Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Quote of the Day (30)

If you’ve been reading here for any length of time, you’ve almost surely noticed that in attempting to understand the meaning of the any given Bible text, I am reluctant to allow too much weight to the opinion of historians.

This is not because I automatically suspect all historians of having agendas, even though the politicization of history is arguably more pervasive than the politicization of science. Science deals (or ought to deal) in events we can replicate experimentally, and should in theory be far less likely to cede territory to the circumscriptions of PC ideologues than should the humanities.

But practitioners of the hard sciences are now demonstrating almost daily that even they cannot always be trusted to stick to the facts. It would be imprudent for us to exercise greater faith in historians, notwithstanding their relabeling of history as a “social science”.

So the Story Goes

So, no, my lack of enthusiasm for the work of historians is not just my suspicious nature talking, and my reserve is not unique. Respected Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld sheds some light on the work process of his fellow historians finding their feet in the early 1970s:
“A good story was true and accurate and integrated as many other stories as possible. If you were really up to date, you would base it not just on old books but on some sophisticated tool like carbon dating or air photography. But a story it remained. The reason for telling it, if any, was to fill ‘gaps’ in existing knowledge. The fact that these gaps only existed in the minds of a few professional scholars was ignored.”
— Martin van Creveld, Clio & Me: An Intellectual Autobiography
Or, as Elvis Costello delicately put it, “History repeats the old conceits.” And as van Creveld appears to have absorbed by osmosis, in his field the governing metric for a successful paper is not truth but something else:
“I had always been worried that my work might not be original, given that each story I picked up seemed to have been covered already by so many different historians.”
Apparently the key to success for a historian is originality. Who knew?

Novelty as an End Game

With novelty as the end game, less principled historians might be tempted to advance questionable-but-intriguing hypotheses even in the face of the established facts. Van Creveld found a practical solution that allowed him to retain his integrity while still being original:
“Shifting the emphasis to questions enabled me to evade that problem. After all, the number of questions is infinite.”
Or as he later notes, quoting an old Dutch proverb: “A single fool can ask more questions than ten wise men can answer.”

Van Creveld is apparently not the only respected historian who’s discovered this trick, and it explains something I’ve encountered repeatedly in researching the opinions of secular historians on the Old Testament: for every consensus historical view, you always find a plethora of Dickie Opposites sharing their own contrary and sometimes outright bizarre conclusions. Such departures from historical orthodoxy are usually couched as musings rather than dogma. As van Creveld observes, this permits the writer to incorporate sufficient novelty in his thesis to create a stir while leaving himself the escape hatch of merely having posed a perfectly innocent and plausible question in the event his historical theory happens to fall flat.

In Search of the Flaky Outlier

In their desire to make an impact, I suppose, younger historians are not crazily dissimilar to journalists. Which means that in the day of the Google search, every heresy-monger and his great aunt can easily find themselves a flaky outlier with a master’s/PhD combo to validate their offbeat notions about New Testament culture and rationalize why Paul or Peter didn’t actually mean what he appears to mean.

Kinda leaves the truth-seeker out in the cold, doesn’t it? Or at least walking around in an almost impenetrable fog of conflicting viewpoints, most of which he is unqualified to comment on with authority because they concern the work of “experts”. Those who are ignorant of the practices within the field can be forgiven for thinking that a consensus of learned opinions ought to settle a matter once and for all. But first, try finding one!

I have greatest confidence in historical conclusions that can be demonstrated exclusively from within the pages of scripture itself. Inspiration is our greatest safeguard from speculation, whimsy, originality and creativity, all of which are detrimental to the search for truth.

The Holy Spirit I trust. Even translators I trust. English Bible translation teams have a remarkable knack for drawing very similar conclusions about the meaning of the same ancient texts time after time, as any perusal of Bible Hub’s parallel versions tool demonstrates conclusively.

But historians? The jury is still out.

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