Saturday, 27 January 2018

Voegelin and the Late Bronze Age

I haven't posted for awhile, in part because I've been working on a particularly challenging paper to be presented at a conference next month. It will be my first formal unveiling of the project I've tentatively titled Israel and the Dialectics of History, which aims to work out the theory of history developed by Lonergan and those who have built upon his work, especially but not exclusively Robert Doran. In a certain sense, this project entails that I return to much the beginning of such work, as Doran was deeply influenced by Eric Voegelin's Order and History, especially the first volume, Israel and Revelation. In particular, Doran drew upon Order and History to develop the notion that the dialectic of culture entails a dynamic relationship between what Voegelin called cosmology and anthropology, each of which has to do with where we locate the source of social order: cosmology locates it in the cosmos, anthropology in a world-transcendent source such as God or reason. One of Voegelin's arguments is that cosmologically-oriented cultures often transition to anthropologically-oriented cultures when social breakdown is so extreme that the cosmos can no longer function as a coherent model for social order. Voegelin (pp. 44-45 of Israel and Revelation) suggests that Israel appears to be historically unique in that it made the shift from a cosmological to an anthropological orientation without such a breakdown.

Part of what I am arguing in the paper mentioned above is that Voegelin is empirically mistaken. That he is should occasion little surprise. He was not a biblical scholar, and Israel and History is now more than sixty years old and thus not informed by more recent advances in our knowledge. But we now know that the earliest Israelite settlements in the Land were probably those that appear in the hill country towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, c. 1200 B.C.E. This period is a period of collapse throughout the eastern Mediterranean. This Late Bronze Age Collapse triggers the Greek Dark Age, and occasions a sharp decline in Egyptian control over Canaan. By c. 1150 Egyptian suzerainty over the region comes to a terminus, and the New Kingdom itself doesn't survive the next century. The Canaanite city-states largely disappear, and the Philistines (likely an Aegean people displaced by the fall of the Greek palatial system) appear on the Levantine coast. Such systems-wide collapse (for that is what we're dealing with here) does not occur overnight, and indeed there are signs throughout the 13th century of political disintegration and breakdown in the eastern Mediterranean. The Ramesside kings regularly campaign in Canaan, a fact typically taken as an indication of Egyptian strength but perhaps should be better seen as an empire that is having ever-greater difficulty to maintain control over its holdings. Likewise, the great Egyptian building projects of this century should perhaps be seen not as indications of a civilization at its zenith but rather of a faltering state increasingly dependent upon monumental works to give the symbolic illusion of continued greatness. It is precisely in this period that the majority of scholars who still believe in some sort of exodus would locate the event, and also at this time that Israel first emerges in the historical record.

Our knowledge of Israelite religion at this time is limited by the nature of the data. That's life when one does history. But the biblical conviction that Israel's foundation as a people in the Land correlates closely with a shift towards a more world-transcendent understanding of society makes very good sense within Voegelin's theory of history as developed in Order and History. In fact, I would argue that when we recognize that Israel seems to have emerged during a time of significant political breakdown, it perhaps makes even better sense than he himself realized.

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