Catherine Nixey, “The darkening age” is back – and annoying scholars in five languages

A couple of years ago I came across a strange volume, seemingly designed to smear the ancient Christians.  It was authored by a recent arts graduate named Catherine Nixey, and titled “The Darkening Age”.  Some fawning reviews appeared in the mainstream press in England – presumably arranged by the publisher -, which was unfortunate as her facts were often in error.  One of the reviewers, I recall, clearly knew that it was nonsense, but equally clearly had been told by someone to give it a good review!

Marketing is part of the job of every publisher.  Even I have received such contacts!  But even so the coverage seemed remarkable. An unknown author on a marginal subject, of no interest to most people, yet such monochrome positivity.  The book itself is not worth reviewing. Such books are ten-a-penny. So it was really striking how heavily it was promoted.  It certainly made me wonder why, and by whom.  Sometimes a book indicates the start of a movement, although nothing more has appeared.

Ignorant of all this, I came across the author on twitter with a supposed “quote” from Chrysostom on which I commented in a post, Hunting the wild misquotation again.

Today I came across a thread in Dutch on twitter which revealed that her publisher has arranged for the book to be translated into five languages (!)

This has called forth a review by Dr Roland Kany from the Frankfurt Allgemeine Zeitung, which none of us will have seen, but was helpfully posted by the twitter account.  The title: “Just read how evil they are!”

I thought it might be interesting to read it, so I ran the review through OCR, and created a Word .docx file, which I’ll put here in case anyone would like to use Google Translate themselves.

There are gems in the review.

Apparently Miss Nixey thinks that damage to the frescos in the Mithraeum of Santa Prisca in Rome is clear evidence of the use of an axe by the early Christians.  Dr K. blandly suggests that perhaps she missed the work of Bryan Ward-Perkins in 2004, showing that the damage was caused by a failed conservation attempt in 1953.

Likewise Miss N. believes that no work of Porphyry has reached us: something that is news to those of us who have read his life of Plotinus, his four books on vegetarianism, and his introduction to Aristotle, a standard textbook in the middle ages.

And so it goes on.  After four columns, Dr. K. finishes:

Und so weiter . Man muss in Nixeys Buch mühsam nach Abschnitten suchen, die einer Überprüfung ohne Einschränkung standhalten. Wer sich zu Nixeys Themen seriös informieren will, sollte zu anderen Büchern greifen: Johannes Hahn über Gewalt von Christen und Heiden in der Spätantike, Wolfgang Speyer über Büchervernichtung und Zensur, Egert Pöhlmann zur Überlieferung von Texten und Peter Gemeinhardt über antikes Christentum und Bildung. Sie bieten, was Nixeys mittlerweile in fünf Sprachen übersetztem und von vielen Journalisten gefeiertem Buch abgeht: Fachkompetenz, Augenmaß, Bemühen um sachgerechte Darstellung und Kontextualisierung. Nixey dagegen lässt fort, was ihr nicht in den Kram passt, und fügt wahre, halbwahre und unzutreffende Behauptungen zu einem Konstrukt zusammen, dem nicht nur Einseitigkeit, sondern ein Übermaß an Falschheit vorzuwerfen ist.

In Nixey’s book, one has to laboriously search for sections that can withstand a review without qualification. Those who want to inform themselves on Nixey’s topics seriously, should resort to other books: Johannes Hahn on violence by Christians and Gentiles in late antiquity, Wolfgang Speyer on book destruction and censorship, Egert Pöhlmann for the transmission of texts and Peter Gemeinhardt on ancient Christianity and education. They offer what Nixey’s book, now translated into five languages ​​and celebrated by many journalists, lacks: factual competence, a sense of proportion, an effort for appropriate representation and contextualization. Nixey, on the other hand, ignores what does not fit into the junk, putting together true, half-true, and false claims into a construct that is not just one-sided, but an excessive falsehood.

Let us hope that Nixey’s book continues to be ignored by most people.

UPDATE: Revised after part of the article mysteriously vanished.  The book has vanished without trace, it seems.  The twitter link now seems to be dead, however.

UPDATE (Jan 2021): Removing some unnecessary comments.


Hunting the wild misquotation again: the perils for the author of not verifying your quotations

A week or so ago I saw on Twitter a quotation attributed to John Chrysostom, which read as follows:

Chrysostom liked to gloat that the apostles had gagged the tongues of the philosophers and stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.

The author of the tweet was a certain Catherine Nixey, who is an arts journalist for the Times of London.  She has a book out claiming that the Christians deliberately destroyed almost all ancient literature, or some illiterate nonsense like that.

The tweet appeared in a thread which began here like this:

Patrick Walsh‏ @Walsh_e_Patrick Sep 7
Did Christians erase classical wisdom? Stunning advance copies of THE DARKENING AGE by Catherine Nixey just in – publication 21st September

I’m not sure who Patrick Walsh is, but he seems to post announcements of book launches.  Anyway this one met with criticism, and @catherinenixey joined in in response.  She then posted our tweet above.  (The link to her tweet is here; but there is now no purpose in clicking that link, as we shall see.)  I happened to see it; and responded.  Screen grabs are below!

As I always do, I wondered whether John Chrysostom did say this, and if so, in what context.  So I needed a source.  As I went along, I replied to Nixey, starting here:

Her response was to brush my results aside and demand I follow her so that she could talk to me by direct message.  She did this a couple of times.

And then… suddenly she deleted her account.  This I discovered when I logged in, intending to write to her.

Then I messaged George Morley, who seems to be her publisher, asking why her account had vanished.  I saw no reply.  So I can only infer that her publisher got windy about how things were going, and told her to stop tweeting fast.

Rather than peering at those screen grabs, let me lay out what I saw.

A google search quickly revealed her source.  This proved to be Dirk Rohmann’s Christianity, Book-Burning and Censorship in Late Antiquity, De Gruyter (2016), Google Books preview page 207 (actually p.202 in the printed book):

Name-checking Pythagorean philosophy, John [Chrysostom] justifies the obliteration of ancient philosophies by the beginning of the Gospel of John, implying that the word (lógos) of God is absolute and unchallenged: “Has not all that with good cause perished and been utterly obliterated? – Indeed with good cause and according to the Word!”⁹ In his Demonstration against the Jews and Pagans John demonstrates Jesus’ divinity as a corollary of the success of Christianisation and the subsequent dissolution of the ancient traditions.¹⁰ This, he suggests, is because the apostles were given power over the demons. In John’s metaphorical words, the apostles have “gagged the tongues of the philosophers and stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.”¹¹ This passage echoes a similar statement in an unpublished manuscript (attributed to John) which asserts that “the senate decrees have been overthrown, the philosophers and orators have been put to shame, and the Areopagus has been wiped out.”¹² This statement could be right because it is attested that in the last quarter of the fourth century large private mansions were constructed on the Areopagus hill, traditionally a place that housed archives.¹³

So there is not much question about where Nixey got her idea of Chrysostom gloating over the destruction of pagan literature.  Footnote 11 supplies the reference:

11. Chrys. Jud. et gent. 5.3 (PG 48:820): φιλοσόφων ἐπιστομίζειν γλῶσσαν, ῤητόρων ἀποῤῥάπτειν στόματα.

This is Chrysostom, Against the Jews and Pagans, a little known work.  Certainly these words say what Nixey said – they gagged the tongues of the philosophers, they stitched shut the mouths of the rhetoricians.

But that quote gives no context.  What we need is an English translation.  I learned from the bibliography at Fourth Century that one does exist, in Fathers of the Church 73, Chrysostom Apologist, p.210-11.  So here is, not just six words, but the whole of chapter 5.  It is not long.

Chapter 5
The Mission of the Apostles Foretold

(1) After these events, he would send forth his apostles, as Isaiah had foretold. “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the gospel of peace, of those who bring glad tidings of good things,”‘ he said. Look what part of the body he praised. He lauded their feet, which took them everywhere they went. Furthermore, David showed the manner and source of their strength and success when he said: “The Lord shall give the word to them who preach the good tidings with great power.”

(2) It would not be by wielding weapons, nor by expenditure of money, nor by strength of body, nor by abundance of armies, nor by any other such means that the apostles would conquer the world. They would gain victory by a mere word, since that word had great power and was proved by signs and wonders. For they preached Christ crucified, they wrought miracles and. in this way, they conquered the world. It was on this account that David said: “The Lord shall give the word to them who preach the good tidings with great power,”‘ because this was his way of speaking of the miracles and wonders they worked.

(3) And it was the result of an ineffable power that the fisherman, the publican, and the tent maker, at their mere commands, raised the dead to life, drove out demons, drove off death, stopped the tongues of philosophers, stitched shut the mouths of rhetoricians, overcame kings and rulers, and were victorious over barbarians, pagans, and every nation.

(4) Indeed, David described the situation well in that way. For it was by that word which God gave them that they accomplished all those things they did. And it was with God’s great power that they brought the dead back to life, changed sinners into just men, restored sight to the blind, and drove out disease from the body and evil from the soul. And where did they get that power? That it came from the Holy Spirit is made quite clear from these words: “And they were filled with the Spirit,”’ and both men and women prophesied.

(5) Tongues seen in the form of fire settled on each one of them, as Joel had long before predicted when he said: “I shall pour out a portion of my spirit on all flesh, and your sons will prophesy and your daughters will see visions, and your young men will dream dreams before the coming of the great and illustrious day of the Lord.” [By “the great and illustrious day” he meant both the day of the Spirit and the day which would come at the consummation of the world.] This same prophet predicted salvation through faith—for he did not remain silent on this—when he said: “And it will be that whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved

Surely this is just a preacher, going through the events of Acts?  Nothing more.  How is this innocent retelling of the Acts, of the doings of Peter, Paul, and friends, a call for book-burning, fire and sword?  What sort of person would read this like that?

Anyway I posted the screen grab, and asked Catherine Nixey whether she felt that her “quote”, verbally accurate though it was, was a fair representation of what Chrysostom wrote.

Her response was to delete her account.  And that makes me feel rather guilty.  I hope that I did not do her harm.

One final thought.  In view of the attempt to erase the discussion, probably by the publisher, here is a screen grab demonstrating that the @catherinenixey account did indeed exist.  It’s not much; but I am unaccustomed to this kind of thing, so I did not capture her comments.

Does anyone know how to see deleted tweets?