On Lumping And Splitting

When I was a young person and downloading music files from various sites on the interwebs, one of the irritations I had to deal with was the labeling of the music files. As one might imagine, I would look for specific songs by specific artists, and very frequently I would find that the songs I downloaded were in fact incorrectly labeled. Just about every song that was viewed as a comedy or novelty song seemed to be labeled as a Weird Al song, to give but one example. One of the things that I found to be a frequent problem was the issue of lumping and splitting. When we are faced with the way that the world looks, it is a problem that we can either lump things that belong to different sources or individuals together (as with the “Weird Al” songs) or we can split things that belong together, like the various songs made by Prince with different acts or under different names.

We find this problem to be a particularly intense one when we look at the problem of ancient history and texts. There is a historian that I follow on a website (and who has graciously cited me as a source for at least one of his papers) who has a bit of a problem as a lumper. He looks at ancient history and finds people who have similar roles or make similar arguments in text and lumps them together as a single individual. Recently, I have been treated to several essays by this person that have claimed that various historical personages were fiction, especially Philo. Now, there are certainly some elements that Philo had in common with Paul, who the author are lumping together. Both of them have an interest in the intersection of Greek literature and rhetoric with Jewish history and law, and both of them had an interest in promoting the interests of the Jewish people in a cosmopolitan and Hellenistic world, and both have to some expect been deeply misunderstood because the contemporary reading audience has little knowledge or sympathy with biblical law as a whole.

It is a particularly unfortunate thing to claim that Philo does not exist and to conflate him with Paul. This is unfortunate because while Paul’s nephew was relaying information to him about the plotting of the Jews as is recorded in Acts, and thus acting to safeguard Paul’s safety while he was in prison after being arrested under false pretenses at the temple, Philo had a different life. While Paul was still alive, Philo’s grandson was one of the Roman governors of Judea, while Paul himself was notoriously not married (for whatever reason) while spreading the good news of Christianity. However similar the two of them were in terms of their religious paths and in their desire to preach biblical truths in the idiom of the dominant culture of the time, both were real people who lived different lives with different fates, and the fact that there were many similarities between the two does not mean that they can be conflated into one person.

The reverse is similarly a problem when we look at the Bible and see that some people attempt to split what is a unified and coherent whole into disparate parts. Most notably this was done by those people who hold to the documentary hypothesis that there are four supposed sources of the law (labeled as JEPD) that are stitched together by what they view as an incompetent and bungling redactor. Similarly, there are people who view the book of Isaiah as containing three texts because of their disbelief in predictive prophecy. In these cases we see that splitting is a problem as well because for one reason or another people do not recognize a coherent whole as such but seek to break it down into smaller chunks.

Whether one’s native bias is to lumping or splitting, it is best to avoid distorting our picture of reality this way. There are often a variety of different voices with similar perspectives and approaches that say similar things, and it is best not to assume that all of these voices are in fact one voice that is being repeated over and over again in different guise–although this sort of thing does happen from time to time. Similarly, the same people may write very diverse material that people have a hard time believing is all connected. I know such a thing is the case when it comes to my own output as a writer, as people would not be inclined to see the coherent unity that exists in my own body of creative writing. To the extent that we see things that are not the same as similar and things that spring from the same source as dissimilar, it is worth investigating why this is the case rather than to lump and split without insight.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Musings and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

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