Searching for the real Black Beard and the real Jesus

What does North Carolina coastal historian Kevin Dufuss have in common with New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman?

If you asked them, each  might tell you he is a truth seeker about a man whose life is shrouded in myth.

In his book, “The Last Days of Black Beard the Pirate,” Dufuss challenges some fundamental beliefs about the pirate who was killed in the waters off Ocracoke Island on November 22, 1718.

Meanwhile, in a series of bestselling books, Ehrman, a professor of religious studies at UNC-Chapel Hill, has challenged the fundamental beliefs of many Christians about Jesus of Nazareth.

Dufuss, originally looking to find out more about the pirate whose exploits and life and death are an important part of North Carolina lore, found that much of which we “know” about Black Beard has factual basis. At the end of his book, he writes, “The Black Beard I have come to know through my research turned out to be entirely unlike the historical figure so familiar to the world. My newly perceived image of the authentic pirate captain is nothing like the man celebrated by amusement parks, marinas, restaurants, taverns and inns and nothing like the bearded pirate captains portrayed in cinema and cable TV docudramas. He was not the bloodthirsty murderer, despicable slitter of throats or strangler of women as he has been so often described. He was certainly not one of the most ‘grotesquely conspicuous villains in the annals of crime.’ And he was far from the richest, boldest, most ruthless corsair of all the marooning freebooters in the history of piratedom. In fact, the pirate Black Beard, manufactured by a procession of authors, historians, and folklorists never really existed. The Edward ‘Teach’ of popular culture, revered today by pirate enthusiasts, is an imposter, a historical hoax.”

Dufuss says there is no record of Black Beard even killing another person until the 1718 naval battle when Black Beard himself perished. And, the story about Black Beard’s headless body swimming around the victor’s ship is a myth.

Whatever his name, wherever he came from, and whatever happened to his treasure, if there was any, Dufuss asserts that the real Black Beard is a historical figure whose life has much to teach us about the early times of our state.

Ehrman is a former evangelical Christian whose study of the scriptures and religious history convinced him that Jesus was not divine. But unlike some other former believers, Ehrman is sure that Jesus existed. His new book answers those who assert that Jesus was not a real historical figure, that he was simply a myth. In the introduction to his new book, Ehrman writes that he wants to show “how we know that Jesus did exist.”

Ehrman says he has no vested interest in the matter since, he writes, “I am not a Christian, and I have no interest in promoting a Christian cause or a Christian agenda.”

Ehrman continues, “[F]or anyone to whom both evidence and the past matter, a dispassionate consideration of the case makes it quite plain: Jesus did exist. He may not have been the Jesus that your mother believes in or the Jesus of the stained-glass window or the Jesus of your least favorite televangelist or the Jesus proclaimed by the Vatican, the Southern Baptist Convention, the local megachurch, or the California Gnostic. But he did exist, and we can say a few things, with relative certainty about him.”

Ehrman describes a Jesus who was a persuasive preacher of an apocalyptic gospel of repentance and preparation for a coming kingdom of God.

Dufuss and Ehrman may make us uncomfortable with our beliefs about important matters. While their challenges might make us uncomfortable they can also lead us to a richer understanding of what we believe.

Why do North Carolinians love pirates so much?

Pirates in North Carolina again?

Yes, we remember Black Beard. Most authorities now agree that the shipwreck we thought was Black Beard’s Queen Anne’s Revenge is just that. The big news about the recovery of the ship’s anchor has us talking about pirates again.

The new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, although not as big a hit as its predecessors, brought the world’s attention to pirate mythology again.

At East Carolina University, the Pirates nickname for its athletic teams makes all ECU fans justifiably proud of their pirate heritage. It is the same thing for many North Carolina high schools that have adopted this popular nickname.

But, when we are pushed to explain why we are so enthusiastically romantic about pirates and their mythology, we begin to stutter. It is difficult to explain why we would want to tie ourselves so closely to a group of ruthless, brutal, selfish thieves. These are not the kinds of people we ordinarily would claim for our own.

We simply do not have a good explanation for our love of pirates.

Three new books might help us as we struggle to understand our identification with pirates.

First, there is “Sir Walter Raleigh: In Life & Legend,” a biography by Mark Nicholls and Penry Williams. As noted in an earlier column, this book teaches us that Sir Walter’s colonizing efforts on our coast were originally intended to be used as a big base to support the business of capturing Spanish ships carrying South American gold to Spain. Queen Elizabeth authorized and encouraged such privateering. But there was a thin line between privateering and piracy. So you could say, and not be far from the mark, that North Carolina’s close association with pirates began with the earliest European contact with our land.

Second, “The Jefferson Key,” a thriller by Steve Berry and already a New York Times bestseller, is based on the premise that privateers helped win the Revolutionary War for George Washington by disrupting British commercial shipping. That is at least partially true.

In the book, which is fiction, Washington was so grateful for the service of the privateers that he gave several North Carolina families the right to attack and seize the commerce of America’s enemies in perpetuity. These fictional families, led by a complicated man named Quentin Hale, live on posh estates near Bath.

Even more disturbing, when Presidents Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, and Kennedy tried to limit their perpetual authority to engage in privateering, these North Carolina families arranged for their assassinations.

Thirdly, Michael Parker’s novel, “The Watery Part of the World,” set on the Outer Banks, opens in 1812 when a group of land-based North Carolina pirates seize a grounded schooner carrying Theodosia Burr Alston, daughter of former Vice President Aaron Burr and wife of the governor of South Carolina.

In this story, the pirates butcher most of the crew and passengers. Theodosia survives only to find herself in a community of pirates run by a terroristic dictator. Without apology, these thieves draw to the shore where they will run aground. They attach a lantern to the neck of an old horse and walk it up and down the beach. At night the bobbing light looks like another ship sailing in a safe area. Nags Head gets its name from this activity.

Michael Parker’s fictional land-based pirates on the Outer Banks are as evil and brutal a bunch as you could ever imagine. His book is a wonderful read and a great adventure story. But I hope that the cruelty of our pirate forebears on the Outer Banks is exaggerated.

Put on your eye patches, wear those funny hats, and hold on to your plastic swords – we North Carolinians are going to be pirates to the end.