What do Ben Carson and Gregory of Tours Have in Common?

Gregory_of_Tours_cour_Napoleon_LouvreI don’t like wading into political discussions, but ancient history so rarely enters the public spotlight that I just can’t pass this up.

Ben Carson, retired neurosurgeon and GOP presidential candidate, once again made a baffling statement (adding to the growing Reddit list of bizarre Carsonisms): The Pyramids of Giza were grain silos built by Joseph the patriarch of Israel.

With as many archaeologist friends that I have, my Facebook newsfeed immediately blew up. From the perspective of people that study ancient civilizations professionally, such a statement belies either willful ignorance at best or complete detachment from reality at worst.

However, thanks to BBC, I learned that Carson is not alone holding to this grain silo theory. In his History of the Franks,” Gregory of Tours, the popular 6th century bishop from Gaul, also remarks that the pyramids must have served as granaries in the past:

“And on [the Nile’s] bank is situated, not the Babylonia of which we spoke above, but the city of Babylonia in which Joseph built wonderful granaries of squared stone and rubble. They are wide at the base and narrow at the top in order that the wheat might be cast into them through a tiny opening, and these granaries are to be seen at the present day. From this city the king set out in pursuit of the Hebrews with armies of chariots and a great infantry force.” (Historia Francorum I.10)

As silly as this may sound, I won’t be too harsh on Gregory. He lived during a time when so few traveled outside of their immediate homeland…let alone travel all the way to Egypt to see the Pyramids in person! Moreover, 6th century Gaul lacked an abundance of professionally trained Egyptologists who could have set the record straight for him.

Ben Carson, however, does not lack this luxury. He has plenty of Egyptologists to ask to corroborate his beliefs, but he’d rather ignore their mountain of evidence.

Or pyramid of evidence?

Or pyramid of evidence?

“So what?” You may ask. “Denying obvious historical evidence of the deep past doesn’t ultimately affect society all that much.” And I would agree on some level. People that deny medical science on vaccines or deny climate change science have the potential to do much more harm to society than Holocaust deniers, Jesus mythicists, and pyramid granary-ists.

But on a fundamental level, blithely dismissing historical research sets a bad precedent of devaluing historical studies and the humanities in general. The humanities is all about understanding other humans, and in order to get along with all these humans, members of our global society need at least a cursory understanding of humanity’s history, religion, politics, art, and philosophy. Thankfully Ben Carson didn’t get a free pass on this bit of historical impropriety, but as the humanities slowly disappear from college campuses and as policy makers increasingly disparage a liberal arts training, I fear such ignorance will become the norm.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Henry is a PhD student in early Christianity at Boston University. His research focuses on the popular and domestic religion of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly the magico-religious rituals deployed to harness and direct ritual power.

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