Thursday, 12 September 2019
Over the years, I lost track of my old copy of The Star Trek Chronology. I recently was at a used bookstore in my hometown, located just a couple blocks from the store where I bought the book in the first place, and seeing a copy picked it up. I would like to quote from the introduction. "We choose, in this volume, to treat Star Trek's invented universe as if it were both complete and internally consistent. In effect, we are pretending that the Star Trek saga has unfolded according to a master plan, and there is a logical, consistent timeline in those episodes, even though we (and you) know very well that this is not entirely true." It is a fascinating vanity, and one that (again perhaps not coincidentally) closely resembles my own general approach to history, which proceeds on the understanding that our data issue from a complete and internally consistent reality. The difference of course is that the authors of this book knew full that their "data" did not issue from such a world. There is no logical, consistent timeline, because there were no actual events.
But things are different with history. There is a consistent timeline (one wants to be less sanguine about supposing the existence of a "master plan"). There were actual events; they happened in space and time; and in principle (although not always in practice, due to the limitations of data) we can determine the relationship between these events. And as such "consistency" becomes a significant test, one which forces us to consider the degree to which insights drawn from attentive care to the data of the past can be brought together into a coherent, consistent understanding of said past. This is in large part what Collingwood means by the historical imagination. Sometimes, as Collingwood notes, such an understanding leads us to recognize that this or that ancient source is mistaken, where intentionally or otherwise. For instance, I have no doubt that Philo encountered a group of Egyptian Jewish sectarians whom he described as the Therapeutae, and I have no doubt that they in many respects closely resembled the Essenes. I have no doubt on this matter because Philo tells me that this is the case, and on the one hand there is no reason to think that he is lying and on the other he is someone who I can reasonably expect to know about Judaism in Egypt. I also have no doubt that Eusebius read Philo's account; he says that he did, and he knows its details quite well. But I also have no doubt that he is entirely wrong when he concludes that these Therapeutae were in fact Christians. No doubt, as late Second Temple Jewish groups the Essenes, the Therapeutae, and the early Christians all bore a "family resemblance," such that descriptions of any one of these would resemble to some extent the other two; and I would argue that Eusebius, in his zeal to find any evidence for early Christians, mistook resemblance for identity. I make this judgment even though I actually cannot prove Eusebius to be wrong; it is possible that the Therapeutae were Christians; there is nothing that excludes the possibility; but I frankly find an error on Eusebius' part to be a more compelling explanation. The data permits a coherent, consistent understanding of the past, and that understanding I would argue entails the judgment that one of my authorities erred. This is possible because the data issues from a complete and internally consistent reality, even though the data themselves are incomplete and inconsistent.
Wednesday, 11 September 2019
Very often I hear it said that this or that aspect of the gospels or of Acts is a "literary device" or "literary construct," and as such we can conclude that whatever event it describes never happened. When one makes such an argument one is thinking much more like poor Inspector Japp than like the astute M. Poirot. The nature of texts is such that everything in them is a literary construct; the mere observation of that fact is meaningless for the historian's purposes. What must be shown is that the aims behind this particular literary construction are such as to obviate its usefulness for those who want to reconstruct past events; that is to say, Japp must not merely suppose that Lady Edgeware's artificial grief is intended to hide her guilt but rather must show that this is the case. Now, in many cases one can show this. Returning to Dame Christie, her novels are all literary constructions, and one would be ill-advised in thinking that they describe events that actually happened. There was no Lord Edgeware who was murdered c. 1933; he had no American actress wife who flew into artificial hysterics at the news; a conceited Belgian detective did not solve the case. But we know this because we know that Christie aimed at fiction and not history; her literary constructs were all in service of that aim. By contrast, a true crime story might well use many of the same devices as she does to describe events that are well documented. (Think of such movies for instance as The Black Dahlia and Zodiac, and the point becomes evident). There is in all literature artifice; indeed, on one level all of literature is artifice; but the presence of literary artifice is not in and of itself an index of historical untruth.
Monday, 19 August 2019
Much like Poirot, I conclude that three of my sources are less than fully accurate. (I wouldn't say they are lying: I would say rather that they are constrained by their own narrative decisions). But the precise content of that inaccuracy is a significant clue to what actually happened. And that's why Mrs. Christie still rewards reading.
Saturday, 23 March 2019
This second conviction came out of a recent class discussion, in which we considered how the early church was not a creation ex nihilo but rather a new development within a history that goes back to the Canaanite Bronze Age. Leaving aside intellectually fraught efforts to argue that ancient Israel is an epic fiction manufactured in the Persian or Greek era--an effort that will forever stumble over the Merneptah stele--we can reasonably envision a basic chain of progression. What became Christianity first appears within the synagogues of Galilee and Judea; it soon spreads to those of the Diaspora, and both there and in the Land it sets up communities structured along the lines of Jewish precedents. But these synagogues and others Jewish precedents have a history. In the Land, they began as the city-gate, which stretches back to Bronze Age antecedents, a space in which the elders of the town assembled to debate and discuss matters of great concern to themselves (Ruth 4 offers an exemplary account of the sort of matters likely considered in that space, and one suspects that Genesis 23 does as well); and although the synagogues of the diaspora were largely modeled after the institutional forms of the Greco-Roman associations they nonetheless took on many of the same roles within the overseas Jewish communities as did the synagogues of home. It is altogether possible to write a history of both the synagogue and the church that begins with the Bronze Age Canaanite city-state, asking how various stages of development represented transformations necessary to better meet the needs of developing communities.
Of course, the deleterious effects of group bias would also need to be considered: sometimes--and we can argue about the relative frequency--transformations occurred not to better meet the needs of developing communities, but rather to allow particular groups (typically, the males of affluent lineages) to dominate others. Indeed, we would have to consider the degree to which the city-gate was rooted in such bias from the start; certainly, one could very easily build a narrative in which it originated precisely to further and sustain affluent male dominance. In any case however, ancient Israel probably in part emerged as a revolt against such domination, and there is I think evidence to suggest that it took measures to institute and sustain a degree (but only a degree) of egalitarianism. But as inevitably happens, revolution against inequality eventually gave way to new inequalities: certainly in the form of the monarchies, but probably yet earlier. This was probably the case especially for women, as revolutions have a remarkable capacity to insufficiently apprehend that women might desire the same freedom from oppression as do men. Consider that probably the most brutal description of violence against a woman is found within Judges 19, which leads directly to the Benjamite civil war in Judges 20 and in Judges 21 the kidnapping and forced marriage of four hundred young women who had just seen their families killed by the rest of Israel. Whether these accounts describe actual courses of events (and I am more sanguine than many about that possibility), they probably should be taken as an indication that the men of the Israelite settlements valued women less as persons and more as resources. The Marxist and feminist traditions excel in considering such sad realities, for probably no intellectual traditions have more fully explored how group bias--whether it be towards the affluent or towards the male--destroys the integrity of communities and the well-being of individual lives. (One of my students' criticisms of Ormerod was that he did not take much account of power; I am probably to blame for giving them that impression, as I did not have them read his discussions of bias. Again, that speaks to how Re-Visioning is not a book into which one can just dip).
Now, some students suggested that Jesus' life and ministry and salvific significance were such that there was some sort of rupture in the historical continuum. From a historical perspective, I would fully grant that Jesus represents one of those creative personalities who periodically emerges to address the urgent needs of their times; the emergence of such creative personalities might indeed be taken as signs of divine grace operating in history. And indeed, the needs of Jesus' time were urgent. The Jewish revolt was still a few decades away, but the Land was already suffering from many of the conditions that led to that event, most notably I would argue the economic depredations suffered by the local population under Roman rule. Jewish society in the Land was breaking down under these depredations, as lifeways were disturbed by predatory foreign rule. Leaders emerged, promising deliverance from these conditions. The real question for me as a historian is why from this particular situation this one particular leader, Jesus of Nazareth, began a movement that eventually took over the world. Theologically, one might articulate this in terms of God's gracious solution to the problem of human evil, but I would argue that historically this question can only be answered by the fullest understanding of the problems to which Jesus was responding and the conditions under which he operated, and that moreover the theological account would only be deepened by fully developing the historical.
Tuesday, 19 March 2019
Hendel and Joosten's basic hypothesis is that if a text is predominantly written in Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH), then it likely was composed when Classical Biblical Hebrew was predominant; if a text is predominantly written in Transitional Biblical Hebrew, then it likely was composed when Transitional Biblical Hebrew (TBH) was predominant; and if a text is predominantly written in Late Biblical Hebrew, then it likely was composed when Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) was predominant. It is difficult to argue with the basic supposition underlying this hypothesis, namely that all things being equal (a term that they themselves use, quite rightly), there is good reason to think that a text likely dates from the period in which its language seems most fully to have flourished. In terms that I use, this is a form of contextualization, and one that is almost unusable in New Testament studies due to the much shorter span in which that corpus was written. In Hebrew Bible however, it can potentially be used to good effect.
By comparing the biblical literature with extant extra-biblical inscriptions, Hendel and Joosten suggest that CBH flourished in the eighth through sixth centuries BCE, TBH in the sixth, and LBH from the fifth onward (note the overlap between CBH and TBH; this is probably inevitable, given that TBH is transitional). They also rightly note that as we do not know how long before the earliest extant inscriptions CBH emerged, we cannot exclude the possibility that texts written in this "chronolect" predate the eighth century. Hendel and Joosten argue that Genesis through 2 Kings is written predominantly in CBH, Ezekiel, Lamentations, Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Job, Jonah, Haggai, and Zechariah 1-8 in TBH, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes, and Daniel in LBH. This leads to the other plank of their argument, regarding what they call "consilience." Consilience in their usage is virtually synonymous with what I call "convergence," a term that I prefer only because its meaning is more intuitively obvious to most readers; that terminological difference however does not even rise to the level of a quibble. By these terms we all mean simply that the preferred date for a given text is that upon which the greatest amount of data converges. So, without going into the details of Hendel and Joosten's argument here, one might note that those texts which they conclude are written in CBH are concerned largely with life in pre-monarchic and monarchic Israel (i.e. the late sixth century and earlier); those which they conclude are written in TBH are concerned largely with life in the last days of the Judean monarchy through the exile (i.e. the sixth century); and those which they conclude are written in LBH are concerned largely with life in the Persian and Greek periods (i.e. the fifth through second centuries). In other words, there is significant convergence between the temporal "home" of the language utilized by these texts and the periods in which they are interested.
If the arguments from historical linguistics are granted, then this is a strong cumulative case for a broad periodization of the Hebrew Bible, although certainly other forms of work would be necessary to find more precise dates for any given biblical text (Hendel and Joosten are of course quite aware that what they do in this book is just one part of a larger strategy towards establishing such dates; they simply want to make clear that it is an indispensable part). Having said this, I do want to register one caveat and one criticism. The caveat returns to the beginning of this post, and reminds the reader that I am not a historical linguist and thus my capacity to evaluate their empirical argumentation is limited; my conditional statement about the affirmation of their arguments from historical linguistics is thus rooted in the limitations of my own expertise, rather than any difficulties that I detect in their work. The one criticism that I would register has to do with user-friendliness. Even a simple chart summarizing their findings would make this book far more readable. Instead, one has to flip from chapter to chapter to find summary statements embedded in (typically, but not invariably) introductions and conclusions. That criticism however is secondary to the strength of the book, which is that even if one or more of their particular empirical arguments should fall it remains a model of how to go about thinking about the dates of biblical literature.
Sunday, 10 February 2019
The first of these bases begins from 1 Clement 1.1, which speaks about "sudden and repeated misfortunes" recently suffered by the Roman church. Young confidently concluded that this is a reference to the Domitianic persecution, and thus argued that the letter must date to the very end of Domitian's reign (81-96). There are two problems here, which E.T. Merrill brought convincingly to our attention in 1924. First, the "Domitianic persecution" seems to have been limited to the execution of the emperor's cousin, Flavius Clemens, and the exile of Clemens' wife (also the emperor's niece), Flavia Domitilla (III: both her mother and grandmother appear to have borne the same name), who may or may not have been Christians. Second, 1.1 probably does not refer to a persecution at all. More likely, it is just a typical rhetorical move common to the sort of letter that 1 Clement represents. In other words, 1.1 probably doesn't reference a persecution that didn't happen. 1 Clement 1.1 probably contains no data usable for chronological purposes.
The second basis for the c. 95 date is the dual supposition that Clement must have written this letter while he was monarchical bishop of Rome, and that on the basis of ancient succession lists his episcopacy can be dated to the 90s. There are again (at least) two problems here. First, as there probably wasn't a monarchical bishop in Rome until the second century, Clement probably never held such a position. Certainly, 1 Clement does not seem to envision a monarchical bishop in Rome. Now, I don't necessarily think that the succession lists are without historical value, and think it entirely plausible if not probable that figures such as Linus, Anacletus, and Clement (the second, third, and fourth "popes" respectively) held some sort of privileged position that was in retrospect recognized as standing in succession with the later monarchical bishops. But that brings us to the second problem with this basis: it is not clear that Clement was associated with the letter because of his episcopal office. Here Shepherd of Hermas Vis. 2.4.3 (8.3) is potentially relevant, as it says that a certain man named Clement was responsible for sending letters abroad from the Roman church. This coheres remarkably well with the evidence furnished by Dionysius of Corinth, who c. 170 wrote that the Corinthian church still regularly read the letter that the Roman church sent to them through Clement. We might rather suspect that Clement became associated with the letter not because he was bishop when it was written, but rather because he was a sort of chief scribe for the Roman church. In such a case, the possibility that the letter predates Clement's "episcopacy" is very real. And this is before we even address the matter of authenticity, for if the association with Clement is spurious then there would be no reason to connect it with the particulars of his biography.
Now, of course, the c. 95 date could be correct, but if so it would be correct for reasons other than those which were most instrumental in establishing that date in the first place. Young and Lightfoot would have been correct by accident. Until alternative and compelling arguments for this date are put forth, it would be best if we caught up with 1924 and stop treating it as a given.
Thursday, 7 February 2019
Wednesday, 6 February 2019
Authorial biography begins from what we know about the author independent of the text to ask where in her or his life the text is best situated. Nowhere in the biblical corpus is this of greater utility than the work of Pauline chronology, where it yields the most precise compositional dates of probably either testament (for instance, one must argue in spite of the best evidence if one wants to date Romans at any time other than late 56 or early 57). As with synchronization, authorial biography is of greatly limited utility to the work of establishing the date of Old Testament books, in large part because in very few cases do we know much about the authors independent of the texts in question. Indeed, off the top of my head, I cannot think of any Old Testament book for which arguments from authorial biography could be particularly fruitful. It is entirely conceivable to me that this entire category of argumentation would be absent from efforts to establish the dates of the Old Testament texts.