Opinions about the Bible are like noses: Everyone has one

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?

Works Cited:

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.

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Comment by Jaume on October 7, 2010 at 6:27am
This is a great topic for a discussion, and Jim makes an interesting and intriguing point.

Of course, if you stick to the narrative (I mean the whole Epic Cycle, not only the Iliad), the fate of Troy was sealed by the conjunction of Eris' beauty contest and the pledge Helen's suitors made to Menelaus when he married her. Fate (which both binding honor and binding love are only facets of) is by far the main driving force in Greek mythology.

Diana: [...] ask yourself a question: Are you using your nose to sniff out the various ways in which that topic can be illuminated?

I'm actually so guilty of this some of my schoolmates nicknamed me The Devil's Advocate. I've also been known (mistakenly) to support opinions that never were mine, just for presenting, analyzing and justifying them. Somehow, maybe, I find other people's viewpoints more interesting than mine.
Comment by Jim DePaulo on September 30, 2010 at 4:36pm
The bias of the investigators oft leads to false (or inaccurate) interpretations of history. It's not just a manner of fitting the evidence to conform to their bias but ignoring the critical evidence that argues against that point of view. Another potential flaw lies in interpreting evidence with a modern cultural bias - Helen and Paris were not an afternoon soap opera and romantic love was not much of a concept at the time (lust, of course, but not love).
I have always wondered about the fuss around Helen, The launcher of a 1000 ships. Why was the kidnapping of a wife worth 10 years of war?
Odysseus's' wife Penelope, IMO, is the clue to that mystery. When Odysseus was presumed lost the suitors flocked to Penelope's side - why? In a patriarchal society his son, Telemachus, would have become king not the guy that married mom. But in a matriarchal society the king would be whoever was married to the queen. Could Menelaus have had the same dilemma? Lose the old lady and lose the crown?
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 28, 2010 at 8:16pm
I love your Saxe quote!
The "traditional marriage" ideal of Western culture was really unusual in ancient cultures. The ideal elite Greek marriage was between a guy about 30 and a girl about 15-18. An Elite male usually didn't have property until his father died and he didn't get married until he was ready to produce an heir. If they survived giving birth and disease, women were often widows by the time they were in their thirties, because their husbands were so much older. Divorce was also common. Due to death and divorce, people usually were married more than once. Elites also did not have many children. They really only wanted two, with at least one boy. Infanticide, abortion, and sex with someone other than the wife were all methods of reducing the number of heirs.

West Asians seem to have had larger families than Greek elites. But, death and divorce limited their lengths of marriage to one person too. And, the infamous harems of kings make their marriages a far cry from our 1950's ideal of marriage.

The Bible is a poor source for looking at the composition of real ancient families because it is mostly mythology. Jacob had four wives and 12 sons because his myth required those numbers, not because his family reflected real life families.
Comment by Diana Agorio on September 28, 2010 at 7:41pm
I actually thought about that picture when I made up the title. She had a nose too, until someone else was of the opinion her nose should be cut off. Truly bad opinions deserve to be cut off. But, Bible history just is not settled subject. Some opinions are ludicrous, particularly religious opinions about the Bible. But, the more rational opinions are still open to debate.
Comment by Loren Miller on September 27, 2010 at 9:27pm
Ummm, sadly, NO ... not EVERYONE....

though we do have the Taliban to thank for that one....



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