The Euphemist

Reflections on Jewish Studies and many other subjects big and little, by a perpetual student who sometimes searches a little too long for just the right word ...

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Christian, truth seeker, husband, son, brother & uncle, Lutheran pastor, musician (cello, etc.), Jewish Studies grad student, intellectual historian, aquarium enthusiast & pet owner, philologist, astronomer, Norwegian-American, Ford pickup driver, buffoon.

Saturday, October 01, 2005

Occam = Barber of Seville = Bugs! Or, Fomenko & Illig expose the Vast Right-Brain Conspiracy

Rabbit of Seville
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You can learn lots of things when you browse Wikipedia. Last weekend when I was lightly reading topics related to fictional alternative histories, I somehow ended up learning about revisionist ideas about real historical chronology. Did you know that a Russian mathematician named A.T. Fomenko believes that ancient & medieval history as we know it was mistakenly lengthened, that national histories ranging from British history to the Old Testament (!) are accidental reduplications of Byzantine history?! He holds that Jesus was born in what we call the year 1053, and in the environs of Constantinople, not in the Holy Land (even the Temple in Jerusalem is a garbled reduplication of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, according to Fomenko). I get this strange mental picture of 1-year-old toddler Jesus watching a Roman Church official on his way to the Hagia Sophia where he is about to excommunicate the Eastern Church. Fomenko's contentions seem to be based upon his observations of similarities in the timelines of royalty in various nations, plus that he thinks that the errors in Ptolemy's Almagest, a significant ancient astronomical text, are best explained if he wrote of eclipses, etc. that happened less than 1000 years ago, rather than 2000. A Danish religious skeptic (see Morten's kind comment to this post) named Morten Monrad Pedersen has a rather effective parody/critique of Fomenko's methods, pointing out, among other things, that if you apply Fomenko's methods to the chronology of Danish royalty, you can "prove" that Frederick II of Denmark (d. 1588) is the same person as Christian X (d. 1947, in the living memory of many alive today)! Methinks that Fomenko is overdoing the Pattern Recognition thing, like Dr. Nash in the (semi-fictionalized) movie "A Beautiful Mind." Alarmingly, Fomenko's theories apparently have a following in Russia, and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov is among his followers.

It seems to me that there's an anti-semitic implication in this. He holds that the real Jerusalem was never more than an obscure Palestinian village until early modern times - doesn't leave much room for a historic Jewish claim in the area, does it?

A German mathematician (what is it with these mathematicians?) named Heribert Illig has a more modest proposal, that the reason why the (alleged) "Dark Ages" were so dark was that the years 614-911 AD never happened! Guess what? It's really the year 1708!!!

So why does this get my goat so much, even more than "Faking the moon landing" theories and what not? Partly it would be the consequences for my Christian faith, partly because ancient studies are my field, partly because these these theories are extreme reactions to a real problem, that the dating of historical events in the distant past is in truth more problematic than we often realize. But Fomenko's theories, especially, rely on some rather monumental assumptions. He contends that ancient & medieval history as we know it was faked by medieval/early modern monks and scribes - a Vast Right-Brain Conspiracy, like Tolkien inventing the history of Middle-Earth, only magnified 10,000 times, and somehow getting people to believe it.

If anything, these theories spur me on to learn more about how we know when ancient events really happened - something I wondered about even before running into Fomenko and Illig. I suspect we'll find that ancient chronology as we know it is largely accurate, though perhaps with uncertainties amounting to a few years here and there. I think Occam's razor would reveal that it's simpler and more sensible to suppose that chronology as we know it is mostly accurate though moderately imprecise, rather than blaming the margin of error on some Vast Right-Brain Conspiracy. But of course, Occam allegedly lived in the 14th Century, so Occam and his "razor" could be a conflation of the Barber of Seville, who could be the same person as Bugs Bunny!


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9:27 AM  
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12:39 AM  
Anonymous Morten Monrad Pedersen said...

Hi Michael

Thank you for the kind words about my Fomenko article, it is always nice to have someone appreciate one's work :-) However, since I'm an atheist I wonder why you write the following: "A Danish religious skeptic named Morten Monrad Pedersen" (the italics were added by me).

Best regards
- Morten

3:16 PM  
Blogger Michael said...

You're very welcome, Morten, & I'm glad you found your way to this post! Sorry about the ambiguous terminology. By a "religious skeptic" I meant someone skeptical about religion. I see how the phrase can be seen as an oxymoron, so I'll try to be more precise from now on.

3:29 AM  
Anonymous Morten Monrad Pedersen said...

OK, now I understand :-)

I thought you meant that I was both religious and a skeptic (like the prominent skeptic Martin Gardner).

Best regards
- Morten

11:34 AM  
Blogger Michael said...

Glad that helped - perhaps another example of "religious skeptics" in that sense would be Reconstructionist Jews, who generally don't seem to believe in God, at least in the usual sense, yet are very traditional in their religious practices.

I hope you'll stop by again and drop a comment if you find any topics of interest.

6:52 AM  

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