Review of “A Biblical History of Israel”, Chapter 2

Review of Chapter 1.

The trio poses several questions on page 34 (in the first chapter) regarding the role of text and tradition in the composition of accurate history. The more important question of how the historian distinguishes falsehood from truth and visa versa is certainly implied throughout the first chapter. Yet, the authors spend some fourteen pages in Chapter 2, which discusses the basics of historical knowledge, not answering this most important of questions relating to the composition of accurate history. Thus, Chapter 2 is merely a 14-page exercise in the dumping of red herrings.

The trio first points out that most of our histories are derived from what they call the “testimony” of authors. Yet, this point is banal. No one denies that interpretation of data or reliance on “testimony” are essential parts of writing accurate history. The authors claim (in one of the most puzzling passages in the book) that it is a delusion to call selective acceptance of “testimony” “knowledge” (p. 37); yet, it is this delusion they propose as a solution to the problem of how the historian tells truth apart from falsehood. I have no idea what the authors meant to communicate to the reader when they wrote this passage. The trio then indulges in criticizing the concept of scientific objectivity, gleefully using post-modernist criticisms of science to buttress their near-fundamentalistic maximalism. While scientific objectivity is, indeed, impossible, as all human endeavors are affected by biases and uncertainty, to pretend it is not a laudable goal is to promote needless, futile, baseless, and internecine conflict in the historical community.

The trio points out that no observer can be objective due to that observer’s partial knowledge, points out that historical events are not replicable, and that history deals with more factors than science typically does. However, as the good Jerry Coyne says,

The way one finds out that Julius Caesar existed is pretty much the same way we find out that the supercontinent Pangaea existed—through historical reconstruction and tangible evidence.

The trio also have gripes about “implausible reductionism that seeks to explain all reality in terms of a mechanistic model of the universe”. The trio blathers on about the trend of historians in recent years to regard their field as more an art than a science. They also conflate science with certainty on the bottom of page 42. Needless to say, there remain many uncertainties in science and uncertainty does not liberate the historian from the need to provide evidence to back up his or her claims.

The trio then separates historians into three classes: “ostriches”, who refuse to acknowledge the death of “scientific” history and presumably believe objectivity is still an achievable goal (I view it as a laudable and unachievable goal) for the historian, postmodernists, who deny that any realistic vision of the past can be reconstructed, and maximalists. However, as I have pointed out in my review of the first chapter, one cannot be a maximalist in all things. Though the trio speaks of placing tradition in its “proper place”, it appears to me that the trio would not regard creation myths as recording a real history. Any person has a “principled suspicion of tradition” in regards to folktales. Even the most ardent minimalist would accept that 2 Kings 18 has a “proper place” in the historical reconstruction of Sennacherib’s campaign. Thus, the central question of history composition-how one tells truth from untruth-is left unaddressed in this chapter.

The trio points out that if children were not gullible, they would not survive. However, surely the authors accept that gullibility in itself is not a good thing? Do they seriously believe that the various bits of religion and other related superstition mothers in, say, Pakistan, India, or Nigeria tell to their young children, warrants consideration as reliable truth? I doubt it. However, rather than blaming the blatant untruth of plenty of received tradition as the reason for the historian’s “principled suspicion” of it, the trio instead blames “individualist ideology”, which, in reality, is mere (often warranted) suspicion of bias and misleading selectivity in the historian’s sources by the historian.

The trio then suggests that archaeology is more a matter of interpretation than fact. However, a destruction layer has a story, as do chronologically diagnostic sherds, imitation wares, and imported artifacts. Archaeological remains do not just pop out from a vacuum. They do, indeed, require interpretation, but no amount of interpretation can make Jericho become inhabited in the late 13th century BC or be destroyed as a fortified city later than the late 16th/early 15th century BC. While it is true that “testimony” “helps in the choice of where to survey or dig, imparts the sense of the general shape of the history one might expect to find in any given place, enables a tentative allocation of destruction levels to specific, already-known events, and permits material finds to be correlated with certain named peoples of the past”, it cannot make the Joshua 15 town list correspond to the historical reality of Late Bronze Age Palestine. Though interpretation may be “fraught with difficulty” in some instances, this does not mean archaeological remains are a Rorschach test. The authors do not even mention prehistoric archaeology in Chapter 2. The Early Bronze Age and Chalcolithic are not ‘dark ages’ in Palestinian history, as probably imagined by the authors. Contra the trio, “objective knowledge” is “available here, independent of testimony about the past”.

The authors then proceed to make baseless assurances that they think “critical thinking” is a good ability for a historian to have. They throw in a good ole’ “Neither blind faith in testimony, nor radical suspicion in response to it, is necessary.” to solidify their status as sanctimonious assholes. They then throw in their “we generally regard it…” which I heartily mocked in the review of Chapter 1. They then utter bizarre gripes about “method”, strangely pointing out that “for example, if we are Caucasians [their misuse of the word, not mine], and consistently accept “insider” accounts of reality offered by Caucasians over and against “outsider” accounts such as those offered by Asians [sic!]*-then we are considered prejudiced, not intelligent.”. This rule (to consistently accept ‘insider’ accounts) may be either useful or completely wrong-headed, depending on the situation. Since the trio do not bother to elaborate on the situation, we (the readers) cannot know of the actual usefulness of this rule in the hypothetical scenario the authors have set up.

The trio then offer a surprising denial of the general priority of primary sources to secondary ones. Needless to say, it is often the case that we simply do not know how well a secondary source has reported information from a primary source, and potentially useful information given by a primary source tends to be distorted or omitted when reported by a secondary source. More often than not, a broad picture of the past can already be painted by historians today; thus, primary sources, with a more narrow perspective, can give us more original information than do secondary sources. Would we not love to have even half of the “testimony” of the primary sources of Herodotus? Though, as the authors say, “We must exercise our judgement on a case-by-case basis.”, method can help historians in their quest for an accurate portrait of the past. Though the authors dismiss “the mold of those who have brought mathematical probability theory to bear on testimony”, mathematical probability theory can, in fact, be quite useful to both the historian and to the average layman.

The trio closes this chapter with claims that all knowledge about history is really a matter of faith in “testimony”. Needless to say, the existence of a destruction layer is not a matter of faith. Nor is the existence of stele fragments of Sargon II at Samaria. What is “faith”? It is “belief in the absence of evidence”. But is belief of an account in the Amarna letters consistent with other accounts really “belief in the absence of evidence”? Often, the text itself is sufficient evidence to accept a claim, as long as the claim is not extraordinary and the author of the text is known to have limits on his/her possible unreliability. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Ordinary claims require ordinary evidence.

The trio claims that ancient historians were just as critical as modern ones. However, this claim is manifestly untrue. Hardly any ancient historian was an atheist. Hardly any accepted the dictum that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Though the ancients may have been just as concerned with truth as moderns, they simply did not have the tools of Skepticism we moderns have today. However the authors may deny it, that is a fact.

* Quite a few Caucasians are Asians!

UPDATE (April 5 2013): If by “Caucasians”, the trio mean to refer to “whites”, they are perpetuating a Biblical myth (p. 24). The white race is sometimes referred to as the Caucasian because a certain German scientist named Johann Friedrich Blumenbach considered the white race to be the original race off Noah’s Ark, and, as we all know, Urartu=Armenia=Caucasus!

Author: pithom

An atheist with an interest in the history of the ancient Near East. Author of the Against Jebel al-Lawz Wordpress blog.

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