They Might Be

Last week I mentioned that a letter-writing friend had sent me two articles from the 1868 Prescott Journal newspaper. Some time ago I did some research into the history of newspapers since many of the stories from the early days of the medium seem difficult to accept. Perhaps it was a more credulous time, or perhaps newspapers were a form of entertainment as well as information, but the occasional hoax made its way into the pages of even reputable papers. I’m always surprised how many tales involve a kind of biblical literalism, whether stated or not. The second story from the aforementioned Wisconsin newspaper has to do with a giant skeleton unearthed at the Sauk Rapids. At ten-foot-nine, this veritable Goliath was estimated to have weighed some 900 pounds when alive. This prodigy sparked some piety in the writer, who concludes by stating, “We hope ‘642’ [the article doesn’t hint at the referent here] may learn humility from this dispensation of Providence, and that a view of the ‘femur’ and ‘fibula’ of this deceased stranger, may teach him the futility of all attempts at fleshy greatness in these degenerate days.”

Quite apart from the pious closing, the idea that giants once inhabited the earth is indeed biblical. Studies have been undertaken that speculate on why people of antiquity believed in giants, and one of the more plausible explanations has to do with the discovery of megafauna bones. Not having a conceptual world wherein dinosaurs or mammoths might fit, giant leg-bones and ribs, for example, look pretty much like those of people. Only much larger. Whatever the reason, people all over the ancient Mediterranean believed in an era of giants, and that belief made its way into the Bible as well as into Greek mythology. Only, if the Bible says it, it must be true, no? And so, finding giants in the earth is not to be unexpected.


Interestingly enough, this craze of finding giants has not ceased. The internet keeps bogus photos of unearthed giant skeletons alive and the explanations we’re given amount to proof of the flood. After all, the Bible says giants came before the flood, and if Noah wasn’t a giant, well, they had to have been wiped out, right? But then they show up again later in the form of the Anakim or Goliath and his kin. The question of whence the giants 2.0 came is not answered, but if it’s literally true then there should be no surprise if one should turn up in Wisconsin. After all, other oddities have turned up in that same state, some of which still defy explanation in the rational world of the twenty-first century.

Ancient History

Every great once in a while somebody in the popular media seems to remember suddenly that the ancient world existed. I suppose that it is the fate of forward-looking species to forget the past, at least until it looks trendy. An editor for Sunday’s paper, for example, ran an article by Tom Standage, “Facebook, Twitter: That’s all so 1st century B.C.,” written originally for the Los Angeles Times. Tom Standage has written popular histories that go back to the Sumerians; I really enjoyed his A History of the World in Six Glasses. He’s got a great grasp of antiquity. In this short article, Standage points out similarities between modern, electronic social media and the distribution of gossip in ancient times. Indeed, he is basically right about writing: as soon as people learned to do it, it proliferated. Communication at a distance is such a wonder that we seldom pause to consider just how revolutionary it is. Social media has just made it that much easier. Instant thoughts, at the speed of light. Anywhere in the wired world. And yet…

SolomonFakeNot having been trained properly in journalism, I don’t know how newspaper articles are designed. People, I know, don’t like huge blocks of text without some visual candy. To illustrate Standage’s article is a close-up photo of some funky paleo-Hebrew letters with this caption: “Were ancient stone tablets, like this one detailing repair plans for the Jewish Temple of King Solomon, part of early social media networks?” I may be obsolete in the scholarly world, but I instantly recognized this inscription. It was “discovered” and rapidly disseminated in 2003. Almost immediately it was clearly demonstrated to have been a forgery. Scholars nowhere accept this as an authentic artifact. Even those of us who last saw this a decade ago know that it’s fake. Social media, indeed? Somebody in the design department needs to read their ancient history.

What is so striking about this faux pas is that most well-meaning readers have no way of assessing or ascertaining the validity of such an image. Oh, the script is cool, no doubt about that—but the artifact is fake. To answer the question posed by the caption: no, this is not ancient social media. It is a modern hoax. People are susceptible to hoaxes because of two factors: TMI and P. T. Barnum. Too Much Information exists for anyone to stay on top of it all. For progress to occur we need to rely on experts on the past to clear the way for us. Phineas Taylor Barnum knew how to turn any cheap scam into instant cash. It is no surprise that Solomon’s inscription first appeared on the antiquities market, certainly with an eye for cashing in on the success of the recently promoted James Ossuary, the one where someone much later added the phrase, “the brother of Jesus.” I’m sure that Tom Standage was in no way involved in the choice of image for the reprint of his article in our local paper. It does, however, suggest an old message that will even fit on your Twitter character limit: “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

Hoax Folks

The internet bores me sometimes. I can’t keep up with the pace of blogs that chug away like a neverending newsfeed. Information comes at me so fast I want to cower in a corner and start constructing my own printing press from scraps of lumber and bits of broken screws and bent nails. Slow things down a bit. Write something of substance. Of course, electronic information has its advantages – I frequent online dictionaries and thesauri where looking up words is much quicker than flipping countless pages. While hovering on the page this morning, I noticed one of the blog entries entitled “Relax, Bill Cosby isn’t dead — it was a hoax. Is it true that the origin of ‘hoax’ mocks Christianity?” I’m glad for Bill Cosby’s sake, but what really caught my attention was the subtitle. We are all subjected to hoaxes almost as regularly as we are fed real news. Was this blurb suggesting that Christianity originated hoaxes or had given us the word “hoax”? Okay, too much information, but I had to find out.

The blog post states, in part, “The Eucharist, a central Christian prayer, contains the Latin ‘hoc est enim corpus meum,’ meaning ‘for this is my body.’ Jesus is said to have spoken these words at the Last Supper. The British clergy John Tillotson speculates in 1694 that hocus pocus is not only a corruption of this key Latin phrase, but a parody in keeping with the occasionally vulgar humor of prestidigitators.” Having taught for more than a decade at the avowed queen of “Anglo-Catholic” seminaries, I’d heard the gist of this before. For a blog on a website supporting grammar, however, I winced at “a central Christian prayer” and “The British clergy John…” phrasing. The Eucharist is not a prayer, but a sacrament, part of which is the Eucharistic prayer. Clergy is a collective, not an individual. Not to mention that if one was speculating in 1694 it ought to have been in the past tense.

In any case, the story as I received it was that Protestants coined the phrase “hocus pocus” to abjure the idea that anything “magical” was happening at the Eucharist. Protestants generally held communion to have been symbolic rather than a literal act of changing bread to flesh and wine to blood. So it seems that from a Protestant point of view the Eucharistic prayer was a hoax, but from a Catholic viewpoint it was salvation. As with most things religious, it is a matter of perspective. The word “hoax,” it turns out, likely derives from “hocus.” Having found this gem nestled in among so many grammatical errors, however, shakes my confidence a bit. That, however, is just my perspective.

A hoax or Dagon's sister?