Friday, February 01, 2008

N.P. Lemche on Historical Sources

Niels Peter Lemche on the Historical Sources of the Ancient Israelite in ‘The Israelites in History and Tradition

Lemche follows Leopold Von Ranke’s historiography that carries out the historical investigation based solely on contemporary sources. He does not depend on paraphrases from later sources, and he attempt to study the history objectively and without bias while recognizing the weakness of Von Ranke in utility of the histories of great men and women (p.5-6). To prevent himself from repeating von Ranke’s mistake and from being the victim of ‘winner writes history’ scheme, he employs a sociological approach by investigating the social dynamics involved in the development of the ancient Israelites.

He sees contemporary sources as all kind of information that can be dated without problems to the period which it is taken to be firsthand information (p.22). However, his commitment to contemporary data does not automatically devoid the OT of historical information. Lemche acknowledges the possibility that a later source is more reliable than a contemporary one, and the possibility that contemporary source does not necessarily carries reliable historical data. Therefore he differentiates the historicity and the primary and secondary status of a text (p.24-25).

Although he acknowledges the possibility that a later source to contain historical information, he applies a severe judgment on the source which he considers necessary due to the fact that there is no example of any ancient writings to present a “systematically correct picture of the past”, and the presumption that it is unlikely for them to have the capability for doing so (p.26-27). I think it would be very helpful if Lemche can clarify 2 points: (1) what does he mean by “systematically correct picture”? (2) Does he go the extra mile to consider a picture as “correct” even when such picture includes some not-so-natural elements in the picture (eg. resurrection of the dead)?

Lemche is absolutely right to caution against the tendency and principle to accept the biblical text as historical sources and information in advance (p.29). A threatening principle, in my view, that is prevalent among believers, which in some quarters numbing down the intellectual potency of many. Nevertheless such position does not preclude that the biblical text can never be a reliable historical sources, a notion which is not least a tendency that can be developed into a principle as well. Therefore a caution upon caution should be in view. It can be and is the case that one’s high view on the historical reliability on the biblical text is not due to an a priori, but an a posteri.

Perhaps, a milder agnostic stance, as contrast to Lemche’s necessity for severe criteria, on the historicity of later sources should be taken on this subject. But then again, such cautious agnosticism should not and, I will further argue, cannot pervade one’s inclination for a higher degree of historical recognition/acknowledgment of later sources. In other words, Lemche's bias for contemporary artifacts must not blur the reliability of later sources unless there found disrupting factors affecting the latter artifacts. Disrupting factors such as overwhelming evidents of contemporary sources which contrast later sources. If not, then the reliability of the later sources should not be ruled out a priori. And the absence or lack of contemporary sources is definitely not a disrupting factor.

Going back to the question whether does Lemche consider a picture which contains not-so-natural element as “correct”. If his answer is “no”, then the adjectival “systematically correct” is just a slight lesser severe criterion and much constricted perception; and in the end, not as ideal and open as it can be or claimed to be.

My other review on Lemche's book: here

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