I worked overtime yesterday to present Philip Coppens’ effort to “tear apart” my September 30 blog post “line by line” with my corresponding fact-based commentary (read it here), so today I’m going to try to run a bit shorter. Coppens complained my posts were too long for him anyway, so I hope this will be more to his liking.
Coppens complained that I “nitpick” by examining individual claims for factual accuracy instead of evaluating the broad, overarching philosophical approaches to the past where he feels the truth actually hides. So, let’s indulge him.
Coppens’ big, overarching idea—one that he may not be aware of himself—is that the past is one long, coherent period of ancient wisdom. Thus, he sees no problem in using the Famine Stela, which was composed around 200-190 BCE (based on the style of language used), as proof of events that happened around 2600 BCE. Giorgio Tsoukalos favors the same approach, claiming that medieval texts from the fourteenth or fifteenth century CE are a reliable guide to Fourth Dynasty Egypt (c. 2450 BCE).
Leaving aside the fact that Coppens denies the plain reading of the Famine Stela in favor of a concocted fantasy, are we justified in accepting all ancient texts as equally knowledgeable about the past? Does a Hellenistic or even a medieval text automatically have real knowledge about life 2,000 to 4,000 or more years earlier?
For Coppens and Tsoukalos, the answer is yes. But as we can clearly see, this is not true. Manetho (c. 300 BCE), who preserved a vague recollection that Djoser was responsible for the oldest pyramid, also wrote that Suphis (not Khufu/Cheops) built “the largest pyramid” and that the third pyramid of Giza (Menkaure’s) was the work of sixth dynasty female pharaoh Nitocris. This was the ruinous state of knowledge for an educated Egyptian priest of 300 BCE. (All of these texts can be found in my edition of Cory's Ancient Fragments.)
But, you might say, this is mere nitpicking. The list of inaccuracies and anachronisms, however, only grows. What follows is what I found in a few minutes of searching my edition of Cory’s Ancient Fragments: Eupolemus tells us that Babylon was founded by a race of giants (i.e. nephilim) whom God saved from Noah’s Flood, in direct contradiction of the Biblical account in which all but Noah’s family perished (Eusebius, Praeperatio Evangelica 9; cf. Genesis 7:21-23, “And all flesh died that moved upon the earth…and Noah only remained alive, and they that were with him in the ark.”). Nicholas of Damascus wrote that the Jewish patriarch Abraham was “king of Damascus,” while Eupolemus asserts that he lived not in Syria but Phoenicia! (Eusebius, Praeperatio Evangelica 9; Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews 1.7). The Roman writer Justin tells us that Judaism was invented in Damascus, which the Jews ruled (Philippic History 36.2), while in fact Damascus was the enemy of the Kingdom of Israel. Diodorus Siculus tells us that Moses founded Jerusalem (Library 40.3, preserved in Photius, Biblioteca codex 244), a direct contradiction to the Biblical account of his death prior to entering the Promised Land (Deuteronomy 34:4-6).
Now, you could explain away each of these contradictions, but to do so, you must agree that ancient texts can be mistaken or inaccurate. Once you open the door to inaccuracy, fantasy, or error, you must therefore make a strong case for why we should accept a given text—especially one written thousands of years after the fact—as accurate. That a fantastic reading of it agrees with your preconceived theories is not reason enough.
Otherwise, we end up with the absurd situation of claiming the Alexander Romance is an accurate biography of Alexander the Great. As Plutarch noted (in the Life of Alexander), when fanciful portions of one such romance were read to Alexander’s general Lysimachus, he quipped, “Why and where was I then?” I have a feeling Imhotep would say the same thing after reading what Philip Coppens said about him.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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