Bnonn Tennant (the B is silent)

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Skeptical naivete about ancient near-Eastern history

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5 minutes to read Should we even expect accounts of ancient events to reflect historical fact?

Steve Hays comments about how ironically trusting of non-biblical sources skeptics are. Almost as if they were motivated to side with any source that competes with Scripture—the enemy of their enemy is automatically their friend.

But the problem is actually worse than Steve suggests. It’s not merely that we have no particular reason to trust competing sources over the Bible; or even that we might expect competing sources to be more biased than the Bible. The problem is that we should positively expect competing sources to be false or at best doctored with respect to the actual historical facts.

Now, I’m not proposing that ancient peoples conspired to write false histories or produce anti-Bible propaganda. That isn’t where I’m coming from at all.

Rather, I’m basing my claim on an understanding of the wildly different way in which ancient peoples viewed time and history.

As is natural, we tend to impute our own way of thinking to ancient cultures when we read their writings. So when we read records from ancient Egypt or Ugarit, we assume they are much like the ones we would make today. We assume the authors took all the major events of a given period and tried to report what had happened as accurately as possible. That they tried to avoid any partiality both in choosing what to record, and in how they recorded it. The assumption is that, as with journalistic reporting today, the truth of what actually happened was the ideal to which the reporter aspired.

But aside from how naive this is even with regard to modern reporting—as Steve ably illustrates—it simply isn’t what ancient peoples did. They just weren’t interested in journalistic reporting. Indeed, they had no concept of it at all.

This isn’t because they were unconcerned with what had actually happened. It isn’t because they merely wanted to propagandize, as Iraq did under Saddam Hussein, whose official history recorded that they won the Gulf War. Sometimes those things were true—but the real problem goes much deeper:

Ancient peoples’ worldviews dictated that reporting history accurately was not only pointless, but could actually be dangerous.

I’ve mentioned in the past how fundamentally different ancient thinking was to ours. This is one example.

In ancient thinking, everything was ultimately one. Not just the natural, human, and divine realms, but also past, present, and future. The world was all a continuous, cyclical chain of being.

This had two major implications we need to grasp if we want to understand their attitude to history—and why we literally should distrust anything they wrote:

  1. Because everything was ultimately one, seemingly distinct things could be made identical through representation. This is the idea behind idol-worship; the idol represents the god, and by doing so it becomes the god. This is baffling to us at first glance, but completely logical if everything in the world is actually one in the final analysis. Indeed, by the same token, the god himself is, for example, the storm in the case of Ba’al. The god is a personalized representation of the storm. So the idol is a representation of a representation of the storm; but because everything is one, it is equally true that the storm is a representation of a representation of the idol.
  2. Because everything was ultimately one, seemingly new events were just reiterations of past events. The ancients’ radical monism cashed out—again, quite logically—in a cyclical view of history. This is why you see practices like reading entrails: the idea was that if the gizzards of an animal turned out to be arranged similarly to some previous time, then events would unfold as they did at that time.

Now, the ancients understandably viewed creation as fundamentally chaotic. Thus, maintaining the status quo of the world was of critical importance to them.

Again, this is why you see things like collective mentality strongly overriding individualism in ancient cultures. Because all people were ultimately one, the important thing was to identify with your larger social group so as to be a kind of generic person. The more collective a society, the easier it was to represent using, for instance, stories about blandly archetypal heroes. Because of representation, telling these stories could actually bring them about in the lives of the social group, thus ensuring the sorts of events that they wanted, and giving some assurance of control over the otherwise unpredictable and often deadly future.

But what is history if not a story about the past?

You see the problem. If Pharaoh Amenhotep II, for example, lost his entire slave force and suffered a crushing defeat in the Red Sea at the hands of a foreign god, to record this fact—let alone retell it—would invite a repetition of the event! It would be positively dangerous to record what actually happened, lest doing so cause history to repeat via representation.

To prevent history repeating, what you would do is not record how the events disastrously did occur, but you would either avoid telling that story at all, or instead tell it how you wished it had occured—in the hope that this representative story would improve your fortunes next time.

The upshot of this is that if we did discover an Egyptian record of, say, the Exodus, we would actually expect it to contradict the Bible. It would be more surprising for it to corroborate the Bible story than deny it.

The Bible is unique among ancient writings in how it records events, because the Israelites were unique among ancient peoples in consistently repudiating monism. They were the only ones who consistently recorded their own history in highly unflattering and negative ways—because Yahweh demanded that they be truthful, and was insistent about preventing them from trying to influence the world through representation, because that eliminated the creator/creature distinction.*

Indeed, as John W Oswalt observes in The Bible Among the Myths, the Jews were the only ancient people who even had a concept of history as history: as a sequence of non-repeating events which were the result of changing causes and effects; which could be directed and understood in terms of personal agency rather than cyclical, inexorable continuity; and most especially which were governed and superintended by a supreme creator who was distinct from the world, and ordered all events within it toward an eventual wise and benevolent goal.

This is why the Bible is so unique among ancient writings as even recording anything like a comprehensive history in the first place. Ancient peoples, for the most part, just didn’t do that. It wouldn’t occur to them.

And this is why, all other things being equal, you should trust the Bible’s version of events—and distrust any competing contemporary sources.

* This actually constitutes what I regard as a very persuasive argument that Israel really were chosen by the unique creator of the universe and tasked with recording their interactions with him—but that’s a topic for another time.

 1 comment

Kirk Skeptic

Let’s still not forget the propagandistic aspect of spin-doctoring, like that famous retouched photo of Lenin haranguing a crowd with Stalin at his side but with Trotsky cut out of it. Besides, what pharaoh – or anyone else, for that matter – wants to memorialize a charlie foxtrot and invite competitors to try their luck? Nothing has changed.