2007-10-07

Lazy historians and their ancient sources

by Neil Godfrey

Though I refer to “lazy historians” here, this piece is really written for “lazy readers” of “biblical history” — not that many are really lazy. But not all are aware that modern critical techniques applied to the Bible are not a reflection of anti-religious bias but are rather an application of modern critical historical tools to biblical texts. It is the biblical apologist who is often the one wanting specialist treatment of his texts, not the secular critic.

“Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.” — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

I have complained about biblical scholars who do this and sometimes compared them unfavourably with “nonbiblical” historians. Liverani’s discussion of historians who have treated their main documentary source for the Old Hittite Kingdom has pulled me up. If biblical historians claim to be doing what other historians are doing, they are too often doing what other “lazy historians” are doing.

At least the works of “lazy historians” in nonbiblical areas can be more easily corrected than “lazy biblical historians” who often have a less than purely intellectual faith-interest in reading their sources the way they do.

Liverani continues:

“No one would recommend such a procedure on a theoretical level, but nonetheless it continues to be used, especially in fields where awareness of the methodology and aims of history is not great.”

Emphasis mine throughout.
(Liverani was writing (2004) before Bauckham in his Eyewitness book (2006) actually does recommend such a procedure on a theoretical level, labeling it something like the “hermeneutics of charity” IIRC.)

Liverani is writing specifically of the way historical reconstructions of the Old Hittite Kingdom used to be done. Records from the period itself are scarce, so historians relied heavily on a document from a later period, the Edict of Telipinu. This claims to be a continuous narrative of the political history of the Hittite Kingdom up to the time of its composition.

Liverani shows how one early and widely read work on Hittite history did little more than paraphrase the Telipinu edict and add in here and there tidbits of information from other texts as if they were all “equally reliable and equally important”. History was just a matter of piecing all the data we had together into a coherent whole. Simple.

Simple, but problematic:

Documents that are not contemporary with the events they purport to describe are necessarily secondary, not primary, sources. These documents themselves are historical “reconstructions”.

Such historical reconstructions are made out of particular political, moral, theological etc assumptions and purposes, and are not intended to simply record “all the pure history” for our benefit.

Liverani then self-consciously finds it necessary to state what should be the obvious:

history is not something that already exists or is already reconstructed, and that can be accepted without question. On the contrary, it is an active engagement, which the ancient authors took up in relation to their own needs, not to ours. (p.28)

The ‘lazy historian’ fails twice, Liverani writes:

  1. by refusing to take an active role
  2. and then by preserving the active role of the ancient source without even recognizing the fact.

So what needs to be done?

Instead, we need to take an active role with respect to the passive ‘material’ source. In order to make the ancient documents passive, we need to dismantle them and strip them of their specific ideology. First of all it is necessary to understand them truly — a task not always as easy and automatic as some seem to believe, and a task in need of proper analytical techniques.

Bauckham effectively takes a postmodernist view that in the case of the gospels at least it is impossible to separate the ideological (theological) content from their historical claims. One can’t help but sense a bit of intellectual opportunism when a believing Christian finds a useful alliance with postmodernism.

Liverani then shows how a diligent historian works on an ancient text:

  1. He discusses what we can know of the Edict of Telipinu and the circumstances surrounding its composition.
  2. He demonstrates reasons for believing that the first king on its list was never a historical person at all but a myth.
  3. He demonstrates reasons for rejecting its claims that certain periods were known for political strength and stability compared with others of weakness and chaos. He does this by showing the self-interested political motive of the author in making such a claim and the lack of external evidence for it.
  4. He demonstrates reasons for disputing its claim to prove the “legitimacy” of the rule of Telipinu.

This is written primarily for those readers of “biblical histories” who believe that their Albrightian or Eusebian reconstructions — views of history that take the Old and New Testament writings respectively as fundamental guides to the ‘real history’ of Palestine and the early church — are valid history; and who believe they are doing what “other historians” do.

Some such readers become indignant that their Old or New Testament texts should be pulled apart and dissected by “modern scholars” and think that they are doing so because of some “anti-biblical” bias.

No, they are using the same tools on biblical texts as they do on secular texts.

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