Tuesday, January 04, 2005

Biblical Archaeology from Scratch III: How It Got Like This

And now, what I see as the modern side of the underlying problem. This is that, to put it bluntly, you can dig up all the artifacts you want, even finding something that looks to you very much like an ancient Israelite state, with scribes, monotheism, and so on, and you may find that you have not really proven what you want to prove. The Bible may be authentic (and here I think the "minimalists" who want to falsify it are still buying into the same assumptions as their opposite numbers), but is that enough to make it Scripture? Does that help us decide if it's the authoritative word of God?

It never fails to amaze me, the incisiveness with which Thomas Hobbes, who helped inaugurate both modern Biblical Studies and modern political theory, already saw the limits of both:

It is a question much disputed between the divers sects of Christian religion: From whence the Scriptures derive their authority? Which question is also propounded sometimes in other terms, as, How we know them to be the word of God? or, Why we believe them to be so? And the difficulty of resolving it ariseth chiefly from the improperness of the words wherein the question itself is couched. For it is believed on all hands that the first and original author of them is God; and consequently the question disputed is not that. Again, it is manifest that none can know they are God's word (though all true Christians believe it) but those to whom God himself hath revealed it supernaturally; and therefore, the question is not rightly moved of our knowledge of it. Lastly, when the question is propounded of our belief, because some are moved to believe for one, and others for other reasons, there can be rendered no one general answer for them all. The question truly stated is: By what authority they are made law?
Leviathan 33.21

What Hobbes seems to me to be arguing is that the question of the authority of the Bible is the wrong one: when you think it through, he says, it doesn't matter whether it is the word of God. He comes to this rather counterintuitive conclusion by breaking down the question of the authority of Scripture into two things people actually mean when they say this: 1) How we know the scriptures to be the word of God? And 2), Why we believe them to be so? He says these are the wrong questions: "For it is believed on all hands that the first and original author of them is God," so everybody believes it. Again, "it is manifest that none can know they are God's word (though all true Christians believe it) but those to whom God himself hath revealed it supernaturally;” so nobody knows it. “The question truly stated is: By what authority they are made law?” The question is why—or if—anyone obeys it. That is, the fact that they may come from God is irrelevant: as humanly promulgated documents, texts are all alike: the scriptures can have no power to compel assent; it takes a state to make them law. So there is nothing inherent in scripture that makes it scripture: the state’s decision to compel obedience is the only difference that matters.

At the point commonly recognized as one of the founding moments of Biblical studies, Hobbes makes a series of deft moves to shut it down, to prove the debate would be fruitless. He argues that all the philology in the world won’t change the essential fact that the text is just a text. Nothing in the text, says Hobbes, can prove it’s the word of God. No matter what history lies behind the Bible, the end result, the document it produced, is just like any other document.

Now, Hobbes' political theory also assumes a theory of language, which is that all texts do by themselves is communicate information.* In this theory, all laws have the same status vis a vis the state: they need someone with control over violence to enforce them. So the question of authorship is moot: it’s very interesting, but it doesn’t change anything.

This, Hobbes would say, is the boat that Biblical studies missed: once church and state are separated, the Bible is de facto not authoritative any more, and de facto is all that matters. Once we accept the theory that all texts are the same—that communication through writing is necessary, but invisible and functionally uniform, the question of what the Bible did and does is off the table.

Interestingly, there is a thread in Weber’s theory of the state that casts a radically different light on the whole thing. But I'll leave that for my book.


*That is, if I understand it correctly. Today John Kelly pointed me to some work by Quentin Skinner which argues that Hobbes actually has a whole semiotic theory that's different from the two early Modern poles usually posited, at least in anthropological linguistics, of Locke and Herder. We shall see!

28 comments:

elf said...

I don't understand. For those who believe that God's authority lies behind the Bible and that God has the ability to punish and reward, the Bible is de facto authoritative, is it not?

Seth L. Sanders said...

Hi Elf,

This is true, but in a completely relvativistic way for everyone other than the believers themselves. In other words, some may believe God had promulgated laws through the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that He enforces after we die or in other ways, others may believe that He has done so through the Qur'an and Shari'a, others through the Hebrew Bible and Jewish legal traditon. No one can produce an account of their version of divine law that would compel others to accept it, so what we're left with is a world where everyone's beliefs are relative.

According to this account, any other alternative is worse, since it involves coercing people, forced conversions, burning at the stake--in other words, the exact situation in the early modern period that Hobbes and Spinoza were responding to. That's my pocket history of liberal democracy--a bad comic-book version, but it will have to do.

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