Monday, February 01, 2021

Reconciling Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the suicide of Judas Iscariot

The suicide of Judas Iscariot is described twice in the New Testament and the two accounts seem to be offering two different ways Judas died: one by hanging and one by falling. So the question is are the two accounts reconcilable? If so it's not an affront to the idea that God inspired both of them. If not it's a problem for both being inspired. 
So, to look at the two stories: The hanging account is in Matthew 27:5: "And throwing down the pieces of silver into the temple, he departed, and he went and hanged himself." The falling account is Acts 1:18: "Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out." 
On the surface it appears that one is hanging, one is falling to die on impact. But neither account is particularly detailed. The hanging account doesn't say, for example, he went into a room, got up on a stool, tied himself to a rafter and kicked the stool over. That would make an account that said he went up on a cliff and jumped off clearly incompatible. But the falling account isn't that detailed either. It doesn't even say specifically that he died in the field he purchased (though you could argue it's implied). 
I think there's a variety of ways that the accounts can be reconciled: Judas tying his rope to something that broke, causing him to fall a long way; jumping from too high a point when hanging himself so he gets decapitated and falls and "bursts;" hanging himself ("falling headlong") and then being left so long his body swells and bursts from decomposition (which seems shameful: no one cares about him enough to find him so the body just hangs in its owner's new field until it rots). 
So I think if we're careful not to import too much assumption into our reading of either account we can see that there are numerous scenarios that could be accurately described with both statements without either one suffering.

Then we get into, "yeah, but are those as likely as the idea that there are just two conflicting stories?" Well, taken by themselves, I wouldn't jump to a complex scenario from either story. But then we do have two stories--even without a doctrine of inspiration we should ask, "is it necessary to assume one of the accounts is mistaken, or would we assume we're getting more details from two accounts?" If I'm just considering two historical documents, of course I could just say one must be mistaken, but that's not really good historical work if it's not necessary from the accounts that they are mutually exclusive. If I have reports of a battle from two Roman commanders that seem to have conflicts, but on analysis could be reconciled, I would just assume that I'm getting a fuller picture of naturally complex historical realities by having more accounts to work from. 

This is violating the common maxim that the simplest answer is likely the most accurate. But that maxim doesn't really apply to the discipline of history where the more accurate maxim is that "History is Messy" (i.e. complex). Usually the most accurate understanding of any historical circumstance is a highly nuanced and complex picture made up of multitudes of factors. Unless there's some demonstrable reason to believe that one or the other source is untrustworthy, or has an "angle" that would benefit from their version excluding another, we're probably best accepting the more complex picture reconciled from multiple sources. I don't really see any advantage to Matthew or Luke (the author of Acts) to favor falling versus hanging. One means of death versus another doesn't add anything to either author's larger story--the primary point for both seems to be that Judas committed suicide, not that the specific means of his death proved something or enhanced some other point.

This gets to a question of source reliability. This is illustrated in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by Professor Digory Kirke's question to Peter and Susan (the older two siblings) about the reliability of their younger siblings when the youngest discovers a portal to the fantastic realm of Narnia: Lucy, the younger girl, has a story of finding another world through a portal and Edmund (the younger boy) says it's a made up game. Peter and Susan are troubled because obviously it's a lie--there can't be portals to fantastic worlds. But the professor asks, "is it usual that the girl is less honest than the boy?" They reply that Edmund is a known liar and that Lucy is very honest. So the Professor asks why they are sticking by their (what we might call a "negative evidence"-based, or argument from silence) presupposition that there can't be a portal, rather than their (positive evidence-based) presupposition that Lucy is honest. 

 If we generally find Matthew and Luke to be honest reporters, and they have an apparent conflict that, on analysis, can be reconciled, it actually makes more sense to assume the reconciled picture is the more full picture of the actual historical event and dismiss our assumptions about rafters and cliffs.

Woah! What happened to 2020?!

The last time I posted was September of 2019? What happened? Well, in addition to all the things that happened to all of us in 2020 (pandemic, racial injustice and tension, political conflict, etc.), I pastored our church plant through its launch (which included changing worship locations seven times in its first 7 months of existence!), continued rehabbing our house and apartments, and wrote a little less than half of my dissertation. So it was a busy year. But I'll hope for a little more activity here in 2021!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Resurrection discrepancies in the four Gospels?

I was talking with a friend recently about how the accounts of the resurrection of Christ in the four Gospels seem to differ. I spent some time looking into the question and thought I'd put my results here. First, I laid out the accounts in parallel (see below), and used same colors to highlight like events across the accounts (for e.g. I've used navy blue to highlight Jesus' giving up His spirit across all four accounts even though it's the first thing in Mt, Mk, Jn and 2nd in Lk). Comparing the four accounts this way, it seems to me there's two problems to address: (1) differences in what actually happened at Jesus' death, the other (2) is the order of events when the Resurrection is discovered.

On (1) the death, note that the problem isn't direct conflicts (apart from what the centurion says - “this was the Son of God” [Mt/Mk] or “This man was innocent” [Lk], and here, he could easily have said both. The “son of God” statement means more to the reader than it would have to the Centurion: he probably wasn't saying “I believe the yet-to-be-articulated doctrine of the Trinity!” He was probably saying, “I believe what this man said about himself”; and remember he was probably speaking in Latin [as a Roman] or Aramaic [as a resident of Palestine], depending on his nationality, while the story is being written in Greek, so exact words of dialogue aren't going to translate), but things not reported: Matthew is most dramatic/supernatural with the temple curtain tearing (like Mk/Lk), a rock-splitting earthquake, and mini-resurrections. Luke is next most dramatic with three hours of darkness prior to the curtain tearing, and the crowd viewing a “spectacle” that causes them to beat their breasts (but he doesn't fill in what caused the awed reaction) then Mark just reports the curtain, and John doesn't even do that. That's where I get back to the point that the authors aren't just recording the story, but making specific points. John is very concerned with demonstrating how in control of the process Jesus was and how in accord with Old Testament prophecy He unfolded the story. Since Jesus wasn't the one darkening the sun and was actually dead at the moment of the earthquake/mini-resurrections, and since those things aren't prophesied in OT, John isn't concerned with reporting them—he's just moving on to reporting the next things that fulfill OT prediction.

The eyewitnesses to the events didn't perceive conflicts—and most of the authors themselves were writing with the other authors before them and wouldn't have written in conflicts (unless they were “correcting the record” – but they weren't received as correcting the record so much as affirming the record). Matthew (written late 50s/early 60s) and Luke (written mid-60s) used Mark (written in early 50s) as a source: they didn't contradict but added details. Matthew was an eyewitness—maybe in the power of the event he didn't pay attention to the lighting (or maybe in comparison to the earthquake and mini-resurrections he didn't bother to mention it). Luke was interviewing eyewitnesses: maybe Luke's witnesses didn't mention the earthquake and mini-resurrections. John was the latest (sometime between 70 & 100) and had access to the others—and they were all accepted as accurate and authentic by the Church as they were received, so he's clearly not going to offer a counter without saying he's doing so, and it being noticed that he's doing so. So even if we perceive differences, we'd need to try and put ourselves in the position of an original audience member and try to figure out why they didn't perceive discrepancies or perceive the accounts as differing.

With that in mind, we're turning to the 4 accounts saying “what could have happened that could be accurately described by all of these accounts?” (bearing in mind too that this question is more about satisfying our concerns about authenticity, not about correct interpretation: in interpretation the text has authority, so meaning is not in reconstructing the specifics of the event, but in understanding the point being made in the telling—believing the telling is an accurate representation of the event).

So I'll try to put together a timeline of the discovery of the Resurrection that makes sense of the four accounts. In the columns above I noted that Matthew includes a whole story line the other authors ignore: the input from the soldiers. I have shown this story line in blue. If we understand this storyline as information from the guards, not from the women, it does much to resolve apparent discrepancies: Mt 27:62-66 sets up the story, 28:1 is an interlude getting the women to the tomb, and then 28:2-4 describes what happened prior to the women's arrival to explain the scene they encounter when they arrive. So the first thing to happen, coming from a soldier's account (probably confided secretly since he was payed to say something else: Mt 28:13-15) is the earthquake when the angel of the Lord descends to open the tomb. The guards feint. Then Mary Madeline and several women come in the dark, toward dawn (Mt 28:1, Mk 16:1-3, Lk 24:1, Jn 20:1), find the empty tomb, and go to tell the apostles (we might note here that probably it's just Mary that goes to tell the apostles [Jn 20:2] while the others do nothing [Mk 16:8]); two of whom go to check out their story (Jn 20:2-10, Lk 24:12). Mary and other women return to the tomb and encounter two angels (Mt 28:5-7, Mk 16:5-8, Lk 24:4-8, Jn 20:11-13). Jesus reveals Himself to Mary and the women (Mt 28:9-10, Mk 16:9, Jn 20:14-17), and the women go to tell the disciples not just that the tomb is open and Jesus is gone, but that He has risen (Mt 28:8, Mk 16:10-11, Lk 24:9-11, Jn 20:18). This would mean that Luke conflates the complex activity related in John, probably because he had more limited sources (John was one of the two who respond to Mary's call in 20:2-10; Luke appears to have been relating info from Peter in in 24:12. He's telling the short version, and John comes along a number of years later and fills out details from his own experience.

Matthew 27/28:
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
55 There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, 56 among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
57 When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. 58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. 59 And Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud 60 and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had cut in the rock. And he rolled a great stone to the entrance of the tomb and went away. 61 Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the tomb.
62 Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate 63 and said, “Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, ‘After three days I will rise.’ 64 Therefore order the tomb to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away and tell the people, ‘He has risen from the dead,’ and the last fraud will be worse than the first.” 65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard of soldiers. Go, make it as secure as you can.” 66 So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard.
28:1 Now after the Sabbath, toward the dawn of the first day of the week, Mary Magdalene and the other Mary went to see the tomb. 2 And behold, there was a great earthquake, for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled back the stone and sat on it. 3 His appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow. 4 And for fear of him the guards trembled and became like dead men. 5 But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid, for I know that you seek Jesus who was crucified. 6 He is not here, for he has risen, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. 7 Then go quickly and tell his disciples that he has risen from the dead, and behold, he is going before you to Galilee; there you will see him. See, I have told you.” 8 So they departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples. 9 And behold, Jesus met them and said, “Greetings!” And they came up and took hold of his feet and worshiped him. 10 Then Jesus said to them, “Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee, and there they will see me.”
11 While they were going, behold, some of the guard went into the city and told the chief priests all that had taken place. 12 And when they had assembled with the elders and taken counsel, they gave a sufficient sum of money to the soldiers 13 and said, “Tell people, ‘His disciples came by night and stole him away while we were asleep.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were directed. And this story has been spread among the Jews to this day.
Mark 15/16:
37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
40 There were also women looking on from a distance, among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41 When he was in Galilee, they followed him and ministered to him, and there were also many other women who came up with him to Jerusalem.
42 And when evening had come, since it was the day of Preparation, that is, the day before the Sabbath, 43 Joseph of Arimathea, a respected member of the Council, who was also himself looking for the kingdom of God, took courage and went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 44 Pilate was surprised to hear that he should have already died. And summoning the centurion, he asked him whether he was already dead. 45 And when he learned from the centurion that he was dead, he granted the corpse to Joseph. 46 And Joseph bought a linen shroud, and taking him down, wrapped him in the linen shroud and laid him in a tomb that had been cut out of the rock. And he rolled a stone against the entrance of the tomb. 47 Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of Joses saw where he was laid.
16:1 When the Sabbath was past, Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Salome bought spices, so that they might go and anoint him. 2 And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb. 3 And they were saying to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance of the tomb?” 4 And looking up, they saw that the stone had been rolled back— it was very large. 5 And entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting on the right side, dressed in a white robe, and they were alarmed. 6 And he said to them, “Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has risen; he is not here. See the place where they laid him. 7 But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going before you to Galilee. There you will see him, just as he told you.” 8 And they went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had seized them, and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.
9 [[Now when he rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, from whom he had cast out seven demons. 10 She went and told those who had been with him, as they mourned and wept. 11 But when they heard that he was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it.

Luke 23/24:
44 It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” 48 And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things.
50 Now there was a man named Joseph, from the Jewish town of Arimathea. He was a member of the council, a good and righteous man, 51 who had not consented to their decision and action; and he was looking for the kingdom of God. 52 This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 Then he took it down and wrapped it in a linen shroud and laid him in a tomb cut in stone, where no one had ever yet been laid. 54 It was the day of Preparation, and the Sabbath was beginning. 55 The women who had come with him from Galilee followed and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 Then they returned and prepared spices and ointments.
On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment.
24:1 But on the first day of the week, at early dawn, they went to the tomb, taking the spices they had prepared. 2 And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb, 3 but when they went in they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. 4 While they were perplexed about this, behold, two men stood by them in dazzling apparel. 5 And as they were frightened and bowed their faces to the ground, the men said to them, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? 6 He is not here, but has risen. Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, 7 that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise.” 8 And they remembered his words, 9 and returning from the tomb they told all these things to the eleven and to all the rest. 10 Now it was Mary Magdalene and Joanna and Mary the mother of James and the other women with them who told these things to the apostles, 11 but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them. 12 But Peter rose and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves; and he went home marveling at what had happened.
John 19/20:
30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
31 Since it was the day of Preparation, and so that the bodies would not remain on the cross on the Sabbath (for that Sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken and that they might be taken away. 32 So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him. 33 But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs. 34 But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water. 35 He who saw it has borne witness— his testimony is true, and he knows that he is telling the truth— that you also may believe. 36 For these things took place that the Scripture might be fulfilled: “Not one of his bones will be broken.” 37 And again another Scripture says, “They will look on him whom they have pierced.”
38 After these things Joseph of Arimathea, who was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews, asked Pilate that he might take away the body of Jesus, and Pilate gave him permission. So he came and took away his body. 39 Nicodemus also, who earlier had come to Jesus by night, came bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about seventy-five pounds in weight. 40 So they took the body of Jesus and bound it in linen cloths with the spices, as is the burial custom of the Jews. 41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 42 So because of the Jewish day of Preparation, since the tomb was close at hand, they laid Jesus there.
John 20:1 Now on the first day of the week Mary Magdalene came to the tomb early, while it was still dark, and saw that the stone had been taken away from the tomb. 2 So she ran and went to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one whom Jesus loved, and said to them, “They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we do not know where they have laid him.” 3 So Peter went out with the other disciple, and they were going toward the tomb. 4 Both of them were running together, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. 5 And stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there, but he did not go in. 6 Then Simon Peter came, following him, and went into the tomb. He saw the linen cloths lying there, 7 and the face cloth, which had been on Jesus’ head, not lying with the linen cloths but folded up in a place by itself. 8 Then the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went in, and he saw and believed; 9 for as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that he must rise from the dead. 10 Then the disciples went back to their homes.
John 20:11 But Mary stood weeping outside the tomb, and as she wept she stooped to look into the tomb. 12 And she saw two angels in white, sitting where the body of Jesus had lain, one at the head and one at the feet. 13 They said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping?” She said to them, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him.” 14 Having said this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing, but she did not know that it was Jesus. 15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

Response: Emerson W. Baker, The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft & Conflict in Early New England

I just finished Emerson Baker's The Devil of Great Island: Witchcraft & Conflict in Early New England. (The funny backstory to this is that I didn't come across it through dissertation research; rather Ellie [9 years old] figured out how to do keyword searches using our public library's catalog and, wanting to find a book to check out for me, searched for "seventeenth century New England"!)

It's an enjoyable deep-dive look into life in the community of Great Island, NH during the latter half of the seventeenth century, and centers on an incident of "lithobolia" (supernatural flying stones and other inanimate objects, usually centering on an individual or place, and attributed to witchcraft) which happened over the course of several months in 1682.

Tavern owner George Walton is caught in a horizontal hail of rocks with no apparent source one summer evening outside his tavern. He flees inside and the rocks continue to pelt the tavern; then objects within the tavern begin flying around, injuring occupants and breaking windows from the inside. The incident was reported by George and his family and guests, and recorded--and published--by a minister who observed the event while staying in the tavern as a guest. The strange occurrence continued intermittently for months, centered on George himself, and happening to him miles up river in some cases. George eventually accused his widowed neighbor of witchcraft, but she was not ultimately charged.

Baker writes well, and tells a story well. Despite the fact that his sources are primarily court records of lawsuits between early inhabitants and archaic land deeds the story he tells is quite engaging. He also uncovers the surprising interconnectedness of the subjects of the story. What starts out as a seemingly open and shut case of a supernatural happening (wait a minute...) turns out to have all sorts of family and neighborly land feuds and legal maneuvering, far-reaching political schemes, religious arguments and economic ties going on beneath the surface.

It turns out that the widowed neighbor had been involved in a land dispute with George that had raged through numerous lawsuits for years. Not only that George was embroiled in constant lawsuits with his neighbors over land disputes and was constantly in court. In many of these conflicts it was clear that George was willing to become involved in some rather underhanded dealings. Also he was a Quaker in an increasingly Puritan colony where one could be convicted of holding deviant religious beliefs. In fact, he was hosting a gathering of leading Quaker "subversives" from across the North American colonies in his tavern on the evening the lithobolia started. And he was a supporter of an highly placed Anglican noble who had been fighting to make money off his claims to the colony of New Hampshire by inserting his own governors and judges to force colonists to pay him for their land claims. There was good reason for George Walton to be the target of his neighbors' dislike--and perhaps even violent attacks--on a number of levels.

My concerns with Baker's tale are twofold. First, despite setting up the lithobolia episodes as a strange, potentially supernatural phenomenon from multiple period (and first person) sources, his investigation never loops back to explain these sources in light of all the conflict going on beneath the surface. George's neighbors and servants may have had many reasons to throw rocks at him. The problem is that none of the original sources suggest that his neighbors were throwing rocks at him! Baker makes a very convincing case that the Waltons were difficult neighbors who could well have garnered the enmity of their community and were likely to be the recipients of violent attacks. But the sources present what happened at the Walton's tavern as inexplicable by natural causes. The distance of the tavern from cover where attackers could have hidden is specifically noted as too great for rocks to be thrown. The movement of objects inside the tavern is not explained away by noting that the Walton's had dubious relationships with their indentured servants. If what was really happening was that George's neighbors and servants were teaming up to throw rocks at him, why do multiple eyewitnesses (guests at the inn, servants, family members, neighbors, George himself) present the incidents as inexplicable? Why wouldn't George, who was clearly willing to take legal and even physical action against his neighbors when he couldn't get along with them, just bring accusations of stone-throwing to the magistrates, or start throwing stones himself, rather than accusing his neighbor of witchcraft? If neighbors were standing in the yard pelting the inn and disgruntled servants were throwing fire irons around inside, why did guest and family accounts say that stones and objects moved on their own? To prove that many people have many legitimate grievances against the Waltons does not prove that those people entered into a conspiracy to pull of a community-wide hoax, that would seem to even need to include George playing along and ignoring his human tormentors to claim supernatural attacks. Particularly when pinning the supernatural attacks on one neighbor would not fix all George's legal problems, nor avenge him against the multiple neighbors he had grievances with. Accusing those neighbors of actual physical assaults would have gotten George much further legally. Most of the assaults were witnessed by parties that would have either been disinterested--or even supporters of the Waltons. To assume the attacks are easily explicable incidents of neighbors throwing rocks requires that we assume the Waltons and their witnesses were willing to participate in the hoax and claim supernatural causes. It seems unlikely that royal officials and Quaker visitors would willingly put their names to far-fetched claims, particularly when the legal advantage of doing so was less than the legal advantage of just accusing the rock-throwers. Barker assumes the impossibility of a para-normal explanation, and his investigation falls into unscientific assumptions as a result.

Let me be clear: I have no predisposition to assuming there must be a supernatural answer to the lithobolia incident at Great Island. In most instances of paranormal events I find that a careful enough examination of the situation reveals a hoax, or a natural phenomenon that has been perceived as supernatural. But to investigate with the
It doesn't offer sufficient explanation unless you assume to start with that a paranormal explanation is not possible.

This unscientific rejection of a phenomenon just because it is outside our own experience gets at my second objection, which is a historical context problem. Baker assumes--and trumps up the whole incident to--the backwardness of pre-modernist New England. It's like he's saying 'these are a bunch of easily fooled, superstitious bumpkins; the self-serving or superstitious explanations were readily accepted because of the superstition and darkness of the cultural context.'

If this is an accurate picture, why were there so few witch executions in New England, as compared to certain Swiss villages left bereft of women by the witch hunts, or sixty thousand executions in Europe between 1450-1750 (which Baker actually notes)
? Out of 344 accusations of witchcraft in New England between 1620-1725, 185 occurred in relation to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692-93 which resulted in 20 executions (pp. 86-87). While that is 20 executions too many, in a world that was still very actively pursuing and executing witches, the 'backward,' 'superstitious' New Englanders managed to get away with only 344 accusations, far fewer convictions, and only a score of executions. Rather than bemoan the backwardness of the seventeenth-century New Englanders we might rather celebrate that their system seemed to be outstripping the mother continent's when it came to protecting the innocent from spurious charges.

While Baker marshals an impressive amount of backstory and paints a very vivid picture of life in seventeenth-century New England--a picture which shows a remarkable degree of sophistication and complexity--I do not believe he has solved the mystery of Great Island as thoroughly as his conclusion seems to indicate. While I do not believe there need be a supernatural explanation, I also think it need not be dismissed out of hand. Nor to I think the evidence of community strife--which would certainly provide a motive for the attacks--is sufficient in itself to overcome the realities of the attack which must necessarily be addressed to consider the mystery "solved."

Saturday, January 05, 2019

A fieldtrip to "'70s era walkable urbanism": The Connecticut Post Mall...

We took a field trip to the Connecticut Post Mall today--I've been told it's the largest retail facility in the state, I've also been told it is definitely not. Either way, it's big. About 2 miles from our house. I've never been there except on the bicycle to take pictures of the parking on Black Friday. It was a fascinating trip...

I found the mall had most things traditional towns did before zoning/auto-orientation began to destroy sustainability: Looking down on the town square, with "outdoor" cafés in the background...


A little bitty corner store off the town square:


A really small diner (this one can have an "outdoor" bar because of the roof!):


Small "outdoor" seating... reminds me of a friend's comment (responding to how Carbondale had outlawed sidewalk café seating for a while), "yeah, cause the thing that makes Paris such a dump is all the freakin' sidewalk cafés!":

Note the narrow "streets" that make for a cozy, active atmosphere. This is the beauty of the goal of a mall as a walkable village, sheltered from the elements.

This mall still has enough polish and investment to attract active stores, so you get lots of "eyes on the street" which makes it feel very fun and safe. This is the cycle that makes malls non-viable though in the way downtowns and traditional market areas remain viable: everything is the same age, so you can't have cheap start-ups in the vicinity of more expensive, new things. The mall is owned by one conglomerate, and the whole thing is cared for in the same way--so if it's a new mall, or one that's just had a bunch of investment, it attracts expensive, attractive stores; if it's an older mall it's universally in decline and starts attracting cheaper stores that don't have the same attraction value to customers. You can't have diversity of economy with such expensive infrastructure (i.e. putting a roof and climate control over the whole village).

The other detractor to malls: they are surrounded by a sea of asphalt. In good weather it's baking hot, in rainy weather its dismal, and the whole experience (because it's all retail with no residential mixed in) is only accessible by braving this (and equipping yourself to do so at an average of $9k a year...). You can't have diversity of use--and the whole thing has to get shut off at 9 or 10 pm to avoid excessive security costs, so you can only capitalize on the space for about half the day.


Friday, November 09, 2018

Getting control of your personal finances in 4 easy steps

I wrote an email to a friend recently to help them get started in getting a handle on their personal finances and, since this is a topic I like to geek out on, I thought the info might be helpful as a post: 

1. Get a picture of your spending: 
Record every purchase for a month (or a week if that's too long, but the month will give you a better picture); this can be as simple as sitting down and listing all your monthly expenses (rent, utilities, memberships like Netflix, phone, cable, etc. car insurance, renters insurance, life and health insurance, debt service payments [like a car payment, student loans, etc], etc.), then carrying a notebook (or folded sheet of paper) with your wallet and just jotting down every time you use a card or cash; what I typically do is I pay for everything I can with a credit card, and keep all the receipts in my wallet, then about once a week I record all the receipts in an app called (for cash purchases I record them in the app as they happen). It's really simple, but is set up more for once you have a budget set up, so initially you'd just be recording everything as an unassigned new expense.

A great tool for this if you take the time to set it up is which you can connect to your credit cards and bank accounts so it will track all your spending for you (you'd have to record cash manually); that said, it takes some time to set up, so I wouldn't see it as a first step, more something to pursue if you find you like this process.

2. Look at the data: 
Add up everything you spent and compare it to your income. The difference is how much you have available to save. Think about the results: sometimes recording all our spending confirms we're where we think we're supposed to be; more often it surprises us with what we're actually spending. The simple process of recording is a hugely helpful tool for getting control because by becoming aware of where the money's going we get more control.

3. Determine a budget: 
Things like rent are fixed expenses but need to be accounted for in the budget; things like food you can decide how much you want to spend on it through choices like eating out vs. preparing at home (here's a great crash-course in starting to prepare food at home while spending at the same rate as the SNAP program).

I use a "simple digital envelope system" I've developed to deal with our finances: I use a spreadsheet to list out all the reoccurring monthly expenses, then I decide what I want to spend in each of four categories ("envelopes") on a weekly basis: "Fun" (eating out, going to movies, buying books or gadgets for pleasure), "Groceries" (just the food we eat that we prepare at home), "Misc." (toiletries, clothing, household goods, etc.), "transportation" (gas, train/bus rides, bicycle expenses, oil changes, auto repairs, etc.). You make these categories in the goodbudget app and then record each expense (or go through your receipts at the end of the week), in order to keep up with the weekly spending (since the monthly spending stays generally constant. (Things like utilities you can average your yearly costs to get a more accurate monthly picture than just what you spent last month given heating and cooling drive up these prices.)

I find the simplicity of this system works really well for me. I have friends who like a much more complex budget tracking system and if you want to get real specific about separating into multiple categories you can do that; it's more a matter of personality in my opinion. There's a great app called ("you need a budget") that is free for a trial period then you pay a small fee for it; I've heard good reviews, but I haven't tried it out because I already have a system that works for me. 
Here is a sample spreadsheet I used when I set up our budget years ago (with numbers randomized for privacy but somewhat representative) so you can see how you could format one: I put in my monthly income from various sources at the top, monthly expenses next, then weekly "budget envelopes" (called that because the old way of doing this was putting cash in physical envelopes at the beginning of the week), multiplied by 4.34 (how many weeks there are in the average month) to show me what my monthly expenses are.

4. Continuing ed: 
Start delving into free, online learning about personal finance. It's really a fun field, and it gives you a great sense of personal control, and even of personal wealth and ability. Mr. Money Mustache (Pete Adney) is a guy who writes about personal finance, being frugal, and lots of other life-hacks--he retired at 32 and has been living on the savings he built up working for 10 years after college for the last 12+ years. There's a whole genre of blogs and a growing group of people called the "FIRE" community ("financial independence/retire early") who are into this. Other good blogs or podcasts are,, I started with the first article at Mr. Money Mustache then read a few in sequence until I got distracted by other articles on random topics that seemed interesting to me.

A great tool for tracking your net worth (how much money and assets you have vs. how much debt you have) is Personal Capital (the link is my referral link). I'm not saying I recommend or don't recommend their financial advising services, I just find their personal asset tracking tools really useful: you link your bank, credit, mortgage, investment and retirement accounts and they will show you where everything stands. They have a great tool that will analyze your fee costs so you can see how much being invested in a particular retirement plan, etc. is costing you. They will start reaching out to set up a free advisory session--I never followed up on this and they eventually stopped reaching out...

Like I said above, I like to geek out about this stuff, so I'm happy to talk anytime if someone would like pointers setting anything up or talking through their situation!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Main Street, East Greenwich, RI

A description of Main Street, East Greenwich, RI, where my father grew up:

Old East Greenwich was about one square mile in size. The town’s borders ran from the water front of Greenwich Cove West to about Kenyon Avenue. It ran north to South starting at Division Street at the north to about First Avenue on the south. Most Of the homes and businesses were located on Main Street, King Street and Pierce Street. 
There were a little over 200 homes built in the 1700’s and 1800’s. About six homes were built in the 1600’s. Old Main Street has about 80 houses, businesses, churches and public buildings. Main Street is also known as the Post Road, Route a1.... Main Street was a dirt road. It was mud most of the time. In 1889 stone was taken from what is now Eldredge School field, crushed, and used to macadamize Main Street. It was the first paved road in the town. In 1900, a trolley ran to Providence and to Narragansett. The tracks were removed in 1928.... 
One of the charming things about early Main Street was that it was lined with beautiful Dutch Elm trees for the full one mile length of the street. In the mid 1930’s the trees were struck with the Dutch Elm Blight. The town tried to save the trees by spraying them. It helped for a short time. In 1938 the hurricane took a toll on the Elm trees. It was hard for a tree to hold up to 186 mile per hour wind. Those trees that survived were cut down when the Main Street was widened in 1940. Recently I asked a number of my classmates, all who are in their mid 80’s or late 80’s, what their most fond memory of East Greenwich is. They almost all said it was the Main Street with all the beautiful Elm trees. 
In the early years parking on Main Street was not a problem to do shopping or do business. Since most people lived not much more than a half mile from Main Street they walked. People walked to work in town and the children walked to school. Just about everything you would want or need could be found on Main Street: armory, post office, candy store, bike repair, barber shop, drug store, hotel, private homes, beauty parlor, grocery stores, hardware stores, liquor stores, clothing stores, shoe stores, shoe repair, banks, churches, restaurants, blacksmith, auto sale & repair, gas stations, bowling alley & pool hall, municipal buildings, fire station, funeral parlor and telephone exchange. Shopping was easy on Main Street.... 
Until 1940 when Main Street was widened there was a hitching post, horse water trough, the town pump and a fountain in front of the court house. The water fountain was moved to the Eldredge School when the Main Street was widened in 1940.  
Over the past 100 plus years there have been over a dozen major changes to Main Street. Not all of these changes have been in the best interest of the citizens. A number of homes and structures that I knew as a youth are gone on Main Street. 
The first home that I recall being razed was a very stately home on the corner of Main and Division Street. It was a very large three story home with three chimneys and a porch on the second level overlooking Maine Street. The home was built in 1749 and razed in 1930 to make way for the Post Office Building.  
Of all the buildings razed on Main Street the razing of the old Town Hall was a crime. The justification for its removal was that it was costing too much to retain.The building was built in Queen Anne style in 1885. It had a 70 foot bell tower with four clocks that chimed the hour 24 hours a day. The clock bell could be heard all over the old town. The clock bell weighed 12 hundred pounds. The building was razed in 1964 to make way for a parking lot.  
Next door to the Town Hall on the south side was the First Rhode Island Central Bank. It was built in 1759 and was razed in 1938 to make way for the construction of the F. W. Woolworth 5 & 10 Cent Store. 
Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church which was built in 1867 was razed for a small shopping center in 1960; the parsonage and carriage house were also razed. 
A house on the corner of Maine and London Street, built as early as 1712, was razed in 1940 to make way for a gas station. 
At the start of World War Two, the USO Building was constructed on the corner of Greene and Main Street. It was used as a facility for service men. After the war, it was converted to a movie house. In 1995 it was razed to make way for the Centreville Bank Building.  
The Union Block was made up of nine two story wooden homes that were rented to the Union Mill and Drysalter workers. They were located on the corner of Greene and Maine Street. They were torn down in 1954 to make way for a new shopping center. 
A home built in the early 1712’s once stood on the corner of London and Main Street. It was razed in 1940 to make way for a gas station. 
In the 1900’s the following very old homes were razed in the name of progress: 
The Second Rhode Island Central Bank, built in 1840 once stood on the corner of Division and Main Street. It was razed in 1913 to make way for the building the Varnum Memorial Armory. The armory had two very large Rodman Cannons from the Civil War mounted on each side of the entrance. The cannons were donated to a World War Two scrap drive. 
The Cook-Lawton House once stood adjacent to the Methodist Church on Main Street. It was built in 1803. It was razed in 1924 and a one story brick bank building was built. 
The Joseph Greene House, known as “The Sterling Castle” built in 1776 was located on the corner of Pierce and Main Street. It was razed in 1956 and is now a parking lot.  
The Mowry-LeBaron House once stood on the corner of Church and Main Street. It was built around 1790. It was moved up the hill to make way for the building of the Masonic Lodge Building. It has since been razed for a parking lot. 
The Judge Loomis Home originally located on the corner of Melrose and Main Street was moved halfway up Melrose Street to make way for the building the Greenwich Theatre in 1925. The Loomis house was jacked up, put on rollers and pulled up the hill by a large team of horses. The Loomis House was built in the early 1800’s. 
The Brick House located on the corner of Long and Main Street was across the street from the fire station. It is one of the oldest buildings in East Greenwich. Built in 1767. It was the first brick home in town and was a Georgia-style brick building. When rumors started to circulate that the Fire District planned to purchase the Brick House and raze it for use as a parking lot for the fire station across the street, the founding members of the Preservation Society took action and in March 1968 bought the historic Brick House to save it from destruction. Preservation of the old Brick House was the Preservation Society's first project. Today the house is listed in The Register of Historic Places. 
The Jewel in the Crown of all structures on Main Street is The Kent County Courthouse. It was constructed in 1806. When word got out that there were plans to raze the building and replace it with a modern structure the citizens became alarmed and put a stop to the rebuilding plan. This is a good reason that we should support historic or preservation societies.  
In the last 100 years 14 or more very old homes have been razed, but we have gained SIX or more PARKING LOT. Time often takes away the ugly and beautiful.
-- Glen King

While there is change throughout, note that in the 1920s the trend is to move, not raze, buildings; note also that the trolley tracks were removed in 1928, as the auto industry bought up trolley companies and destroyed them to leave no competition for automobiles. Also note that the trend of converting historic places to parking lots accelerates in the post-World War Two years once the auto-dependent development model had time to design zoning, codes and tax-structures to support an economically unsustainable system.