Friday, March 20, 2015

History and the Exodus

In the past year or so I've become increasingly interested in the historicity of the Old Testament. I have long been thinking about the role of story in the life of the Church more generally, but my interest in the particular nature of Old Testament stories has grown more recently. One question I'm often thinking and rethinking is that of the relationship between those stories and history. Should, more specifically, the Old Testament's historical reliability affect--whether adversely or positively--the Christian's confidence in Holy Scripture? How should the Christian react to claims about the historicity of the Old Testament?

That question is far too complicated for any blog post by any writer, and it's obviously beyond my training and intelligence. But I do think there are a couple of workable "ground rules" from which to operate--or, maybe, a couple of pitfalls to avoid.

To begin with, it is important that we acknowledge our own limitations. We have to start by recognizing that many "problems" of biblical reliability are in fact problems of our own making--due not to the text itself but to our own errant interpretations and inevitably incomplete knowledge. It may be the case, for instance, that the apparent conflict between contemporary science on origins and the Book of Genesis has less to do with Scripture per se and more to do with modernist assumptions inherent in fundamentalism.

To take another example, when we expect ancient authors to use numbers in a consistently straightforward way, we may be anachronistically applying contemporary expectations to a foreign context. Ancient authors' use numbers in symbolic or indirect way--even when we cannot quite penetrate or understand the symbolism--should not be seen as inaccuracy or falsehood. This is analogous to, say, criticizing someone for using the phrase "sunrise" when the "objective truth" of the matter is that the earth is spinning rather than the sun rising. In both origins and numbers the same basic concept is at work: rather than attempting to understand a text on its own historical terms, we superimpose our own expectations of how (we assume) numbers ought to work. And when it turns out that the author is using numbers differently than expected, we're likely to accuse them of inaccuracy and unreliability.*

*Of course, I have objections to a whole set of ideas about "objectivity" at work here--namely, the assumption that "perspective" (the human being watching the sun rise) is irrelevant or inaccurate. But that's for another time.

What I mean is that you must try, so far as possible, to judge Scripture on its own terms, rather than imposing your own modern historical or scientific expectations onto it--expectations that might have been absurd, if not completely meaningless, to an ancient audience.  This does not mean, though, that historical unreliability in Scripture would be insignificant to the Christian. This does not mean, to push to the other extreme, that I am comfortable with the progressive move to reduce all of Scripture to "spiritual truths" that persist even if the claim the text makes is false. If you wish to read a text on its own terms, you have to take its claims seriously. The attempt to "spiritualize"--and thereby neutralize--the truth claims of Scripture is no less anachronistic than the most benighted fundamentalist interpretation out there.

It's with this in mind that I've been reading the fascinating conversation developing around a recent essay in Mosaic Magazine disputing the widespread scholarly dismissal of the Exodus story's historicity. Gerry McDermott's blog, The Northampton Seminar, directed me towards the initial essay, which uses two separate approaches to argue for the historical reality--at least to some extent--of the Exodus story. On the one hand, Joshua Berman, professor of Bible at Bar-Ilan University, undercuts the premises and assumptions at play in the dismissal of the Exodus story. He then offers up old and new evidence to support the historicity of both the Hebrew sojourn in Egypt and the subsequent Exodus.

Broadly speaking, this approach mirrors that of a volume I read last summer: A Biblical History of Israel by Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III. What I wrote on that book also applies to the Mosaic essay: "The authors do not--and, naturally, could never--provide proof positive that could force the reader to trust the biblical testimony. Instead, they show how distrust of biblical testimony is often a priori--that is, the distrust exists prior to and independent of evidence."

Since the initial essay, Mosaic has also published three interesting responses. Two largely support Professor Berman. But Ronald Hendel, professor of Hebrew Bible and Jewish studies at Cal-Berkeley, does not. Professor Hendel's response is, in its own way, fascinating. He first points out ways in which Berman's essay overreaches or extrapolates more from the evidence than the evidence actually supports. And on this ground he may very well be right. I am far from qualified to judge.

But then Hendel slips from evidence-based critique into a more general assessment of Berman's motives: "If I had to speculate," he writes--and here I have to stop and point that this phrase, this "If I had to speculate" business, functions as a blinking neon-red warning sign. "If I had to speculate" is one of those phrases that promises a bad ending, one of those moments where you know something rather dastardly is about to happen since, after all, he assuredly does not have to speculate, and so he's simply offering that little stock phrase as a get-out-of-jail-free card to excuse himself while he makes unjustified and uncharitable assumptions about an ideological opponent. Let's get back to it. "If I had to speculate," Hendel writes,
I’d say that Berman, who has ordination from the chief rabbinate of Israel, is driven by his agitation over the “culture war” between liberals and conservatives in biblical scholarship, a subject to which he devotes a number of pages in his essay. As against “liberal” scholars who see no historical evidence for the exodus, he wants to believe that the event happened. Yet since he is a genuine scholar, he is forced to concede that the evidence, such as it is, is far from definitive. He’s in a conflicted place, where the heart says one thing and the head says another.
Whew! That's some speculation! Good thing Professor Hendel didn't, you know, have to speculate.

So, according to Hendel, Professor Berman wants to believe the events happen, but is forced to concede that they pretty much didn't. Hendel simply waves all Berman's arguments aside as so much wishful thinking, while enshrining his own dismissal as merely the unavoidable and inevitable conclusion one must reach based on the evidence.

Hendel casts himself as the impartial scholar working from evidence and his opponent as the man of blind faith operating from his wishes. His faux-scholarly leaping to unsupported conclusions reminds me of Dom Paulo's rejoinder to the irresponsible speculation of a scholar in Walter Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz: "Why do you take delight in leaping to such a wild conjecture from so fragile a springboard?"

I've written a number of times about the attempt to excuse oneself from moral agency in choosing your own beliefs--to cast oneself as forced into a particular position due to the irresistible weight of pure, objective, and empirical evidence, while portraying one's opponents as horribly prejudiced ideologues. It's disengenuous:
History never speaks and never forces. We speak on its behalf. We draw our own conclusions. This is not, of course, to say that our conclusions are in any way arbitrary or immune to evidence, but rather that our interpretation of evidence often follows from assumptions and premises we held long before we ever considered the evidence. To recognize this reality does not free us from obligations to the truth--by no means! The real cop-out is blaming some other force ("history/science/evidence forces me to conclude that...") for your own conclusions. It is an attempt to hold a position without being responsible for it, to make an assertion without being its author. Recognizing that our controlling narratives are largely self- or societally-constructed rather than imposed by external evidence imposes upon us a far greater responsibility, and it should make us far more cautious and circumspect in our conclusions. 
You don't have to trust biblical testimony, but you should recognize that your distrust is probably not historical or scientific. It's your own. So own it.
Professor Hendel doesn't own it. But he does want to keep the meaningfulness of the Exodus even while denying its historical reality. "The point of the exodus," he writes, "is to be a transformative story told to every generation. It has succeeded."

This is where my twin presuppositions--that we have to take Biblical literature on its own terms (which are distinctly not the standards of contemporary science or academic history), but that those very terms involve historical claims--come into some tension. The key, I think, is whether or not the Exodus claims for itself historical validity.

That is, did the author(s) of the Exodus expect their story to be seen only as a "transformative story" in the vein of the Book of Virtues--a meaningful story but not a depiction of actual events--or did they expect readers to see it as a historical account in some sense? And, so far as we can tell, did their ancient Hebrew audience see it as the former or the latter? My initial, non-scholarly inclination--supported by Provan, Long, and Longman's A Biblical History of Israel--is to see it as the latter, as a book claiming historic reality.

If that's the case, then it surely does matter whether the authors made it up whole cloth or whether their account reflects historical reality.