The Big Lie: Extravagent Exaggeration and Outright Prevarication in Ancient Times


April 17, 2017

Rabbi Rossel is back for a two-session class on Friday, May 5 (10:00-12:00) and Sunday, May 7 (4:00-5:30) with a class about how both archaeology and critical study show how priests and rulers in ancient times massaged the truth, exaggerated here and there and at times relied on what has recently been dubbed “alternative facts.”  The class will go back in time to explore the age-old tendency of those in power to stretch the truth for their own purposes. We checked in with Rabbi Rossel to find out more.

WIH Reporter: What is essential to know about your upcoming class?

Rossel: We have seen how handy the use of extravagant exaggeration and outright prevarication can be in modern politics. Those of us who specialize in ancient politics, watching developments in the study of ancient nations, are aware of many instances of how “The Big Lie” was used to shape beliefs.

We might say, “History is shaped by myth.” Or, we might say, “History can be shaped by mythmakers.” Marie Antoinette probably never said, “Let them eat cake,” but the characterization and the quotation echo from generation to generation. On the other hand, almost everyone quotes Lincoln as saying, “You can fool all the people some of the time and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” There is no evidence that he ever spoke these words. In fact, the quote was popularized in the early twentieth century by leaders of the Prohibition movement and the speakers who used it attributed the words to Lincoln to add weight to their message.

Of course, that just demonstrates that you can fool nearly all of the people nearly all of the time. “Alternative facts” and the beliefs they represent are as much a part of our modern vocabulary as “Let them eat cake.” And so they were in ancient times.

WIH Reporter: What would surprise us to know about the topic of your class?

Rossel: The source of news then and now was the official spokesperson. It might immediately be surprising to know, for example, that “Pharaoh” was not a title. The king of Egypt was the “King;” his residence was “the Pharaoh.” Saying “the Pharaoh announced…” in ancient Egypt was the equivalent to saying “the White House announced…” today. It would probably be equally surprising to learn that Moses was far from being the first baby floated downriver in a basket in anticipation of a royal future.

In fact, I think most of the “alternative facts” expounded in ancient kingdoms by rulers and priests will be surprising to the class. I plan to show how these “innovative” facts were presented and engineered to influence and control ancient opinion (and how many continue to influence and control opinion even now).

WIH Reporter:  What mistaken impressions might folks have about the  subject of your class?

Rossel: Folks who study with me often remark that ancient history is remarkably “relevant” to what is happening daily. The only possible mistaken impression people could have is that looking back does not help us in going forward. At the very least, it provides us with perspective, keeping us from treating today’s news as unique or overwhelming. Every “Big Lie” has a purpose. But not every purpose is either corrosive or nefarious.

WIH Reporter: What format do you plan to use in the class?

Rossel: I will be showing artifacts (whenever available) through PowerPoint presentations and providing notes and access to these PowerPoints online through Dropbox. Of course, no computer skills are necessary. In class, we will discuss one example after another and, importantly, each of the two sessions stands on its own.

WIH Reporter: What books are on your night table right now?

Rossel: I am slowly making my way through The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism by Doris Kearns Goodwin. I love reading American history. It’s a relief from the stresses of ancient times.

WIH Reporter: Anything else we should know?

Rossel: I am living in Dallas now, but I am eagerly looking forward to this extraordinary opportunity for us to visit at WIH again. I hope to see many familiar faces and I would be pleased to see many new faces, too. May the Force (or Source) be with us!

Rabbi Rossel’s class, “The Big Lie: Extravagant Exaggeration And Outright Prevarication In Ancient Times“, begins on Friday, May 5 (10:00-12:00) and continuing on Sunday, May 7 (4:00-5:30). For more information, or to register, click here.