Ludicrous, Liar, or Lazy? SJ Thomason, Child Sacrifice, and Why You Should Actually Read Your Sources

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[1] 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[2] 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[3] who is quoting John Day[4] 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.”[5] 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).[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] Twenty-eight years later the piece was posted to the website of the Associates for Biblical Research.[11] 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.”[12] 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).[13]

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.”[14] 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.[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] 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. 

Conclusion 

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. 


[1] 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. 

[2] 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!

[3] Clay Jones, “Killing the Canaanites: A Response to the New Atheism’s ‘Divine Genocide’ Claims,” Christian Research Journal vol. 33 no. 4 (2010), 3.

[4] 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.

[5] See the subsection entitled “God’s Promise: The Stones Will Cry Out” in her post “And Babylon Will Never Be Inhabited.” For my discussion of her quote mining, see here.

[6] 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. 

[7] The Carthaginians were descended from Phoenician travelers who had migrated from the eastern Mediterranean to cities like Carthage and Hadrumetum. 

[8] Shelby Brown, Late Carthaginian Child Sacrifice and Sacrificial Monuments in their Mediterranean Context (Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991), 33.

[9] 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. 

[10] 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. 

[11] See here.

[12] Plutarch as quoted by White “Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice,” 28. 

[13] In Plutarch’s Moralia, vol. 2, Frank Cole Babbitt, translator, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1928). 

[14] White, “Abortion and the Ancient Practice of Child Sacrifice,” 28 (emphasis added).

[15] 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.

[16] 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.

[17] 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.

12 thoughts on “Ludicrous, Liar, or Lazy? SJ Thomason, Child Sacrifice, and Why You Should Actually Read Your Sources

Add yours

  1. Interesting discussion. And well done digging up the actual sources and interpreting them appropriately. Needed to be done.

    I’d think the best evidence for child sacrifice among Canaanites would be texts like Jeremiah 19:5 where YHWH insists that he never commanded child sacrifice. Perhaps some YHWH-worshipers thought YHWH had indeed commanded the ritual (cf. Abraham and Isaac).

    We also have the Biblical polemics against fellow Israelites who sacrificed children (Leviticus 18:21, Ezekiel 16:36). I suppose one could argue that child sacrifice was uniquely associated with YHWH and that the claim Israelites picked it up Canaanites was fabricated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m inclined to think there *was* child sacrifice among the Canaanites and their heirs in Israel but that it could not have been very common. We simply lack the material evidence to think otherwise. But biblical rhetoric is another matter. Regarding Jeremiah 7:31ff, Robert Carroll notes that the author doesn’t actually describe the cult but rather abuses it and condemns it: “Writings influenced by the Deuteronomists have a tendency to substitute abuse for argument and contempt for description. Nowhere is this tendency more at work than in the imputation to their opponents of practising child sacrifice in the valley or in the city of Jerusalem (cf. II Kings 16.3; 17.17; 21.6; 23.10; II Chron. 33.6).” (‘Jeremiah,’ p. 222).

      So I’m in favor of being skeptical of biblical claims about the practice. Obviously *someone* had done it or else it wouldn’t have been in their minds to talk about it. But it could not have been frequently practiced and it serves the biblical author’s rhetoric more than historical fact.

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      1. Gotcha. I would think the idea that the Canaanites deserved to be destroyed *because* they practiced child sacrifice (i.e. abused children) represents more of a modern sentiment than an ancient one. And that’s why its a track followed by modern apologists–it pulls at our heart strings and could potentially justify the conquest. But do the Biblical authors actually use this deed to justify the conquest? Or do they use some other explanation? Did they even think of it as child abuse? It was a religious ritual after all and children held symbolic value.

        It seems like the jealousy of YHWH plays a major part in motivating the conquest–he doesn’t want anyone in the land to worship anyone else ever. We could project that jealousy upon the Biblical authors no doubt.

        If you ever get the inclination to explore Ezekiel 20:25 and the “bad laws” God gave his people, I’d love to hear your thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. I don’t even know where to begin with Ezekiel 20:25! It’s similar to Isaiah 63:17 – “Why, O LORD, do you make us stray from your ways….” This puts a lot of culpability on Yahweh. The Ezekiel passage is revisionist history in that it ascribes to God a command to offer up the firstborn as sacrifice. I haven’t had a chance to follow up in commentaries, etc. but it is definitely something I’d like to do at some point.

        What are your thoughts?

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  2. A few points

    On Carthaginian child sacrifice
    Kleitarchos describes singular, not mass, sacrifices and this description of the contortions of the offering describe, very well the contortions of dead bodies subjected to fire. This does lead me to wonder if the ritual described was a sort of “resurrection” of a lost babe.

    Plutarch is, to say the least, unreliable. He wrote 2 centuries after the fall of Carthage for an audience that still held Carthaginians as a sort of bogeyman. It reads to me as if he has taken Kleitarchos’s account and enlarged upon it, adding detail to please his audience.

    On the Askelon site
    There are several accounts of excavation at “tophets”. On a brief review it does seem that opinion is divided as to whether they indicate killings for ritual, killings for convenience or natural deaths. One thing is certain is that such sited do not contain the cremated remains of infants or babes in arms because immature teeth and bones do not survive such a process, thus sacrifice to Kronos or Ba’al is unlikely.

    General
    Mass infant graves are known from other sites such as the Yewden Villa at Hambleden and, like the original attribution of the Askelon find, are considered as brothel sites.
    https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-14401305

    Other related mass burials are more recent – such as at the Bon Secours convent in Tuam and the Smyllum Park Orphanage in Lanark. As far as I am aware no-one has (yet) accused these appalling practices as being the result of sacrifice

    Accusations of child sacrifice are a common way of demonising someone you perceive as an enemy: consider the many times Jews were accused of such ritual. Even in modern times during WW1 British propaganda accused the Germans of processing bodies including those of infants for glycerin. Again the modern QAnon conspiractynuts accuse Liberals, Hollywood and the Clinton’s of killing youngsters for “adrenochrome”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. When you are gathering evidence for an argument and you use a scholarly work that quotes from a primary source, always look up the reference in the primary source. Always. Always.

    Always.

    I am curious about the Noll quote in the footnote. It says, “Many scholars believe…” that Phoenicians took their child sacrificial practices from Canaan. While Noll is arguing against this (or more accurately, is arguing that there is insufficient evidence to establish this), the comment does reveal that a lot of scholars think this is what happened.

    Do you know why this would be?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think a lot of it has to do with taking what the biblical authors say as a historical starting point. After all, it must have originated *somewhere,* so it very well could have been Canaan. Biblical polemic, however, is exactly that – polemic, and it should be used cautiously. But I’m not very well read in the literature and so I hesitate go go any further.

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  4. While I do completely agree with you that SJ is nonsense (I go with the ‘All three’ perspective myself), there is some evidence from Phoenicians themselves on the mainland Levant that child sacrifice may have been practiced too. Here is what Philo of Byblos writes as quoted by Eusebius:

    /”Among ancient peoples in critically dangerous situations it was customary for the rulers of a city or nation, rather than lose everyone, to provide the dearest of their children as a propitiatory sacrifice to the avenging deities. The children thus given up were slaughtered according to a secret ritual. Now Kronos, whom the Phoenicians call El, who was in their land and who was later divinized after his death as the star of Kronos, had an only son by a local bride named Anobret, and therefore they called him Ieoud. Even now among the Phoenicians the only son is given this name. When war’s gravest dangers gripped the land, Kronos dressed his son in royal attire, prepared an altar and sacrificed him.”/

    So we have here an account of Phoenicians sacrificing children, and then we have a mythological-ritual explanation of what happens (in Euhemeristic form, characteristic of Philo of Byblos). Here is what Porphyry records:

    /”The Phoenicians too, in great disasters whether of wars or droughts, or plagues, used to sacrifice one of their dearest, dedicating him to Kronos. And the ‘Phoenician History,’ which Sanchuniathon wrote in Phoenician and which Philo of Byblos translated into Greek in eight books, is full of such sacrifices.”/

    —-

    So here we have Philo of Byblos (whose works haven’t survived), a Levantine Phoenician, writing of child sacrifice as being among Phoenicians in general. They record that this was a general tradition among Phoenicians *in times of distress.* But it was not something that happened on any regular basis according to Phoenician sources. Since it would be a rarity not practiced except in these distressful times, it would explain why there is little to no material evidence (especially since it is also children whose bones are not exactly prone to surviving fire, as it is mostly cartilage). Heath Dewrell also mentions the *possibility* (it requires a lot of reconstruction that we cannot prove conclusively to be the case) that the Deir ‘Alla inscriptions reference child sacrifice.

    While it is definitely very tentative, we do have a Phoenician account attesting to their practice of human sacrifice, which is vindicated by two lines of transmission.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think you’re probably right that if the practice existed then it was not done with great regularity and that the textual data supports this and the lack of material evidence coheres with it. But that, of course, isn’t the only possibility. Nevertheless, in either case it would cut against Thomason’s claims. It’s lose-lose for her!

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      1. Indeed. No matter what, these were probably not “common” occurrences (save *maybe* at Carthage), and they don’t appear to have been a widely practiced ritual. So, SJ’s nonsense is purely based on nothing particularly credible.

        Her arguments actually only further collapse in light of more current data. Practically all references to human sacrifice in the Bible are actually those done by the Israelites (the “Moloch” deity probably never existed, Dewrell and Eissfeldt I think are convincing in arguing that the lmlk sacrifices are actually a type of ritual sacrifice, likely they were done for Yahweh). One of the few references to non-Israelite human sacrifice is 2 Kings 3:26-17, but it is, imo, either a polemic or an Israelite projection, which we have no documentation of. The Mesha Stele never records the event.

        The only credible reference is to it is Psa. 106:37-39 (though the practice of sacrificing daughters is unattested, the sources indicate the ritual was done with the most beloved son).

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Sources:

    Harold Attridge and Robert Oden Jr., *Philo of Byblos the Phoenician History: Introduction, Critical Text, Translation, Notes* CBQMS 9 (W. D. C.: Catholic Biblical Association, 1981), p. 61-63

    A. Baumgarten, *The Phoenician History of Philo of Byblos: A Commentary* (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1981), pp. 244-260

    Heath Dewrell, *Child Sacrifice in Ancient Israel* (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2018), pp. 59-64

    Liked by 1 person

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