iTunes U Course – The Hebrew Bible

A Harvard University Course by Shaye J. D. Cohen

Much like my last post on Dale Martins course on the New Testament, this is a course that I got into because of my interest in ancient scriptures and while it would make sense to post these in reverse order however, this is the version I listened to them in.

Shaye J. D. Cohen is a professor in the Hebrew Scriptures at Harvard University. Like mentioned in my last post, I do have a fairly good understanding, at least in introductory understanding, (better than most gentiles) of the Hebrew texts. I took a few courses on them, but again these were years ago and in high school setting. Therefore, I was intrigued to listen to a historical criticism of the Hebrew Scriptures. It is worth note the complexity of these documents. While that is not to say that there isn’t in the New Testament, the scope and scale of time is important here. Like Martin, Cohen makes an effort to start the course with some basics including maps and a timeline chronology.

As a Gentile growing up, I learned that the Scriptures of the Old Testament are divided into four parts the Torah, the historical books, the wisdom books, and the prophetic books. Cohen does a good job at the beginning of describing the differences between the Protestant books and Catholic books, and then comparing these the Jewish books. Even going into why the Catholics have seven more books in the Old Testament then either Jews or Protestants. (For those interested, this has to do with what language the books were originally written. If the book was originally written in Greek, despite the importance to the Jewish faith, it is not included in the Hebrew Scriptures, but often kept alive in the rabbinic tradition of people named Cohen (Coen) and the Levites. This means that the Catholics have the Song of Songs and the books about the Maccabean revolt (ie The story of Chanukah) while the Protestant and Jewish scriptures to not do not).

However, Cohen plays devil’s advocate much more. He admits that oftentimes we just don’t know certain things. Now, he does this playfully. What this means is that he looks at say rules in numbers, talks about the fact that the 10 Commandments in Exodus is different than the one that shows up later in Deuteronomy, or that certain kosher laws are explained, but then not really explained. He talks about parts of the Hebrew Scriptures that he finds uncomfortable like God’s demand that the Israelites commit genocide on the Canaanites. That being said, he explains this in an interesting way (that the Israelites were most likely Canaanites themselves), but not in a way that is in the text, more of a way that we understand thanks to archaeology. This course does an excellent job of explaining the history of the text and why it is different than the interpretation of the text. Additionally, he makes the arguments about where Judaism actually comes from. Which is very tricky.

Ultimately, this is an interesting piece because it allows for a new kind of interpretation, while introducing for example the documentary method which is so well understood. In fact my New American Bible, the standard Catholic of edition, includes Joshua, Ruth, Samuel and the histories, because they’re all clearly written by the deuterocanonical author. It is an impressive course and one that should be enjoyed by people interested in the text. It goes much further than the traditional easy criticisms like contradictions in Genesis chapters 1 and 2. I think, unlike Martin, this course ebbs and flows. Overall the course is excellent, and the last lecture specially is incredibly well done, and would have none of the power if you had not listen to his other lectures.

Like last piece, I want to make it clear here that this is a lecture series on the historical interpretations of the Old Testament (Hebrew Scriptures). I’m not here trying to change your faith, I just think this is an interesting interpretation. Cohen even seems to struggle at times with parts of what historians are saying, but still makes sure to say it. Overall I think this is an excellent podcast, and I am doing additional research.


iTunes U Course – Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

An iTunes University course from Yale by Dale Martin

While studying for my PhD comprehensive exams, there reached a point where I was so mentally exhausted from rereading the same arguments over and over again that I needed a break. While many out there of you will not necessarily think of taking an online course as a break, I knew I needed to refocus myself by listening and thinking about something else, but I also wanted to be historical in nature.

Generally, as someone who studies US history, I realize that most of you think of US history as the only history that you need to know. However, as an academic in the field, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. When I think of academic history, I think of tweed jackets and elbow patches maybe a pipe, but when I think of that, I don’t think of them teaching US history. Generally, I think of them teaching Rome, ancient Greece and Persia. When I think of teaching US history, I bang my head against the wall because people don’t seem to relate to the fact that this is almost like civics. Teaching American history is still to explain the current election in context. With this in mind, studying classics of Western Civilization and the books that fundamentally founded in a historical context is right up that alley.

For those of you who have not taken an iTunes U course before, it’s quite simple. A series of audio or videos of lectures, a syllabus and all readings that are not copyrighted. Thus in this case, lists of Bible readings and a recommended textbook for purchase, additionally assignments are given but are not graded either for chose to read this much more like a podcast on a non-fiction topic.

Prof. Martins course is fantastic. As someone who is been interested as a Catholic in both Canon and the history of the church for historical reasons for a long time, this is really a boon. For example, I have read many Bart Ehrman’s books, and took standard Catholic synthesis and new and Old Testament courses, but those were primarily at the high school level and Bart Ehrman’s books are good, but written for a mass audience. Martin here addresses us as undergrads, but with an academically rigorous nature appropriate for Yale.

The course, to Prof. Martins own admittance, starts off rather slow, but interesting as he depicts Rome at the time of the Christian scriptures and Judaism at the time of the Christian scriptures and slowly builds. He starts out tracking the Gospels and following the books in order, but makes the story much more complex than that. Talking about how we know the synoptic Gospels are connected versus the Gospel of John, talking about how we know that Luke is part one and ask is part two of the same story, how we know that Paul wrote seven of his letters for sure, several are we are 50-50 on, and several we are sure our written by others in his name. He goes to great lengths to talk about how the early church looked, and why the Paul in Acts is different from the Paul of the letters. Additionally, he is one of the most interesting explanations of revelations I’ve heard.

While this is in no way to insult my high school education, in fact, for a Catholic high school they were very neutral on the historiography of the Bible impressively enough. I, for example, knew there were contradictions in the New Testament, and that it was assembled over time, with Mark being written first within 30 years of Jesus’s death, Luke and Matthew being based on Mark and a mysterious Q document filled with the quotes of Jesus, then finally John written about 100 years or so after Jesus’s death. However, Martin does an excellent job and creates a very interesting class. Something you should listen to for people who are really interested in the New Testament.

Finally, a caveat. Please note, Prof. Martin and I have no interest or really care about your faith. Martin makes clear that he is a religious man and of himself, but that does not change the canonical point of view versus the historical point of view. This is an iTunes University course on the historical interpretations of the Bible. Historical criticism tries to contextualize and use historical evidence for the Bible you can still look at the work as a solid text without contradictions, and he is not out inherently to disprove anyone’s religious beliefs, but know that if you believe that the Bible is without contradiction or without flaw, you will be frustrated.

iTunes U – The Introduction to the New Testament History and Literature

The Dollop – Disco Demolition Night

For those of you who don’t know, The Dollop is an American History podcast wherein Dave Anthony (stand-up comedian, writer, and actor) tells a story about American History to Gareth Reynolds (also a stand-up and writer) and Gareth improvises, does impressions, and generally is shocked by his lack of knowledge of American History. I will do an full write up on the value of the Dollop in the future, but for the moment I want to share one of the funniest episodes in a long time, the history of Disco Demolition Night

Also if you liked that, you should listen to the episode on Cleveland’s Ten Cent Beer Night.

99% Invisible – The Grand Dame of Broad Street

I have long struggled with what to do with this blog. On one hand, I want to make it a picture of my historical acumen, but on the other hand I want to make sure that I have been functioning website. This is a struggle because I do a lot, like most academics, and sometimes self-aggrandizement is difficult because it comes in the way of actual work. So in order to make sure that I keep updating this site, I am going to start doing an idea that I learned from’s political podcast. The statistics based website and podcast starts with what they call their “good use of polling and bad use of polling.” In that vein I think I will begin my good use of history to value some history where at least once a week I will make an effort to publish a small thing that I think it’s a good historical document or use of history. With that in mind, here’s my first submission

99% Invisible is an amazing podcast starring Roman Mars and a cadre of reporters. It dabbles in a fascinating aspect of history which is the built environment. Mars himself refers to it as a podcast on design, but it is so fundamental at times that it really becomes a podcast about everything. It is truly impressive. So why did this particular episode motivate me to write for the first time on such topic, Well, it has to do with the fact that this is effectively my field. I do epidemiological and medical history. This story not only tells a fascinating yarn about the CDC and a beautiful building, but how we find where diseases come from. This tracks the fantastic story of Legionnaires’ disease and how disease detectives were able to track it down. Worth a listen.

99% Invisible – Episode 211 – The Grand Dame of Broad Street





Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

“History is hard to know, because of all the hired bullshit, but even without being sure of “history” it seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time—and which never explain, in retrospect, what actually happened.” – Hunter S. Thompson, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream

I know this quote is probably not the ontological narrative or historiographical prose you expect to see at the downloadbeginning of one of these posts. My passion is cultural and intellectual history, however, when I developed this interest as an undergrad, I pictured writing about the history of Christmas and Superheroes as a concept. So my when my Masters was filled with the overwhelming sinking feeling of nature of being introduced to Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Judith Butler, et al., I felt overwhelmed, like I started to lose touch with the history I so enjoyed. As a teacher at heart, I see the cultural narrative in the zeitgeist of poetry and song. For me, there is more about the working class struggle and drive for success in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman than in Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.“

As an academic, in my mind, my job is not singular; it is two-fold. I need to love being in the library. I need to love research. And, frankly, I need to love Max Weber. I have overcome that fear of Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, and Judith Butler. However, the other part of the job is to teach that information. One’s research needs to add something to humanity (as my professor Dr. Denis Gainty told my 7045 class). Unfortunately, a lot of what history adds to the narratives has wide reaching extremes.
As a child of cable TV, I grew up in the era of commercialized and commoditized history on the History Channel. The 1960s I was taught was very polar, between hippies, Civil Rights, and Anti-War against the establishment. Black and White. Over time, these ideologies won or lost, but are long since gone. Nixon was evil. History was sterilized and closed. Anti-War people today? They were a different breed! Movements were contained to an era. The radical ‘60s were such an era. On the other extreme are the dense, almost foreign texts, designed more to impress one’s peers than to impart knowledge to the populous. It was this that nearly kept me out of academia.

As an undergrad, between my Attention Deficit Disorder (diagnosed not slang) and some of the books I was assigned, such as Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Revolutions, made me think that academia was beyond reach. I felt like professors were a breed apart until History 101 + 102.

As a sophomore at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I was in a US History survey course under the impressive skill of Dr. Allan Winkler, a brilliant professor who had a predilection for leading lecture halls of some 300 students in the chorus of “Wabash Cannonball.” As outside reading for the post-Civil War segment of the course, we were assigned Ragged Dick by Horatio Alger. Through the predictable dime novel plot and the simple “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” morality is the nugget of the American Dream; the sly and cunning object at the heart of American Identity which drives immigrants to these shores and the working class to hope for a better life. As we sat down with the TA and discussed it, my experiences with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas came roaring back.

Like many readers in the decades since its publication, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream has resonated with me. I know this associates me with the dozens helpless druggies that see deeper meaning in all things, but I urge that this is not the case. Along with many others my age, I saw the Johnny Depp and Benicio Del Toro movie in high school and soon after read the book. However, not unlike The Big Lebowski, the movie seemed merely to exude a form of livelihood my mundane middle class white upbringing did not. I was not a druggie. I was a nerd, frankly, and with that, all the trappings of school work and attentiveness to study. Fear and Loathing represented a challenge to that.

The story is told through the character Raoul Duke, a representation of Hunter S. Thompson’s own experiences in Las Vegas. Thompson’s urging in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is much more complex than a standard exploring America narration like Kerouac’s On the Road. Thompson’s search for the American dream is a definin
g literary moment of New Journalism, becoming, as Thompson himself put it, Gonzo Journalism. The sensational mixture of fiction and autobiography, curiosity and confidence, fear and loathing, creates a world in which the broken man looking for the American dream finds both its death and still beating heart and the core of shallow soullessness in a vivid parody of the 19th and early 20th century oddity that is the Circus Circus casino.

While the book writhes in the bizarre and hilarious from the opening lines of “We were somewhere around Barstow, on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold” to the description of the drugs in the trunk “We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls. Not that we needed all that for the trip, but once you get locked into a serious drug collection, the tendency is to push it as far as you can.” However, the books core message is one of loss. They really are trying to find the dream lost and as a desperate searcher, he looks for the signs of victory of his movement; his people.

“Strange memories onthis nervous night in Las Vegas. Five years later? Six? It seems like a lifetime, or at least a Main Era—the kind of peak that never comes again. San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. Maybe not, in the long run . . . but no explanation, no mix of words or music or memories can touch that sense of knowing that you were there and alive in that corner of time and the world. Whatever it meant. . . .

There was madness in any direction, at any hour. If not across the Bay, then up the Golden Gate or down 101 to Los Altos or La Honda. . . . You could strike sparks anywhere. There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. . . .

And that, I think, was the handle—that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. Not in any mean or military sense; we didn’t need that. Our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. . . .
So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark—that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.”


In many ways, the Wave Speech (as seen above) is the very essence of what history is. The book is filled with utter chaos and distraction. Yet out of that chaos, comes a sad truth, a narration of a bygone generation. The job is the historian, the true historian, is to not just describe what happened, but why. To get to academia, we have to denigrate the ‘what,’ ‘where,’ and the ‘who,’ to being just the starting point of the story.

In depicting the character of Raoul Duke, Hunter Thompson is the cartoon of a character after the era. He is the quintessential sixties washout. While his attempts to grapple with the idea of America are humorous, his attempts to discover the American Dream are incredible. The dark heart of the American Dream he discovers is sublime. The sense of loss, the sense of defeat, the realization of the end of an era is incredible. History is not mundane and finished. History is a social and cultural movement. It is not black and white.

This work had weight to me. As I started to understand that weight, I put into context some of the heavier works. I spread out to Howard Zinn and James Loewen. I realized that Hunter S. Thompson’s form of journalism as a foil to the other “new journalists” of Tom Wolfe, Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, or Joan Didion represented the recollection of a tarnished era that its survivors still grapple with for meaning. If that is not academic, then I cannot be either.

Casting Magic Missile into the Darkness

This morning was disorienting. I know as a historian, especially one that is working on his PhD, talking about such personal stuff is bizarre. However, I woke up disoriented. Last night, after a series of thunderstorms, the power had gone out. This is all the more unusual for my neighborhood since our power lines are underground, so even during the snow-tastro-pacalypse we didn’t lose power. Yet there I was this morning, groggily turning off my cellphone alarm (had I not had my alarm on my cellphone, I would still be asleep and, frankly, grateful), then absently flicking at the light switch to no avail. Sighing and realizing what this meant for my morning coffee consumption, I showered by iPhone light and moved on.

This is all the more appropriate with my in class lectures yesterday. In my first period AP US class, we talked briefly about Thomas Edison, yes, that Edison. The magic he produced is not just the glowing orb of the light bulb, but so much more than that. The colorful image you have of Edison holding a glowing sphere is a perfect representation of the man, but not the machine, so to speak. Technically, Edison was not the inventor of electric light even. Humphrey Davy created electric light when he developed a modern battery in 1802. Even the modern incandescent light was invented by Sir Joseph Swan in 1860, 18 years before Edison modernized the design. What made Edison different? Longevity. Edison’s lights could list 1200 hours (so he claimed), but there is still more than that.

The idea of buying bulbs from Home Depot and replacing the burnt one is a very common idea now, but that was not always the case. To put it in context, we need to think about electricity on the whole. Impressed with his designs, J. P. Morgan starts to give substantial money to Thomas Edison for electricity research. Power plants (on a small scale) were not uncommon, but the potential for electricity was just being realized. To find investors for his growing company that would become General Electric, J. P. Morgan had Edison electrify his house so he could demonstrate the magical electric lights. In his basement, Edison and co. built a power plant (coal stoked) and ran wires, so, dramatically Morgan could blow out traditional lamps, but the room would still be aglow. Drunk on power and success, Morgan and Edison agreed to electrify a block on Pearl Street, giving electricity to 59 customers.

However, for a moment, let’s think about the technological matter at hand before we get to the cultural one. A bulb is nothing, but a pretty glass sphere without electricity (duh, I know, but follow me). Outside a lab setting, Edison needs to develop a socket to standardize the bulb. He needs to build and standardize gauges of wire. He needs to develop transistors and circuit breakers. He needs to create a current that is consistent. Hundreds of hours, dozens of patents, for a city block. When the job is done, it is so standard in fact, that before wall jacks or wall sockets were standardized, people had light socket adapters for toasters and the like for the ceiling socket in their house. The cultural part of all this? Edison helps to defeat the dark. Yes there were candles, but they were dangerous, expensive and short. Night falling and day breaking were your time limits, but electric lights allowed work to go on, streets to become safer at night and the world changed.

But right now, all I want is my coffee.

More of me!

If you are interested in seeing me speak, I have a few more conferences coming up!

2/1 – Midnights in Mascara: Rocky Horror and Niche Culture, New Voices Conference: Origins, Identity, and Authenticity. Georgia State University, Atlanta, GA. Presenter.

2/28-3/1 – Bandages Over Bullets: The Civil War’s Medical Side, Georgia Association of Historians Annual Meeting and Conference. University of Georgia, Athens, GA. Presenter.

3/21-22 – One Sided: How Nutrition and Mosquitoes Lost the South The War, 5th Annual LSU Graduate History Conference Proposal. Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge, LA. Presenter.

Also check out the calendar on the bottom right for more upcoming dates!

– Nicolas Hoffmann

High School Historiography Wiki

Dear All!

If you tried to access the High School Historiography wiki lately, I apologize that it went down due to hacker jerks. However, the issue is fixed. The only change to the site is that you have to be a logged in account now that I have verified. Please continue your help and thanks!

Nicolas Hoffmann

Conference: Atlanta Graduate Student Conference in US History at Emory University

For all those interested in coming to watch me speak. I will be at Emory University at the Atlanta Graduate Student Conference in US History on Friday 11/15 at 2 pm.

Guest Post on Tropics of Meta: Dog Days Classics: Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas

I know this quote is probably not the ontological narrative or historiographical prose you expect to see at the beginning of one of these posts.  My passion is cultural and intellectual history, but when I developed this interest as an undergrad, I pictured writing about the history of Christmas and Superheroes as a concept. So my when my Masters was filled with the overwhelming sinking feeling of nature of being introduced to Michel Foucault, Hayden White, Jürgen Habermas, Eric Hobsbawm, Benedict Anderson, Judith Butler, et al, I felt overwhelmed, like I started to lose touch with the history I so enjoyed. As a teacher at heart, I see the cultural narrative in the zeitgeist of poetry and song. For me, there is more about the working class struggle and drive for success in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman than in Max Weber’s Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

To read the rest, check out the article here.