One Good Reply Deserves Another

Last week, I read and gave a mostly positive book review to a book on ancient history [1]. Unlike the vast majority of my book reviews, this one became particularly popular, so much so that the author of the book himself thought it worthwhile to comment on my review. His thoughtful, albeit somewhat critical commentary on my review reads as follows:

***

“Thanks for your review and for the four star rating. The nature of this book was not such that it was meant to present original research; it is a synthesis of the current state of our knowledge. If you are interested in reading articles in which I present my original work, I invite you to see the publications that I have posted on my Academia.edu page.

By way of background, let me just say that I am, by profession, a biblical archaeologist and an ancient historian. I have been involved in co-directing two excavations in Israel during much of the past two decades and have published several books and numerous articles on biblical archaeology. I find it surprising, therefore, that your final paragraph states that I am both hostile to biblical history and lack understanding of the biblical record, since that is what I do for a living.

If you can show me where in the book I specifically express “open and unwarranted hostility towards the biblical account of history,” I would be grateful. And how does this make my “contempt for and lack of understanding the biblical record patently obvious”? Also, where in the book do I portray either the ancient or the modern world “in a way that denies the importance of morality”? I’m afraid that I don’t understand why you would say any of that, since nothing like that is in the book, either deliberately or accidentally.

If I recall, in the entire book, I discuss exactly one biblical topic, i.e., the topic of the Exodus. I do so neutrally, examining the textual account as I do all of the others from the ancient world, and looking at the archaeological evidence as I do for every other topic throughout the book. Should I – and other scholars — not be allowed to treat the Bible as an ancient source, subject to investigation of its contents just as we would an Egyptian, Assyrian, or Hittite source? But, that is exactly what a biblical historian does.

In the same context within the book, I also discuss Troy and the Trojan War, looking at Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey as well as the archaeological evidence for whether it actually took place. Would you also therefore say that I express “open and unwarranted hostility” toward the Homeric account of history and have a “contempt for and lack of understanding” of the archaeological or historical record in Greece? Or is that different because it doesn’t involve the Bible?

One word of advice, since I see from your website that you wish to go on to graduate school in history and perhaps become a professional historian. As I say to all of the students in my classes and to my advisees: a good historian questions and examines all sources, whether religious or secular. Personal beliefs and biases should not enter into the equation. I set mine aside while writing this book, but I’m not sure that you did the same while writing the final paragraph of this review. Perhaps it would be worth take a step back to re-examine your own thought processes, especially if you wish to become a professional historian. You can say whatever you wish in a blog post or in an Amazon review, since those are opinion pieces, but making such unqualified assertions based on very little evidence won’t get you too far in the academic world.”

***

There are two aspects of this reply that I find particularly curious. The first is that my own review was considered worthy of such a response. In looking at the reviews of the book, most of them are very complimentary, which is deserved given the skill and excellence with which the book was written. Some of the reviews are short and somewhat dismissive. Yet those reviews, which strongly critique the book’s somewhat rhetorical exaggeration in certain matters, like the likelihood of environmental collapse in the near future (in the manner of an ancient Near East ruler, which is appropriate, given the author’s background), do not appear to have gotten any kind of thoughtful commentary. Only those book reviews like mine which showed both criticism as well as an obvious level of sophistication that they might lead someone to not buy the book received an attempt at rebuttal. In general, I read about a book a day, sometimes more. Each of these books gets at least one reading, sometimes more than one, if it is an especially worthwhile and thought-provoking book, and I spend somewhere around an hour or so writing about it in the course of my fairly busy personal affairs. Most of these book reviews are read by a handful of people, and over the course of years maybe a few dozen eyes will have looked at my thoughts on such material. Dr. Cline’s book, on the other hand, has inspired far more interest, and about a couple hundred people, many of whom are probably quite critical of my own approach of the book, have seen my book review without having taken the time to look at the context of my writing as a whole. Such people may be well acquainted with the ancient texts of the Near East, and with Dr. Kline’s original research, which would almost certainly be worth reading and evaluating, but they are not familiar with my own studies and approach. I do give Dr. Kline credit, at least, for having read enough of my approach to recognize both my educational background (with an MA in military history) as well as my own particular religious beliefs. I also respect his attempts, in his own writing, to overcome his own bias and perspective. He, and those who approve of his views and agree with his interpretations, believe him to be objective in his approach. I disagree, somewhat pointedly, but respectfully and politely, as is my fashion.

Those who read my book reviews, and my larger body of writings, which, at several thousand posts, averaging more than 1,000 words a post, know that my own personal writing is a substantial and difficult body of work for anyone to review. And this writing only covers the time between 2010 and 2015, with some exceptions of material written earlier and reposted herein. Those people who undertake a thorough analysis of my canon are very aware of my particular approach to works and to life, especially if they ask questions about what layers of life I am writing about in a given entry, and do not assume they know what I am thinking when they have not bothered to ask me. Like the mostly anonymous scribes of remote history, I am a prolific writer and thinker, and have a particularly strong and eccentric perspective. This perspective is both strong enough and unusual enough that I have never been allowed to forget that it is a bias. I deeply want to know what other people think, even where it is wrong, because at least it allows me to understand where other people are coming from, and allows me to counteract their bias and error in reading or hearing their words, and allows me to know on what grounds I must respond to them to communicate effectively. At times, as in the case of Dr. Cline’s thoughtful commentary, these comments are worthy of replying to, because they are part of a greater conversation. In particular, Dr. Cline wishes to defend his legitimacy as a historian and an archeologist, which he feels is threatened by my critique, and he wishes to provide a subtle but nevertheless clear statement of negative evaluation of those thoughts as being unqualified assertions, with the further implication that being a professional historian of any worth requires a skeptical viewpoint of biblical history. Since, for the sake of my readers, and for my own sanity as a busy person who wants to get at least some sleep and not write all night, I try to keep my book reviews to a modest length. Nevertheless, this particular comment on my review allows me the opportunity to use this book, this book review, and this learned author as a larger case study. I apologize in advance to anyone who has to suffer through reading my own lengthy commentary.

I do not doubt Dr. Cline’s sincerity that he sought to overcome any conscious personal bias in writing this book, and indeed any of his writings. Nevertheless, the fact that I took criticism of his work on account of his approach towards the biblical history, in particular his approach to the Exodus, his apparent approval of Finkelstein’s view (and others like his) that the Exodus account was fictional and that Israel’s origin was either a slow infiltration or an internal class revolt, and in his attempt to view the historical account of Joshua and Judges as being parallel or rival accounts and not as sequential accounts as they are presented in the Bible (see, for example, Longman, et al. in their most excellent book on biblical history, or the similarly excellent research of Kitchen), is something he and many others take umbrage with, as if I was unfamiliar with the state of historical criticism of the Bible, and therefore unqualified to comment on such matters. On the contrary, I have weighed such evidence as I have read (and will no doubt read much more in the future) and weigh it in the balance, and find much of it wanting. In fact, their criticism of me with regards to my views of them as authorities is a mirror image of my criticism of them with regards to the biblical authority. Let us therefore bring the true distinction out and place it on the table. My approach to the Bible, and in general to texts, is that we come to them as students of the text and not as judges of the text. Dr. Cline, and those like him, who write books of history, similarly expect others (like me) to come to his writings as students and not as critics. He resents criticism of his texts because it is his life’s work, what he has spent decades learning and working in and acquiring a great deal of expertise, within the biases and perspectives of a field that come so naturally to him that he no longer recognizes it as a bias, or that his approach to the scriptures, as a judge and evaluator, is as offensive to others as their (sometimes negative) evaluation of him. He, and others who agree with him, will no more submit to his works and theirs standing at the bar in a court where I am a judge, even if that court is as modest as a personal blog read by a few hundred people per day than I will submit the Holy Bible to stand at the bar with them as a judge, for I see them as wholly unqualified to judge on the veracity of the author(s) of Joshua, Judges, Moses, the Eternal, or what hands were a part of the so-called Dueteronomic history (or what others would call the Former Prophets, or a variety of other names). We come to God not as His judge, but as defendants in His court. We come to His writings not as judges, but as students learning His ways. He is the professor, and we are learning at his feet, as it were.

To a lesser extent, this is true even of texts that I do not consider sacred. One of my pet peeves as a critical reader of contemporary historiography is that so many people wish to be judges of ancient texts, and do such a terribly biased job at it. We may read, to take one example among many, the Anabasis of Xenophon, and a contemporary writer may comment on how unrealistic it would be to expect a Greek author to be a faithful and honest author of a military campaign, to assume that people would be able to believe that a mercenary army of Hellenes would be able to win a battle against a Persian emperor, only to end up losing the war when their own patron was killed, and then manage to fight their way as a unit largely intact and victorious through the Middle East from what is now central Iraq through Kurdistan and Anatolia, facing many hostile peoples far from friendly territory until they arrive mostly safe and sound back home. In our contemporary understanding, such an account must be hopelessly exaggerated. Yet, in point of fact, it was a strong belief in the veracity of Xenophon that led Philip of Macedon and later his son Alexander to try their hand at conquering the Persian empire, which they appear to have viewed as decadent and effete (and which contemporary presentation of the Persian Empire in movies like 300 would appear to agree with). Their success vindicated, in the eyes of later generations, the accuracy of Xenophon’s texts about the Ten Thousand and their long and bloody journey home from the heart of Mesopotamia. I find it singularly unjust that contemporary historiography is so intent on seeing itself as qualified to judge everything that has come before it that it takes the texts, without which we would know almost nothing about ancient history, and then subjects them to evaluation and criticism based on our own perspective, with the assumption that we better know what really happened than those whose accounts represent nearly the sum of what we know at all about those places and times, because it is the texts which provide the context by which we evaluate the meaning of archeological remains, by which we know what city has been dug up, and what absolute chronology exists for a given site. After all, without such texts of the ancient world that we possess like Homer and the Bible, among others, we are only left with relative chronologies based on pottery samples and other mute artifacts.

I find this situation deeply ironic. As a prolific creator of texts, I come to texts with a great deal of respect. I am painfully aware, from personal experience, that the texts and the life that I labor over is so deeply misunderstood and misinterpreted. No doubt Dr. Cline feels the same way about my view of his text, and those of others who would agree with me. We who have reached the highest levels of Bloom’s taxonomy [2] regularly engage in processes of evaluation. We do so from the context of extensive education, presented from a given worldview, which provides the raw materials as well as the standards by which we judge others, their words, and their actions. At times, and this is certainly true of me, we may be so engrossed in the tasks of evaluating others that we may not be aware of the fact that we too are evaluated by others, and often in a manner we view as unfriendly and unjust. To take another example from Dr. Cline’s book, it is clear that he views the collapse of elite culture in the 12th century BC as being a great and terrible loss, a fate that he sees ourselves as threatened by as well. Yet humanity survived, and it is unclear if a peasant in the neighborhood of Pylos or Mycenae would have been the worse off once those imperial overlords departed from the scene. Does a society’s intellectual output and involvement in wealth-producing international trade make it any more just to the ordinary people far removed from palaces and power? Not necessarily. Are refugees of disaster sometimes unfairly maligned as being to blame for the destruction of nations, as has likely been the case for the Sea Peoples (who, in turn, were certainly oppressive from the point of view of the Israelites, as the accounts of Judges and 1st Samuel make plain)? Certainly. Yet, ultimately, just as Dr. Cline wishes for me to be humble in the face of his extensive reading and hands-on research, and no doubt many would agree with him, so too I see him, and others of like accomplishment, as needing to be humble in the face of their ignorance about the ancient world given what fragmentary knowledge and familiar we have about these places, and in our dependence on chance (or providence) in the texts and artifacts which have survived. This is not even to speak of the humility that is necessary for Dr. Cline, me, and everyone else in the face of our Heavenly judge, before whom all must give an account of our deeds and words. A little humility would go a long way in allowing all of us to learn from each other, and from whatever text or experience we come across along the complicated courses our lives take, and our investigations into the world around us as we seek to understand who we are, where we came from, and where we are going. Admittedly, that is as true for me as it is for everyone else. We are all in this together, after all.

[1] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/08/19/book-review-1177-bc-the-year-civilization-collapsed/

[2] https://edgeinducedcohesion.wordpress.com/2015/08/17/seeing-beyond-the-game/

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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13 Responses to One Good Reply Deserves Another

  1. I think he objected to the words “hostility” and “contempt” in your book review. Those words, as used in our cultural and social communication, are harsh sounding and understood as subjective; therefore taken to be applied to the author and not the written material. If the review is intended as an objective critique, the language should reflect it. You are very good at providing examples that counter an author’s lack of knowledge or dismissiveness certain areas or thing (which you assert is the case here). This would be the perfect address to the perceived flaws–and it keeps the message on the issue and away from the messenger. 🙂

    • Agreed, but calling the accounts of Judges and Joshua inconsistent is hostile to the historical record of the Bible. To be sure, though, such hostility is so common in certain circles that it is not recognized.

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