I am surprised by the heat in discussions about the Bible, even amongst atheists. Questions about myth and history in the Old Testament and Jesus as a historical or mythical character resulted in people slinging references from their favorite experts, back and forth. I could see the weaknesses of these arguments; but, it took awhile for me to formulate an explanation for why everyone was a little wrong and little right in these discussions. No, I will not feed you some post-modernist mumbo-jumbo. But, a bit of explanation of how different opinions about these topics are formed, and the weaknesses within those opinions, will help explain some of the disagreements in these discussions.
Ancient books, like the books of the Bible, are interpreted in a variety of ways by scholars in different fields. The specialists in these various fields often overlap, with knowledge of more than one area of study. But, they break down basically into four camps: Language specialists get down to the nitty-gritty of understanding the words. Others specialize in ancient books as literature, exploring the symbolic meanings in stories. Historians use the books to describe the social environment of the author and sometimes look for descriptions of historical events. Archaeology is the most contentious field in their use of ancient texts. There is a pronounced division between those who want to use the books to interpret their data and those who use their data to interpret the books.
In a perfect world, all the specialists would come together to build a consensus about the history and myth contained in ancient books. However, they are like the four blind men describing an elephant. Very different pictures are created by the various specialists, depending on which portion of the elephant they seek to define. The specialists cannot be criticized for their blindness because they are dealing with a handicap created by age. The material they interpret is so old that they will never be able to define it with complete certainty. But, the level of emotion about the differences of expert opinion is solidly set in the present. Public perception of expert opinions about the Bible is complicated by religious and ideological biases and a basic misunderstanding of how expert opinion develops.
The good news is that all the problems associated with understanding the books of the Bible are exactly the same as the problems with the Iliad, minus the public biases. Because the public opinion of the Iliad is significantly more neutral than the Bible, the disagreements amongst experts about the Iliad illustrates why none of us should be too smug about our favorite expert opinions.
The relevance of the Iliad to the archaeology site of Hisarlik in Turkey is an extraordinarily contentious subject amongst scholars. One recent infamous conference literally broke out into a fist fight amongst these so-called “professionals.” Before Schliemann discovered Troy in the tumulus of Hisarlik, the consensus was that the Iliad was pure fiction. Schliemann was not always honest in his archaeological methods and the real evidence at Hisarlik continued to be inconclusive; but, archaeologists began taking the Iliad more seriously as a legend about a real war. The public hears the “Hisarlik is Troy” story much more often than the challenges to the description. Describing Hisarlik as Troy was a boon for tourism of the site; so, the Turkish government has a vested interest in promoting that description. Until he died in 2005, Manfred Korfmann was a lightning rod amongst scholars because of his promotion of Hisarlik as Troy. His version of Troy dominated when I was in school; but, the tide is turning, with a more restrained description of the Bronze Age city (Dieter Hertel 2003).
Historians have the difficult task of bringing together both the questionable archaeological evidence and the changing opinion of language specialists about how the Iliad was composed, in using the book to describe the social environment of the author and possible historical events. Until about 1979, the “analysts” style of describing the Iliad as a collection of oral tales dominated (Hammer 1997). But, the formulaic nature of the composition overturned that theory and it became solidly dated to the “Dark Age.” A better dating of the composition meant that historians could make more use of it; but, it remains contentious as to what time period is the most relevant to the tale because the author set his story in the distant past.
The specialists who look at the Iliad as literature catch my interest because they draw out some of the cultural trappings in the tale relevant to my studies. One of the scenes in the Iliad jumps out for me because of its relevance to West Asian myth and ritual. The scene is Helen on the wall of Troy, overlooking the battle scene. The princess on the wall was a common motif in West Asian literature (Jamison 1994). The princess represented a goddess and her city shrines were located on the city wall. But, the specialists in different fields will look at this scene with very different perspectives. The archaeologist forgets about the princess and looks for the wall. The language specialist focuses on the poetic meter in the lines describing Helen. The historian might focus on the battle rather than Helen. These experts will each have quite different ideas about the “historical” and “mythical” significance of the story. Your opinion about the story is formed by the emphasis of your favorite expert.
When you are forming an opinion about a historical topic, ask yourself a question: Are you using your nose to sniff out the various ways in which that topic can be illuminated? Or, are you just using another body part to excrete a story you were fed by your favorite expert?
Dieter Hertel, Frank Kolb. "Troy in Clearer Perspective." Anatolian Studies, 2003: 71-88.
Hammer, Dean C. "Who Shall Readily Obey?": Authority and Politics in the "Iliad." Phoenix, 1997: 1-24.
Jamison, Stephanie W. "Draupadí on the Walls of Troy: "Iliad" 3 from an Indic Perspective." Classical Antiquity, 1994: 5-16.