Statesboro, GA, USA
The comments you make, Stephanos, about taking necessary care in jumping to conclusions on the basis of primary source material are to by reading, reasonable, although exactly what those would be, we would would have to be more specific about. I'm really no good on hard science and I wouldn't want to pretend to be.
Neither would I Bob. I guess my saying would need to cite specific examples, though I seem to remember a host of them coming from popular documentaries and the casually accepted scientific verities offered to the American Public through television. It's about the feeling of "how can they know that?" when certain things are said in an assumptive way. Probably better than citing certain examples though, I'd rather share a bit of prose from the likable Gilbert Keith that well expresses (if not demonstrates) the kind of thing I'm referring to. As always, if nothing else, maybe you'll enjoy his frisky pen, and have a chuckle or two. And, as a disclaimer, in no way do I feel that all science or anthropology is open to this kind of criticism.
"The science whose modern marvels we all admire succeeds by incessantly adding to its data. In all practical inventions, in most natural discoveries, it can always increase evidence by experiment. But it cannot experiment in making men; or even in watching to see what the first men make. An inventor can advance step by step in the construction of an airplane even if he is only experimenting with sticks and scraps of metal in his own backyard. But he cannot watch the Missing Link evolving in his own backyard. If he has made a mistake in his calculations, the airplane will correct it by crashing to the ground. But if he has made a mistake about the arboreal habitat of his ancestor, he cannot see his arboreal ancestor falling off the tree. He cannot keep a caveman like a cat in the backyard and watch him to see whether he does really practice cannibalism or carry off his mate on the principles of marriage by capture. He cannot keep a tribe of primitive men like a pack of hounds and notice how far they are influenced by the herd instinct. If he sees a particular bird behave in a particular way, he can get other birds and see if they behave in that way; but if be finds a skull, or the scrap of a skull in the hollow of a hill, he cannot multiply it into a vision of the valley of dry bones. In dealing with a past that has almost entirely perished he can only go by evidence and not by experiment. And there is hardly enough evidence to be even evidential. Thus while most science moves in a sort of curve, being constantly corrected by new evidence, this science flies off into space in a straight line uncorrected by anything.
But the habit of forming conclusions, as they can really be formed in more fruitful fields, is so fixed in the Scientific mind that it cannot resist talking like this. It talks about the idea suggested by one scrap of bone as if it were something like the airplane which is constructed at last out of whole scrapheaps of scraps of metal. The trouble with the professor of the prehistoric is that he cannot scrap his scrap. The marvelous and triumphant airplane is made out of a hundred mistakes. The student of origins can only make one mistake and stick to it.
We talk very truly of the patience of science; but in this department it would be truer to talk of the impatience of science. Owing to the difficulty above described, the theorist is in far too much of a hurry. We have a series of hypotheses so hasty that they may well be called fancies, and cannot in any case be further corrected by facts. The most empirical anthropologist is here as limited as an antiquary. He can only cling to a fragment of the past and has no way of increasing it for the future. He can only clutch his fragment of fact, almost as the primitive man clutched his fragment of flint. And indeed he does deal with it in much the same way and for much the same reason. It is his tool and his only tool. It is his weapon and his only weapon. He often wields it with a fanaticism far in excess of anything shown by men of science when they can collect more facts from experience and even add new facts by experiment. Sometimes the professor with his bone becomes almost as dangerous as a dog with his bone. And the dog at least does not deduce a theory from it, proving that mankind is going to the dogs- or that it came from them. For instance, I have pointed out the difficulty of keeping a monkey and watching it evolve into a man. Experimental evidence of such an evolution being impossible, the professor is not content to say (as most of us would be ready to say) that such an evolution is likely enough anyhow. He produces his little bone, or little collection of bones, and deduces the most marvelous things from it. He found in Java a piece of a skull, seeming by its contour to be smaller than the human. Somewhere near it he found an upright thigh-bone and in the same scattered fashion some teeth that were not human. If they all form part of one creature, which is doubtful, our conception of the creature would be almost equally doubtful. But the effect on popular science was to produce a complete and even complex figure, finished down to the last details of hair and habits. He was given a name as if he were an ordinary historical character. People talked of Pithecanthropus as of Pitt or Fox or Napoleon. Popular histories published portraits of 'him like the portraits of Charles the First and George the Fourth. A detailed drawing was reproduced, carefully shaded, to show that the very hairs of his head were all numbered. No uninformed person looking at its carefully lined face and wistful eyes would imagine for a moment that this was the portrait of a thigh bone; or of a few teeth and a fragment of a cranium.
The other day a scientific summary of the state of a prehistoric tribe began confidently with the words 'They wore no clothes! Not one reader in a hundred probably stopped to ask himself how we should come to know whether clothes had once been worn by people of whom everything has perished except a few chips of bone and stone. It was doubtless hoped that we should find a stone hat as well as a stone hatchet. It was evidently anticipated that we might discover an everlasting pair of trousers of the same substance as the everlasting rock. But to persons of a less sanguine temperament it will be immediately apparent that people might wear simple garments, or even highly ornamental garments, without leaving any more traces of them than these people have left. The plaiting of rushes and grasses, for instance, might have become more and more elaborate without in the least becoming more eternal. One civilisation might specialize in things that happen to be perishable, like weaving and embroidering, and not in things that happen to be more permanent, like architecture and sculpture. There have been plenty of examples of such specialist societies. A man of the future finding the ruins of our factory machinery might as fairly say that we were acquainted with iron and with no other substance; and announce the discovery that the proprietor and manager of the factory undoubtedly walked about naked-or possibly wore iron hats and trousers. It is not contended here that these primitive men did wear clothes any more than they did weave rushes; but merely that we have not enough evidence to know whether they did or not. (G.K. Chesterton, The Everlasting Man)
One of the other correctives that history has been applying to itself over the previous fifty years is to notice that the "history" that has been told is a narrow history of a narrow segment of people with power, money and station ...
You and I differ as to the dating of the canonical gospels, as I recall. I want to be respectful of the religious content; I simply find it difficult to believe that material touched by the hand of man in a situation where political advantage would be useful to acquire would manage to be unaffected by it, however pure the motive might be. I am more than pleased to be wrong should that be the case, and, frankly, I see no way of determining the reality of it.
Well, what you say has much truth. But may I suggest another thought for your consideration and exploration? One of the tendencies of postmodernism has been to take the insight of the impossibility of escaping the subjective, and made it into a kind of dogma itself. With such an insight turned universal, mistrust, or what N.T. Wright referred to as a 'hermeneutic of suspicion', was much easier to retain. In fact, many times, no rigorous consideration of particular historical and cultural situations was thought necessary in regard of their verdict. After all, subjectivism, bias, and the political happens to all.
In light of this, I would suggest to you that the charge of 'politics' being a corrupting influence in the Canonical Gospels is based more upon this kind of tacit belief than it is upon real textual and historical critique. When the Gospels were written, the Jewish culture was monolithic enough in their religious hierarchy (no separation of church and state) to guarantee that the disciples of Jesus would be ostracized for turning their backs on "Moses and the Law". The relatively poor fisherman and ragtag band that first began to follow Jesus (from whom the texts of the gospels were born) seemed to have little to gain by this 'movement', if the traditionally political perks are assumed to have been their goal: power, money, wide influence. And though the Christianizing of Rome that occurred centuries later under Constantine made some of the inheritors of the original "faith" more open to such a charge, their history and dating makes this allegation against the gospels themselves anachronistic. Also the tendency of the early disciples to fervently preach and believe in a Kingdom "not of this world" and prove it by their own disregard of temporal wellbeing when necessary, makes the charge of seeking political advantage ironic.
Cousin to this charge, is the popular belief that the Canon of Scriptures was determined by Constantine, and the Council of Nicea. But even a precursory look at the facts shows that the Canon of Scripture was not decided at Nicea, but rather questions regarding the Arian Heresy. In 367 A.D. Athanasius, in his "thirty ninth Festal Letter", identified a list of books which corresponds to what is accepted as canonical scripture today. But his declaration was not at all arbitrary or politically determined. As a matter of fact, these same books had been generally approved of and accepted by the Church as authoritative since much earlier times. Justin Martyr was referring to "The New Testament" from early on. By the time of Irenaeus, it was pretty much accepted that there were four gospels. And by the late 2nd Century, there was consensus that the four Gospels, Acts, and Paul's letters had the status of 'scripture'. Clement of Alexandria, more perfectly recognized the forming 'canon' and listed the books in his writings as well. So while the recognition of the Divinely inspired books was somewhat 'gradual', the recognition is well documented before the assumed power trips of "In Hoc Signo Vinces". When Christianity was in 'the Ghetto' so to speak, these books were already being acknowledged in a widespread way among the Christian communities. The official act of "Canonizing" was more like formal recognition than arbitrary determination.
The Gospel may be God's word, you should pardon the hard nosed academic attitude, but it still ain't primary source material. And yes, I know, I'm a terrible man.
I don't mind the hard nosed academic. As long as you're willing also to acknowedge that we don't have the autographs (originals) for any ancient writings (many of which we accept as authentic) and that the manuscripts of the New Testment represent the most abundant and the closest to the autographs in all of antiquity.
As far as Bibliographical credentials go, I'll give you an idea: Homer's Iliad is the closest second with some 645 manuscripts, and the earliest complete text from the 13th century. The Entire New Testament can be found in manuscript form as early as 325 A.D. (though partial manuscripts are as early as 114 A.D.), with thousands of partial and complete manuscripts besides.
Yikes! Look at the time. Gotta get to bed to get up early.
Enjoying the exchange,