Friday, April 10, 2015

Bible dates

i) One stock objection to the historicity and inerrancy of Scripture is the allegation that Biblical chronology is erroneous. This can involve the allegation of internal contradictions in Biblical chronology, or the allegation that Biblical chronology contradicts extrabiblical dates for the same events.

If Bible writers were eyewitnesses to the events they recount, they wouldn't make these mistakes. Such blunders indicate that the account were written decades or centuries after the event by someone who didn't know any better. So goes the argument.

ii) This allegation contains dubious, unspoken assumptions. To begin with, we need to distinguish between wrong dates and imprecise chronology. A writer may present an imprecise chronology of events. He just doesn't give any dates. So a reader can't tell how much earlier or later one incident was in relation to another. However, not giving the date is different from giving the wrong date.

iii) In terms of chronology, there is often a paradoxical relationship between biographies and autobiographies. One task of a scholar who's writing a critical biography of a famous figure is to work out a consistent chronology of events in the life of his subject. To date various incidents. 

That's important because what the subject did at a later time may be dependent on something that happened to him at an earlier time. To explain his motivations and choices, you need to know when and where something happened in relation to something else. That's the nature of historical causation. 

What's frustrating for a biographer is how often autobiographers are very inattentive to dates. And there's a reason for that.

If I learn about an event by looking it up in a history book or encyclopedia, the source will give the same. If, however, I observe the event in question, or if it happens to me, then I don't necessarily register the calendar day on which it occurred. 

An autobiographer is generally writing from memory. Writing from experience. He knows what happened to him, and he knows the relative sequence of events without having the dates at his fingertips. That's unnecessary. 

Certain days, or parts of days, stand out in our recollection. I remember hundreds, maybe thousands, of days in my life, but I rarely recall the date. I didn't have occasion to make a mental note of the date.

When I was a boy, my parents got me a dog. I remember the day, but not the date. Likewise, I remember the day when we had to put her to sleep. But I don't remember the date. Although the days were significant to me, the dates were not. 

I remember when Richard Nixon fired Archibald Cox, but I don't recall the date. In the age of the Internet, it would be easy for me to check the date. But before the advent of the internet, that would require a trip to the library. 

Another reason why autobiographers are often indifferent about dates is that it can be very difficult and time-consuming to pin down the date for some incident in their lives. Usually, there's no public record of events that are personally significant to you and me. The only way to get a fix on the date is to associate it with some public event that happened around the same time. Something in the newspaper. 

But there are large gaps in our recollection. I remember a particular day, but I don't remember many of the preceding or succeeding days. That's because nothing memorable happened to me weeks or months before or after the memorable day. So I may lack the continuous context to reconstruct the date. I lack a larger frame of reference. There are no chronological landmarks. 

For instance, the Battle of Gettysburg was a famous turning-point in the Civil War. It happened between July 1–3, 1863. 

If, however, you were to ask soldiers on July 2 what day it was, I wouldn't be surprised if they couldn't tell you. Knowing the date was probably the farthest thing from their minds. They were preoccupied with just trying to stay alive. Keep your head down! Look around! They weren't reading the daily newspaper. 

So there's the paradox: people closest to the events, active participants, may only have a sketchy sense of when it happened, in calendar time. The difference between clock time and event time. 

By contrast, in part because he's writing years after the fact, safely detached from the fog of war, a historian may have a more accurate sense of timing. In addition, a historian has more chronological clues. He has so many sources. Reports from every day of the conflict. That gives him a larger framework, a continuous context, to work out a relative chronology and absolute chronology. 

You can only experience events at one time and place at a time, whereas a historian enjoys an aerial view (as if were). Because he wasn't there, he can, in effect, be everywhere. He is collating reports from many witnesses at different times and places. 

So the truth of the matter is nearly the opposite of what Bible critics allege. Observers can have a very accurate recollection of what happened–where and how, by whom, and to whom–but fuzzy recollection of when it happened. That doesn't mean their recollection of when it happened was faulty. Just that they didn't glance at a calendar at the time, or they can't place it at a particular point in time because the preceding and succeeding days were so forgettable. It's not because he was far removed from the event, but was–to the contrary–immersed in the event. 

It's a snapshot, not a motion picture. At most, individual frames in sequence, with many missing frames. 

No comments:

Post a Comment