I had not planned to write about pop-apologist SJ Thomason for a while. Back in February she wrote a response to a piece I had written concerning the dating of the Gospels and while I had been working on a rebuttal to it I gave it up because, let’s be honest, it would take way too much work to produce something she isn’t going to read in the first place. (I am still planning to write something on the subject but will likely only mention her in passing, choosing instead to make the post broader on the issue of the dating of the book of Acts.) So, at least with regards to the blog, Thomason was off my radar. And then I was alerted to a video Thomason recently produced covering her debate with Skylar Fiction on objective morality. Here’s the relevant portion begins around 17:45 or so.
Thomason says, “I’ve had people like Amateur Exegete try to claim that we have no extrabiblical support for some of the things that we saw in the Old Testament and that’s just completely false.” She then offers up this slide.
In support of her claim that the Canaanites practiced some pretty terrible things and that we have evidence for this from outside the Bible, Thomason lists these points from Kleitarchos, Plutarch, and the late Lawrence Stager. Let’s consider them each briefly one-by-one.
Note: I have neither watched the full video referenced above or the debate she had with Skylar Fiction and so I cannot intelligently comment on anything else she has stated. My discussion is limited to the above referenced video and to the short segment wherein I am mentioned.
Additionally, I have addressed much of this already in another post entitled “SJ Thomason Gets It Wrong (As Usual).” Readers are encouraged to check out that piece. Some of my arguments have been adjusted in light of new material I’ve had the opportunity to read as well as older material I’ve reexamined.
Kleitarchos on Child Sacrifice
The first entry on the slide is a purported quotation from Kleitarchos, a Greek historian from the fourth century BCE. Well, that isn’t exactly true. Though Thomason doesn’t note it, she is actually quoting Clay Jones who is quoting John Day who is quoting a scholium on Plato’s Republic that paraphrases Kleitarchos. This is a deep quote mine, but it is no surprise that Thomason cannot be bothered to consult primary source material. It is reminiscent of the time she quoted Millar Burrows in a post she wrote on “God’s Promises.” In searching for the quote, I discovered that Thomason was actually quoting James Kennedy quoting Josh McDowell quoting Burrows. Time and again, Thomason demonstrates her skill in the art of contextomy. But I digress!
As she presents it, Thomason asserts that Kleitarchos’ words constitute “extrabiblical support for Canaanite evils.” She does this by offering a cropped quotation of Kleitarchos’ words. Here is an extended version of the quote to show context.
Cleitarchus [i.e. Kleitarchos] says that the Phoenicians, and especially the Carthaginians, worship Kronos. Whenever they are pressing on to success in something of importance they vow to offer one of the children as a burnt offering to the god if they gain the advantage in what they desire. A bronze statue of Kronos stands in their city with hands stretched out and turned upwards over a bronze brazier. Here the child is burned. As the flame of the burnt offering falls upon its body, the limbs contract and the mouth appears to grin very much like a person laughing, until it is caught up in the fire and slips into the brazier. Grinning laughter then is called sardonic from this fact that the victims die laughing (Scholia Plato Respublica 337a).
There are a few observations to be made.
First, Kleitarchos is referring to a practice of “the Phoenecians, and especially [malista] the Carthaginians.” What follows, then, is in the context of Carthaginian practice. Second, Kleitarchos references the deity Kronos, a Greek deity. Shelby Brown notes that many ancient Greek authors state that these sacrifices were made to Kronos or his Roman equivalent Saturn though inscriptions will refer to Ba’al Hammon and Tanit. But where are these inscriptions found? Not in the Levant but in cities like Hadrumetum (in modern Tunisia), Carthage, Cirta, Motya, and Nora. Thus, the material evidence concerns child sacrifice along the northern African coast or in the Mediterranean, not ancient Palestine. The reference to Kronos supports the evidence since Kronos was not a deity worshipped by any Canaanite in the period about which Thomason is concerned. Third, Kleitarchos doesn’t describe this as an activity that was done with great frequency. Rather, he characterizes it as performed on occasions when success needs to be guaranteed for an endeavor. Fourth, Kleitarchos refers to a statue that stands “in their city,” and this cannot be anything but a reference to the city of Carthage. The last time I checked, Carthage is not in the Levant.
It is clear now what Thomason’s error is: she failed to go back to the primary source. The evidence for this is that Thomason’s quotation of Kleitarchos is verbatim from Jones’ piece. Therefore, it is not that Thomason has cropped the quotation, but that Jones has cropped it and Thomason was merely copying off his work. This sort of laziness is characteristic of Thomason’s apologetic work in general. It also serves as a valuable lesson in conducting research: when possible, examine the context of the original source. A text without a context is a pretext for a prooftext.
Plutarch on Child Sacrifice
Next, Thomason quotes a passage from Plutarch’s De Superstitione. Well, as was the case regarding Kleitarchos above, that isn’t exactly true. She’s quoting an article by medical doctor Andrew White entitled “Abortion and the Practice of Ancient Child Sacrifice” that first appeared in the Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine in 1984. Twenty-eight years later the piece was posted to the website of the Associates for Biblical Research. In the article, White quotes from Plutarch’s De Superstitione and so Thomason, yet again, chooses to read a secondary source instead of a primary one.
White provides the following quotation from Plutarch: “the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people.” But of what statue was Plutarch speaking? Here is more context for the quote provided by Plutarch.
Again, would it not have been far better for the Carthaginians to have taken Critias or Diagoras to draw up their law-code at the very beginning, and so not to believe in any divine power or god, rather than to offer such sacrifices as they used to offer to Cronos? These were not in the manner that Empedocles describes in his attack on those who sacrifice living creatures:
Changed in form is the son beloved of his father so pious,
Who on the altar lays him and slays him. What folly!
No, but with full knowledge and understanding they offered up their own children, and those who had no children would buy little ones from poor people and cut their throats as if they were so many lambs or young birds; meanwhile the mother stood by without a tear or moan; but should she utter a single moan or let fall a single tear, she had to forfeit the money, and her child was sacrificed nevertheless; and the whole area before the statue was filled with a loud noise of flutes and drums so that the cries of wailing should not reach the ears of the people (De Superstitione 171).
The statue of which Plutarch was writing was that of Cronos (see above). And where was this statue of Cronos located? As Plutarch clearly states, in Carthage. As Carthage is not in the Levant generally or in the region regarded as Canaan particularly, it has no direct bearing on the subject of child sacrifice among the Canaanites and cannot constitute evidence of the practice among them. And this is why reading primary sources is important. Had Thomason bothered to actually read Plutarch, she would not have made this mistake. But in truth, she didn’t actually have to read Plutarch; rather, all she had to do was read the secondary source from which she acquired the quotation!
When White provides the quotation of Plutarch, he does so as part of a larger discussion. The paragraph in which the Plutarch quotation is embedded begins with an introduction to a quotation from Diodorus Siculus’ Bibliotheca Historica that reads, “The actual rite of child sacrifice at Carthage has been graphically described by Diodorus Siculus.” Moreover, in the preceding discussion on pp. 27-28 of White’s article it is very clear that the evidence presented is specific to a Carthaginian practice. Therefore, strictly speaking Thomason did not even need to read Plutarch; all she had to do was correctly read her secondary source! For though we can contest White’s views on the relationship of Carthaginian child sacrifice to purported child sacrifice in Canaan, we can readily see that White is clear that he is referring to the Carthaginian practice when referencing Plutarch and other ancient historians.
This leads us to a dilemma, one that should give Thomason’s readers pause: either Thomason is simply too lazy to bother to read a primary source for herself and determine the context of a quotation or, knowing that White’s citing of Plutarch was in the specific context of Carthaginian child sacrifice, she willfully mislead her audience into thinking that the citation concerned purported child sacrifice in Canaanite societies. Neither option – that she’s lazy or that she’s a liar – is great, but both are consistent with so much of pop-apologetics.
I should also briefly comment on her claim that “[a]rchaelogists have found children’s bodies in stone pillars, jars, home frames, drains, and sewers.” There is no source provided for this assertion and it cannot be found in the primary sources of Kleitarchos and Plutarch or in the secondary sources of Jones and White. But that in and of itself is inconsequential. In context, Thomason has been discussing child sacrifice by fire to a deity. If the bodies of children were found in stone pillars, jars, etc. then they weren’t sacrificed to a deity as she claims. The import of this claim, then, betrays her thesis.
Infanticide at Ashkelon
The final reference offered on this slide is to an article written by Lawrence Stager entitled “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon” that appeared in Biblical Archaeological Review. Unlike either Clay Jones or Andrew White, Stager was a well-respected scholar and archaeologist who trained at Harvard University where he received his PhD. That Thomason references Stager is commendable and a sign that she will at times look to sound scholarship. Well, that is until you read Stager.
Stager’s piece, as the title suggests, is about a singular location: Ashkelon, a town which lies along the Mediterranean coast to the west of Jerusalem. In his discussion of infanticide, Stager’s focus is on the Greco-Roman era forward, specifically the Byzantine period. An inset in the article by Patricia Smith and Gila Kahila discusses the discovery of around one hundred skeletons of infants in an Ashkelon sewer that date to the Roman-Byzantine period. Were they the remains of children sacrificed to a god in Ashkelon? Not at all. Smith and Kahila note that during times of child sacrifice the infants offered were of different ages but these bodies appear to be all the same age. Their conclusion is that these are examples of infanticide, not ritual sacrifice. Moreover, Stager never once discusses child sacrifice in his piece and none of the examples he offers are part of a cultic ritual. While infanticide was considered by many to be a detestable practice and even today we rightfully condemn it, it is not the same thing as ritualistic child sacrifice.
Thomason’s inclusion of Stager’s article on her chart concerning “extrabiblical support for Canaanite evils” tells me that she was either too lazy to read the article or she read it and didn’t understand it or she read it and understood it and included it hoping her audience would not bother to do any follow up. Whichever you choose, it doesn’t look good for Thomason.
So, I stand by my position that as far as child sacrifice among the Canaanites goes we have virtually no material evidence to support its existence. What we do have are stylized polemics written by authors who demonized their opponents in a bid to save face. Sometimes this meant castigating members of their own tribe but sometimes it was about attacking “the other.” What better way to do so then by accusing them of murdering to a false god the most innocent and vulnerable among them?
And so, reader, we are left with a trilemma. Either Thomason is acting ludicrously, unreasonable in her assertions and in her conclusions; she is lying by deliberately misconstruing the work of scholars and what our primary sources have to say about the nature of child sacrifice; or she’s lazy, choosing to look over the shoulder of her apologist classmates rather than do the actual work herself. Is she ludicrous, a liar, or just lazy?
Maybe it’s all three.
Acknowledgments: Though the title is inspired by C.S. Lewis’ famous trilemma about Jesus, I am indebted to my wonderful wife for helping come up with an equivalent for Thomason. I’d also like to thank @Floridaline, our SJ-Archivist, for alerting me to this brief segment where Thomason references yours truly.
 For my piece, see here; for her response, see here. Note: she has since deleted any reference to me and has instead made the post generic. But here’s a screenshot of the “pingback” where she originally linked to my article in hers.
 The transcript produced by YouTube has her saying “amateur exigent” because if you listen to her speak, Thomason cannot seem to correctly pronounce “exegete.” I guess “exigent” might be appropriate to describe me since I demand she accurately cite her sources!
 Clay Jones, “Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s ‘Divine Genocide’ Claims,” Christian Research Journal vol. 33 no. 4 (2010), 3.
 John Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 87. Note: this is the reference offered in Jones’ piece. I do not have Day’s volume and so could not directly check the reference. The scholium to which is referred, however, is accessible in other volumes. See note 4 of the current blog post.
 Translated by Charles Alexander Robinson, The History of Alexander the Great, vol. 1 (Kingsport, TN: Kingsport Press, 1953), 175; cf. William Chase Greene, Scholia Platonica (Haverford, PA: Haverford College, 1938), 192.
 The Carthaginians were descended from Phoenician travelers who had migrated from the eastern Mediterranean to cities like Carthage and Hadrumetum.
 Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 33.
 Brown (Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice, 33) notes that classical sources claim the rite of child sacrifice was usually performed by Phoenicians only in response to “major crises.” If child sacrifice were a practice done with great frequency, one wonders how a population could even be maintained.
 Andrew White, “Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice,” Journal of Biblical Ethics in Medicine, vol. 1 no. 2 (1984), 27-42. The journal, which to my knowledge has no academic affiliation, went through ten volumes and ceased publication in 1997.
 Plutarch as quoted by White “Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice,” 28.
 In Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. 2, Frank Cole Babbitt, translator, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928).
 White, “Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice,” 28 (emphasis added).
 The claim that the Carthaginian practice was brought over by “Phoenician colonizers” is without support. The observation of K.L. Noll holds:
Many scholars believe that [the Phoenicians] took the practice of child sacrifice with them [to Carthage] from Canaan. If that were the case, infant sacrifices could have been a regular practice of Canaanite religion. This possibility cannot be ruled out. However, no evidence suggests that such practices took place in Canaan, so the immigrants may have developed their religious rites after they arrived in their new homelands.
See K.L. Noll, “Canaanite Religion,” Religion Compass, vol 1 no 1 (2007), 85.
 Lawrence E. Stager, “Eroticism and Infanticide at Ashkelon,” Biblical Archaeological Review, vol. 17 no. 4 (1991), 34-39, 41-42, 45, 47-50, 52-53.
 Patricia Smith and Gila Kahila, “Bones of a Hundred Infants Found in Ashkelon Sewer,” Biblical Archaeological Review, vol. 17 no. 4 (1991), 47.
Featured image: Wikimedia Commons.