Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Thank you to Hugo Holbling for his kind mention of my post on history at his blog here. He also asks how 'all history if fiction' can be a foundation of post modernism. I should have been clearer. What I meant is that it is often assumed to be some osrt of foundation by those who do not understand what it means.

On a rather less erudite level, I'm debating the history of science and Christianity with a poster over at Ebla. It remains to be seen if my opponent is open to new ideas but I was most impressed by how sure he was about so many things that are just dead wrong. The myth of the flat earth and the great conflict between science and religion live on!

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Thanks for the comment from Jack about John Philoponus. Another important earlier thinker in mechanics was John Buridan who was a natural philosopher at the University of Paris in the fourteenth century. He developed impetus theory, considered the rotation of the earth and suggested inertial motion. His works continued to be printed and published through the 16th century and Galileo would certainly have come across them. Today he is forgotten, together with all the other important medieval students of nature.

When I was an investment banker, we used to have to set up special companies for our finance deals. It was always fun to invent good names for them and I called one Buridan Finance Limited in honour of the forgotten genius of Paris. We used to challenge other parties to the deal to figure out the relevance of the name but sadly Google has made that a bit too easy nowadays. Still, I feel it was the right thing to give John Buridan a bit more recognition.

Friday, March 25, 2005

"All history is fiction." This is often held out as a foundation of post modernism, although I've never been able to find out who actually coined the phrase. Conservative historians, we imagine, can get a bit hot under the collar when they hear it and will insist that history is about what really happened and they are not just making it up. Actually, you will find it quite hard to find a professional historian who does still believe that his craft is to find out what really happened. Rather, they are trying to link together facts into some sort of narrative that explains and enlightens.

I suggest the post modernists might have a good point. You see, history is not just a collection of facts and figures. People who just try and sort out the facts are usually called 'antiquarians' who are supposed to be a bit inferior to real historians. Also, a record of events that is just "one damn thing after another" is called a chronicle and not a history. The chroniclers are also felt to be a rather lowly breed compared to the true man of history. So it is the explanatory, analytical and narrative elements of a historical work that mark it out as a member of that illustrious genre. And it is the case that you can analyse, explain and narrate in many different ways. The facts can be fitted together to produce radically different pictures. So in what sense is the historian's creation not fiction? Based on a true story perhaps? Dependent on the facts but not determined by them? The only historian I know who thinks he is engaged in a selfless search for the "Truth" is Diarmaid MacCulloch.

If you don't believe me, here is a current example. We have all heard of the scientific revolution which took place between 1543 and 1687 when modern science was born out of the rediscovered ashes of ancient Greece. The concept of the scientific revolution is so entrenched in the historiography of science, that questioning it is rather hard to get away with. I've been supervising some students (and very good they were too) who had been to some lectures by an iconclastic historian, Andrew Cunningham. He thinks the scientific revolution is an idea invented in the twentieth century for political reasons. It is, not to put too finer point on it, fictional. Now, Dr Cunningham has his own story that science was born around 1800 in the aftermath of the French and industrial revolutions. He has been roundly criticised by such luminaries as Peter Dear and Edward Grant but it is hard to escape the conclusion he is no less right than everyone else.

The scientific revolution really is a twentieth century concept. That is unarguable. The only question is whether it represents a true picture of what was happening in the seventeenth century. Put like that the concept becomes much harder to defend because we are just arguing about how to describe a past event that we all agree is being fitted into a modern strait jacket. Of course, Cunnigham's alternative picture suffers from the same problems and so we are forced to admit that if both fit the evidence then both are valid. So too are other models like my own favourite which sees the seventeenth century as continuous with the Middle Ages. But they can't all be true to we must accept that they are, in a very real sense, fictions. So what do we believe? In the end, I think we believe what seems right to us. And that is largely based on our political preferences and how well given ideas have been explained to us. If you can make an idea sound good, as Dr Cunningham undoubtedly does, then people will be impressed by your rhetoric and believe you.

Another example will illustrate what I mean by political preferences. What caused the collapse of the Soviet Empire? If you are a conservative, the answer is because Reagan and Thatcher stood up to the Russians and they realised they could never win. If you are a leftie, it is because of the internal problems inherited from Stalinism. Reagan and Thatcher only risked the USSR collapsing in flames rather than peacefully. And finally, if you are a Catholic, it was because of the moral witness of the Pope and the indomitable spirit of Poland forcing the Soviets to let go of its Empire. I'm not about to argue about which of these is right. I merely point out than even events that most of us can remember well are subject to fictionalisation as soon as we try to explain them.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

I like to think of myself as being consistently pro-life. That means I am anti-abortion, anti-euthanasia and anti-death penalty. Here in the UK there is a quite remarkable consensus in favour of abortion, re-enforced by the family planning (or should that be family prevention) industry. So it was good news when the Conservative leader, Michael Howard, said he personally believed the time limit should be reduced to 20 weeks. Also, following the case where a child was aborted very late for having a curable jaw defect, we need to ensure the rules are enforced and those who break them are prosecuted regardless of whether they acted in 'good faith'. Sadly, we can no longer trust doctors to make the correct decisions as so many have become inured to the culture of abortion. Late abortions must be subject to court approval with a lawyer appointed to protect the interests of the child.

In the United States, the Schiavo case is making headlines. While it is self evident that there is no reason to remove the feeding tube beyond the say-so of Mrs Schiavo's husband, the real argument is about state versus federal jurisdiction. For me, this is interesting and I fear that the pro-life lobby might come to regret their actions. The medium term aim of pro-life activism is to return jurisdiction on abortion to the states. Roe v Wade is a legal anomaly that grants a new federal right that the constitution says nothing about and might even contradict. If it was struck down, each state would have to formulate its own policy on abortion. In the Schiavo case, the pro-life lobby has brought in federal jurisdiction over an area previously subject only to the states - the exact opposite of what they are trying to achieve for abortion. Of course, the other side are being equally contradictory by insisting that no federal oversight is allowed for euthanasia when they insist on it for capital punishment cases.

But then this whole subject is chock full on contradictions, none of which look like being resolved any time soon. I am pleased that in the UK we are seeing some movement on abortion and still forbid euthanasia but in both cases opposition to the pro-life position remains very strong.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Elliot, a commentator on this blog, has sent an interesting link about the Turin Shroud. As I am not a fan myself, I found this way of proceeding was the most sensible to show it could easily be faked.

A few more comments on Lemche's The Israelites in Myth and Tradition. Once we get past the survey of extra-biblical sources, he returns to a subject he examined in the introduction - were the Israelites a distinct ethnic group? I can understand how the idea they were has taken root. The concept of Jewish separateness, combined with the Biblical story of the Conquest suggests that ethnic identity is important and that the people of Israel don't want to be confused with their neighbours. But I have to admit I'm with Lemche on this one. I have no idea what an 'ethnic' as opposed to 'cultural' group is, but I expect the Israelites were genetically identical to their neighbours. When they became culturally distinct is another matter and almost impossible to tell from the archaeology. Lemche thinks that despite the Bible going on and on about Jewish distinctiveness, this must all be a fiction projected back from a later period. Once again, he depends too much on what the archaeology cannot tell us and too little on what the Bible can. Dever claims he can see plenty in the archaeology that points to a cultural unity to Israel/Judah much earlier than Lemche can.

Overall, I am not terribly impressed by Lemche's short book. I can see where he is coming from (which evidently Dever cannot, with his ranting about post modernism) but it strikes me as the sort of scepticism that refuses to engage critically with the evidence. The fact that we can come to different conclusions about which bits of the Biblical naratives are reliable does not validate Lemche's method. Nor does the recent spate of forgery allegations. Indeed, some of his comments on the Tel Dan inscription especially strike me as special pleading. Lemche relies on arguments from silence and declaring most the evidence out of court. This means that he must keep a dignified silence himself rather than postulate his own alternative story (of a post exilic origin for Jewish identity) if he wishes to be true to himself and consistant with his method.

My next read will be by the conservative scholar, Kenneth Kitchen called On the Reliability of the Old Testament.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

I have started reading NP Lemche's The Israelites in Myth and Tradition. Lemche is said to be one of the leading 'minimalists' in OT studies and also one of those William Dever is squarely aiming his fire at. Dever paints a picture of minimalists as being extreme post-modern deconstructionists but Lemche is nothing of the sort. In fact, I would describe him as almost pre-modern as he seems to take his method from the great nineteenth century German historian, Leopold von Ranke. The first chapter of the book is called Playing the von Ranke Game and I assumed that this would show why von Ranke's once vaunted methodology is a complete failure. But no. Rather surprisingly, it seems that Lemche is seriously suggesting using von Ranke's methods to write a history of ancient Israel, or rather to demonstrate that you can't write one like that. Now if Lemche was an extreme decontructionist all this would be explicable as a prolonged practical joke, but he gives no indication that this is the case and I really have no idea what he is up to.

Von Ranke's method splits sources between primary and secondary and insisted we only use the former. For OT history, that means ancient inscriptions are the only primary evidence and the Bible is secondary almost regardless of how conservative you are. Thus all twentieth century developments like source criticism, redaction criticism and textual criticism go straight out the window. Lemche is willing to admit that the Bible does contain some historical nuggets but the only way to demonstrate them is to use a genuine primary source as the proof text. So, at present, Lemche's work looks to me like the amusing undergraduate exercise "What can be say about history if we assume our main source [the Bible] doesn't exist". This is similar to asking the question "What can we know about Jesus without using Christian sources?" and just as wrong headed.

But Lemche goes further and deals with the primary evidence with a quite unwarranted level of scepticism. Let's ignore his well poisoning when he mentions that everything has been considered a fake, even when those accusations are a century old. Rather, the problem is that he refuses to draw any connections between sources at all. Let's take the word 'Israel' as an example. This appears in the 13th century BC Merneptah Stele as a place that pharaoh had laid waste in Palestine. Lemche shows that the stele is best interpreted as meaning that this Israel is in the central Highlands - exactly where the remains identified by Dever as proto-Israelites were found. These remains are distinguished (according to Dever) by a paucity of pig bones but Lemche doesn't mention this at all. And we have the Bible placing Israel in central Palestine at that point in time. Three sources of evidence - two primary - and Lemche still refuses to call these people even proto-Israel. Worse is to come. The 9th century BC Tel Dan inscriptions also refer to Israel but Lemche won't accept that this must be the same entity that is on the Merneptah Stele! Does Lemche really think that the 13th century Israel disappeared and was simply resurrected by another group of people four hundred years later? Well, that is what he suggests.

All this explains why historians ditched the von Ranke method a century ago. It remains to be seen where Lemche is taking all this in the remains of his book, but he appears so far to be going nowhere in a hurry...

Saturday, March 12, 2005

The Larry Summers affair rumbles on. I won't say a man has never been so persecuted for speaking some common sense, but he certainly looks like he regrets saying anything now. I think his big mistake was to apologise as this was an admission of guilt. Ken Livingstone, London's mayor, wisely told his persecutors to take a running jump at the moon and has come out of it better.

Luckily, some brave voices are speaking out in Summers' defence. One of these is Steven Pinker, with whom I have plenty of disagreements but I have to admire him for being both clear and candid. This makes his mistakes transparent as well as his good points. Sadly, Summers' opponents won't take much notice of him as he is already branded as a mouthpiece of the right (which must be upsetting for a Democrat voting libertarian). The UK Guardian also ran a good article today by a woman scientist who is not afraid of her science.

The key question here is whether we should be aiming for equality of opportunity or equality of outcome. Almost everyone except the most diehard leftie would now say the former, but when push comes to shove, it turns out that many people have a problem with choice. It is a brute fact that more boys want to be mathematicians and scientists than girls. All the evidence points to this being part of human nature and not socialising. It is universal. It is found in the most progressive of environments. Boys actually brought up as girls display the same desires as other boys. Pretending it is not true helps no one and simply leads to unhappy people who are forced to do want they don't want to. And all this business of choice is quite apart from the fact that boys are, at the extremes, better at maths than girls anyway.

I do hope the Summers' affair will be the last stand of the diehard fascist wing of feminism who no longer have a leg to stand on. And hopefully, Harvard will continue to appoint the best people to the top jobs and ignore fatuous quotas that have no meaning in reality.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

For those who don't always look at the comments, let me point out again the response to my thoughts on Dever made by Celsus. I am very grateful to him for such rapid and useful feedback. I will be leaving any adjudication between the minimalists and Dever until I have at least read Lemche's The Israelites in History and Tradition that sits on my desk. I intend to blog comments on that and then attempt some sort of synthesis. As I have said before, I come to this question as a historian rather than an ANE specialist, so expect to be corrected with alarming frequency when I get things wrong.

From a historical point of view, I might suggest that mythmaking is a fairly similar process whenever one is doing it. Looking at a great and influential work of nineteenth century mythology, John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science, we can note a number of things.
  • The mythmaking is largely in the editoralising and selection of material;
  • Few things presented as facts have no basis at all in history;
  • Minority positions are presented as the majority and vice versa;
  • The author has no doubt that his myth is true;
  • Paraphrase can be very effective in subverting meaning but invented quotations are rare;
  • The overall effect is to leave the reader believing the myth is even more clear cut than it actually is.

All of this, it seems to me, can be applied to the Dtr history. Most obviously, the minority Yahwist position is presented as the majority and in retrospect most readers assign it a completely dominating position that even the text as we have it cannot support. The authors cannot be accused of lying, they are pretty good at getting isolated facts right and quotations have to be read against themselves. So, perhaps the way to extract history from myth is to look at how myths are constructed in cases we can get behind them and use the same techniques to unwind where we cannot. Further good examples of where we can get behind the myths to a great extent include Charlemagne's reign, the English Reformation and most pseudo-history. While I hesitate to suggest Graham Hancock is the perfect model for the Deuteronomist, I would be interested to see how my method deals with his sort of schlock.

But all that is for later. For the moment, let's see what Lemche says for himself and how he works in practice.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Here are some further thoughts on William Dever's What Did the Bible Writers Know and When Did they Know It?

The bulk of the book is in the fifth chapter that deals with the period from the death of Solomon until the fall of Judah to the Babylonians in 586BC. For this period, Dever can point to loads of archaeological information that have convergences in the Bible. Most famously, there are events like the raid of the Egyptian Pharaoh Shishank around 925BC, the mention of Israel’s kings in Assyrian records and the unsuccessful siege of Jerusalem in 701AD. Shishank’s raid is commemorated in an inscription in Egypt which match destruction layers in Palestine and the Biblical record. Likewise, evidence of Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701BC is found in the famous inscription by Hezekiah in his water tunnel, Assyrian inscriptions and the biblical record, not to mention royal storage urns dating to exactly that campaign. As far as Dever is concerned, it is simply bad scholarship to ignore all this evidence coming together. Another point he is keen to make is that there are countless Hebrew inscriptions dating from before the Exile that show the Hebrew language existed long before the Persian period when the Bible reached its final form. Here, through no fault of his own, Dever comes a bit unstuck. Some of the inscriptions that he mentions form part of the present forgery indictments in Jerusalem and Dever does make light of the idea that they might be fakes. Some of his opponents have claimed that the Baruch bulla, for instance, is forged, which Dever declares a ridiculous idea. Sadly it is no such thing and archaeologists are probably now unable to trust anything not found in situ. This leaves a great deal of trustworthy archaeological evidence but not as much as Dever thought at the time of writing this book. Certainly declaring anything that destroys your theories is a forgery, as Dever hints some have been doing, is bad methodology.

The final chapter is a bit if a rehash of the rest of the book but contains one more killer point against the Bible being written very late in its entirety. Dever points out that the reason that most scholars now date the Book of Daniel to the Hellenistic period is precisely because it contains many references to the political situation at that time. This kind of anachronism, Dever rightly says, is a good reason to date a text late. Contrasting the position of the Deuteronomincal History, Dever explains how the fact that it contains none of the anachronisms you would expect if it had been originally written in the post-exilic period is a good reason to date it early. If you add to this how it is uncannily accurate about matters of detail about life in the united and divided monarchy period, now confirmed by archaeology, we have little choice but to accept it contains genuine history which can be extracted using critical methods.

Friday, March 04, 2005

An anonymous feedback suggested that I should be criticizing JP Holding of Tektonics.org as well as Joe. I can't really see how Joe's profanity compare to JP's satire and assume that Anonymous was just looking to score some points.

That said, JP Holding does get a lot of people's goat and I am fairly regularly criticised for linking to him and praising him. The first conclusion to draw from this is that he is effective in what he is trying to do and his detractors are just looking for another angle of attack. The material which JP refutes are websites from internet scribblers who simply do not deserve to be treated with respect. Anyone who still seriously believes that Jesus is based on pagan myth is clearly beyond the reach of reasoned argument and should be satirised mercilessly. The sheer self righteousness of the delusions of sites like this and this stick in the craw and we should all be grateful to JP for taking them down a peg or three.

Also, I find his site extremely useful. Every so often I get an email from a distressed Christian who has read some rubbish and isn't sure how to react. 99 times out of 100, JP has already trashed the material in question and his apologetics encyclopedia makes it easy to find out where. I suppose you could describe JP as the Michael Moore of Christian Apologists. Both are heroes to much of their own constituencies (they gave Moore an Oscar, after all) but can cause some unease for their lack of subtlety. And they both drive their opponents up the wall. As a fan of movies such as The Life of Brian and Dogma, I fall into the category of Christians who have no problem with satire and certainly can't fault JP for indulging in it.

So, I make no apologies for supporting JP Holding's apologetics. That atheists can't stand him is to be expected but he is only reacting against the drudgery they are producing. After all, JP only got into this business to counter the Secular Web's The Jury is In.

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Intelligent atheist of the month is an otherwise anonymous 'Joe' who felt his communication was so important he had to send it three times. His pearls of wisdom: "jesus never existed you dumb m***** f*****"

Joe used the feedback form so I have no idea who he is. He didn't use asterisks, or any other punctuation for that matter. Nice to see that reasoned argument is still the exclusive purview of the non-believing community.

In other news, my wife and I are well and truly snowed in. We got the car to the end of the drive but then got stuck. It took a spade and kindly neighbour just to get our car back to our spot so we weren't blocking the road. This is the only occasion ever that I have pondered the virtues of a 4x4....