Sunday, August 9, 2009

AtF: Historiography

There comes a point in any evaluation of a horrifyingly bad bit of scholarship when there’s almost nothing to do but throw up your arms and say, “I give up.” This week I hit one of those points. Sadly, it’s at least the sixth time I’ve hit that point since I started After the Flood. This book just be fucked up. As a result, this week’s edition of AtF is brought to you by whisky sour and Lost Coast Brewery’s fine brown ale, Downtown Brown. I’m going to call in to work sick now just to save myself the trouble in the morning. Anyway, we’re plowing through Nennius. Slowly. Cooper’s goal is to prove that Nennius’s brings something to the table. Actually, that’s not true. Cooper’s goal is to get everyone else to agree with the sheer, out-and-out lunacy that is the concept of Biblical literalism. Cooper would believe this bullshit even if Nennius had never existed. Cooper would be mocking Nennius if that ancient scholar had written an accurate history of the Britons. Such is the way of things when working with kooks. Really, though, these ideas are seductive. I honestly do have a hard time arguing against them at times, but not for the reasons Cooper would think.* He consistently lays out his single, stupid idea, refuses to even consider any source that doesn’t support his theory, and plows ahead regardless of the stupidity of the overall assertion. This, too, is why it sometimes seems like throwing my arms up and giving up is the only option. It’s almost impossible to rationally engage with a position that’s just flat-out based on unreality. What’s the old saying? You can’t reason somebody out of a position they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place. My task is a slight bit easier here, since I’m not actually trying to convince Cooper of anything, but focusing on explaining to largely rational people why Cooper is irrational. It also helps that my goal isn’t actually to disprove Cooper. My goal is, and always has been, to illuminate the process of studying history. Still, at times like this I kind of want to take a good history book and go through it, page by page, and say, “This is what the author got right.” But that’s boring. So I guess I’m boned. I’ll push on, stopping occasionally to pour myself a Dewar’s Black Label, some lemon juice, and just a bit of confectioner’s sugar to cut the bitter and sour. Maybe my liver will give up the fight tonight. Either way, Cooper comes up with a bunch of crap that seems to be a historiography of Nennius. He talks about Cuana, an Irish scholar who may or may not be worth discussing. I’m going to assume he’s not, just for the sake of getting on to the truly interesting bit.
But one of the really important aspects of his contribution in all this, is that Nennius made no apparent attempt to edit his sources or even correct some of their obvious discrepancies. Had he done so, then it would have been difficult for us to assess the actual and original contents of the records consulted by Nennius, and distinguish these from what was Nennius' own, perhaps mistaken, ideas [sic] about them. Instead, Nennius merely copied down his sources and passed them on to us, historical warts and all, so that we could make of them what we would.
Now, this sort of thing is actually really important in history. The further back we get in time the fewer primary sources we have. Much of what we know about certain historical figures is actually based on what historians a century or six later copied from the contemporaries of those figures. Alexander the Great is the quintessential definition of this idea. The A the G vulgate is comprised of four works that were written a couple centuries after Alexander’s death. But that’s what we have. History is messy like that. There’s a danger in using these copies (sometimes of copies). We don’t actually know the entirety of the source material. We also don’t necessarily know if the original historian was accurate or truthful. Moreover, we don’t know if what we’re looking at is a truthful rendition of the earlier work. In the case of Alexander the Great we have four works, all of which combine to form a single, cohesive picture. We also have archaeological evidence to back up the accounts. That archaeological evidence is from diverse places, such as the cities of Alexandria he founded all over his path of conquest and coins with his image found in garbage middens from Macedonia to India. So we can say that what we know of Alexander is fairly accurate. It’s not complete, but we’re confident in what we know. This is why the concept of Biblical history is so dangerous. Any Masters of Divinity program requires courses in Biblical history. I know this because I spent a hell of a lot of time looking at the requirements to get an M.Div. The problem is that any attempt at teaching the Bible as history would, almost certainly, teach the student almost nothing about history. The student of history gets the concept of sources drilled in to his or her head from the first moment they take a course. Professors often require students to write reviews of books. Back when I was taking those courses I considered book reviews the easy assignments. Read a book, write two pages about it, whoop-dee-do. I now realize, though, that in writing those reviews I was being trained to think critically about the nature of the book I was reading. The prof would have me look at certain aspects of the book, not because he needed something to flesh out the assignment, but because those things were the road signs on the way to understanding the value of the book as a source. Those lessons didn’t hit me until after I got my degree. Maybe some got them more quickly, maybe some never got them at all. After I’d had time to think about everything for a bit it all came together. It’s why I harp on the quality of Cooper’s footnoting and why I spent two whole posts mocking the same in Gavin Menzies’ book. These things are important. Biblical history, it shouldn’t be surprising, does this all wrong. The Bible is taken as being self-evidentially accurate. External sources are only brought in to confirm the accuracy of the Biblical account. But the simple fact of the matter is that the Bible is a lousy source of history. I’m not just talking about Genesis, either. Daniel gets the succession of Persian kings completely wrong. Herod’s murder of the innocents has no basis in history.** The story of Jesus’s crucifixion hinges on Herod and Pilate playing chicken, but the last Herod to have leadership in Judea lost his title in 6 C.E., nearly thirty years before the events of the Gospels.*** And don’t even get me started on the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt and the Exodus. I could go on for paragraphs about that one. Moreover, if you’re within the sorts of churches or seminaries where the Bible is taken to being self-evidentially accurate history, chances are you won’t be allowed to question it. In the introduction to Misquoting Jesus, Bart Ehrman tells about going from Moody Bible to Wheaton College,**** then on to Princeton in an attempt to become an evangelical scholar in secular circles. He tells of writing a complicated paper while at Princeton attempting to explain how Mark might not have been wrong when he said something happened while Abiathar was High Priest when, in fact, it was Abimelech. His professor’s response to the Byzantine reasoning? “Maybe Mark made a mistake.” Ehrman records that he actually did sit down and think about it, realized that his exegesis was extremely convoluted, and that it made a lot more sense to assume that Mark had, in fact, made a mistake. At the point of his story, Ehrman had already gone to Moody and Wheaton and was working on his Master’s. Now, I’m going to assume that he wasn’t going to any of those schools for a degree in history, but it’s still shocking to see this thought process. My guess is that Ehrman’s prof had seen plenty of evidence of that thinking and chuckled to himself when he saw the convoluted reasoning that attempted to maintain the infallibility of the Bible. My profs, had I done something like that, would have probably given me a failing grade and asked if I knew what the hell I was doing. Back around to the original point, this is why we don’t build arguments on single sources if we can avoid it. The story of the founding of Britain has many, many sources that don’t involve Nennius. Since his Bible-based (and Aeneid-based) ramblings go radically against what we know, it’s generally considered good practice to not use Nennius. There’s a reason he’s discredited. And it’s not because of a vast modernist conspiracy. And I’ve managed to completely sidetrack myself. Oops. I guess I’ll have to get back to it in two weeks. Between now and then I’ll have to make sure I don’t drink all the Dewar’s Special Reserve. I’ll be out of town next weekend, so I’m guessing I won’t be able to do After the Flood. You’re all heartbroken, I know… ------------------------ *Also, if Mr. Cooper or a disciple were to ever stumble across this blog, you know they’d take the first half of that sentence and quote mine me as saying, “I honestly do have a hard time arguing against them…” Such is the dishonesty of the kook. **There are actually three things wrong with the purported prophecies built around Jesus’s early years. First, there was the census of all the Romans under Caesar Augustus, for which Joseph, Mary, and Jesus went back to Jerusalem. This is wrong on at least three levels. First, there was no census in the year before Jesus was born. Second, why the fuck would any census require people to go back to where they were from in order to be fulfilled? The Romans were fantastic administrators and would have immediately seen how stupid that idea was. The whole thing is a bald-faced attempt to put Jesus in Bethlehem at his birth in order to fulfill a prophecy. Of course it would have been far easier to just have Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem from the start. That’s why the Bible is like bad fiction. Third, the Murder of the Innocents is designed to give the new family an excuse to run to Egypt to fulfill another prophecy, that god would bring his son out of Egypt. I’ll leave it at that for now, since I’ve been thinking of a post on “fulfilled prophecy” in the Christian tradition since Friday. Actually, it was earlier than that. I just finally got the impetus to do it on Friday. I was, in fact, thinking of doing it yesterday, but got distracted by YouTube videos. ***The argument is made that Herod Antipas, who was in charge of Galilee at the time of the crucifixion of Jesus was the one involved. The reference in Matthew 14:3 to “Herod the tetrarch” supports this. However, there’s no precedent for Pilate to turn Jesus over to the governor of Jesus’s home province. In The Unauthorized Version: Truth and Fiction in the Bible, Robin Lane Fox argues that the entire series of events was invented in order to fulfill Psalm 2:2. ****There’s a point when he tells of the warning from the people at Moody that there wouldn’t be “real Christians” at Wheaton College. This is utterly bizarre to me. I grew up in the shadow of Wheaton College and had many friends who went to both schools and were able to interact. I guess things were different thirty years ago.


PersonalFailure said...

I thought for years that a census was like a family reunion. (A reasonable assumption for a child reading that particular story.)Then I heard about the US Census and got very confused.

atimetorend said...

"There comes a point in any evaluation of a horrifyingly bad bit of scholarship when there’s almost nothing to do but throw up your arms and say, “I give up.”"

Congrats on being able to read that stuff, I would replace "throw up your arms" with "have your head explode."

"“Maybe Mark made a mistake.”"

I love that story and the lesson, why bother with the convoluted arguments for inerrancy. The bible became a lot more interesting when I started digging in on that option. Too bad it came with the label of "apostate." :^)

Michael Mock said...

Is there enough whiskey in the world to get you through this book?

...Sadly, the question is not entirely rhetorical.