The minutes of the Lodge of Edinburgh (Mary’s Chapel) No. 1 in Scotland show a continuity from an operative lodge in 1598 to a modern speculative Lodge. It is reputed to be the oldest Masonic Lodge in the world.” (Freemasonry Origins, The Most Worshipful Grand Lodge of A.F & A.M of the State of Illinois, visited Feb. 11, 2019. One of the reasons I chose this one is because my dad was a Freemason from Illinois.)

Somewhere in the froth, everyone seems to forget that medieval craft guilds were like this. The guilds were organized in a typically medieval way around corporate identity. They had patron saints, feast days, processions, craft myths and secrets, and of course elected officers and elaborate ceremonial.

With very little effort, you could sit in a modern Masonic lodge and picture what it would look like if Western esotericism had been poured into a guild of, say candlemakers.

The patron would be St. Ambrose. The major feast would be on December 7. There would be a story about Adam making the first candle, no doubt shown by bees. And another about King Solomon and candles as a metaphor for his wisdom. And no doubt some others built around various Bible verses with themes of light and enlightenment. Scholars would find intriguing parallels to authentic medieval usages, and it would all seem very mysterious.

Certainly, as they say, “There is no clear mechanism by which these local trade organizations became today’s Masonic Lodges”, but I think that misses the larger mystery—How did we end up in a modern world where masons were the only craft guild to make the transition from “operative” to “speculative”? There should be dozens.

More Information

Indo-Europeans Re-Defined

The Indo-Europeans were a patriarchal people from the steppes, said Marija Gimbutas. Not so, said Colin Renfrew. They came up from the Middle East with the spread of agriculture.

This debate was famous. I don’t remember the world before.

Renfrew had the mojo. The science types sided with him. Gimbutas was a whack-job. She was a favorite of modern neo-pagans and goddess worshippers.

Now Renfrew has said: “Marija [Gimbutas]’s Kurgan hypothesis has been magnificently vindicated.” Big news. Earth-shaking news.

That doesn’t mean academia will be embracing Gimbutas’ cultural theories. She posited a pre-invasion world of matriarchy, peace, and equality. That world of Old Europe was, she thought, destroyed by war-like patriarchal invaders from the steppes beginning about 4400 BCE. That is, it wasn’t just a new population but also a cultural revolution.

Renfrew isn’t accepting any of that. Just the origin of the language and culture we call the Indo-Europeans.

This dispute matters for the Hauri DNA Project because the Hauris belong to a branch of Haplogroup G that is thought to have migrated into Europe from the Middle East with the spread of agriculture in the Neolithic, about 7000 BCE. That is, they would be among Colin Renfrew’s Indo-Europeans. Now that he’s shifted, the Hauri’s place in history is now pre-Indo-European.

More Information

Revised Apr. 19, 2020 to add links.