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Captive Dreams
The Age of Unreason, Redux

Another item from the lovely Richard Carrier in Flynns Pile of Boners. 

I had been making a point about the unruly and riotous behavior and the Late Imperial Egyptians and noted:

In Julian's reign some Christian virgins of Heliopolis refused to surrender themselves for a night of sacred prostitution before their nuptials...."  followed by an account of their gruesome murder.   

Mr. Carrier puts words in my mouth to make me say:

We Should Believe the Bullshit in Martyrologies (NOT!)

The NOT! is his addition.  Come to that, the entire thing is his addition.  (It probably reveals a bit of his personal motivations.)  I made no claim about believing martyrologies, only a claim about the periodic riotousness of the Egyptians of which the deaths both of the virgins of Heliopolis and of the philosopher-mathematician Hypatia were examples.  I also pointed out that, despite such periodic outbreaks, the "tribes" of Alexandria generally got along with one another, or at least co-existed peacefully. 

However, Mr. Carrier produced the following incisive critique:

Since the institution of sacred prostitution has been refuted as a myth (see The Myth of Sacred Prostitution in Antiquity), Flynn appears to have been duped by the wild myths of Christian hagiography. I doubt any such event occurred under Julian. Historians have long known that Christian martyrdom tales are wildly exaggerated and often complete fiction (the absurdities of the stories Flynn relates really ought to have given him a clue). Ironically, this makes Flynn a victim of the very "confirmation bias" he (rightly) accuses Walker of.

So let's see where the story comes from.  And it's not from some hagiography.  

Salminius Hermias Sozomen (c. 375-447) was a classically trained scholar, born near Gaza, who wrote his Ecclesiastical History in Constantinople in the early 400s.  His contemporary the native Constantinopolitan Socrates Scholasticus (c. 379-450) also wrote an Ecclesiastical History, probably a little earlier.  Both historians' works are accounted sober and meticulous, with a careful regard for sources, and both recounted the heresies and heretics of the times they covered without personal attacks, pointing out many of their admirable characteristics.  Sozomen is accounted the better stylist; Socrates the better organized.  Sozomen's work is apparently unfinished.  It is to these two historians that we owe much of what we know of that era. 

Here is what Sozomen wrote:
The inhabitants of Heliopolis, near Mount Libanus ... were guilty of an act of barbarity which could scarcely be credited, had it not been corroborated by the testimony of those who witnessed it. They stripped the holy virgins, who had never been looked upon by the multitude, of their garments, and exposed them in a state of nudity as a public spectacle and objects of insult. After numerous other inflictions they at last shaved them, ripped them open, and concealed in their viscera the food usually given to pigs; and since the swine could not distinguish, but were impelled by the need of their customary food, they also tore in pieces the human flesh.
I am convinced that the citizens of Heliopolis perpetrated this barbarity against the holy virgins on account of the prohibition of the ancient custom of yielding up virgins to prostitution with any chance comer before being united in marriage to their betrothed. This custom was prohibited by a law enacted by Constantine, after he had destroyed the temple of Venus at Heliopolis, and erected a church upon its ruins.
-- Ecclesiastical History, Book V, Chap.10

Sozomen was writing about sixty years after the events.  Now here is an account of a similar murder in Alexandria, recounted by Socrates Scholasticus:
There was a woman at Alexandria named Hypatia,  daughter of the philosopher Theon, who made such attainments in literature and science, as to far surpass all the philosophers of her own time. Having succeeded to the school of Plato and Plotinus, she explained the principles of philosophy to her auditors, many of whom came from a distance to receive her instructions. On account of the self-possession and ease of manner, which she had acquired in consequence of the cultivation of her mind, she not unfrequently appeared in public in presence of the magistrates. Neither did she feel abashed in coming to an assembly of men. For all men on account of her extraordinary dignity and virtue admired her the more. Yet even she fell a victim to the political jealousy which at that time prevailed. For as she had frequent interviews with Orestes, it was calumniously reported among the Christian populace, that it was she who prevented Orestes from being reconciled to the bishop. Some of them therefore, hurried away by a fierce and bigoted zeal, whose ringleader was a reader named Peter, waylaid her returning home, and dragging her from her carriage, they took her to the church called Cæsareum, where they completely stripped her, and then murdered her with tiles.  After tearing her body in pieces, they took her mangled limbs to a place called Cinaron, and there burnt them. This affair brought not the least opprobrium, not only upon Cyril,  but also upon the whole Alexandrian church. And surely nothing can be farther from the spirit of Christianity than the allowance of massacres, fights, and transactions of that sort. This happened in the month of March during Lent, in the fourth year of Cyril's episcopate, under the tenth consulate of Honorius, and the sixth of Theodosius. 
-- Ecclesiastical History, Book VII, Chap. 15

Now why one gruesome murder should be accounded as "absurdities" while another gruesome murder is accounted as plain fact I do not know.  Mr. Carrier should read some accounts of white lynchings of black men in the old South for insight on what a mob can do.  Both stories are soberly reported, with none of the "wild exaggeration" Mr. Carrier ascribes generically to hagiographies.  There are no magical survivals of the pyre; no ravenous beasts turning suddenly tame.  No one levitates.  Both accounts are simply matter-of-fact.  Sozomen even expresses some personal incredulity overcome only by the fact that eyewitnesses had given accounts. 

The "sacred prostitution" bit was Sozomen's personal assessment.  Perhaps he was wrong, and it was simply a gang-rape using a religious excuse.  Sozomen clearly believed that there had been such a custom and that Constantine had issued a law against it.  [And being in Constantinople, was in a position to verify the edict in the archives.]  Perhaps the custom obtained only at the Temple of "Venus" at Heliopolis, since it was "prohibited... after he had destroyed the temple of Venus at Heliopolis."  Sozomen does not claim that it was a general practice throughout antiquity, or that the temples had a regular staff of prostitutes.  [As an aside: this may be where the mythos of "The Right of the First Night" arose.  The medievals were convinced it had been common in ancient times.  The moderns were convinced it had been common in medieval times.  Now, in modern times, virgins really do commonly sacrifice their virginity to "any chance comer."  And sometimes get beaten by men when they won't "put out" as expected.  But that is another topic.]

And if Sozomen believed there had been such a custom, his pagan contemporaries may have believed the same thing.  After all, paganism had been moribund and Julian was trying to revive it. 
In any case, Mr. Carrier utterly  missed the point -- the notorious riotousness in that region in that era in the context of which the murder of Hypatia should be seen -- contra Walker [the original poster] who claimed it was some sort of Christian hostility to the deified Scientia she supposedly embodied.  And Carrier's claim that I say that "We Should Believe the Bullshit in Martyrologies" is simply a lie intended for his fellow cultists. 



( 12 comments — Leave a comment )
Jan. 14th, 2010 09:22 am (UTC)
Curiosity Question:
Where does the notion that martyrology is BS come from? I don't recall the bits and pieces I've read (Polycarp and Perpetua pretty much) being especially fantastical. Triumphalistic maybe, but that shouldn't justify exclusion even just on dogmatic materialist grounds.

- Dan Lower
Jan. 15th, 2010 07:36 pm (UTC)
Re: Curiosity Question:
You will notice that the style of argument is followed by . Thus, one first says that "they say" that martyrologies [generic] are wildly exaggerated; and then, since this must be true in general, the particular incident narrated by an historian must also be wildly exaggerated. This treats the generic as the real entity rather than the specific.

To see how this works in other areas, substitute generic statements about "blacks" or "the Jews." First make a generic statement about Jews and then conclude that since X is a Jew, X simply must share that attribute.

It's not an especially good manner of argument, even if the generic statement is true. And it violates what Ockham really said.
Jan. 14th, 2010 10:53 am (UTC)
Well, Carrier is Carrier...
About his only claim to fame IS his atheist rantings. He's the "historian" version of PZ Myers: remove that schtick, and there's just not much left over of note.
Jan. 15th, 2010 08:13 am (UTC)
Re: Well, Carrier is Carrier...
Carrier does have the respect of at least a few Christian philosophers, notably Victor Reppert (see for a sample of his writings) who wrote C.S. Lewis's Dangerous Idea in defense of the argument from reason. And Flynn also seems to give him the credence due, and doesn't appear to be treating him like an idiot so much as like someone who's made some questionable assertions. Charity sort of demands that we don't attribute to malice what we could attribute to stupidity. I think the malice-stupidity thing applies more in Myers' case, though the sheer number of thinking Christians he's surely encountered by now makes the charitable route more doubtful, especially with that Eucharist-Koran-Darwin incident. In this case (Carrier's) I think it's best to follow the route of not attributing to stupidity what can be adequately explained by misinterpretation. Now that said, I don't take Carrier ultra-seriously as a historian, but I think his big problems are more in interpretation and lack of knowledge of certain key points that aren't always immediately obvious to most people, rather than in being a stupid person. I certainly don't feel qualified with my single undergrad degree in math and theology, to go around saying persons with PhD's in histories of thought are stupid, or that their 'only claim to fame is [their] atheist rantings.' Carrier's not the historian version of Myers. Even if he's not, he consistently comes across as a better person in his writings--and I have read/listened to some of what he's got to say, even on religious/philosophical matters. He's much more eloquent/respectful of his opponents.

I apologize because this was an over-reaction. But the equation of Carrier with Myers in any way, shape or form could not be allowed to stand.

- Dan Lower
Jan. 15th, 2010 08:10 pm (UTC)
Re: Well, Carrier is Carrier...
my single undergrad degree in math and theology

That's a single degree? Well, the two are much alike.

I agree about Carrier. He's very knowledgeable, but seems to come at certain topics with preconceptions, and therefore sees them differently. For example, he evidently thought that no one could defend the Middle Ages unless he or she was an apologist for certain theological commitments. Carrier makes no secret of his own theological commitments, but may not see how they slant his vision. He evidently admires the Greeks and Romans (and in many regards, rightly so) but this admiration leads him to give them "full credit" in science for things that were simply lucky guesses, or for technology that never went much of anywhere. It is like a parent's praise of their child's first steps. But at the same time, when it is medieval, no credit at all is given. If it wasn't the full monty it's nothing at all.
Jan. 16th, 2010 11:45 am (UTC)
Re: Well, Carrier is Carrier...
Oh heh. I say single degree because it was a double major, but just one degree. A double degree requires some sort of requirements that I know I didn't meet, but I'm not even sure quite what they were at my university. Sadly, aside from the occasional analogy I made between mathematical/theological concepts, there wasn't too much overlap. :/
Jan. 16th, 2010 12:23 pm (UTC)
Re: Well, Carrier is Carrier...
Who said I was accusing Carrier of being an idiot? I'm saying that Carrier's primary claim to fame - and he does have fame, even if it's largely internet-based - IS his atheist ramblings. I didn't say he was a moron, or a horrible historian. Just as I didn't say Myers is a moron, or a horrible biologist. In fact, I made no criticism of either's day jobs whatsoever. Just why they're well known to begin with. To give a comparison, John Wayne Bobbit may have a truck driver, and really, a fantastic truck driver at that. It's simply not his claim to fame.

I stand by this. Remove Carrier's atheist schtick, and you remove his fame. What's left over may be a historian, maybe even quite a good historian in certain capacities. And PZ Myers, for all I know, is a good biologist when he's actually working. But wipe out his blog and his ravings, and out goes his fame too.

As for Victor Reppert's respect, that's not saying much. And by that I mean this: Victor Reppert is possibly one of the nicest, most forgiving, most rarely negative people I've ever seen online. He treats even morons who write expletives about him and mangle his arguments with respect. It's (to exaggerate the point) like endorsing a person on the grounds that Mother Teresa said they would pray for them.
Jan. 14th, 2010 02:02 pm (UTC)
Why the immaturity from Carrier?
I mean, c'mon. Bullshit? Boners? The comparison to PZ Myers is accurate. My return to the Church was prompted by, among other things, the high quality of the people I met who were devout Catholics. My return was solidified, however, by the contrast between those Catholics and the ranting, abusive, adolescent atheists with all of their insults and juvenile obscenities. I don't know if Carrier is an atheist, but he sure postures and storms and sulks like one.

What is wrong with these people?

Jan. 14th, 2010 03:14 pm (UTC)
Re: Why the immaturity from Carrier?
He's one of the leading self-proclaimed atheists on

Jan. 14th, 2010 03:01 pm (UTC)
Let's not let them get in the way of a smackdown. Right, Mr. Carrier?

Jan. 14th, 2010 05:55 pm (UTC)
I expect his response was merely reflexive, a set reaction based on his worldview.

And it is a classic argument from incredulity:

"I doubt any such event occurred under Julian" and "the absurdities of the stories Flynn relates" boil down to: "I find that hard to believe, therefore it can't be true. I have seen creationists give the same sort of argument-from-incredulity regarding proposed evolutionary mechanisms.

Note that Sozomen was also personally incredulous, much like people who could not believe that Southern whites or highly scientific and cultured Germans could do that. Surely, some future Carrier will say, the stories are "wild exaggerations" full of "absurdities." And perhaps even point to actual fabrications as "proof."

"Historians have long known that Christian martyrdom tales are wildly exaggerated and often complete fiction."

In this, he omitted the key adjective "some." Oddly enough these are often the same stories counted as non-canonical or "pious fabrications" by the traditional churches. Others are accepted as basically true without accepting all the bells and whistles that have been added on. It is this sort of nuanced view that fundamentalists, both atheist and theist, get all exercised about. They aren't willing to pause, take a deep breath, and consider things objectively.
Jan. 18th, 2010 08:15 pm (UTC)
More from Carrier
Richard Carrier noticed your response:

( 12 comments — Leave a comment )


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