For example, believers typically take David as a model for the Messiah. But then an archaeologist comes along to assert the following conclusions:
David and Solomon existed in the 10th century B.C. but as "little more than hill country chieftains." There was no golden age of a united kingdom, a magnificent capital and an extended empire.Currently, Finkelstein's and Silberman's claim remains hotly contested. But what happens if the scholarly consensus moves in that direction? How does it affect exegesis? How does it affect faith?
Postmodern scepticism about historiography:
I am sympathetic to a postmodern view of historiography. The scholar's conclusions follow largely from his or her presuppositions.
I don't think it is entirely so. For example, I think we can conclude, on objective grounds, that the synoptic Gospels accurately capture the very "voice" of Jesus (his ipsissima vox), if not always his very words (ipsissima verba).
But over and over again, scholars' supposedly objective conclusions follow directly from their personal predilections. For example, did Jesus predict the arrival of the kingdom of God during his lifetime? Just about everyone resists that conclusion, although there are good biblical grounds for it.
Conservatives resist that conclusion because they can't admit that Jesus made a prediction that didn't come true. Liberals resist that conclusion because the image of Jesus as a wild-eyed, end-times prophet doesn't fit their preferred schema: Jesus as a teacher of universal ethical truths.
Conservatives and liberals alike sift the data according to what is palatable to them.
Postmodernists conclude that there is no such thing as objective history. I agree that historiography is highly problematic. Some basic conclusions are objective, in my view; but you can't progress very far before scholars begin picking and choosing from the data in accordance with their personal preferences.
Ken Burns's perspective:
That was my long-winded introduction to a quote from the documentary film-maker, Ken Burns. He sat down with Jon Stewart to discuss his documentary, "The War", a fresh examination of World War II. The video is embedded below (at least, it will be until Comedy Central deletes it from their site). But here is my transcript of the excerpts that caught my interest:
The second world war has been so draped in bloodless, gallant myth. You know, it's the John Wayne war. And when you see colour [film footage], it's no longer at arm's length. It's right there, and it's the worst war ever, not the good war, cause it killed sixty million people. …Allow me to object to one of Burns's statements: "We don't have a political bone in our bodies in this film."
A handful of soldiers [are now] able to say, "This is what really happened. I saw bad things; I did bad things; I lost good friends. I was scared, I was bored, I was hot, I was cold."
All the things that are universal to war. A guy in Iraq today — experiencing the same thing. And two thousand years ago, in the Peloponnesian War — the same thing. …
We don't have a political bone in our bodies in this film. … But at the same time, history is the set of questions we in the present ask of the past. And so it's very much informed about our anxieties. …
We know that it takes some time from an event before you can really understand it: that you can triangulate with the passage of time. So you're constantly aware as you're dealing with new stuff that [our perspective] is going to change.
You know, if you did something on Vietnam ten years after the fall of Saigon — when we're in a recession, when Japan's ascendant — it'd be a different film than twenty years out, when we just won the first Gulf war, that our economy was booming, Japan was stagnant. I mean, every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes. …
I think all of us are in a continuum. You know, somebody says, "Is this the definitive work?" Absolutely not! You know, our Civil War film, seventeen years ago, spawned hundreds of documentaries. It's just, you do what you can do in that time.
In that statement, Burns momentarily falls back into the positivist trap. He speaks as if the historian floats in a heremetically sealed compartment, and is not influenced by the surrounding environment.
Presumably Burns meant only that he isn't trying to support either the Democrats or the Republicans in this documentary. It's clear from everything else he said in this segment that he understands the hard truth of historiography: that all historians are biased. We are all captives to the era which shapes us, all editing the data to respond to our interests and defend our prior convictions. As Burns put it,
Every time you change a degree from that moment, every part of your perspective changes. … You [just] do what you can do in that time.That's why historical conclusions, like those of Finkelstein and Silberman, must always be taken with a grain of salt. One must always ask, Where does this historian "come from"? What axe is s/he grinding — what polemical position is s/he setting out to prove?
I hasten to add, it's true of everything I write as well. In one post, I'm trying to make a case for same sex marriage. In another post, I'm resisting the biblical teaching on penal substitution.
If the posts are tendentious, does that make me a liberal? No, because this idea has nothing to do with the great liberal/conservative divide. Conservatives are playing the same game, they're just grinding a different set of axes. Hence the postmodern scepticism about all historiography.
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