Thursday, April 9, 2015

On Ancient Writers

One of my hobbies is studying folklore and legends. And one of the temptations of this is to try to figure out how they originally came about. Or even to speculate on what parts are true and what are embroidery. This is great fun. You start asking if Hercules could have been a real man who killed a real lion and the tale got blown up in the telling. All of this is an interesting way to spend a Saturday afternoon. But even if I were a gambling man, I would not bet ten bucks on it in real life. The truth is that trying to figure out how a story developed in a different time, a different culture, and a different language without clear physical evidence is sheer speculation. Now scholars do this all the time with all sorts of works. And one theory displaces another in quick succession, and all of them are different. As C. S. Lewis points out, even in modern books the reviews are usually wrong when they try to figure out how the book was written. He points out the common tendency to claim that Tolkien's One Ring is based on the atom bomb. The problem is, the Ring existed in the book before the atom bomb existed in the world. I have a theory for explaining Ulysses' adventures; Ulysses lied. It seems plausible to me; he is said to have told various lies on his arrival home. Why not one more, the whopper? (All of this assumes, of course, that there is some historical fact behind the story, which is, needless to say, arguable.) But I certainly would not count on it being true.

However, somehow when we come to the Bible, the kind of theories I would not take as more than an interesting game with any other book are put forth as indisputable fact. Now I do detect certain biases on the part of these scholars, particularly biases against the supernatural. But I would not trust such theories as regards any book in the world. It is true that there are those who devote their lives to such things. But I question whether any amount of study or intelligence is sufficient to surmount the problems involved in the task. Also, to be honest, there is a type of scholarship that loves abstruse, complicated theories that show the cleverness of their inventor. But I have to ask if the reason no one has thought of a particular theory before is because it is too obscure to be really believable. Also, I would agree with Lewis that these scholars have spent too much time studying the Bible and not enough studying literature in general. I believe the best test for such an approach would be to test it on other, neutral books. Particularly ones where we actually have some history to check it with. But until I have seen some basis for regarding such methods as anything more than questionable guesses, I am hesitant to apply them to anything.  

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