Sunday, April 12th, 2009

Reading Ancient Texts Responsibly

Reading Ancient Texts Responsibly

Though many (learned and unlearned folk) seem not be aware of it there is an academic version of the biblical “believe not every spirit…” It is “double-check all sources.”  I ‘push up’ myself in the company of reputed scholars and join Egyptologist William Dever in asking “How is it that the biblical texts are always approached with postmodernism’s typical ‘hermeneutics of suspicion’, but the non-biblical texts are taken at face value? It seems to be that the Bible is automatically held guilty unless proven innocent.”   This quotation is on p. 128 of Dever’s 2002 (paperback) book What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did they Know It? It should be noted that Dever’s book is quite critical of the biblical documents at points.

Were I a gambling man I would bet thousands of dollars that the average proud Afrocentrist simply parrots back what another respected Afrocentrist says without taking the time or trouble to personally check the sources used by that other Afrocentrist.  Christians are similarly guilty. Hence, mistakes in argumentation and facts are compounded and reveal stark ignorance about the literary conventions at work in the ancient documents.

For example, when the average Bible critic charges that if the Biblical Exodus really happened it should have been mentioned on some Egyptian stele somewhere. Such a critic needs to know that Pharaohs never document defeat; indeed they sometimes exaggerate their victories.  But then again, hyperbole was the norm in Near Eastern military reporting and this is evidenced in the biblical book of Joshua as well as on Merneptah’s stele.

I wonder how many Egyptophiles realize the dilemma of relying on Manetho’s records while doubting the reliability of the transmission of the biblical documents.  The dilemma is this; Manetho’s historical work Aegyptiaca was written around 290-260 BC. The work is now lost and though it relied on much earlier works, the time gap between Manetho and the earliest periods about which he writes is about 2000 years. Additionally, Manetho’s text, accessible only via quotations in other ancient writers, was not the most reliable in terms of names of certain kings of Egypt.  As revered linguist and Old Testament scholar Robert Dick Wilson said while arguing for the unusual accuracy of the Old Testament manuscripts,

“I have been blamed for not referring to the classical writings more frequently in my book on Daniel. Here is the reason — take the list made by the greatest scholar of his age, the librarian at Alexandria in 200 B.C., [Manetho]. He compiled a catalogue of the kings of Egypt, thirty-eight in all; of the entire number only three or four of them are recognizable. He also made a list of the kings of Assyria; in only one case can we tell who is meant; and that one is not spelt correctly…” (In Bible League Quarterly, 1955, cited in David Otis Fuller (Ed.), Which Bible? (Grand Rapids:  Institute for Biblical Textual Studies, 1990), 45.)

Despite these limitations in Manetho’s work “…historians today take Manetho seriously and follow his dynastic system.” (James K. Hoffmeier, Ancient Israel In Sinai, 2005, 18).

A final example is the modern critic’s aversion to biblical accounts containing divine intervention.  Again the Merneptah stele, like the Bible, provides evidence of divine intervention in a historical narrative.  British Egyptologist and linguist Kenneth Kitchen says, “The support of deity is repeatedly invoked in what are otherwise straightforward historical accounts, because that is simply how the ancients saw their world. Again, the Ten-Year Annals of Mursil II are a good example among very many. This feature does not imply nonhistoricity either outside the Hebrew Bible or inside it.” (On the Reliability of the Old Testament, 2003, 175).

Critics as well as lovers of the Bible who desire to be taken seriously must do their homework on reading ancient texts in their literary context.

March 27, 2009
Clinton Chisholm


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