Friday, June 09, 2006

Keep 'em large

A su-surejoinder to Jim Snapp, Jr, on the number of the Israelites during the exodus

Links: Snapp's proposal; Williams' rejoinder; Snapp's surejoinder.

I am grateful to Jim for the discussion on this issue and will not address each of his points but hope that people will read what we have written and come to their own conclusions.

Before beginning, somewhat tongue-in-cheek, I might observe that the level of orthodox corruption presupposed by Jim does not seem less than the level of corruption Bart Ehrman suggests for the NT.

PJW: ‘The vast majority of scholars from other groups are quite happy for the text to stand as it is.’

JS: ‘But the vast majority of non-evangelical scholars do not have a high level of confidence in the historical accuracy of the original text. That is probably a major reason why they feel no impetus for emendation.’

In other words we clarify that
(1) non-evangelicals are often ‘more conservative’ with the text than some evangelicals;
(2) textual grounds alone would not provide an impetus for emendation;
(3) it is an application of belief in inerrancy not as a system of checking that you have the answer right but actually as something that you use to calculate your answer that is providing the impetus for rejecting the reading that is contained in all the manuscripts that, by the secondary causation of God’s providence, have been passed down to us.

I have previously said, many times, that I believe in scriptural inerrancy. However, I have also previously argued that inerrancy should only be applied secondarily in textual criticism, and that it is not the textual critic’s task to present readers with a Bible they have helped become inerrant. More importantly, I have argued that if textual emendation is introduced to safeguard inerrancy then its application will be utterly subjective. After all, who is to decide which problems should be solved by emendation? You may feel that the number of Israelites is a difficulty and another person may be far more troubled by Joshua’s ‘long day’. Why not solve archaeological problems about the conquest by positing that the names of the conquered towns in Joshua have been corrupted?

PJW: ‘The most significant thing in attracting evangelicals to abandon classic evangelical views of scripture is when they become convinced that other views show a greater loyalty to the scriptures.’

JS: ‘But who’s abandoning a classic evangelical view of Scripture: the person who proposes that the original text recorded some very impressive but plausible large population-numbers, or the person who proposes that the original text recorded historically implausible (i.e., false) population-numbers?’

My comment was one of psychology and was not accusing ‘number reducers’ of abandoning a classic evangelical view of Scripture, even if they are abandoning the classic text of Scripture of evangelicals, all the other main Christian groups, the Samaritans and the Jews. As I pointed out, the agreement between the MT, LXX, SP and DSS on these numbers rather suggests that, under Jim's proposal, it would have been hard for anyone to obtain the Bible with the ‘real story’ of the exodus at around the time the NT was written.

I also think that Jim is too quick to leap from ‘historically implausible’ to ‘false’. We must remember that there are no fixed points in ancient population estimates. There is no time when we can say that the population of a certain land was X. What we have is estimates, made within a paradigm that is supported by a degree of internal consistency, but that falls short of proof.

If experts still cannot agree on a date for the eruption of Thera by a century and if Finkelstein and Ben-Tor can argue about another whole century of Iron Age chronology we can be fairly sure that there are still significant problems in the archaeology of the Middle East in the second millennium and early first. Until we can agree what remains belong when it is rather hard to make definitive populaton estimates.

JS: ‘Plus, one could say that the external evidence for the text is equally overwhelming in cases which are clearly incorrect -- Ahaziah’s age of 42 in II Chronicles 22:2, versus 22 in II Kings 8:26.

Actually the external evidence is not 'equally overwhelming' here since it only concerns one word in two verses, not many words in 6 chapters. In this case, moreover, the numbers are of a rather different sort. If I write an English sentence with a number in and then an error is introduced, a third person will probably be able to emend the error in any part of the sentence except the number. Naturally, copying errors were more likely in the copying of biblical numbers (and this is why the frequency with which those who disparage inerrancy appeal to numerical conflicts in Scripture does not exactly show the strength of their case). However, these numbers involve no totals and thus no means of internal checking. The numbers at the exodus, however, have four different totalling mechanisms and a very large number of actual instances of totalling. They thus have the checks.

JS: ‘But whatever difficulty this poses is of essentially the same kind as other cases where disparate amounts are recorded in parallel passages in the MT and LXX (for example, II Kings 24:8/II Chron. 36:9 and the lists of the returners in Ezra and Nehemiah).’

I've dealt with isolated numbers above. I see no reason to emend any of the numbers in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7. Ezra 2 records those who returned; Nehemiah 7 records the numbers that were found in a book of those who returned (7:5). Obviously some copying errors may have occurred between the writing of Ezra and Nehemiah and the present, but there is no reason why an inerrantist should not suppose that errors also may have occurred between the return and when Nehemiah found the book.

Minor points:
I don’t think that the difficulty of the Hebrews in defeating the Amalekites can be considered a text-internal ground for reducing the numbers. A small armed group often has the advantage over a large unarmed one.

As for the number 40,000 in Judges 5:8b I think that it suits my method more than Jim's. After all, if you believe that a big number and a small number are incompatible you still do not know which you should change. Why not emend 40,000 to 400,000 to solve your problem? Personally I simply do not see any remote conflict between Judges 5:8b and the large numbers at the exodus.