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This news story about Ben Carson’s beliefs concerning the pyramids has been getting some more airing recently. In 1998, Carson declared he didn’t think the Pyramids were tombs, but that Joseph built them in order to store grain during the famine in Egypt. When asked about this on the campaign trail, he repeated his statement, saying that

“Some people believe in the Bible, like I do,”…”And don’t find that to be silly at all and believe that God created the earth and don’t find that to be silly at all. The secular progressives try to ridicule it anytime it comes up and they’re welcome to do that.”

He also said

“I think that’s a plausible explanation to how they got built…I happen to believe a lot of things that you might not believe because I believe in the Bible.”

Two things struck me as extraordinary about this story. Firstly, the theory itself. As I understand it, we have a decent amount of historical and archaeological evidence about the agricultural and religious life of Ancient Egypt. The pyramids played a major part in one of those spheres of life, and no part in the other. Certainly large structures from previous eras are reused and reshaped by later cultures, but I don’t think there is any evidence in favour of Carson’s claim.

Because it isn’t an argument based in evidence. It’s an ahistorical declaration, not a theory based on historical traces. It involves a certain amount of a specific kind of mythic thinking: the strain of thought which assumes that the world is entirely explicable from our point of view, and everything which happened led up to us. Our present point, and our assessment of the world, is the point at which everything becomes clear.

That’s somewhat abstract, but in this case I think it runs like this: the Bible is a massively influential part of public life in the dominant world nation. Therefore the history of the world must be explicable entirely in terms offered by the Bible. We have massive physical phenomena which are not accounted for in the Bible, therefore they must be something else which actually are explained by the Bible.

Moreover, it must be explicable in terms which put “us” on the dominant position in history. Our book must be the explanation for any puzzling thing in the world, but it also turns out that someone whom we claim as a spiritual ancestor was actually in charge. Joseph is the “hero” of the story related in the Book of Genesis, therefore he happens to be the one who ordered these giant imposing ancient survivals to be built.

In a lecture yesterday I compared this to a certain kind of mythical thinking which we find in the theories surrounding Shakespeare. In the nineteenth century (and later), it was not unknown to find statements that Shakespeare knew Queen Elizabeth (or if you believe some of the wilder ideas, that he was her son, her lover, or actually her.) This painting is a decent example:

The conventions of history painting aside, this image assumes that all the people who are important in the history of this era used to hang out together at Shakespeare’s place of business. Shakespeare and Elizabeth are the figures we trace our origins from, therefore they must have known each other well, and probably influenced each other. There’s no space for contingency, for lost opportunities, for chance, chaos, tragedy, silenced voices, hopes: history must rearrange itself neatly to prove that we are the culmination of it. Our ancestors must fall into line and only have their own lives if those point towards us.

They must also legitimate us in doing so. The particularly odd thing about suggesting Joseph built the Pyramids – from a Biblical Studies point of view – is that it decides that “our” religious ancestors were in charge of Ancient Egypt. Despite the fact that the Israelites in Egypt are generally depicted in the Old Testament as indentured (even enslaved), beaten, mistreated and forced to build Egyptian monuments under ghastly conditions, this reading assumes that the Pyramids originated with one of them. The major military power depicted in the Biblical narrative is identified with the current US polity, despite the apparent shape of the narrative.

It would be impertinent and insensitive for me to pretend I have anything like a sufficient grasp of the Black theologies which have reflected so powerfully on the narratives of Genesis and Exodus, and connected them with the experience of marginalised and oppressed peoples. I don’t want to suggest I can interrogate Carson’s views from that angle. Instead, I want to focus on his statement from another approach, summed up in a footnote to the article I linked above:

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated the Book of Genesis refers to Joseph building pyramids to store grain. It refers only to Joseph storing large amounts of grain.

That’s quite a correction. In one of the most demonstratively Christian nations in the world, a public figure made a basic statement about one of the most famous narratives in the Bible, and the press wrote it down as fact. Without checking that fact in a freely available work in the public domain. Partly this is an excuse to complain about the way many reporters don’t feel knowing about religion is something they should attend to, in the same way that they might take a quick crash course in economics, laws, music or similar.

Because the Bible doesn’t say that. And I’m not talking in interpretative or ethical terms, I’m talking in simple narrative terms. The Bible does not say Joseph ordered the Pyramids to be built. “Secular progressives” can see that just as well as “Bible-believing people”. Carson told the press corps they were ignorant, sneering and uncomprehending, and they believed him and acted accordingly.

There’s a broader point here, as well. As John Barton has commented, our public culture is impoverished when people accept that the Bible is an obscure and fanatical book, only readable by fundamentalists. It’s easier then for people to construct “culture wars” in which the Bible is set against contemporary society. Carson isn’t a Biblical literalist, he’s constructing an entirely imaginary story based neither in history nor the available Biblical texts. It’s surprising how many people believed him, even if they didn’t believe his theory.

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