Opinions about the Bible are like noses: everyone has one

I am often surprised by the heat in discussions about the Bible, even amongst atheists. Questions about myth and history in the Old Testament and Jesus as a historical or mythical character result in people slinging references from their favorite experts, back and forth. I finally formulated an explanation for why everyone is a little wrong and little right in these discussions. No, I will not feed you some post-modernist mumbo-jumbo. But, a bit of explanation of how different opinions about these topics are formed, and the weaknesses within those opinions, will help explain some of the disagreements in these discussions.

Ancient books, like the books of the Bible, are interpreted in a variety of ways by scholars in different fields. The specialists in these various fields often overlap, with knowledge of more than one area of study. But, they break down basically into four camps: Language specialists get down to the nitty-gritty of understanding the words. Others specialize in ancient books as literature, exploring the symbolic meanings in stories. Historians use the books to describe the social environment of the author and sometimes look for descriptions of historical events. Archaeology is the most contentious field in their use of ancient texts. There is a pronounced division between those who want to use the books to interpret their data and those who use their data to interpret the books.

In a perfect world, all the specialists would come together to build a consensus about the history and myth contained in ancient books. However, they are like the four blind men describing an elephant. Very different pictures are created by the various specialists, depending on which portion of the elephant they seek to define. The specialists cannot be criticized for their blindness because they are dealing with a handicap created by age. The material they interpret is so old that they will never be able to define it with complete certainty. But, the level of emotion about the differences of expert opinion is solidly set in the present. Public perception of expert opinions about the Bible is complicated by religious and ideological biases and a basic misunderstanding of how expert opinion develops.

The good news is that all the problems associated with understanding the books of the Bible are exactly the same as the problems with the Iliad, minus the public biases. Because the public opinion of the Iliad is significantly more neutral than the Bible, the disagreements amongst experts about the Iliad illustrates why none of us should be too smug about our favorite expert opinions.

The relevance of the Iliad to the archaeology site of Hisarlik in Turkey is an extraordinarily contentious subject amongst scholars. One recent infamous conference literally broke out into a fist fight amongst these so-called “professionals.” Before Schliemann discovered Troy in the tumulus of Hisarlik, the consensus was that the Iliad was pure fiction. Schliemann was not always honest in his archaeological methods and the real evidence at Hisarlik continued to be inconclusive; but, archaeologists began taking the Iliad more seriously as a legend about a real war. The public hears the “Hisarlik is Troy” story much more often than the challenges to the description. Describing Hisarlik as Troy was a boon for tourism of the site; so, the Turkish government has a vested interest in promoting that description. Until he died in 2005, Manfred Korfmann was a lightning rod amongst scholars because of his promotion of Hisarlik as Troy. His version of Troy dominated when I was in school; but, the tide is turning, with a more restrained description of the Bronze Age city (Dieter Hertel 2003).

Historians have the difficult task of bringing together both the questionable archaeological evidence and the changing opinion of language specialists about how the Iliad was composed, in using the book to describe the social environment of the author and possible historical events. Until about 1979, the “analysts” style of describing the Iliad as a collection of oral tales dominated (Hammer 1997). But, the formulaic nature of the composition overturned that theory and it became solidly dated to the “Dark Age.” A better dating of the composition meant that historians could make more use of it; but, it remains contentious as to what time period is the most relevant to the tale because the author set his story in the distant past.

The specialists who look at the Iliad as literature catch my interest because they draw out some of the cultural trappings in the tale relevant to my studies. One of the scenes in the Iliad jumps out for me because of its relevance to West Asian myth and ritual. The scene is Helen on the wall of Troy, overlooking the battle scene. The princess on the wall was a common motif in West Asian literature (Jamison 1994). The princess represented a goddess and her city shrines were located on the city wall. But, the specialists in different fields will look at this scene with very different perspectives. The archaeologist forgets about the princess and looks for the wall. The language specialist focuses on the poetic meter in the lines describing Helen. The historian might focus on the battle rather than Helen. These experts will each have quite different ideas about the “historical” and “mythical” significance of the story. Your opinion about the story is formed by the emphasis of your favorite expert.

When you are forming an opinion about a historical topic, ask yourself a question: Are you using your nose to sniff out the various ways in which that topic can be illuminated? Or, are you just using another body part to excrete a story you were fed by your favorite expert?

Works Cited:

Dieter Hertel, Frank Kolb. "Troy in Clearer Perspective." Anatolian Studies, 2003: 71-88.

Hammer, Dean C. "Who Shall Readily Obey?": Authority and Politics in the "Iliad." Phoenix, 1997: 1-24.

Jamison, Stephanie W. "Draupadí on the Walls of Troy: "Iliad" 3 from an Indic Perspective." Classical Antiquity, 1994: 5-16.

Views: 129

Comment by Michael R on September 26, 2010 at 10:37am
Where would you place political science (or political philosophy) in your 4 camps of specialists?
Comment by willailla on September 26, 2010 at 12:51pm
History: A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury signifying nothing. [when politics gets involved.]
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 1:44pm
Michael - You are right, I should have included political science and philosophy in there too. I was trying to keep it simple. In general, I would consider them to be consumers of the material rather than producers. The article by Hammer that I used as an example of a historian's approach was specifically about the political organization reflected in the Illiad. But, they could also be bunched up with the "literature" people, particularly the Greek philosophy specialists.
Comment by Mario Rodgers on September 26, 2010 at 1:54pm
Why is that everybody KNOWS the Illiad is a work of fiction, even if Troy could possibly be a historical city, just because it has the Greek gods of Zeus and Ares and Athena and whatnot, but people still insist The Bible the true and finding historical cities mentioned in the Bible is proof the Bible is real. Talk about a blind spot! The deeds and gods and magic in the Illiad is JUST as absurd and fantastical and legendary as the same in the Bible!
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 2:03pm
Willailla - I think you have read Voltaire's quote: "History is nothing but a pack of tricks that we play upon the dead."
I think it is possible to come up with something approaching the truth about historical subjects. But, our modern biases really do determine what subjects we emphasize and modern political/religious concerns really do distort that emphasis. I read a great article that criticized how Early Christianity and the "historical Jesus" story is told. The author and I share the same perspective that the story is distorted by religious scholars and the "Historical Jesus" emphasis distracts from a realistic description of early Christians. Here are some quotes from the article which highlight the problems:

Crossley J. DEBATING THE BIBLE STORIES. History Today [serial online]. December 2006;56(12):24.
“The 1970s saw a significant interest in the use of social sciences in order to understand earliest Christian rituals, beliefs, and social structures and to see how they fitted into the broader Jewish and Greco-Roman worlds. Since then archaeology has played an increasingly prominent role in illuminating the first-century cultural and political contexts. Building on social historical approaches, I would like to see more work done on the world of Jesus as it has been done in history departments for decades on other historical topics, looking at the role of economic and social factors to answer the 'big why questions', as Eric Hobsbawm puts it, of the origins of Christianity.
Yet for all this, the overwhelming majority of biblical scholars are committed Christians. Their historical study of Christian origins often remains descriptive and the handmaiden of theology, even while they happily talk about 'doing good history'.”

“The publication of Vermes' trilogy Jesus the Jew (1973,1983,1993) was in no small part responsible for a dramatic change of perception. He convincingly showed Jesus was a fairly typical charismatic holy man, who kept the commandments, observed the Sabbath, and had little to do with the Christ-figure of Christian theology -- which was something built up after his death, initially in the writings of St Paul.”
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 3:13pm
Doone - Awhile ago, A Christian friend on FB posted the infamous Einstein video. It portrays Einstein as a school boy, spouting a description of god. She got angry when I told her the story was fiction. She said: "I don't care if it is true. I like what it says about god."

You are right that the ancient stories might be based on some real events, just like the video was about a real person. However, preserving the memory of some long ago wars does not appear to be the objective of the authors of those stories. They were not "historians." They were deeply religious people and they composed stories to convey religious "truth" not historical facts.

In the article I cited by Hammer, he states his thesis: "The argument of this article continues in this last vein by suggesting that the Iliad is not simply a reflection of, but a reflection on, the nature of political authority." So, the story reflected the political interests of the Dark Age author, not necessarily the political structure of the Bronze Age people of the story.

When dealing with religious texts, the objective of the author is the most important consideration. Modern people tend to have a "scientific" mindset and look for facts. Ancient authors, particularly religious authors, just did not care about facts in the same way as we do. There might be kernels of historical fact in those stories; but, it is a very big "might."
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 4:02pm
Doone - Since this is of particular interest to you, I sent the PDF of the cited article to you.

The Iliad is better than nothing in exploring the history of Hisarlik. It isn't that it is being completely thrown out. But, a less gung ho, tourist driven, description is in the works.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 6:02pm
Doone - I would not trust Wikipedia over a peer-reviewed journal article, particularly when the journal is Anatolian Studies by the British Institute in Ankara and the subject is the Hittites.

Population estimates are very difficult and another bone of contention amongst scholars. Again, this is relevant to Jerusalem, with some claiming a very small Iron Age town and other dreaming up a major city.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 6:11pm
Actually, that huge difference in population estimates illustrates my point: different perspectives result in very different pictures and deciding where the "truth" lies is treacherous ground.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 26, 2010 at 6:29pm
Doone - I didn't cite the article to declare it as "correct." I used it to show that there are a variety of perspectives on these topics. The point of my blog post was to show that simply citing an authority does not necessarily mean your position is correct and the other person is wrong. There is a ton of gray area between the black and white ends of the spectrum on historical questions.


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