Monday, 11 October 2021

The dates of Jesus. 3. Christmas and Easter

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

Recap. Early sources on Jesus’ dates are vague. Around 200 CE Christians wanted more precise dates than they could get from the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Concocting precise dates involved an eclipse, and trying to make 500 years of regnal periods line up with a prophecy in Daniel.

This episode. A look at two modern theories on the origins of the traditional dates of Christmas and Easter. Also, a digression on the traditional dates of the equinoxes and solstices in the Julian calendar.

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci, The baptism of Christ (ca. 1475; Gallerie degli Uffizi, Florence)

§6. Christmas and Easter

The vague early datings of Jesus that we talked about in §2 don’t usually come up in connection with the origins of Christmas and Easter. But they ought to.

There are two modern theories about how Christmas came to be celebrated on 25 December:

  • HRT, the History of Religions Theory (or religionsgeschichtliche Hypothese): early Christians took pagan solstice and equinox festivals and made them the basis for their own festivals.
  • CT, the Calculation Theory (or Berechnungshypothese): early Christians used chronographical reckoning to put Christmas at the winter solstice, and Easter at the spring equinox, traditionally reckoned as falling on 25 December and 25 March in the Julian calendar.

HRT is the popular one. If you’ve heard that Christmas was the result of Christians stealing Saturnalia, or Mithras’ birthday, or Sol Invictus ... that’s HRT.

Susan Roll (2000) gives a good outline of the 20th century debate, which usually favoured HRT. Philipp Nothaft (2012) outlines some important developments since then: new research by Steven Hijmans and Hans Förster has blasted HRT to the eternal oblivion that it deserves. Nothaft himself supports CT (Nothaft 2013). Hijmans is agnostic about CT, and Förster opposes CT: Förster actually puts it that CT requires ancient Christians to have performed ‘breathtaking mental acrobatics’.

I’ve done some write-ups here on Christmas and Easter that push hard against HRT too, sometimes relying on Hijmans’ work. To put it briefly: the evidence that Christmas and Easter draw on pagan festivals is all either late, misrepresented, or fabricated.

  • Epiphanius’ Aion festival and the 354 Chronography’s Invictus festival are local, late, and poorly attested.
  • Aurelian didn’t make the sun god the chief god of the Roman pantheon: that was Elagabalus and the god Elagabal, and it only lasted four years.
  • The idea that Aurelian instituted the Invictus festival on 25 December 279 CE is a modern inference, and not well supported by ancient evidence (Hijmans 2009: 588–591).
  • Mithraism and Saturnalia are irrelevant, and Yule is mediaeval.
  • The notion that Christmas was originally on 6 January and later transferred to 25 December is based entirely on a 12th century scribal gloss (see Roll 1995: 150–152, 2000: 279–280).
  • There’s very little evidence of Mediterranean solstice or equinox festivals before the Christian ones came along. That is, Christmas and Easter are the archetypes for solstice and equinox festivals, not copies of pagan ones.

HRT hasn’t a shred of credibility and it never should have been taken seriously.

Does that mean I support CT, then? Well, no, not if the C stands for calculation. If it means concocting, then yes.

Does that mean I think early Christians engage in ‘breathtaking mental acrobatics’, as Förster puts it? Well, yes, of course. You did read §2–§5, didn’t you? The acrobatics are in plain sight.

Just look at how selective Clement and Tertullian have to be with their treatment of regnal periods to make them line up with Daniel’s ‘70 weeks’ prophecy. Africanus has to make up the idea that intercalary periods count as extra years, as well as glossing over several bits of Daniel, not least what he says about when the 490 year period begins. Modern editions and translations of Tertullian, even critical editions, frequently ‘correct’ his figures and details because they’re so flagrantly wrong.

And they do all of this in support of a date that was originally reached thanks to a chronological marker they all knew was wrong — the eclipse of 29 CE. Like I said, it’s creative adjustments all the way down.

The whole point of what I wrote in §2 is that, prior to Clement, people avoided calculating Jesus’ dates. They knew perfectly well that there was no hard evidence.

Then everything changed when the Quartodecimans attacked.

Talley (1986) was right about this, at least: the Quartodeciman controversy was the beginning of a tidal wave of frantic Christian interest in chronography. The question was over which day to celebrate Easter. The initial dispute in the 150s ended amicably: Polycarp and Anicetus agreed to disagree, and the Anatolian and Roman churches went their own ways.

In the 190s things heated up. Synods were convened in several places around the Mediterranean to discuss the correct liturgical date to observe Jesus’ death and resurrection. The disagreement became bitter. The dispute created tremendous pressure to find accurate dates for Jesus’ death, and by extension his lifetime.

And lo and behold, straight afterwards we find Clement discussing dates that are precise to the exact day. We find people arguing over the eclipse theory and rejecting it. We find Tertullian doing somersaults to make Jesus’ dates line up with Daniel, and Africanus creating a new Christian chronography. In the mid-200s we find Anatolius working out a new form of the Metonic 19-year cycle.

The 190s, in a nutshell, is when Christians started paying really close scrutiny to chronographical precision. And, yes, getting it wrong. I don’t exactly blame them. If you pressure someone to produce results, but there’s no good evidence, don’t be too surprised if they come back with poor results.

The date of Jesus’ death and resurrection got pinned to the spring equinox, traditionally reckoned as 25 March in the Julian calendar. That’s the date Tertullian quotes, and it’s the date implied by Hippolytus’ paschal table (220s–230s CE). This wasn’t because of any pagan equinox festival — like I said, there weren’t any pagan equinox festivals to speak of — but a Christian innovation. The main motivation is that Jesus died at Passover, which is linked to the equinox, and the idea that Jesus was ‘the sun of righteousness’, a biblical phrase from Malachi 4.2. One 3rd century source, pseudo-Cyprian, explicitly links the equinox and Jesus’ death to Malachi’s phrase (De pascha computus 19). (Notice that this is decades before emperor Aurelian’s interest in the sun cult.)

Part of Hippolytus’ paschal table as printed in the Patrologia graeca (x.875–880). Original on the left; the Patrologia’s Latin translation on the right. Hippolytus codifies a 112-year Easter cycle. 223 CE, the year corresponding to 2 BCE in the 112-year cycle, is marked genesis Ch(ri)s(tou), ‘genesis of Christ’. 253 CE, corresponding to 29 CE, is marked pathos Ch(ri)s(tou), ‘suffering of Christ’, and specifies an Easter date of 25 March (πρὸ η' Κα. Απρει.). See Mosshammer 2008: 327–328; Nothaft 2011: 38–45.

Christmas comes into it as a secondary matter. In typological ancient Jewish thought, the prophets were imagined as dying on the same day they were born, living a whole number of years. When it comes to Jesus, though, there’s a discrepancy of exactly nine months between his birth date (winter solstice) and death date (equinox). Why would ancient Christians make his death date line up with conception, rather than with birth?

Throughout the 20th century, this was a serious problem for CT. Roll points out that there’s no evidence for a shift from emphasising birth to emphasising conception, and that’s an insuperable problem for CT (Roll 2000: 288). Nothaft regards it as ‘the only objection against CT that carries some considerable weight’ (2013: 256).

Take heart: there’s actually pretty good evidence if you look in the right place. Schmidt (2015: 548–552) finds it in Hippolytus’ use of the word genesis in the paschal table above. He shows that contemporary sources often use genesis to refer to conception, not birth.

Actually we can put the slippage between the two meanings even earlier. And guess when? Straight after the Quartodeciman synods of the 190s. Will the real Clement of Alexandria please stand up?

οὐδὲν δὲ οἶμαι ἐπὶ τούτοις χεῖρον καὶ τοὺς χρόνους τῶν Ῥωμαϊκῶν βασιλέων παραθέσθαι εἰς ἐπίδειξιν τῆς τοῦ σωτῆρος γενέσεως· ...
ἐγεννήθη δὲ ὁ κύριος ἡμῶν τῷ ὀγδόῳ καὶ εἰκοστῷ ἔτει ...
εἰσὶ δὲ οἱ περιεργότερον τῇ γενέσει τοῦ σωτῆρος ἡμῶν οὐ μόνον τὸ ἔτος, ἀλλὰ καὶ τὴν ἡμέραν ...

After this, I think, it would be no worse to set out the periods of the Roman kings for an account of the saviour’s genesis. ...
And our Lord was born in the 28th year (of Augustus) ...
There are those who not only research the year of our Saviour’s genesis but also the day ...
Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 1.21.144.1, 145.1, 145.6

Clement is emphatic that what he’s dating is Jesus’ genesis. The word ἐγεννήθη in the second excerpt here is explicitly ‘he was born’, not ‘he was conceived’. But it isn’t as simple as that.

If we look at how he uses genesis elsewhere, it’s clear that it’s a way of equivocating between birth and conception. Sometimes Clement uses it to mean ‘birth’ (e.g. Strom. 1.15.71.4 ‘the magi foretold Jesus’ genesis’, which can only mean his birth); sometimes gestation (Strom. 2.18.94.1 ‘the womb ... which was created for the genesis of foetuses’); sometimes conception; and sometimes other metaphorical meanings.

There’s one passage where it’s especially clear that genesis is used to equivocate. In a discussion of sex within marriage, Clement mentions that Christians aren’t required to wash after sex as was commanded in the Hebrew Bible (Leviticus 15.16–18). He calls this post-coital washing ‘baptism’ — and bear in mind that infant baptism was standard by this time. The equivocation is between ‘baptism’ after conception, and baptism after birth. Then he goes on to use genesis to equivocate between both meanings.

82. ⁶ οὐδὲ μὴν τὸν ἀπὸ τῆς κατὰ συζυγίαν κοίτης ὁμοίως ὡς πάλαι βαπτίζεσθαι καὶ νῦν προστάσσει ἡ θεία διὰ κυρίου πρόνοια. οὐ γὰρ ἐπάναγκες παιδοποιίας ἀφίστησι τοὺς πιστεύοντας δι' ἑνὸς βαπτίσματος εἰς τὸ παντελὲς τῆς ὁμιλίας ἀπολούσας ὁ κύριος, ὁ καὶ τὰ πολλὰ Μωυσέως δι’ ἑνὸς περιλαβὼν βαπτίσματος.
83. ¹ ἄνωθεν οὖν ὁ νόμος τὴν ἀναγέννησιν ἡμῶν προφητεύων διὰ σαρκικῆς γενέσεως ἐπὶ τῇ γεννητικῇ <καταβολῇ> τοῦ σπέρματος προσέφερε τὸ βάπτισμα, οὐ βδελυσσόμενος ἀνθρώπου γένεσιν· ὃ γὰρ φαίνεται γεννηθεὶς ἄνθρωπος, τοῦτο δύναται ἡ τοῦ σπέρματος καταβολή. ² οὔκουν αἱ πολλαὶ συνουσίαι γόνιμοι, ἀλλ' ἡ τῆς μήτρας παραδοχὴ τὴν γένεσιν ὁμολογεῖ, ἐν τῷ τῆς φύσεως ἐργαστηρίῳ διαπλαττομένου τοῦ σπέρματος εἰς ἔμβρυον.

82. ⁶ But divine providence through the Lord does not command that (a man) should still nowadays be baptised after sex within marriage, as in olden times. For the Lord does not forbid believers the necessity of procreation: he has cleansed them of sex in one baptism for all time. In that way he has captured Moses’ many (baptisms) through one baptism.
83. ¹ From the beginning the law prophesied our rebirth through genesis in the flesh, and appointed baptism after the procreative <sowing> of seed, not treating genesis as abominable. For it is the sowing of seed that has the power to bring about what appears as a person after they are born (gennētheis). ² So it isn’t that having sex repeatedly is fertile: but it’s the womb’s receiving (of seed) that corresponds to genesis, as the seed is refashioned into an embryo in nature’s workshop.
Clement of Alexandria, Stromateis 3.12.82.6–83.2

Rebirth in the resurrection of the body is genesis, but so is conception. We don’t know the exact motivation for this shift from birth date to conception date, but Clement certainly documents the reality of the shift.

Digression: solstices and equinoxes in the Julian calendar

The winter solstice and spring equinox were traditionally reckoned as falling on 25 December and 25 March in the Julian calendar: for early examples see Columella, De re rustica 9.14.1, 9.14.12; Pliny, Natural history 18.220–221 (both 1st century CE; note that the Loeb translations linked here both mistranslate the Latin dates).

Columella and Pliny use some strikingly similar language, and that indicates a common source. Columella states that the winter solstice ‘is completed roughly around 25 December, at the 8th degree of Capricorn’ (fere conficitur circa viii calend. Ianuarii in octava parte Capricorni); Pliny states that all four equinoxes and solstices fall ‘at the 8th degree of their (zodiacal) signs, the winter solstice in Capricorn on roughly 25 December’ (in octavis partibus signorum, bruma Capricorni a. d. viii kal. Ian. fere). Their most likely source is Sosigenes, whom Pliny credits as the designer of the Julian calendar. The repetition of in octava/-is parte/-ibus and, still more, the non-technical word fere, indicates that Sosigenes’ work was in Latin.

Pliny gives exact figures for the intervals between each equinox and solstice. Ptolemy, Almagest 3.4, quotes some of the same figures, and attributes them to Hipparchus. Combining the three sources, we arrive at:

  • Winter solstice: 25 December (Pliny, Columella)
  • Spring equinox: 90.125 days after winter solstice (Pliny) = 25 March (Columella)
  • Summer solstice: 94.5 days after spring equinox (Pliny, Ptolemy) = 27/28 June
  • Autumn equinox: 92.5 days after summer solstice (Ptolemy; lacuna in Pliny) = 88.125 days before winter solstice (Pliny) = 28 September

Even in Sosigenes’ time the winter solstice and spring equinox didn’t fall on these dates. The 365¼-day cycle of the Julian calendar approximates the solar year fairly well, but it isn’t exact, and it slips out of synch by one day every 130 years. Sosigenes’ use of fere ‘roughly’ indicates that he was aware of the discrepancy, but also that the placement of the equinoxes and solstices was already a codified standard in his time.

The size of the discrepancy shows that the standard dates and intervals go back earlier than Hipparchus. The only period when all four equinoxes and solstices fell on the exact dates given above, retrojecting the 365¼-day cycle, was from 429 BCE to 298 BCE. The traditional relationship with the 365¼-day cycle was almost certainly codified in that period.

That’s more than a century before Hipparchus was active. In addition, we know Hipparchus put the equinoxes and solstices at the start of their respective zodiacal signs; Columella and Pliny both state that they fell halfway through their zodiacal signs at the 8° mark, as in Babylonian astronomy. So Sosigenes, their immediate source, was evidently not drawing on Hipparchus but on something earlier. Eudoxus or another astronomer of his time is a much better fit than Hipparchus, both for the timeframe and for the detail of the 8° mark.


The last episode will be a compilation of the sources, given in the original languages and in translation, with notes and bibliography. It will be large.

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

The dates of Jesus. 2. Calendars and prophecy

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

Recap. Early sources on Jesus’ dates are vague. The gospels of Matthew and Luke were their only primary sources. Around 200 CE Christians wanted more precise dates, so they needed some external point of reference. That point of reference — a solar eclipse in 29 CE — turned out to be no good, but even so, the dates quoted after 200 CE are much more precise.

This episode. I was planning to get to the dates of Christmas and Easter today, but it’s just too long. We’ve got to lay the groundwork first. Grab a cup of tea (or something stronger) and we’ll dive into the chaos of ancient calendar systems and biblical prophecy.

§4. Calendars and calendar-era systems

When ancient sources give calendar dates, it’s often a problem to understand what they intend to say. The Roman world had no universal system for saying which year an event happened. If you were in Rome itself, you might refer to the consuls for that year — but most of our sources didn’t live in Rome.

Joachim Patinir, The baptism of Christ (ca. 1515; Vienna, Kunsthistorisches Museum)

There were tidy calendar-era systems that simply counted from a particular event. Like the Seleucid year, counting from the reign of Seleucus I Nicator, king of Persia and Syria from 311 BCE on, which remained in use into the modern era (Samuel 1972: 246). Anatolia and Syria had various other calendar era systems too (Bickerman 1980: 62–79). But our sources don’t use these. Hebrew reckoning from the year of the Creation wasn’t used until the Mediaeval period. Counting years since Rome’s founding, ‘AUC’, is mostly just a modern fad (Bickerman 1980: 77–78).

The 354 Chronography is the only one of our sources to use ‘AUC’ (and only in some sections). Eusebius is the only one to make full use of Greek Olympiads. These are both pretty late.

Our sources rely mainly on regnal years — Ptolemaic kings, Judaean kings, Roman emperors — with occasional references to the number of years since Adam, or Abraham, or the Babylonian exile. But complexity breeds inaccuracy.

For example, some Christian calculations put the regnal year ‘Augustus 1’ in 44 BCE, counting inclusively from Julius Caesar’s death. Eusebius puts it in 43 BCE. Clement of Alexandria puts it in 30 BCE, following the fall of the Ptolemies. In real life, the emperors counted by tribunician years — and Augustus didn’t acquire permanent tribunician power until 23 BCE.

And when does the year begin? Not on the 1st of January! That would be too simple. Regnal years varied depending on where you were:

In Syria, for example, the second year of the new emperor began on the next 1 October after his accession, that is, at the next New Year of the calendar of Antioch ... In Egypt, the second regnal year began on 29 August after the accession, that is, the Alexandrian New Year ...
Bickerman 1980: 66

So the first regnal year would generally be a ‘short’ year. The tribunician year is an exception: tribunates began on 10 December, and emperors normally treated the 10 December following their accession as the start of their first tribunician year. And the Olympiad year began in midsummer.

So, for example, it seems the first two years of Tiberius’ reign would be expressed as follows. Tiberius became emperor on 14 August 14 CE.

Roman reckoning (consulship) consulship of Pompeius and Appuleius: begins 1 Jan. 14 CE consulship of Drusus and Norbanus: begins 1 Jan. 15 CE
Roman reckoning (tribunate) Tiberius 1: begins 10 Dec. 14 CE Tiberius 2: begins 10 Dec. 15 CE
Alexandrian reckoning Tiberius 1: begins 14 Aug. 14 CE Tiberius 2: begins 29 Aug. 14 CE
Syrian reckoning Tiberius 1: begins 14 Aug. 14 CE Tiberius 2: begins 1 Oct. 14 CE
Olympiads Ol. 198,3: begins June 14 CE Ol. 198,4: begins June 15 CE
Note. My thanks to Prof. Tim Parkin for pointing me towards reliable information on when regnal years began.

Note that the Alexandrian ‘Tiberius 1’ would be very anomalous, lasting just two weeks, if their practice at the time was the same as in later years. ‘Tiberius 2’ would have begun before Alexandria even found out that there was a new emperor. So there’s uncertainty over even this much.

These complexities, and the inherent complexity of regnal year systems, create errors and internal inconsistencies. Clement and Tertullian quote regnal periods that are wildly inconsistent with reality. Tertullian puts Jesus’ birth in Augustus 41, 28 years after Cleopatra’s death — but those are two different years: Augustus 41 ought to be 4 BCE, 28 years after Cleopatra’s death was 2 BCE. Pseudo-Hippolytus and the Acts of Pilate put Jesus’ death in Tiberius 18 or 19 (regnal year), and the consulship of ‘Rufus and Rubellio’ (consular year) — but Tiberius 18 and 19 were 32 and 33 CE, and the consulship of Fufius and Rubellius (their actual names) was 29 CE. (See §3 for a possible explanation of this last inconsistency.)

Our sources don’t have a single, coherent chronology to work with. They’re playing a game of telephone, and the rules change every turn.

The beginning of Jesus’ ministry in Jesus of Nazareth (dir. Franco Zeffirelli, 1977; Jesus is played by a blue-eyed Englishman, naturally)

§5. Daniel’s 70 ‘weeks’

Many Christian writers give dates for Jesus that aren’t based on historigraphical testimony — as we saw in §2, no testimony exists, except for the gospels — but on prophecy in the Hebrew Bible.

In Daniel 9.20–27 the Messiah’s coming is linked to a period of 70 ‘weeks’ (or ‘hebdomads’) of years, that is to say 490 years, starting from Cyrus’ order for the restoration of Jerusalem. That order was given in 538 BCE. Daniel divides these 70 weeks into a period of 7 weeks (9.25), 62 weeks (9.25–26), and 1 week cut in half (9.27, echoed at 12.7–12: ‘a time, two times, and half a time’, that is, 3½ days or half a week). At the end of the 62 week period the Messiah will be ‘cut off’, and enemies will destroy Jerusalem and the temple. Things will remain that way until the end of the 70 weeks. It’s all very ambiguous, but Christian writers were incorporating aspects of this into their ideas about history by the time of Revelation (11.7–11: a period of 3½ days).

Daniel’s prophecy had already become inconvenient in the first century BCE. The Messiah was supposed to be ‘cut off’ after 7 + 62 weeks, that is, 481 years; and that points to 57 BCE, about a century after Daniel was written. But 57 BCE came, and nothing much happened. Daniel was left looking a bit silly. There was pressure to fudge the details.

We can see a reflection of one case of fudging in Josephus. The Judaean king Aristoboulus I took the throne in 104 BCE, and died the following year. But Josephus states that his accession was 481 years after the end of the exile (Jewish antiquities 13.301). This must be a result of someone trying to identify Aristoboulus as the Messiah; treating his brief reign as ending after the 62 week mark (434 years reckoned from 537 BCE instead of 538), and having Daniel’s 70 weeks begin a ‘week’ early, at the start of the exile. The result would be that Aristoboulus comes at the 69 week mark (481 years).

If this sounds like breathtaking mental acrobatics, my advice is: yes it is, and it’s best not to think about it too hard. See Eshel 2005: 107 for a similar case of chronographical creativity in one of the Dead Sea scrolls.

Jesus’ death was nearly a century after Daniel’s 69 week mark, and Titus’ destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE was well over a century late. So ancient Christian chronographers had to get even more creative. Clement provides two different timelines, hedging his bets. Tertullian gives regnal years for the Achaemenid, Ptolemaic, and Roman rulers from Darius II up to Vitellius, but he gets many of them significantly wrong — 25 years off in one case (Ptolemy Euergetes II) — and he leaves things out. In particular, he deletes two significant rulers, Ptolemy VI Philometor and the Roman emperor Claudius. Even after all that, his final calculation is still off by 30 years.

Julius Africanus cuts through the red tape of regnal years and plunges straight into calculating a conversion rate between solar years and lunar months for the entire period. To make it work, he skips the bit about the Messiah being ‘cut off’ at the 62 week mark, and he assumes that intercalary periods count as bits of extra years. For some reason.

For from Nehemiah, who was sent by Artaxerxes to resettle Jerusalem in the 115th year of the Persian empire ... until this time, which was the second year of the 202nd Olympiad, the 16th year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, there is a total of 475 years. This represents 490 Hebrew years, since they number their years according to the lunar month, which is commonly said to be 29½ days. For the cycle of the solar year is 365¼ days, and the twelve-month lunar cycle is 11¼ days less. For this reason, both the Greeks and the Jews insert three intercalary months every eight years. For 11¼ multiplied by 8 makes a period of three months. Therefore, 475 years come to 59 eight-year periods, remainder three; since there are three intercalary months in an octaeteris, this adds up to 15 years. Added to the 475 years, they make 70 hebdomads.
Julius Africanus, Chronographiae F93 Wallraff (tr. Wallraff)

It’s creative adjustments all the way down. Daniel’s 70 weeks were already a creative extension of Jeremiah, who prophesied 70 years for the Babylonian exile. In reality it was 48 years. (Jeremiah 25.11–12, 29.10; Daniel 9.2 cites Jeremiah explicitly.)


In Part 3 we’ll move on to the modern debate over how Christmas and Easter developed in early Christianity.

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

Thursday, 30 September 2021

The dates of Jesus. 1. The dates

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

The dates of Jesus’ life are approximate. Encyclopaedias put his birth date variously in 4 BCE, 7–5 BCE, 7–2 BCE, or ‘6–7 BCE’ (for that last one he went backwards in time, I guess?), and his death date in 30 CE, 33 CE, or 30–36 CE (Britannica, Citizendium, Encyclopedia.com, Wikipedia).

These dates are weirdly disconnected from what we read in ancient sources. They give birth dates ranging from 4 BCE to 6 CE, and they normally put the death date in 29 CE. Same ballpark, but ... disconnected. The more sensible modern write-ups avoid specific dates, or they hedge their bets, using ‘perhaps’ or ‘no universal agreement’ (e.g. New Pauly, Wikipedia).

I’m not about to pin down Jesus’ dates: we don’t have good enough evidence anyway. What I can usefully do is give an easily accessible summary of what the early sources say, along with some discussion of how their ideas developed over time. This is a complex subject, so even though I’m trying to distil it, I’m still splitting it into four episodes:

  1. what the sources say, and trends over the centuries
  2. technical problems in reading the sources
  3. the dates of Christmas and Easter
  4. details about the ancient sources; bibliography

(Note: episodes 2 and 3 were originally one. After they were written I split them to keep each episode around 2000 words. Note that this isn’t a tactic to increase advertising revenue! Kiwi Hellenist has no advertising revenue.)

A depiction of Jesus’ birth: a publicity still for The nativity story (2006), starring Keisha Castle-Hughes and Oscar Isaac

§1. The dates

See §7 for references and discussion of the sources. When I’m finalising §7 I’ll revisit these dates: if necessary, I may adjust a few of the dates in the lower half of the table at that time, and will leave a note here recording the changes.

Source Birth Baptism/start of ministry Death
Matthew (ca. 70–90 CE?) 4 BCE or earlier   Passover (no year specified)
Luke 1 (ca. 100?) 4 or 3 BCE (conception)    
Luke 2 6 or 7 CE (birth)    
Luke 3 Oct. 3–Oct. 1 BCE Oct. 28–Oct. 29 CE (in conjunction with Luke 22) Passover 29 or 30 CE
John (ca. 80–110?)     Passover, more than 2 years after start of ministry
Thallos (late 00s–early 100s), Phlegon of Tralles (130s?)     see §3 below
Josephus (90s),
Tacitus (110s),
Justin Martyr (150s)
    during Tiberius’ principate
Irenaeus (180s) 4 BCE   during Tiberius’ principate
Clement of Alexandria (ca. 200) genesis’ on 28 May 2 BCE or
19 or 20 April (year unspecified) (ambiguous meaning; see §6)
10 Jan. 28 CE or
6 Jan. 28 CE
21 March 29 CE or
20 April 29 CE or
14 April 29 CE
Tertullian (ca. 200–220) 4–3 BCE and
2 BCE
  25 March 29 CE
Julius Africanus (220s) 3/2 BCE (between midsummers) parousia’ in 29/30 CE (unclear meaning: ministry, or death?) not 24 Nov. 29 CE (rejects date)
Hippolytus, paschal table (220s–230s) genesis’ on 2 April 2 BCE (ambiguous meaning; see §6)   25 March 29 CE
Origen (first half of 200s) 1 BCE 29 CE  
pseudo-Cyprian (243) 28 March 1 BCE   between Sep. 29 and Sep. 30 CE
Chronography of 354 (336–354) 25 Dec. 1 CE or
25 Dec. 1 BCE
   
Epiphanius (377) 5 or 6 Jan. 2 BCE    
pseudo-Hippolytus 25 Dec. 3 BCE   25 March 32 CE (regnal year),
25 March 29 CE (consuls)
Acts of Pilate     25 March 32 CE (regnal year),
25 March 29 CE (consuls)

§2. Vagueness before 200 CE, precision afterwards

The sources closest to Jesus’ lifetime are the gospels Matthew and Luke. (Paul’s letters are earlier, but Paul isn’t helpful about dates.) When we look at them, and compare them to other 1st–2nd century sources, two things leap out:

  1. The gospels give multiple incompatible chronological markers, which disagree with each other (or at least appear to disagree) by a decade. For ancient history that isn’t actually too bad, but still, it isn’t precise. The main thing we can safely extract is that Jesus’ ministry and death were sometime during Tiberius’ principate (Lk. 3.1–3). That’s a 23 year range, 14–37 CE.
  2. The only thing Josephus, Tacitus, Justin, and Irenaeus can tell us is that Jesus died during Tiberius’ reign and Pilate’s governorship. Irenaeus also dates Jesus’ birth to 4 BCE, the year of Herod’s death. But they give no information that isn’t already in the gospels. The mention of Tiberius comes from Luke 3; Herod is the one chronological marker that appears in both gospels’ birth narratives (Mt. 2.1, Lk. 1.5).

On the differences between the two gospels’ nativity stories, I gave a reasonably detailed account here last year.

The point is that the gospels are the only primary sources for Jesus’ dates. The other 1st–2nd century sources are secondary: all their information came from the gospels.

But then, starting with Clement around 200 CE, the sources suddenly get very very specific. They date Jesus’ death to 29 CE — and usually to the exact day. In the table above there are two problems at the bottom where the sources give markers that are a few years apart, but even there, there’s enough information to see that the discrepancy comes from badly synchronised calendar-era systems, not from different information (see §7).

By comparison, our 1st and 2nd century sources are vague. Really vague.

And the teacher that we have for these things, and who was born for this, Jesus Christ, who was crucified under Pontius Pilate, which happened in Judaea in the time of the ruler Tiberius Caesar ... (Justin, First apology 13)

[Marcion said that] Jesus came from the Father, who is over the god that created the cosmos, and that he came to Judaea in the time of Pontius Pilate’s rule, who was Tiberius Caesar’s procurator ... (Irenaeus, Against heresies 1.27.2)

But if Christ only began to exist at that time when he performed his advent as a mortal, and if the father remembered to take thought for mortals only from the time of Tiberius Caesar onwards ... (Irenaeus 4.6.2)

For Christ came not just for the sake of those people who believed him in the time of Tiberius Caesar ... (Irenaeus 4.22.2)

I won’t quote Josephus and Tacitus: their references to Jesus tend to provoke shouting matches about textual corruption. Anyway, they’re vague too.

It’s pretty transparent that when Josephus, Tacitus, Justin, and Irenaeus say Jesus died during Tiberius’ reign, they say that because it’s all they knew. And in all likelihood, even that information only existed because that’s what Luke 3.1–3 says. Irenaeus is repeatedly trying to make a point about the people of Jesus’ time, but all he can say about that time is the emperor’s name. It’s clear that that’s all he had.

The exact dates in later sources must be driven by increasing Christian interest in chronography and the calendar. We start to see signs of that interest in the 150s, with the Quartodeciman controversy, when different churches disputed which date Easter ought to be observed. Clement, a few decades on, is where we start to see the fruits of that interest.

The upshot is that precise dates only emerged at the end of the 2nd century because that’s when Christian liturgical practice began to want precise dates. The exact dates in 3rd century sources were arrived at because of contemporary Christian practices.

Does that imply that those precise dates are wrong? Well ... yes, yes it does. If independent oral traditions about Jesus’ dates existed, we’d have to postulate that Justin, Irenaeus, and so on just never heard of them. For some reason. Not exactly widely disseminated oral traditions, then.

The most realistic scenario is that there was no secret knowledge. Later Christians ‘found’ the details when they needed them. The question then is: where did they ‘find’ the 29 CE date?

§3. Getting precise: the solar eclipse of 29 CE

By itself Luke 3.1–3 and 3.23 could have been enough to pin Jesus’ ministry and death to 29 CE. So why are 1st–2nd century sources so coy about giving that date? I don’t think we can be totally sure. I suspect it’s because they realised the contradictions in Matthew 2 and Luke 1, 2, and 3, and also perhaps because they were aware that the gospel of John seems to indicate a ministry lasting multiple years. The definiteness in Clement and later sources is in spite of the gospels, not because of them.

Whatever the reason, they eventually arrived at precise dates. To do that, they needed something outside the gospels. That something ended up being a solar eclipse.

They quickly realised an eclipse is actually a terrible way of dating Jesus’ death. But by the time that was decided, it seems it had already given enough of a confidence boost to start giving precise dates.

According to the synoptic gospels, there was a darkness for three hours at Jesus’ death (Mk. 15.33, Mt. 27.45, Lk. 23.44–45). From the 2nd century onwards sources start to connect this incident with eclipses in general. A specific eclipse, which took place in 29 CE, became known thanks to a report in a pagan chronographical work, the Olympiads by Phlegon of Tralles (BNJ 257 T 16a, b, c, d, e).

Here are the relevant sources. Phlegon’s work survives only in second-hand reports, as does another key source, Thallos; Julius Africanus survives in excerpts.

  • Luke (date uncertain, probably early 2nd century) 23.45 is explicit that the incident was a solar eclipse. Modern Bibles are very coy about translating this accurately: we’ll come back to that.
  • Thallos (date uncertain), BNJ 256 F 1. Julius Africanus (F93 ed. Wallraff) tells us that Thallos explained the darkness at Jesus’ death as a solar eclipse.
  • Tertullian (ca. 200), Apologetic 21, states that people who were unaware of biblical prophecies perceived the darkness as a purely astronomical event, namely an eclipse.
  • Julius Africanus (220s), Chronographies F93 ed. Wallraff. Africanus cites Thallos for the notion that the darkness was an eclipse (see above), and cites Phlegon of Tralles as having reported an eclipse during Tiberius’ reign. But Africanus firmly rejects the eclipse interpretation, pointing out that Passover takes place at full moon, while solar eclipses occur at new moon. He goes on to claim that Phlegon described the eclipse as starting at midday and lasting three hours. This is certainly contamination from the gospels: the contamination indicates that Africanus was relying on a second-hand report of Phlegon, not Phlegon himself.
  • Origen (ca. 250), Against Celsus 2.33 and 2.59. Origen cites Phlegon as reporting an eclipse during the reign of Tiberius. He, too, makes it clear that he hasn’t personally read Phlegon’s report: he isn’t sure which part of Phlegon’s work reported the event, and he calls Phlegon’s book the Chronika instead of its correct title, Olympiads.
  • Eusebius (early 300s), Armenian chronicle p. 213 ed. Karst = Jerome’s Latin p. 256 ed. Fotheringham. According to Eusebius, ‘Flego’/‘Phlegeon’ reported an eclipse at midday in the 4th year of the 202nd Olympiad, that is 32/33 CE. (In Karst, the comment below the tabulation gives the date as Ol. 203,4, but the tabulation puts it in Ol. 202,4.)

(If you’re doing research on this, you’ll often see a passage in Georgios Synkellos cited: that’s the Africanus excerpt mentioned above.)

Now, Phlegon’s eclipse was a real historical eclipse, which passed over the Levant in 29 CE; and 29 CE is exactly the year that most sources give for Jesus’ death date, pinning it to the consulship of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus. So it’s extremely likely that Eusebius’ date of Ol. 202,4 (202nd Olympiad, 4th year) was already an error for Ol. 201,4, the actual year of their consulship. That error is presumably the origin of the confusion between 29 CE and 32/33 CE that we see in pseudo-Hippolytus and the Acts of Pilate (see §7).

Tertullian and Julius Africanus argued that a natural eclipse had nothing to do with Jesus’ death, and in this they were perfectly correct. We know more about the eclipse than they did, and it turns out it’s even sillier than they thought. (1) As Africanus points out, Passover takes place at full moon; a natural solar eclipse implies new moon. (2) The real eclipse took place in November; Passover is in spring. (3) The path of totality passed about 700 km north of Jerusalem. (4) Totality lasted just under 2 minutes, not 3 hours. Phlegon’s report evidently didn’t mention any of these things. In addition, the eclipse took place in the consulship that we see cited in Christian sources, the consulship of Rubellius Geminus and Fufius Geminus; but the Olympiad year runs from midsummer to midsummer, so November 29 actually fell in Ol. 202,1, not Ol. 201,4. None of the surviving writers knew Phlegon’s book firsthand, as we’ve seen. (They didn’t have direct access to consular fasti either: they invariably misspell the consuls’ names, in several different ways.)

Note. Some modern Christian apologists make out that when the gospels refer to the sun darkening at midday, they’re somehow actually talking about a lunar eclipse. That idea plays no part in ancient discussions of Jesus’ dates, so fortunately we don’t have to address it here.

Some of our earliest witnesses for the ‘eclipse’ interpretation, Tertullian and Julius Africanus, already reject it. Africanus explains exactly why it can’t have been a normal eclipse. The eclipse interpretation was in circulation before their time — not just in Thallos, but also in the gospel of Luke.

And it was now about the 6th hour, and darkness came over the whole earth until the 9th hour because of a solar eclipse ...
Luke 23.44–45 (tr. Gainsford)

The last phrase, ‘because of a solar eclipse’, is my translation of τοῦ ἡλίου ἐκλιπόντος: more literally, ‘upon the sun being eclipsed’. Modern Bible translations are very prissy about this phrase, because the translators are well aware that it can’t possibly have been a normal solar eclipse. They dodge the problem by conveniently forgetting the normal meaning of ἐκλείπω and replacing it with other, vaguer, definitions. Never mind that the meaning is absolutely standard in documentary Koine Greek. Never mind that if you’re talking about the sun and you use the verb ἐκλείπω, there’s only one meaning it’s ever going to have. (Hint: take a guess which Greek word ‘eclipse’ is derived from!) And never mind that the correct meaning is present in dictionaries of New Testament Greek, often specifically citing this verse (Souter, Abbott-Smith, Gingrich) — though some other dictionaries quietly remove the definition and pretend it never existed (Robinson, Green, Hickie, Mounce, Newman).

Ancient readers got nervous about the verse too, once they realised the problem. And like the modern translators, they solved it by quietly changing the text. The earliest copies we have, P75, the codex Sinaiticus, and a report in Origen (Against Celsus 2.33; Homilies on Luke fr. 83; all 200s–300s CE), give the ‘eclipse’ text, and that’s what’s printed in modern critical editions. But manuscripts from the 5th century onwards alter it to a vaguer phrase, ἐσκοτίσθη (δὲ) ὁ ἥλιος ‘and the sun was darkened’, following the phrasing in Mark and Matthew, and agreeing with Tertullian and Africanus that it can’t have been a natural eclipse. Many modern translations use this altered reading instead of the original.


In Part 2 we’ll look at some technical problems in interpreting what the ancient sources say, and Part 3 will go into the modern debate over how Christmas and Easter developed in early Christianity.

§1–§3. The dates | §4–§5. Calendars and prophecy | §6. Christmas and Easter | §7–§8. Sources

Wednesday, 25 August 2021

Mercury isn't named Mercury because it's fast

The planets from Mercury to Saturn got their names from Roman gods. How were the names chosen? Here are the explanations given by the International Astronomical Union’s Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature:

  • Mercury: ‘Named Mercurius by the Romans because it appears to move so swiftly.’
  • Venus: ‘Roman name for the goddess of love. This planet was considered to be the brightest and most beautiful planet or star in the heavens.’
  • Mars: ‘Named by the Romans for their god of war because of its red, bloodlike color.’
  • Jupiter: ‘The largest and most massive of the planets was named Zeus by the Greeks and Jupiter by the Romans; he was the most important deity in both pantheons.’
  • Saturn: no reasoning given (just ‘Roman name for the Greek Cronos, father of Zeus/Jupiter’.)

These explanations are entirely bogus. They’re made up.

The solar system bodies known in antiquity: the earth and the seven moving bodies (planētai, including moon and sun)

You might say it’s not a big deal, no one minds, it doesn‘t make a difference what the historical reasons for the names are. That’s all true. Still, here are some counter-points:

  1. These are literally the people in charge of planets’ names. They had one job!
  2. These explanations get repeated whenever anyone wonders how the planets got their names. If you make up something and it gets repeated as fact all over the world, that’s not OK.
  3. It’s not as though it’d be hard to get it right. You just need to open a book written by someone who knows something about ancient astronomy. If anyone’s going to do make that minimal effort, you’d think it would be the people who are bloody well in charge of planets’ names.

The IAU has professional reasons to take an interest in the history of the names, sure. That doesn’t mean they’re experts. It’s painfully clear that they couldn’t care less what real experts have to say.

For reference, here’s a sample of people who have been misled, often introducing some new fictional material along the way: The Washington Post (7 October 2016), Universe Today (Mercury, Venus, Jupiter, Saturn; Mars omitted), Cornell University, Medium.com, Science ABC (along with the bizarre claim that Venus was first observed by the Maya), Planets for kids, Wonderopolis, Sporcle.com, Quora (Dec. 2020), StackExchange, and the Name Explain YouTube channel (with the bonus howler ‘Roman gods were based on Greek gods’). A number of social Q&A sites since 2013 have referred to an author called ‘Dustin Chiasson’ with similar explanations, but ‘Dustin Chiasson’ appears to be another fabrication.

Let’s consider some more detailed points.

1. Mercury.

It orbits the sun at a velocity of 50 km/s, so the Romans appropriately named it after their swiftest god, Mercury.

No. Ancient astronomers had no way of measuring Mercury’s real orbital speed. They could only observe its apparent motion. And while Mercury bounces from one side of the sun to the other more frequently than Venus, their apparent speed isn’t much different.

Mercury’s real orbital speed is faster, but when they’re on the near side of the sun Venus is closer and that makes up nearly all the difference. In transits of the sun, for example, both planets transit at roughly the same speed, about an eighth of the sun’s diameter per hour. (Not that ancient astronomers observed transits of Mercury or Venus! This is just a convenient direct comparison.) For real information about what ancient astronomers thought about their motions, see Van der Waerden 1982.

If you’re choosing a planet to assign to a messenger god, you’d be better to choose the planet that travels the furthest. Mercury’s apparent position always stays within 28° of the sun; Venus ventures as far as 47° away, and the outer planets go all the way around the sky.

In ancient Babylonian astronomy, by the way, some planets’ names did reflect their apparent motion. The Akkadian name for Mercury, Šihṭu ‘attack, jump’, nicely matches its yo-yo-like motion around the sun; Saturn’s name, Kayyamānu ‘steady’, suits its slow motion. But there’s no indication of anything like that in connection with the gods linked to those planets.

2. Venus. Venus is the brightest planet (not counting the sun and moon, which ancient astronomers did count as planets). But who says brightness is ‘beauty’? Not anyone ancient, I can tell you that. Besides, Venus/Aphrodite’s field of interest wasn’t beauty, if anything it was lust, passionate sexual desire. The ‘brightness = beauty’ explanation isn’t just wrong, it’s also prudish.

At one time, some of the astronomers in the ancient past thought that Venus was actually two stars. This was due to the fact that it appeared as both the morning and the evening star.

Not true. Ancient astonomical texts are perfectly clear that the ‘light-bringer’ and ‘evening star’, or rather Greek Phosphoros and Hesperos, were two names for the same planet (see e.g. Cleomedes, On the heavens 1.2). The same applies to most other ancient civilisations that had multiple names for the inner planets: for example, see Quark 2019 on ancient Egyptian astronomy. In Greek, Homer actually gives us three names for Venus: see below.

3. Mars. In some other ancient cultures Mars does have a name that probably reflects its redness, such as the Chinese name Huǒxīng ‘fire star’, or the late Egyptian form ‘Horus the red one’. That doesn’t impose an obligation on the Romans to do the same, and anyway those names denote ‘red’, not ‘bloody’. I haven’t found any Greco-Roman source that links Mars’ colour to blood.

4. Jupiter.

Jupiter shares a title with the king of the gods because it's the solar system's giant.

Ancient astronomers certainly did not know Jupiter’s size. They had no way of measuring its radius or mass. This is from the science column, by the way: this writer wasn’t just ignoring ancient evidence, they were trying really hard to avoid imagining how the planets look when you don’t have a telescope.

5. Saturn.

Saturn is the last planet visible in the sky without any kind of aid, and named after the Roman god for agriculture–introducing agriculture to the people. The Greek equivalent to Saturn is Kronos — and both govern time (as well as the harvest we just established).

Saturn may have been an agricultural god, but it’s doubtful whether Kronos was. Conversely, in some contexts Kronos could indeed be imagined as having something to do with time (Greek chronos), in mystical forms of Greek religion that drew on name-magic. But that’s Kronos, not Saturn, and the mystical wordplay has no bearing on astronomy anyway.

The actual origins of the names

The names are simply translations. ‘Mercury’, ‘Venus’, etc. are romanised versions of the Greek names ‘star of Hermes’, ‘star of Aphrodite’, and so on. And the Greek links to various divinities were in turn borrowed from links to Babylonian divinities in Babylonian astronomy.

Addendum, an hour later: for maximum clarity, this is as far as we can push the explanation. The evidence trail ends with Nabu, Ishtar, Marduk, etc. We can’t know why Babylonian astronomers linked those gods to those planets: we can only point out that they weren’t gods of ‘speed’, ‘beauty’, and so on. Basically, the real explanation boils down to: ‘Because tradition.’
Old Babylonian cylinder seal depicting Ishtar/Inanna, with Venus shown as an eight-pointed star to the left (Oriental Institute Museum, Chicago; source: Wikimedia, CC BY 3.0)

For accurate accounts of planetary naming systems in antiquity, your top pick for an online source is the Oxford research encyclopedia of planetary science. For Roman and Greek names, see ‘The moon and the planets in classical Greece and Rome’, in the subsection ‘The planets’ (Hannah 2020); and for the Babylonian naming system, ‘The moon and planets in ancient Mesopotamia’, in the subsection ‘The moon, the sun, and the planets in religion, cult, and mythology’ (Ossendrijver 2020). The Encyclopedia covers several other ancient and non-European civilisations too. Neugebauer also has some good material on the Babylonians (1955: ii.498-503, ii.467-497), and the most detailed account of Greek naming systems is an older article by Franz Cumont (1935), who also covers regional variations.

Here are the planet naming systems side by side: English/Latin, Greek, and the Babylonian systems.

Latin, English Associated Greek god(s) Associated Babylonian god(s) Akkadian name
Sol/sun Hyperion, Helios (‘sun’) Šamaš Šanšu
luna/moon Selene Suen/Sin Sīnu
Mercury Hermes, Apollo Nabu, Ninurta Šihṭu (‘rising, attack, jump’)
Venus Aphrodite, Hera Ishtar Dilbat (‘radiant’?)
Mars Ares, Herakles Nergal Ṣalbatānu (meaning unknown)
Jupiter Zeus Marduk, Šulpaea Peṣû (‘white’), Mulbabbar, Sagmegar, Nēberu, etc.
Saturn Kronos Ninurta, night-time version of Šamaš Kayyamānu (‘steady’)

Now, there are a few catches.

  • The Romans put a lot of work into linking their native gods to Greek gods. That’s how we got to having Mercury identified with the Greek god Hermes, Venus with Aphrodite, and so on. That isn’t the same things as Mercury being derived from Hermes. Only a handful of Roman gods were actual imports.
  • With other pantheons things aren’t nearly as tidy. In particular, with the Babylonian gods there’s no real sense of qualities like ‘god of messengers’, ‘god of beauty’, and so on. When Greek astronomers borrowed the Babylonian set of links between gods and planets, Ishtar could be treated as an equivalent to either Aphrodite or Hera depending on context. Some places like Anatolia and Egypt had their own equivalences. (For details about regional variants, see Cumont 1935.)
  • No one thought the planets actually were gods. Greek astronomers called them ‘star of Hermes’, ‘star of Aphrodite’, and so on. Planets could however metaphorically represent the gods in some poetic contexts, like when the Neo-Platonic Hymn to Ares (5th cent. CE?) refers to the god as ‘whirling [his] fiery sphere among the sevenfold courses of the aether’.
  • The borrowed names were in use in the Greek world by the time of Plato (Hannah 2020). The borrowing from Babylonian astronomy probably took place in the 5th century BCE, a few decades earlier. Things are unclear because we don’t have any tracts written by astronomers in that period.
  • Prior to that borrowing, we know almost nothing about homegrown Greek planet names. The only ones we know of are three names for Venus that appear in Homer: Eosphoros ‘dawn-bringer’, Eoios ‘morning (star)’, and Hesperos ‘evening (star)’.
  • In Babylonian astronomy the planets had their own names, as well as being associated with a god. It’s only the divine names that survived translation into Greek and Latin.
  • Egyptian astronomy doesn’t have anything much to do with the Greek naming system. The ancient Egyptians named all of the outer planets after Horus (Mars = ‘Horus of the horizon’, Jupiter = ‘Horus who bounds the two lands’, Saturn = ‘Horus bull of the sky’), and until relatively late their ‘morning star’ was Mercury, not Venus. (See Quack 2019.)

Alternate names: ‘shiny’, ‘shiny’, ‘shiny’, ‘shiny’, and ‘shiny’

Finally, there was an alternate set of Greco-Roman names based on words for ‘shiny’. The alternate names only pop up from Ptolemy onwards, and when they are mentioned they’re normally explained by referring to the divine names. Here’s how Martianus Capella introduces them (viii.851, trans. Stahl and Johnson):

Saturn is called ‘the Shiner’ (Phaenon), and Jupiter ‘the Blazer’ (Phaëthon), and Mars ‘the Fiery’ (Pyrois), Venus ‘the Light-Bringer’ (Phosphoros), and Mercury ‘the Twinkler’ (Stilbon).

In other words, the divine names were the older system, and it seems they were always more standard. Latin translations of the alternate Greek names could also be used.

Latin, English Alternate Greek name Alternate Latin name
Mercury Stilbon Scintillans
Venus Phosphoros Lucifer
Mars Pyroeis Rutilus
Jupiter Phaethon Splendidus
Saturn Phainon Lucidus

These alternate names aren’t very distinctive in meaning. I’d guess that in this system it was harder to remember which planet is which. It isn’t surprising that the older god names continued to stick.

References

  • Cumont, F. 1935. ‘Les noms des planètes et l’astrolatrie chez les grecs.’ L’antiquité classique 4.1: 5–43. [Persée link]
  • Hannah, R. 2020. ‘The moon and the planets in classical Greece and Rome.’ In: Oxford research encyclopedia of planetary science, online [DOI link]
  • Neugebauer, O. 1955. Astronomical cuneiform texts, 3 vols. Princeton (reprinted New York, 1983).
  • Ossendrijver, M. 2012. Babylonian mathematical astronomy: procedure texts. New York.
  • —— 2020. ‘The moon and planets in ancient Mesopotamia.’ In: Oxford research encyclopedia of planetary science, online [DOI link]
  • Quack, J. F. 2019. ‘The planets in ancient Egypt.’ In: Oxford research encyclopedia of planetary science, online [DOI link]
  • Van der Waerden, B. L. 1982. ‘The motion of Venus, Mercury and the sun in early Greek astronomy.’ Archive for History of Exact Sciences 26.2: 99–113. [JSTOR link]

Saturday, 14 August 2021

‘Archaeologists claim they’ve discovered the Trojan Horse’

It’s been reported in a handful of news sources that ‘archaeologists claim to have found a Trojan horse in Turkey’. The story appeared first in Greek Reporter, and it’s been repeated in The Jerusalem Post, Illinois News Today, and IBTimes India in the last four days.

This is just a quick note to repeat what others have already pointed out, especially Spencer McDaniel in his blog Tales of Times Forgotten, plus an update here (just in case anyone is reading this who doesn’t already follow him!):

Every bit of the story is complete fiction.

Addendum, 15 August: It now turns out that the story originated on a satirical website. See Spencer McDaniel’s response below. The real Christine Morris found out the story’s actual origin (archived link provided by Twitter user AlCabbage045). It first appeared there on 29 September 2014. It popped up again on a couple of Greek-language blogs on 5 November that year (here and here), then Greek Reporter picked it up from one of those blogs the following day.
The wooden horse as it appears in A Total War saga: Troy (2020). This week, news sites are competing for historical realism against ... video games.

The real news here is that Greek Reporter is fine with publishing fictional stories, and that The Jerusalem Post, Illinois News Today, and IBTimes India urgently need to upgrade their fact-checking processes.

Even History.com, infamous for passing fiction off as history, didn’t fall for this nonsense. If you’re a news site editor and History.com has better fact-checking than you do, you’ve got a big problem.

(By the way don’t worry, the links in the first paragraph above are to snapshots on The Internet Archive, not to the news sites themselves. They don’t deserve the benefits of Google’s ranking algorithm.)

A few corrective points, as briefly as possible:

The ‘journalist’ repeated the story from an equally fraudulent piece that he made up in 2014. Here’s the original. The 2021 version has alterations in the first four paragraphs. At first Spencer McDaniel thought the two stories were identical: he was misled because the URL of the 2014 article redirects to the 2021 version of the article. But the November 2014 version is still available through the Internet Archive.

By the way, no one paid any attention to the 2014 story either. Because it was just as fake then as it is now.

Turkish or American? The headline claims that the ‘discovery’ was made by Turkish archaeologists; the article refers to archaeologists at Boston University.

Boston University has never been involved in excavation at Troy. All excavations since 1988 have been under the auspices of the universities of Tübingen, Cincinnati, and Çanakkale.

The archaeologists don’t exist. Here are lists of the faculty at Boston University’s archaeology department and classics department: they’re great people, but there’s no one there called Christine Morris or Chris Wilson. The names are completely made up.

There is a real classical archaeologist named Christine Morris at Trinity College Dublin, in Ireland, as Spencer McDaniel found. But he got in touch with her, and over the last day she’s been kind enough to confirm to him that

she has never been affiliated with Boston University in any way, that she has never excavated at Troy or worked there in any capacity, that she has never claimed to have found the Trojan horse, and that the story that has been published by Greek Reporter and all these other news outlets is completely fabricated.

The source is fake too. The 2014 article claimed that the story came from Newsit.gr, a Greek-language news outlet. This sourcing was removed in the 2021 version of the article. Newsit.gr has never published anything on the subject. (The only appearance of the phrase Δούρειος Ίππος on Newsit.gr before the 2014 Greek Reporter article is a metaphorical use, in a piece about the racist group Golden Dawn.)

The ancient documentation is fake. Both the 2014 and 2021 versions of the article cite

a damaged bronze plate with the inscription “For their return home, the Greeks dedicate this offering to Athena.” Quintus Smyrnaeus refers to the particular plate in his epic poem “Posthomerica” ...

There was no writing in Greece between around 1150 and 800 BCE: the classical-modern Greek alphabet didn’t develop until the 700s. All Late Bronze Age documents in Greek would have to be written in the Linear B script, and classical-era Greeks weren’t even aware of the existence of that writing system. You’ll be unsurprised to hear that actual mycenologists — scholars who study documents written in the Linear B script — know perfectly well that this story is false. And Quintus of Smyrna, a poet who lived more than a thousand years later than Homer, has nothing at all to contribute to any conversation about these myths.

The lead image from the 2014 version of the Greek Reporter article. Annoyingly, I haven’t been able to track down where they swiped it from: it’s uncredited, and they stripped EXIF and other metadata.

Real archaeologists, real Homer scholars, and real mycenologists have been rolling their eyes at this story. It isn’t a big deal: as I mentioned, the vast majority of news sources have ignored it because it’s so obvious that it’s fake.

But it’s always worthwhile to have another voice pointing out that Greek Reporter and the ‘journalist’ Philip Chrysopoulos apparently feel free to spread misinformation and deceive their readers.

There’s very little reason to see anything historical about the wooden horse itself, or the Trojan War. But that’s a story for another day. I talked about it a bit back in 2016 here, here, and here. I’m planning to revisit the topic a bit more directly soon.

Monday, 26 July 2021

By way of an apology ...

I haven’t published any new pieces here for two months. I apologise. Some problems have got in the way of my writing very much recently — but I am still writing. This site isn’t giving up the ghost!

Several pieces are on their way: for example, ‘The dates of Jesus’; ‘The dates of Homer’; one on whether another ‘Rosetta stone’ could help decipher certain undeciphered languages; one or two on the relationship between what kind of relationship exists between Greek myth and the late Bronze Age. I’m also considering putting some old pieces into podcast format (I don’t think I’m cut out for having my face on screen).

You aren’t hanging on the edge of your seat, of course. Still, try and whet your appetite. For example, maybe it would be of interest to know that Justin Martyr and Irenaeus threw up their hands over the question of which year Jesus died — while just a short while later, Tertullian was terribly terribly confident that he knew it to the day.

See you soon.

Monday, 31 May 2021

Medusa in Gibraltar

In September 2019 the Gibraltar National Museum announced the find of a fragmentary Gorgoneion, a Greek artistic representation of a Gorgon’s head, at Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar. It was made out to be a pretty big deal, and the find was formally published in PLoS ONE last month, in April 2021.

And it genuinely is the real deal. This Gorgoneion is a very significant find. But there are some extreme claims out there:

The location of the finds, in the deepest part of the cave, appears to give support to the myth and its location.
Government of Gibraltar, 19 Sep. 2019
Very rarely, archaeology confirms a myth. The discovery, in Gorhams Cave, Gibraltar, of fragments of a Gorgoneion ... is one example.
VisitAndalucia.com, 9 Jan. 2021
Left: fragments of a Gorgoneion found in Gorham’s Cave ‘over several archaeological seasons’ (dates unspecified). Right: a reconstruction of the Gorgoneion produced at the Gibraltar National Museum and unveiled on 18 May 2021. (Sources: left, Finlayson et al. 2021: Fig. 3; right, Gibraltar Chronicle 19 May 2021)

As so often, the problem isn’t the find itself — the Gorgoneion is for real — but the language used.

The Gorgoneion ‘confirms a myth’ ... um, what myth, exactly? That Gorgons are real? That Medusa actually lived at Gibraltar? Obviously not. But that’s what most of the language in the press tries to imply. A much more sensible summary was given by the project lead at the Gibraltar National Museum, Chris Finlayson:

It was a shrine, a place of worship for the ancient mariners. ... We thought it was only holy for the Phoenicians but now we know it was also holy for the Greeks.
Chris Finlayson, quoted in The Olive Press, 29 Sep. 2019

No one believes Gorgons are real. So when someone says this Gorgoneion ‘confirms’ a myth, that’s a real problem. The claim is so patently absurd that it poisons the legitimacy of the real story.

That seems like quite a stretch. How can they know that pair of eyes belonged to a gorgon instead of literally any other face?
‘Charyou-Tree’, Reddit, 5 Apr. 2021

It is an important find, to be clear, and those eyes are absolutely unmistakeable. But I fear sensationalism has done some damage to this discovery. Chris Finlayson has his feet on the ground, as I mentioned, but even he is subject to the sensationalistic impulse (Finlayson et al. 2021: 1):

The quest for sites and artefacts of classical mythology was the hallmark of archaeology at the end of the nineteenth century. Schliemann’s ... purported discoveries of King Priam’s treasure or the mask of Agamemnon are prime examples of attempts to link material culture to classical stories.

Oh, ye gods and little fishes. It’s bloody Schliemann again.

The authors go on to talk about Schliemann’s ‘controversial results’, and they compare these archaeological sites to the search for Atlantis. Oh help.

Now, ‘controversial’ is a word you could use for Schliemann’s methods (if you were being extremely generous). But the sites aren’t controversial. I’ve pointed this out before many times, but here it is again: Schliemann didn’t ‘prove’ Troy existed, and it never needed proving. The idea that it might have been a myth is itself a myth. The people who lived in Troy from around 700 BCE (the time of Hesiod) to 500 CE (after the fall of the western Roman Empire) would be very surprised to hear that there was such a ‘controversy’ over their bustling city.

Atlantis, by contrast, has nothing real about it whatsoever: Plato devised it around 360 BCE as an ad hoc allegory for Athens’ supposed potential to resist Macedonian conquest, and he based it on stories he had heard about the Atlantic Ocean being unnavigable — stories that were totally false.

Location of Gorham’s Cave in Gibraltar (source: Google Maps)

The Gorgons’ link to Gibraltar is similar to the case of Troy. Not because the existence of the place was in doubt: no one ever thought the Pillars of Heracles, as the Greeks called the Strait of Gibraltar, were a myth. The similarity to Troy is because it’s definitely a real place, one that has always been known to be real, and which happens to have a myth attached to it.

New York and Nottingham are real, but that doesn’t mean Spider-Man and Robin Hood are. Real places don’t mean that myths actually happened. Nothing physical about a place ‘confirms’ a myth.

It is legitimate to say that this find confirms that ancient Greeks genuinely drew a link between the place and the myth, and that they did so as early as the Archaic period. Now, for Troy or Mycenae, that would be totally unsurprising. Of course they thought of the Trojan War as taking place at the contemporary city of Troy.

But when it comes to Gibraltar and Gorgons, this statement actually is interesting and significant. Before the Gorham’s Cave Gorgoneion was discovered, there actually was no material evidence that the ancients drew a link between the mythical Gorgons and the real Gibraltar. There wasn’t any particular reason to doubt it, mind: just that, as the April publication puts it (Finlayson et al. 2021: 3),

Until now the interpretation, based on a combination of material culture excavated, and the known presence of these people in the area at the time, has been that they were Phoenician and later Carthaginian mariners. Recent analyses have shown that the material culture found in this level has a broader international character ...
The team at the Gibraltar National Museum at the unveiling of their reconstruction of the Gorham’s Cave Gorgoneion, 18 May 2021 (source: Gibraltar Chronicle, 19 May 2021)

The Gorgoneion is significant, but not because it proves Gorgons were real. It’s because it’s the first material evidence that Greeks actually did visit Gibraltar. It’s because it’s the only Gorgoneion of its kind in the western Mediterranean. And it’s because it’s in a cave, not a temple. It is genuinely a unique find. There was no permanent Greek settlement at Gibraltar, so whoever put the Gorgoneion there — in a deep part of the cave, no less — made a special visit, and went to some trouble.

... and the Gorgons, who dwell beyond famous Ocean
at the edge of night, the same place as the clear-voiced Hesperides:
Sthenno, and Euryale, and Medusa who suffered evil things.
Hesiod, Theogony 274–276

Hesiod’s Theogony dates to around 700 BCE: it is very likely the earliest surviving piece of Greek literature. Already at the beginnings of Greek literature, we see the Greeks locating the Gorgons at the western boundary of the known world. ‘Beyond the Ocean’ suggests something even further afield, but even so, it’s pretty reasonable to interpret the labour taken over the Gibraltar Gorgoneion in light of this passage.

Gorgoneions are a reasonably common sight in ancient Greece itself. But the Gibraltar Gorgoneion genuinely is a big deal. My feeling is that its importance is only undercut by absurd claims of ‘confirming’ a myth.

Reference

  • Finlayson, C.; Gutierrez Lopez, J. M.; Reinoso del Rio, M. C.; et al. 2021. ‘Where myth and archaeology meet: discovering the Gorgon Meduas’ lair.’ PLoS ONE 16.4: e0249606.