Thursday, January 06, 2005

SETH SANDERS has published his promised further comments on the forgery scandal in two installments: Biblical Archaeology from Scratch II: The Real Problem and Biblical Archaeology from Scratch III: How It Got Like This.

From installment II:
But I think the real problem might go deeper. Because there is a fundamental difficulty in the way we imagine, and thereby attempt to dig up, ancient Israel. Because of both historical facts and inherent conceptual problems, this enterprise might be doomed to fail in the terms it has set itself. As long as the burning desire to authenticate or falsify Biblical documents exists, as long as the debate is cast in these terms, problems like this will continue to come up. So another question we could ask is, why is the debate cast in these terms, of maximalism vs. minimalism, history vs. ideology, authenticity vs. forgery? Why is the question we're so fixated on--how did it get to be this way--and is this quest somehow already set up for failure?

From the third installment:
This, Hobbes would say, is the boat that Biblical studies missed: once church and state are separated, the Bible is de facto not authoritative any more, and de facto is all that matters. Once we accept the theory that all texts are the same�that communication through writing is necessary, but invisible and functionally uniform, the question of what the Bible did and does is off the table.

My initial reaction is that his analysis captures a central issue. In essence, a fair bit of the scholarly debate in biblical studies is still framed in theological terms based on assumptions that many or most of the scholars in question themselves reject. The language and agenda of the debate have not yet caught up with the metaphysics of the debaters. Verification or falsification of stories in texts is one part of the historian's problem, but that part is bloated out of proportion in biblical studies. Ultimately, in my humble opinion, the biblical texts just aren't well suited to the questions that historians have traditionally wanted to bring to them. Maybe that should tell us something. It certainly seems to me that historical verification of stories is much less of an issue for, say, Homeric studies or the study of Arthurian legends, although I can't claim to be a specialist in either. Yet the time frame between the supposed events and the written sources is not greatly different. I doubt that a forgery conspiracy on the scale of the one the Israeli authorities claim to have uncovered would be cost effective for these fields.

For that matter, how much interest has there been in establishing a historical core for the Ahiqar story, which is partly preserved in a fifth-century B.C.E. Egyptian Jewish manuscript, but which isn't part of anybody's canon? Very little.

The solution? Dare I say that specialists in the Hebrew Bible should start with the earliest surviving manuscripts and quotations (i.e., mostly the Dead Sea Scrolls and the earliest LXX fragments), understand them first in that context, and move backwards from there only as and to the degree that positive evidence requires? This point, more or less, was already made many years ago by Alan Millard in "Methods of Studying the Patriarchal Narratives as Ancient Texts," Essays on the Patriarchal Narratives (ed. Millard and D. J. Wiseman; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1980), 35-51. One could reply that I'm a boy with a hammer and everything looks like a nail to me, and that might be a fair, if ad hominem criticism. These are just my off-the-cuff, undigested thoughts. Please share your better answer with me.

UPDATE: Regarding the sentence "So another question we could ask is, why is the debate cast in these terms, of maximalism vs. minimalism, history vs. ideology, authenticity vs. forgery?" in the first quote above, Ed Cook writes:
I'm not sure why "authenticity vs. forgery" is thrown into this pot. An epigraph either is authentic or it is forged, while, say, "maximalism vs. minimalism" are two ideological grids which may admit of many degrees between ideal forms at the poles, and they may not "correspond" to any actual state of affairs. So I'm not sure how this is relevant to the forgery scandal. But read Seth, not me.

Well, Seth can speak for himself, but I took him to be saying in shorthand that the (ultimately theologically driven) need to authenticate or falsify the (events described in the) texts leads to a situation where physical verification by means of objects becomes excessively important, and thus creates, if you will, an ecological niche in which forgers can thrive. Therefore the authenticity vs. forgery of the artifacts is closely related to the (poorly formulated but widely asked) question of the authenticity or forgery of the biblical stories. Maybe I'm reading a lot into that one sentence, but I think that's the larger point. Am I close Seth?

Anyway, if that's not what he meant, I think it's still true.

Also, as an afterthought, the bipolar distinction between "authentic" and "forged" doesn't even apply unambiguously to epigraphs. If the forgery claims about the James ossuary are correct, the first part is authentic and the rest is forged.

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