Monday, February 15, 2010

AtF: Sins of Omission, a Follow-Up

So it turns out there’s a problem that comes in when an entire post is a rabbit trail. You totally miss out on one of the big points. In yesterday’s AtF post I attempted to begin my new plan of engaging the mindset that leads to such a book, but then wandered off in to random territory and never quite got back on track. I’m now worried that I’ll totally forget this point by next week, so I’m writing a rare follow-up. These are the dangers in, for all intents and purposes, liveblogging history. It’s why a research paper can take an entire semester to write. It’s why a thesis or dissertation can take years. The historian needs time to gather sources, consider arguments, and prepare an overall framework. Writing a blog doesn’t do that, especially when your prep work consists of pulling a beer out of the fridge and saying, “Now where did I leave off?” It’s bad practice and leads to, well, confusion. It’s important to realize going in that becoming a good historian, like pretty much any other task or discipline on the planet, requires you to be able to admit the possibility that you are wrong. There is always something new to learn. There is always new data waiting to be discovered, whether it’s in the grand scheme of someone finding a new bit of heretofore unknown writing or the individual simply reading a well-known book for the first time. Being willing to admit you’re wrong expands your mind and opens up a new world of possibilities. It can also reinforce the original position, as simply saying, “Well what if it actually happened this way,” can lead to a new appreciation of the strength of the original position. It’s also important to realize going in that being a good apologist requires an inflexible inability to admit that you’re wrong. The apologist’s goal is to convince other people that their view is right and any contrary view is, by definition, wrong. All knowledge, especially in the realm of religious belief, has already been placed before us and any deviation from that knowledge is simply that: deviant. It’s why the arguments of the apologist never actually change. The goalposts simply move. Sometimes even that doesn’t happen and the apologist re-covers tired ground, leading to exasperation and anger from all around with dissenting viewpoints. This inflexibility is well illustrated in the pages of After the Flood. The book also goes a step further in that it showcases a particular quirk of the thinking of the “Biblical historian.”* I had a high school youth pastor who loved to quote a historical statistic that I now find hilarious. He would point out that there were hundreds of extremely old copies of the Bible going back to within a century or two of the original autographs** and, as such, we could say that the version of the Bible we have now is accurate. By way of comparison, he’d point to another ancient text that we also regard as being handed down reliably that was based on only three old copies removed from the original by a significantly greater margin: Homer’s Odyssey. Let’s unpack this thought process for just a moment. We’re to believe that the Bible is an accurate document because we know that there are many extant versions of the Bible out there from a long time ago. This I understand. It’s something historians try to work out all the time, generally with only a few complete bits of source material, a lot of fragments, and a bunch of guesswork. So the evidence indicates that the Bible we have today is pretty close to the Bible that the good folks had back at, say, the Council of Nicea and, further, that they were working with something pretty close to the original source documents. But then in order to prove the point the pastor in question compared the Bible to a work of fiction without any consideration for the implications of that statement. I know that my copy of The Great Gatsby is remarkably close to the original manuscript written by F. Scott Fitzgerald. Hell, it’s possible for me to find out if there’s any variation. But being close to or the same as the original does not mean that East Egg or West Egg exist. Furthermore, discovering that Fitzgerald may well have based Gatsby on a real person he knew doesn’t mean that The Great Gatsby is any less of a work of fiction. All fiction is, to some extent, based on at least the tiniest sliver of reality. It’s what authors do. But we cannot look at a map and find West Egg, nor can we look at a ledger of births and deaths and find Jay Gatsby. We also can’t find the island of the Sirens. Or Charybdis. Or the Cyclopes. Just like we have no evidence that there was a massive, enslaved population of Jews in Egypt during the New Kingdom period or Augustus Caesar ever called a census of all the people under the sway of Rome, requiring the men to return their hometowns. What my old pastor was doing by simply looking at the number of documents available, in short, was focusing on the quantity of translations over the quality of the original text. Saying the Bible we have is a more accurate copy of the original than Homer’s Odyssey says absolutely nothing as to the inherent truthfulness of either work. Moreover, the vast number of copies of the Bible we have actually work to the detriment of the claim that more copies means more accuracy. There is a reason there are a dozen or two English translations of the Bible in play now and there have been many times that number throughout history. There is also a reason that most Bibles point out in footnotes where other translations say something different, omit a particular set of verses, or use a completely different word that radically changes the meaning of a passage. If you want more on this I heartily recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus. It’s a much more in-depth look at the problems of Bible translation than I can offer. It’s because there are many, many different manuscripts out there and they’re all different. Sometimes they’re different in subtle ways, sometimes there’s a vast gulf. And each new translation only serves to garble the message, as we’re well past the point where it’s possible to come up with a single Bible that means everything to everyone. This is why the most literal of Biblical literalists choose to take their stand on a single translation, usually the 1611 King James Version. They’ve decided – arbitrarily, mind you – that that version is the version and all other versions are wrong. The truth is that it makes sense. If you’re going to declare that a particular text holds the eternal truth and that text has many, many iterations, then you also have to declare that one particular iteration holds the truth that is in that text and all others pale in comparison. Otherwise you just end up with mass confusion. Now, then, in order to properly understand Cooper’s reading of Geoffrey of Monmouth, Nennius, or, for that matter, W.M. Flinders Petrie, we need to engage the texts in question in the same way that Bill Cooper engages them. In short, we need to engage the texts in the same way Cooper engages the Bible. Bill Cooper’s arguments in favor of Nennius, Geoffrey of Monmouth, and the Tysilio Chronicle boil neatly down in to one statement: “These texts are good history because they claim to be accurate copies of things I believe exist that support the Biblical world view.” That’s it. There’s no more to it. I wish there were something more, because it would make the whole idea of enaging the mindset more interesting, but there really isn’t. The entire mindset that leads to After the Flood and informs the argument in the book can be summed up in a couple of simple statements. “The Bible says [this]. Source A also says [this], therefore Source A is reputable. Source B says not [this], therefore Source B is wrong.” Dress that up with some tongue wagging at those damn pointy-headed liberals who obstinately choose to believe Source B because of notions of “correct methodology” and “evidence” and you’ve got yourself a first-class polemic against, well, anything that goes against the obvious Biblical view. Here, too, we have the roots of a failure to communicate. I’m willing to be proved wrong about Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth. As a matter of fact, I’m more than willing to admit that they probably got a lot of things right in their histories and, as such, I won’t throw them out whole-cloth. I also know, however, that they got a lot of things wrong. In the case of the specific issue at hand, we know there was no legendary Brutus of Troy who founded London seven centuries before Caesar stepped foot on the island of Briton. It is a preposterous claim. As such we can know that even if Geoffrey or Nennius were right about everything else, that particular British origin story is wrong. We can go a step further. We know that the story in question was supposed to connect the Britons to the original family that stepped off of Noah’s Ark. Since we know that this is the case, it’s a circular argument to claim that the works of Nennius and Geoffrey prove that the Britons did, indeed, descend from Japheth. So the point, as they say, is moot. Meanwhile, in a bit of an Aftersquib to the Foregoing, I noticed something today that apparently escaped my attention last night. At the bottom of the Wikisource version of “Neglected British History” I used last night there is a short Bibliography that consists of exactly two items. The second item is not surprising: Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain. The first item, however, is a link to Chronicle of the Early Britons, translated in 2002 by one Wm. R. Cooper. We know him as Bill Cooper, however, and lest you wonder if we’re talking about a different gentleman, this particular translation of the Tysilio Chronicle regularly points readers back to After the Flood. Also, the article linked at Wikisource as additional bibliographical information takes us to the same site as the article about Geoffrey of Monmouth I lambasted last night. This particular page includes yet another polemic:
Bill Cooper's version comes with 574 footnotes of linguistic, historical and geographical interest, and has been scrutinized for accuracy by Ellis Evans, Professor of Celtic Studies at Jesus College. However, every attempt to publish it has failed, because it was sent out to modernist reviewers who advised against publication. Now, at last, it is allowed to see the light of day, thanks to modern technology, so that readers can make up their own minds and decide for themselves whether or not this is a true account of the British history.
Damn modernists… ----------------------------- *I use quotes because, well, as far as I can tell those two words are mutually exclusive when put together in that way. You can use the tools of the historian to study the supposed truths and events of the Bible. You can use the Bible as a historical text. You cannot, however, be a Bible-based historian. Reality simply diverges too much from the text, so at some point either your studies have to diverge, too, either from the Bible or from the evidence placed before you. **Autograph, from the Greek “self write,” or “in the handwriting of its author.” As such, “autograph” in a historical context means “original source material.”


The Woeful Budgie said...

Misquoting Jesus has been on my to-read list ever since I saw Ehrman on Colbert a while back. Good interview.

What my old pastor was doing by simply looking at the number of documents available, in short, was focusing on the quantity of translations over the quality of the original text.

I don't know if this is the same thing, but it reminds me of something I was taught in one of my high school Bible classes, when we were being fed all the big-gun arguments for the authority of Scripture. One of them was "manuscript evidence", which I never felt like I understood properly, because the teacher seemed to be making the point that because there were just so damn many copies of the Bible out there, that right there proved it was reliable. That never did compute for me.

I still think I might be misunderstanding the argument, but now I'm wondering if it's because evangelical scholars misrepresent what "manuscript evidence" actually is. Unfortunately, all my searches lead me to apologetics sites, which leads me to believe I was (unsurprisingly) fed a load of crap.

I guess what I'm asking here there something historians actually do that's just being misrepresented here? Or did Josh McDowelly types just make this up wholecloth? (And yes, I feel stupid for even having to ask...)

Geds said...

Believe you me, there's absolutely no reason to feel stupid.

The short answer is that "Manuscript Evidence" as used by apologists is bunk. The long answer is that it's a complete bastardization of things actually used by historians. The even longer answer, well, that's gonna require a new post.

Which, on some level is good. I got a fantastic question-type-thing from Michael Mock that lead to yesterday's post. Today I got this question and a question on the original post from a Chris that work together quite nicely and will require a whole 'nother post to properly answer.

It's nice to see that people are paying attention.

Although I'm now, like, 12 posts in the hole. I'm finally feeling energized enough to do a bunch of writing for the first time since the move, though, and it's a lot better to be energized with too many ideas than energized and trying desperately to force a crappy idea out.