Thursday, January 30, 2014


In 1967, the year Sgt. Pepper came out, it killed two million people, more than were killed in the entire eighteen years of the Vietnam War.   

In 1948, the year it was founded, the World Health Organization estimated that smallpox was infecting fifty million people per year, and in some regions killing as many as a third of them, and leaving millions of survivors blind.

So smallpox killed more people in the twentieth century than the World Wars put together, two or three times over.

It had been with us since the beginning of civilization and perhaps longer. It made no distinction for rank or social station. It killed Ramses V, Pharaoh of ancient Egypt.  It may have killed Marcus Aurelius, the great Roman Emperor. It nearly killed Elizabeth I of England, fourteen hundred years later. It did kill Tsar Peter II of Russia in 1730, and the Emperor Komei of Japan in 1867, and the Emperor T’ung Chih of China in 1875. Abraham Lincoln contracted an unusually mild case after giving his famous Gettysburg Address. He survived, but not before passing it on to a White House servant, who did not.

The infected suffered fever, damage to their internal organs, and above all the hideous eruptions – the pox – that covered the body and burst. For hundreds of generations, millions were powerless before it. They prayed and died; died wondering why their gods had abandoned them and were punishing them.  When Europeans introduced it to the New World at the end of the 15th and beginning of the 16th century it tore through the indigenous people. Thousands of years of isolation from the rest of the human race had left them without so much as a shred of resistance to it; it shattered their social cohesion at exactly the historical moment when they needed it most to resist the invaders. They prayed and they died.

It killed and it killed, for ten thousand years or more. And then it was gone. Two million people in 1967. None at all ten years later, and not a single solitary human being since. Not one. It had been in decline in parts of the world for nearly two centuries, but had persisted in spite of progress for a long time, mainly because people – who are by nature not rational – superstitiously and irrationally feared the cure more than the disease. But in the end reason triumphed. And how was this ancient scourge, this killer among killers, this dread disease that the Aztecs called the Great Fire, finally overcome?

Not with prayer. Not by strengthening our immune system in "natural" ways with herbs or homeopathy. Not with chiropractics or chi kung.

No, they wiped it out, eradicated it from the face of the Earth, the good old-fashioned way.

With vaccination.

Friday, January 10, 2014


Last term during a break in my historical theory and methods course a student hit me with a question that set me back on my heels a bit. It was a doozy: “Professor Broad, do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?”

I was slightly irritated by the imprecision of the question, like that time a pollster on the phone asked me if I believed that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. Yes. I believe that 9/11 conspiracy theories exist. So there I am in a poll somewhere, recorded as one of the weirdos who think that Bush planned the whole thing, when in fact I doubt very much that the former President had the intellectual acuity to plan a BBQ.

“Do you, as an historian, believe in Jesus?” My response was that I believed that one Yeshua of Nazareth, a Jewish rabbi, executed by the Romans, whose immediate followers established a rather significant sect within Judaism, certainly existed. I braced myself for what I knew was coming. “But as a historian do you believe He was God?”  My initial inclination was to throw myself out the window. But I considered that, actually, it was a perfectly fair question and deserving of a fair answer. I said that I considered the evidence insufficient to establish the validity of that hypothesis, but observed that this wasn’t necessarily my belief “as an historian”, because I know better historians, more accomplished and smarter than me, who think otherwise. I did, however, observe that modern history is an empirical discipline: we deal in what’s probable, and that miracles are highly improbable by definition: if people went around resurrecting all the time there wouldn’t be any particular reason to get all excited about it. And so I felt that history, as a profession, might be mute where such things are concerned, for the same reason that the field of geography doesn’t have much to say about musical appreciation.

I had the feeling that the student felt this was a cop-out, but it really wasn’t intended to be. In the historio-critical tradition that is the dominant mode of investigating and understanding scripture in academe, and indeed in most mainline protestant and Catholic seminaries these days, scripture is understood as a testament of faith and theology, never intended – not even by its anonymous authors – to be understood as “history” in the way we understand history today.

But there’s a problem. There are indeed some denominations that regard scripture as a literal and inerrant account of the past. And polls show that, in the United States in particular, such people aren’t a small minority. There are tens of millions who think like that, although polls also show that such people usually know very little about what’s actually in scripture. But to such people, let me pose a question of my own, in the form of an extended observation.

For Christians, the Ascension is an important milestone in the life of Jesus, the moment when He, in the presence of His apostles, was taken up into Heaven.

I’ll leave aside the fact that I remain mute on whether or not this actually occurred as an historical event (i.e.: an historical event in the way that, say, Lincoln delivered a speech at Gettysburg) because I don’t understand what “Ascension” means. I literally have no idea what is meant by “taken up into Heaven” so I can hardly be expected to decide whether or not it actually happened. But I do want to point out something interesting.

The Ascension is described in the Acts of the Apostles and in two of the four canonical Gospels. It’s in Mark 16:19 and Luke 24:50-53.

Well, sort of.  Today there is a virtual consensus of scholars in the field of exegesis that verses 9-20 of Mark 16 were later additions to the original and rather dark ending of Mark in verse 8, where the “Three Marys” open Jesus’ tomb, find it empty, and run away afraid. Some scholars therefore regard 9-20, with its accounts of the resurrected Jesus and His Ascension to be “inauthentic”, and you can find Bibles where it is relegated to a footnote. As for Luke 24:50-53, have a look at the photo, top left. What don’t you notice? Ascension. I own three Bibles, which is pretty good for a guy like me. And my Revised Standard Version King James doesn’t mention the Ascension in 50-53, although it includes the following footnote: “Other ancient authorities add and was carried up into Heaven” after verse 51. By contrast, my Oxford Annotated RSV includes the phrase but with an opposite footnote: “Other ancient authorities omit and was carried up into Heaven.”

Now, look. There are some atheists out there who make great sport out of this sort of thing, but I have little patience for those kinds of narrow strawman attacks. But I do have a question for those of you who regard the Bible as literally true and inerrant: which Bible?