Thomas Verenna: Character and Scholarship

The blogger hambydammit on his blog Life Without a Net posted a book recommendation of Thomas Verenna’s new book Of Men and Muses (here).  I’ve left a few comments:

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I understand he is a friend and so you obviously have a different kind of relationship with him than others who’ve known him from online. Even so, I think it’s unfair of you to imply that only one person ruined his credibility. I’ve seen him around in many discussions and he has a way of irritating all kinds of people and let me say it has nothing to do with being smarter than everyone else. He apparently lacks certain practical interpersonal skills.

I originally knew of him through his alias and didn’t know his real name. I accidentally came across his blog without realizing who he was and he acted like a righteous know-it-all. He seemed unable to admit when he didn’t know something. That isn’t to say that he isn’t intelligent. I generally agreed with much that he said, but he just had such a disagreeable personality… or at least that is how he seems online… maybe he’s more easygoing and friendly in normal life.

Anyways, I won’t judge his scholarship based on his personality. I’ll check for some more reviews of his book and see what others think. His name is well enough known in the onine biblical studies community and so publicity shouldn’t be a problem. This book will be the test of whether his scholarship can actually stand up to criticism.

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Sounds like you have a balanced attitude. I have a couple of responses to Verenna.

First, many people have criticized him of making dishonest and misleading statements (from plagiarism to claiming he knows what he doesn’t). I can’t verify many of these criticisms, but in my own dealings with him he does seem to lack humility and an openness to new perspectives. He certainly doesn’t take criticism well and practically invites people to dismiss him in his own dismissal of others.

Second, I do give his scholarship a chance as Robert M. Price reviews his work positively. I respect Price, but I mistrust Verenna’s using Price as a reference for his own views. Verenna dismissed out of hand the work of D.M. Murdock all the while admitting he had never read her work, but in the same discussion throws out the name of Price. The problem is that Price changed from criticism to praise once he read Murdock’s work and even wrote an introduction to one of Murdock’s books. Verenna’s attitude toward Murdock (who has more respectable credentials than he does) demonstrates an intellectual sloppiness not to mention an unfounded righteousness that is just plain annoying.

So, I’m mixed. He does have some intelligence and there is potential that he might add something worthy to the discussion of biblical studies. For me, the jury is still out. I’ll keep my eyes out for further book reviews before deciding whether to buy this book.

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I generally agree with your attitude.  I’m not a fan of web drama and haven’t directly been involved with the conflicts involving Verenna, but it seems that Verenna himself wasn’t shy about web drama and at least in the past was a willing partner to some of the conflict.

I tend to ignore criticisms if I only hear them once or only from one person.  However, the criticisms of Verenna involve large numbers of people in very extensive discussions on respectable forums.  It’s hard to ignore.

Even so, I still would’ve not given much credence to it all if he didn’t act the way he did in the discussions I had with him.  I judge him on my personal experience (when I didn’t even know who he was and so I wasn’t judging him based on any preconceived biases about his character).  It isn’t ad hominem.  He in fact dismissed authors he himself admitted to having not read.  So, that much would seem to be a fact.

It is clear to me that he does (unless he has remedied the situation by further study) lack knowledge about certain issues he speaks about authoritatively (and so that fairly places doubt on his scholarship in general).  If he hasn’t read Murdock, he shouldn’t claim to have a worthy opinion.  Both Price and Murdock have more credentials than he does, and Price respects Murdock.  None of this is ad hominem or mere web drama.  This is a fact, but I’m open to this fact being revised (by either his recanting his uninformed judgment or else by informing his judgment on this matter).  I truly hope he has studied further since I last interacted with him, but in order for that to happen he’d first have to humbly admit he lacked knowledge about it.  Personality issues only rub me the wrong way when they influence a person’s intellectual ability.

Valid criticisms can’t be ignored as just web drama.  It’d be much easier to ascertain the worth of Verenna’s scholarhip if he himself had originally ignored (rather than fed) the web drama.  His scholarship is mired in web drama because of his own actions.  As a counter-example, Price has managed to remain above the fray of web drama and his scholarship is clearly respectable partly for that very reason.

However, it does appear that Verenna is trying to become more respectable.  I wish him well in that endeavor.  Maybe this book is a step in that direction.  If his scholarship is worthy, then I’m more than happy to consider his viewpoint.  So far, I’ve looked around at the book reviews and haven’t seen any in-depth analysis of what he writes about.  He does seem to have a few people who strongly support him and so I’m hoping one of them will go into more detail.  I look forward to seeing more discussion.

 – – –

I understand your perspective.  I don’t care that much about the web stuff other than I tend to look at multiple viewpoints when researching a subject.  It’s basically impossible to do a web search about multiple perspectives without coming across web drama.  I mostly avoid web drama and it was an accident that I came across Verenna’s blog.

I’m more interested in the questions than specific answers.  At the same time, I’m interested in how questions are asked and how answers pursued.  Specifically about Verenna, I am extremely curious about the subject he writes about and my views aren’t too far off from his.

I guess that I’m just not sure at the moment what his scholarship offers in respect to the scholarship of others.  There are quite a few active authors who write about mythicism and who are critical of literalism.  Is he adding new insight… if so, precisely what insight?  Or is he writing for laymen and so bringing clarity to a complex subject?  Either insight or clarity is worthy, but a little of both would be wonderful.

I would buy his book right now, but I’m not as yet prepared to spend the money and time on it.  Sadly, I can’t read everything that catches my attention.  I truly am hoping that his book sparks discussion because then I could better see what he is bringing to the table.

Re: Mythicism, Minimalism, and its Detractors (part 2)

This is a further response that began in my previous post:

Re: Mythicism, Minimalism, and its Detractors

I said: This is where I think Acharya/Murdock has one key to understanding a larger perspective. There are only two baaic factors that all humans in all places and time periods have shared: a basic human nature and psychoological functioning; and a common enviornmental experience.

Verenna said: “I don’t accept that all humans have a common environmental experience.  We all have “environmental experiences” but they are not common.  The degrees by which they vary is why we have jerks and humanitarians and humanitarian jerks.”

I wasn’t talking about common environmental experience as a social factor, but that plays in as well because research shows that social development follows common patterns.  Rather, what I was talking about is the physical environment: sun and moon, stars and planets; seasons along with daily and yearly solar cycles; migration and growth patterns; universal scientific laws.  Et Cetera.  These environmental experiences (including the social aspects as well) are common to “jerks and humanitarians and humanitarian jerks.”  There is nothing overly controversial about my claim.

I said: As for the latter, the most universal experience humans share is the observation of the sky.

Verenna said: “I disagree.  I think the most universal experience is death.  Some cultures looked up and others looked down.  Others still looked in the trees, in the water, in the wind… don’t let Acharya S pull the wool over your eyes.  Not every culture looked up and saw the same thing.  And not every culture looked down and saw the same thing.”

I certainly wasn’t arguing against other universal human experiences.  Whichever is the most universal, both death and the sky are themes found in every culture. 

Your constant condescension is rude and childish.  You’ve already made it clear that you perceive yourself as a scholar whose insight is simply above my head and I’m a mere simpleton who has been duped.  It’s good you have such a high appraisal of yourself.  Personally, I prefer humility.
 
As I’ve already said, I read widely beyond Acharya/Murdock: other mythicists, comparative mythologists, psychologists and sociologists, socio-historical commentators, and much else.  Not every culture looked up and came up with the exact same myth.  However, every culture observerd the same patterns and there are plenty of examples where they interpreted them similarly.  For example, cultural transmission can’t explain the similarities between myths in Americas with myths in the rest of the world.  Many scholars have noted these types of similarities long before Acharya/Murdock and many scholars still do.

I said: The human mind evolved with people staring at the sky, and it offered a survival advantage.

Verenna said: “No, the human mind evolved when we started eating red meat.”

The human mind had many contributing factors.  I said the mind evolved with people staring at the sky.  I didn’t say that staring at the sky was a sole factor that caused the humand mind to evolve.

I said: The patterns of animals and plants also follow the patterns of the seasons, and knowing these patterns precisely could mean the difference between life and death for the people of the earliest civilizations.

Verenna said: “You don’t need to look to the sky to interpret seasons.  Again, don’t let Acharya S pull the wool over your eyes.  Nature has its own inherited mechanisms that function seasonally.  Interpreting them was just as much a part of the process.  In some cultures, like some Native American cultures, these natural phenomena were more influential than the stars and the skies.”

One doesn’t need to do anything.  However, the seasons go hand in hand with the cycles of heavenly bodies.  If you don’t realize this, then you can lessen your ignorance in two ways.  You could study the appropriate scholars, or you could spend a year outside carefully observing nature and the sky.  Are you serious when you say “Nature has its own inherited mechanisms that function seasonally”?  Duh!  Step outside of your preconceptions for a moment and study some science.  The sun and moon directly influence nature and even human biology.

It is true that different cultures emphasized different aspects of the world.  As you say, some Native Americans may have focused more on terrestrial phenomena, but they didn’t disregard the stellar phenomena.  Other Native Americans, in fact, even worshipped the sun just like other cultures.

I said: As such, Christians didn’t need to borrow mythology from Pagans. The mythology of the heavens was common to the entire ancient world. Any educated person would’ve been familiar with it. Astrotheology was a common framework of knowledge that crossed cultural and linguistic barriers.

Verenna said: “Astrotheology is bs.  Sorry to be so blunt about it.  It rests on too many assumed variables which are, to be honest, more speculation and wishful thinking than anything else.”

Thanks for further demonstrating your ignorance.  No, don’t worry at all.  I don’t mind you showing everybody your confusion and misunderstanding.  I imagine it must be rather refreshing for you to be so open about your lack of knowledge.

 
I realize within the field of New Testament studies, the focus of scholarship is generally narrow.  However, astrotheology is an academic study  But, outside of New Testament studies, academics would refer to it as either Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy.
 
I said: There is another aspect that most people forget. Ancient people experienced the world differently, and it isn’t helpful to place our standards and assumptions onto their stories and religions. I think it’s essential to understand cultural development on the largescale.</em>

Verenna said: “But that is just as bad because then you end up generalizing.”

Science generalizes.  So, I guess it depends if you think science is useful or not.  By studying different cultures at different stages of development, theories have been put forth about social development and cultural experience.

 
Considering all of your comments, I think you need to pull your nose out of your New Testament scholarship books.  There is a larger world out there and knowing about it might offer you much needed insight and perspective.

Re: Helping the Historicists Get it Right: What is Mythicism?

A link to a blog by Thomas Verenna and my discussion with him from the comments section:

Helping the Historicists Get it Right: What is Mythicism?

Benjamin Steele Says:
April 6, 2009 at 2:46 pm “More recent mythicist arguments deal with exegesis, Gospel genre (if the Gospels weren’t written for the purpose of “telling what happened” but rather “telling a good story” there clearly is reason to doubt the historicity of Jesus Christ), intertextuality (the models used by the authors of the Gospels to create narrative—and how much of the Gospel can be traced back to models), Jewish socio-cultural studies in the Hellenistic and Roman periods (did the Jews of the original “Christian” sect expect a historical savior or a spiritual one?), religious-meme change (how quickly did religious trends change and how much could they have changed over that period of time—for example, euhemerizing a legendary figure of Jesus into a historical setting), and proto-Christian origins (was there a “Christianity” before the first-century CE and where did it originate?) . Clearly April would be correct if the mythicist position was reliant only on pagan myth parallels. It’s a good thing then that modern mythicists generally do not rely on pagan parallels whatsoever.”

I agree with you about mythicism not being reliant only on pagan myth parallels. On the other hand, I disagree with how you seem to be rather critical of those who point out those parallels such as Acharya. It isn’t a matter of either/or thinking. I’m not a defender of Acharya, but I am an interested party who seeks out all viewpoints. I’ve read a variety of mythicist theorists and I think all of them have something useful to add.

Anyways, Acharya doesn’t simply rely on pagan parallels. If you dismiss Acharya based on this assumption, then you are falling into the same trap as the historicist scholars. She goes out of her way to consider the subject from multiple perspectives. There is no need to try to smash Acharya’s head down in your attempt to climb the scholarly ladder of peer respectability. In case you didn’t know, both Doherty and Price have given positive reviews of Acharya’s work.

Tom Verenna Says:
April 6, 2009 at 3:58 pm I agree with you about mythicism not being reliant only on pagan myth parallels. On the other hand, I disagree with how you seem to be rather critical of those who point out those parallels such as Acharya. It isn’t a matter of either/or thinking. I’m not a defender of Acharya, but I am an interested party who seeks out all viewpoints. I’ve read a variety of mythicist theorists and I think all of them have something useful to add.

Please don’t take this the wrong way, but that’s a rather naive opinion. Not all scholars have something useful to add. Some have nothing useful. Some have a lot to offer while others have a mix of useful and unhelpful points that, overall, make their contributions mediocre at best. Acharya S does not have anything useful to add (in my opinion–others are welcome to disagree). I’ll give my reasons for thinking this below.

Anyways, Acharya doesn’t simply rely on pagan parallels. If you dismiss Acharya based on this assumption, then you are falling into the same trap as the historicist scholars. She goes out of her way to consider the subject from multiple perspectives. There is no need to try to smash Acharya’s head down in your attempt to climb the scholarly ladder of peer respectability. In case you didn’t know, both Doherty and Price have given positive reviews of Acharya’s work.

My problem with Acharya S is more than just pagan parallels. She uses grossly outdated source material. Here are a few examples:

http://www.zeitgeistmovie.com/sources.htm

Gerald Massey, John Remsburg, Albert Churchward, Edward Carpenter, Franz Cumont, and so on. None of these individuals lived past the middle of the twentieth century. Their scholarship is so dated that using them can only hurt her points, not help make them. This is the underlying problem with Acharya S; she does not adequately research modern credible sources–only dated sources. If only dated sources can be used to make her points, then she needs to reevaluate her points. To give you an analogy of how horrific it is to use dated sources in academia, it would be akin to using a science book from the nineteenth century to back up a new model for the theory of relativity–without using anything that Albert Einstein, or any contemporary era physicist, had written. Her whole astrotheology perspective which she promotes comes from these sources–comes from parallelism that is dated and useless–and thus her usefulness is nil. That may be a hard criticism, but its one she should take to heart and consider.

Despite what you may have read or think you know, my criticisms of Acharya S have nothing to do with me “climbing the scholarly ladder”. It has everything to do with individuals such as yourself, who are trying to do honest research into the question of mythicism, who get sidetracked by this garbage–passed off as academia (of which it is not). The fact that you think she has something useful to say at all is evidence that you’ve bought into her deception. But how can you know, as a layman, what is credible and what isn’t? You have to have done an extreme amount of research to fact-check her claims to know she is full of it. If you haven’t done the research because you think she is an authority (I’m not claiming I am, either, by the way), then you’re the person I’m trying to reach. It is because serious intellectuals like you want to be educated that I come down hard on her–you need to know that what she has to say is severely flawed.

I’m not saying I’m perfect, but I don’t use sources that are from the 1880’s. Unlike Acharya S, I change my opinions to fit the facts (she is stubborn about changing her opinion and has not retracted anything she has been wrong about, not that I’ve seen or read anyway). I want my readers to be able to fact-check me and be able to raise contentions with what I write if they need to. Acharya S, on the other hand, has a group of fanboy cronies who she sends out from her message board to attack any dissenter. Often times these cronies spam other message boards and blogs with more garbage in a trollish and annoying fashion. I wouldn’t hold Acharya S responsible for her fan base, but she sends them out.

Now I’m not attacking Acharya S personally. I don’t know her personally. I can only judge her material. And I’m not the only one. While Bob Price and Earl Doherty speak of her kindly (which is their right), Richard Carrier and others have been outspoken about her inaccuracy. So just because two scholars speak favorably does not mean the whole community of experts agree. And while I respect Earl Doherty a great deal, I am dismayed that he uses her for source material and, unfortunately, he is also guilty of using dated material as well. (Doherty is far better at using modern sources for his material than Acharya S is, however, and overall Doherty’s work is substantially more credible)

To be clear: I would, in fact, be quite interested if Acharya S dropped her pseudonym (as I did) and start using her real name, started revising her theories to conform to existing, relevant, current data, and published academically or, at least, had a group of scholars review her work and offer suggestions (which she should consider, at least). I would read that book and, if it were credible, I would even promote it. But as of yet, that is a future I do not see her ever attaining. Not because she can’t, but because she has no desire to.

Benjamin Steele Says:
April 6, 2009 at 5:11 pm You can call my opinion naive if it makes you happy. By my comment, I didn’t mean one should be undiscerning about what one reads. I was just implying that all perspectives should be considered in order to grasp a more comprehensive understanding.

If your main source of info about Acharya is from Zeitgeist, then that explains a lot. She only consulted on that project once it had already begun, and she didn’t agree with all of the details.

BTW she wrote a supplement that can be obtained as an e-book that was intended to supply more supporting evidence for the Zeitgeist claims, and she then wrote a nearly 600 page book to flesh it out (Christ In Egypt). Also, she does now go by her real name (D.M. Murdock) which is the name on her recent book.

In Christ In Egypt, she attempted to synthesize all of the scholarly work that has been done so far that relates to the connections between Horus nd Jesus. She references works never published in English before and works never published at all before (such as the academic journals of a German scholar). She probably references Egyptologists more than any other type of scholar, but she does reference other contemporary mythicists (G.A. Wells, Earl Doherty, Robert M. Price, and Richard Carrier).

In particular, she has a whole section where she describes a disagreement with Carrier about the Luxor inscriptions. I’m sure Carrier claims she is inaccurate, and Acharya claims he is inaccurate (http://www.stellarhousepublishing.com/luxor.html). If you want to see a neutral viewpoint (by someone they both respect), check out Doherty because he discusses this disagreement on his site. I noticed that Carrier considers Doherty’s The Jesus Puzzle to be the best presentation of the mythicist position.

She intentionally uses a wide range of scholars from older to newer, from Christian to non-Christian, from academia to the Catholic Encycopedia, etc. She does this so people like you have no basis to simply dismiss her claims. Anyways, before criticizing older scholarship, I’d recommend you read this article by Robert M. Price:

http://www.atheistalliance.org/jhc/Pricejhc.htm

How can I, as a layman, know what is credible or not? I guess I do it like anybody else who seriously studies a subject. I read a wide variety of authors, and I debate the issues with other informed individuals.

As for her being stubborn about her opinion, I don’t specifically know what your talking about. If you could detail your allegation, I would gladly research it for myself. As for her defenders, I always advise looking at the argument and the evidence rather than the person presenting it. Too often mythicists get dismissed by mainstream scholars who haven’t read their work, but it is even more shameful when other mythicists do this as well.

The last issue you bring up, I can’t speak for her. But, as I said, her theories do take into acount “existing, relevant, current data”. I don’t know if she plans on publishing academically and I don’t know what scholars may or may not have reviewed her work. I do know that Price wrote a foreword to her book Who Was Jesus?, but I can’t say if he reviewed it. One of Acharya’s sources is Massey and he is often dismissed even though his work was reviewed by some of the best scholars of the time (http://www.stellarhousepublishing.com/who-is-gerald-massey.html).

Benjamin Steele Says:
April 7, 2009 at 1:35 pm

In case that wasn’t adequate, I’ll give a some of the modern Egyptologists she references: Rudolf Anthes, Jan Assman, Hellmut Brunner, Claas J. Bleeker, Bob Brier, Henri Frankfort, Alan H. Gardiner, John Gwyn Griffiths, Erik Hornung, Barry Kemp, Barbara Lesko, Bojana Mojsov, Siegfried Morenz, William Murnane, Margaret A. Murray, Donald B. Redford, Herman te Velde, Claude Traunecker, Reginald E. Witt, and Louis V. Zabkar.

I’ve noticed many mythicists use Hornung as a reference. Another interesting scholar (from an earlier time) is Wallis Budge. Acharya/Murdock along with other mythicists reference him. I was having a discussion with an apologetic NT scholar recently, and I noticed in a peer-reviewed article by him that he had also referenced Budge.

Re: Mythicism, Minimalism, and its Detractors

Here is a link to a blog by Thomas Verenna with a comment I posted:

Mythicism, Minimalism, and its Detractors

It is quite humorous that I mixed you up with that other blogger.  I didn’t get enough sleep last night and my mind was apparently a bit fuzzy.

This blog post has good info.  I’ll have to think more about the distinction between legend and mythology.  Do you think most religions begin with legends?  And do you think legends usually begin in some historical model or inspiration?

There is one place where I see a mixing of myth and legend.  Some savior god-men are also identified with the creator god and/or considered to have existed since the beginning.  But I don’t know if either the legend or the myth comes first or if they co-evolve.

I can only juggle so many fields as well, but my curiosity is always distracting me.  I sometimes wonder why I get obsessed about something like mythicism.  I’m more interested in the comparative mythology side of it and how it relates to modern culture as represented in various media (specifically storytelling). 

I’m more of an idea person in that I prefer philosophy and psychology over history, but of course it all blends together.  My desire to analyze ancient texts is mostly limited to how I perceive the ideas to still be vibrant within contemporary culture.  I find it fascinating how certain ideas can act as memes that take hold of the shared experience of a culture for centuries and even millennia.

One of the earliest books I read that started me in the direction of studying all of this was Carl Jung’s Answer to Job.  It was his most personal book, but also it was where he most deeply engaged the mythology of Christianity.  I tend to lean towards an archetypal view of mythology.  Most basically, archetypes are patterns in the psyche, but they’re also patterns in the environment in which the human psyche evolved.  It is very strange how different cultures often come to similar meanings and mythologies about the world. 

This is where I think Acharya/Murdock has one key to understanding a larger perspective.  There are only two baaic factors that all humans in all places and time periods have shared: a basic human nature and psychoological functioning; and a common enviornmental experience. 

As for the latter, the most universal experience humans share is the observation of the sky.  The human mind evolved with people staring at the sky, and it offered a survival advantage.  The patterns of animals and plants also follow the patterns of the seasons, and knowing these patterns precisely could mean the difference between life and death for the people of the earliest civilizations.

As such, Christians didn’t need to borrow mythology from Pagans.  The mythology of the heavens was common to the entire ancient world.  Any educated person would’ve been familiar with it.  Astrotheology was a common framework of knowledge that crossed cultural and linguistic barriers.

Thinking along these lines, I suspect that these patterns (in the sky and in the mind) precede the storytelling.  Either legends emerge from this pattern-seeking tendency or legends that arose independently become adapted to the requirements of these patterns.

There is another aspect that most people forget.  Ancient people experienced the world differently, and it isn’t helpful to place our standards and assumptions onto their stories and religions.  I think it’s essential to understand cultural development on the largescale. 

Some examples are ideas such as the Axial Age, Julian Jayne’s view of the pre-literate mind, and the socio-cultural developmental model of spiral dynamics.  The clash of ideas beginning in the Hellenistic period was a clash of paridigms of reality.  I sense this has something to do with the clash between Gnosticism and Christianity… something about the emerging literalist mind… along the lines of Weber’s rationalization of culture.

Or so it seems to me.  🙂  I don’t know how this fits into what you’re talking about, but that is the context I’m considering.

Is your book being published soon?  Will it be available on Amazon?