Friday, 5 August 2016

The Accidents of History

In a FB discussion of yesterday's post I mentioned something that I called an "accident of history." I identify three scholars in the last-third of the 20th century who had been particularly diligent in matters related to basic history. One, J.A.T. Robinson, produced the most extensive, synthetic, study of the dates of the New Testament since Harnack's work seventy years earlier. A second, Colin J. Hemer, was actively engaged in critically updating the work of William Ramsay c. 1890-1910, who perhaps more than any other scholar in the history of NT studies worked to integrate the findings of archaeology into the history of the NT era (and, as a side-note, his understanding of Paul's theology was in many ways well ahead of its time). A third, Ben F. Meyer, recognized that other disciplines had not stopped thinking about how to do basic history when we turned to other pursuits a century ago, and that as such, if our basic histories were to be adequately updated, so too must our thinking about how to do basic history.

Unfortunately, all three of these men passed away relatively young, all from cancer. Robinson died at 64. He left an uncompleted monograph, The Priority of John, which expanded upon his arguments on the date of John's Gospel that he had earlier developed in Redating the New Testament (Robinson had been for the bulk of his career focused upon Johannine studies and contemporary theology--his 1963 work, Honest to God, was one of the most influential works of Christian theology produced in the 1960s--and it was doubts about the date of John's Gospel that led him to undertake full-scale reevaluation of the dates of the entire NT corpus). Hemer died at 57. He too left an uncompleted monograph, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History. Fortunately, both Priority of John and The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History were close enough to complete that colleagues were able to bring them into a publishable state. But, as Conrad Gempf says in his foreword to The Book of Acts: Hemer's premature death "seemed especially sad in that he had spent years reading, learning, accumulating knowledge, and was just at the point of beginning to burst out with monograph after monograph applying this wealth of learning." Had these scholars had another decade or two or three to continue writing, what further might they have contributed to a reinvigorated basic history?

Meyer was able to contribute greater quantity of his specific contributions to basic history than either Robinson or Hemer: Robinson did not turn to such issues until relatively late in his abbreviated life, and Hemer died so much younger than the other two men that his contributions were cut short that much sooner. That said, Meyer did not produce as great a quantity of basic history as either of the other two, because his interests were really philosophical. Collingwood distinguishes between doing history and thinking about what it is that we do when we do history, and Meyer more fell into that latter category than either Robinson or Hemer (who were much more interested in just getting on with doing history than in thinking about doing history). Still, Meyer was producing what I consider to be a remarkable basis for doing basic history: one that took into account the "Copernican turn" in historiography identified by Collingwood (namely, the recognition that history is an inferential enterprise carried out on the authority not of data but rather of the historian) and augmented it with a sophisticated theory of the historical and knowing subject derived from Lonergan. His work is indispensable to a reinvigorated basic history, I would argue, because it gets us around the common objections raised in the discipline regarding the possibility of arriving at historical knowledge. Still, even though he lived longer than either Hemer or Robinson, he was also sick for a much longer time. Hemer and Robinson both suffered from relatively short illness, whereas Meyer was dying for a decade. Certainly his output during that decade was less than it might have been had he not been so ill, but we do probably have more of what he might have written than we do of certainly Hemer and probably Robinson.

Statistically, the likelihood that each of these scholars would find their scholarly careers cut short by cancer was quite low. But it happened, and not only is it a human tragedy (as illness always is) but it was also a great loss to NT scholarship, especially for those of us most interested in basic history. It is an accident of history, the sort that in fact emphasizes the important of basic history. No social history or cultural history or doctrinal history, no law-like speculative philosophy of history, could apprehend this accident. It is something that we can know only when we ask who did what when and where.

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