Monday, June 25, 2018

Museum of the mind

i) Some biblical place names are hard for modern readers to correlate with the surviving evidence. Stock examples include Gadara/Gerasa, Jericho, and Ai. That's not surprising given the vicissitudes of time. 

Critics view this issue through the wrong end of the telescope. What's striking isn't that we have a few cases like this, but that we're able to make a confident identification most of the time. 

Memory is a museum of the mind. I remember many places that no longer exist. To take some comparisons:

ii) In some cases a place name changes. It's the same site under a different name. When I was a boy back in the 60s, a shopping plaza was built nearby. The supermarket was originally called the PX. Later it was renamed Mayfair. And it changed hands a few more times before the shopping plaza was eventually demolished to make way for an upscale condo community with artsy shoppes.

Very few residents are in a position to remember what used to be there and what it was called. You had to live through that period. It's very time-sensitive information. Some long-term natives remember, but the area has undergone a tremendous turnover, due to gentrification and urbanization. Many of the locals didn't live at that time and place.

The fact that Bible place names are often so identifiable at this great distance from events is a tribute to the accuracy of Scripture. It would be so easy to get these wrong if the document was written at a different time or place. 

iii) Once again, when I was a kid back in the 60s, there were two rival towns next to each other: Kirkland and Houghton. I remember my parents taking me to the Houghton public library when I was a very young boy. Many years later when I happened to be driving around there, I stumbled across the long-shuttered Houghton library.

Because Kirkland was more competitive, Houghton was eventually annexed by Kirkland. And Kirkland has annexed some other nearby municipalities or parts of unincorporated counties. 

As a result, some of the original place names have changed, although individual businesses may use the old place name. What "Houghton" refers to would be opaque to a resident who wasn't there at the time. It requires pinpoint knowledge to be conversant with the local historical minutiae. 

iv) This raises a dilemma for a historian. Suppose you're writing a history about that locality. Some of the place names have changed. Do you use the new place names or the old place names? If you use the new place names, that's anachronistic–but if you use the old place names, that's unrecognizable to most readers. Ideally, the place name should match the period you write about, but if a reader doesn't know what that refers to, the precision is pedantic. It fails to communicate. 

v) It may also depend on the emphasis. Is this primarily a history about that locality, or a biography, where the setting is more incidental? 

vi) Sometimes you have the opposite phenomenon, where the site changes while the name remains the same. I attended four different elementary schools, then junior high and high school. Some were built in my lifetime. All of them have since been torn down and replaced with new school facilities. They kept the same name for the school, but it has new buildings. And the campus is different to accommodate the new buildings.

I have detailed firsthand memories of the original schools. I could describe the layout of each campus and buildings. That wouldn't bear any correspondence to the current campus and floor plan. 

Then there's the school where my father taught. That's long gone. Today it's just a public park. For that matter, some of the public parks have been drastically relandscaped. 

Imagine a "Bible critic" thousands of years later reading my account, which doesn't match surviving records, and concluding that my account is either fictional or based on faulty sources. It would, however, be the critic rather than the source that has faulty information.

vii) Keep in mind, too, that due to military invasion, the Middle East has undergone tremendous change over the millennia. Cities razed and villages burned to the ground. 

viii) One more example. When I moved to a new area, I went to a supermarket. I glanced at a picture framed history of the franchise. It's a chain store that was started by a local business man in 1957. So there was that historical description on top. Below was a photograph of the store and parking lot full of cars. Since the ostensible purpose of the photo is to illustrate the history, you'd expect the photo to be taken around the time the first store opened. Like the grand opening or shortly thereafter.

But the cars in the photo were from the 1960s, not the 1950s. That's something I instantly recognize because I was born in 1959, so as a kid a saw lots of 1950s cars. And, of course, having lived through the Sixties, I saw lots of 1960s cars. I automatically know the difference. 

Perhaps the person who posted the story and the photo didn't have a period photo. Or perhaps he was too indifferent to dig around for a period photo. Or perhaps he's too young to be aware of the difference between 1950s cars and 1960s cars. Even though the anachronism is obvious, it isn't obvious to someone who wasn't alive at that time and place. Sometimes there's no substitute for firsthand knowledge. 

In relation to the history, the photo was off by about 7 years, give or take. Very narrow parameters, but enough to falsify the illustration inasmuch as it's impossible for 1960s cars to be around before a store that opened in 1957. There's no wiggle room for that chronological incongruity. 

Once again, it requires pinpoint knowledge to be aware of these things. We should be impressed by how accurate the Bible is. How rarely biblical place names are hard to identify from surviving records. These apparent discrepancies are predictable and consistent with the complete accuracy of scripture, given the spotty evidence that's survived. By contrast, the demonstrable accuracy of Scripture is very hard to explain if books were written at a later date and/or place.  

1 comment:

  1. Also, the name one uses can be a political, social and cultural statement. People don't always agree on the name of a location, and even use names to advance their agenda. Like how the "West Bank" isn't on the west of Israel, but its east. Jordanians and Palestinians call it the West Bank as a form of political warfare.

    Then there's generational gaps. Living in Illinois, people in my generation and older still call Willis Tower the "Sears Tower". Many tourists still call it that in private as a form of rebellion to the disliked name change.