Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Conclusions: The Christ Conspiracy

I have after some deliberation decided that it is time to post a conclusion to the review of The Christ Conspiracy. There are a few chapters I will not review. Murdock has a second, improved edition of The Christ Conspiracy in the works. Once it is done, I may return to write a short review of it as contrasted with the first edition.

Conclusions: The Christ Conspiracy

The Christ Conspiracy describes and argues in favour of Murdock's version of the Christ Myth theory. Her argument can be divided into three parts. First, she demonstrates that early Christian writers were not very credible. This is accurate, but several of the examples she provides are pretty bad (see The Holy Forgery Mill, The Holy Forgery Mill and Biblical Sources, Addendum to The Holy Forgery MillFurther Evidence of Fraud). The conclusion that early Christian works are not to be taken at face value is one I agree with - but already accepted by the overwhelming majority of scholars. Murdock supports this conclusion by means of tendentious readings and other questionable practices.

A serious scholar should know the status of current research - current consensus, current methods and reasoning. Murdock shows no awareness whatsoever of modern research in relevant fields. Serious research in church history assumes the Church fathers, biblical texts and apocrypha not to be credible sources. Undeniably though, they are sources - but every quality scholar realizes what limitations that brings. Maybe Murdock misunderstands the role of sources: only once, through The Christ Conspiracy, does she not take a source's claim at face value. Mainstream scholars constantly grapple with their sources - academics critically evaluate data, something Murdock thoroughly avoids doing throughout The Christ Conspiracy.

Further, she seems to think statements can be taken at face value while ignoring their function in context - partially accepting, for instance, Eusebius' statements about the Therapeutans, just conveniently leaving out the bits of Eusebius' utterance that do not fit her idea - without ever indicating that she omitted anything. Ultimately, a serious scholar would conclude that Eusebius was distorting the picture to turn Philo into an admirer of Christianity.

The next type of of problem is the quality of the sources. Murdock could very well have used Godfrey Higgins, Karl Anderson, the brothers Churchward, etc, if she had been critical and used them responsibly - they are interesting evidence regarding the beliefs among non-mainstream thinkers of the 19th and early 20th century. They are not, however, very useful sources for knowledge regarding antiquity.

Further, many of her sources are far removed along a chain of references, each step introducing an increased risk of misunderstanding, misrepresentation or mistranslation, much as a written game of telephone. A good example thereof is the Higgins-Beausobre-Simon-Milo Crispin-chain, where each step along the chain has increased the certainty of the claim without presenting any evidence. Another good example is the Carpenter's misconstrual of von Martius' German statement. I am not saying these misunderstandings are intentional deceptions (although some may well be!), and especially not on Murdock's part (although some may be!),  I am saying that games of telephone distort meaning. Verifying the sources for important claims is therefore necessary. An idea that does not seem to occur to Murdock, ever.

Another problem with having such indirect references is that it makes a farce of the entire idea of references. Instead of assisting in evaluating the evidence, it forces critical readers to waste time looking up increasingly obscure intermediate works before finding anything. This increases the effort of verification unreasonably. References should assist scholars, not frustrate them. Murdock's use of references fails at this, as it generates an ever-growing maze of nested references. Oftentimes, these chains converge on a small handful of works - Higgins' and Jacolliot's in particular. Thus, the intermediate steps also inflate the apparent amount of original research that lends its support to a thesis. This is a deceptive use of references.

Regarding references, there's further quite a few mistaken references, where the book referred to does not provide the claim she says it made. To the extent these are a result of typos, it is an understandable problem, though.

A final comment regarding the sources is that many of them are genuinely worthless for the purpose to which Murdock uses them. Godfrey Higgins is an egregious example (see posts 1, 2, 3, with more coming), Barbara Walker is quite unreliable (a slowly growing index can be found here), and none out of Jacolliot, the Churchward brothers, astrologist Karl Andersson, Drummond, new age kook zine Atlantis Rising, the early influential theosophist kook Helena Blavatsky, the UFO kook David Hatcher Childress, Lloyd Graham, alternative history kook Graham Hancock, astrologist John Hazelrigg, the religious zine Hinduism Today, UFO kook John Keel, Gerald Massey, all-round kook and conman Maxwell Jordan, Nicholas Notovich of 'Jesus in India'-fame, UFO kook Zecharia Sitchin, Merlin Stone or Robert Taylor inspire any confidence. These are used as sources for a variety of quite incredible statements.

The reasoning, especially towards the end of the book, relies on shoddy evidence and shoddy logic.

A favourite type of argument is badly construed linguistics. Murdock calls herself a linguist, but when it comes to historical linguistics she knows next to nothing. She should learn about comparative historical linguistics in general, as that is where the most egregious examples appear. Finally, she needs to understand that random similarities do happen. In fact we'd expected lots of them for any two languages. 

What further renders Murdock's linguistic examples problematic is her silence on transliteration practices. Since we are never told what transcription manner is used, there may be multiple alternative possible words we have to check. Such an increase in effort is frustrating, and the end results from my survey conclusively prove that Murdock has not verified these claims at all. Examples include Old Irish budh and kris, which simply do not exist.

In addition, she sometimes does not even care to specify which language she is talking about, such as 'natives of British Columbia called the sun/sky-god “Sin,' or '"om" is Eastern'. Natives of British Columbia speak two dozen different languages. Finding native American dictionaries in order to verify her claim would have been an impossible feat. Fortunately, I I did find the source she had used for her claim, and in that source, the specific language was mentioned - however, the claim made in her source - which was not a linguistic source - was somewhat vague and Murdock had further used this claim in a rather tendentious manner. Such happens all too often throughout The Christ Conspiracy.

Finally, there is one considerable omission - Murdock never describes or discusses methodology. Nor does she present any particular objective. Most scholarly works of a similar size present a question or a claim, then a method used to answer that question or evaluate that claim. In a regular scholarly work, critical evaluation of the facts is important, but even if the facts pass a careful investigation, the conclusion can be mistaken if the methodology is flawed, thus permitting critical readers to evaluate whether the method is sound and whether it was adhered to.

Since Murdock never presents a method, she just goes on "reasoning" her way through an exponential field of possible explanations, picking without justification whichever explanation catches her fancy. This makes it difficult to evaluate her reasoning in any clear terms.

A Conclusion of the Conclusion:

Thus we may conclude that The Christ Conspiracy fails at its objectives and at living up to any academic standards. Even when demonstrating claims that the scholarly consensus already had agreed on for decades when Murdock wrote the book, the claims are expressed as innovative, trailblazing discoveries. And even then, she reaches those conclusions by tendentious readings and fabricated evidence. There is no awareness whatsoever about the scholarly consensus, nor of efforts or results that were current at the time the book was being written, nor any evaluation of the quality of her sources. Historical linguistics is used haphazardly. Reasoning that linguists would reject as amateurish is presented as though it were valid historical linguistics. Invalid, even fabricated evidence is given. Murdock shows little to no understanding of how historical linguistics works. Murdock neither explains nor presents any methodology, which makes a rational analysis of the approach she takes to her material difficult. 

The type of reasoning that The Christ Conspiracy is an example of is fallacious, flawed and deeply problematic. Alas, it seems it is fairly good at reinforcing flawed thinking in those readers who fail to see its flaws. 

Short summaries of chapters 1-19
Short summaries of chapters 20-24

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