December 3, 2009

B.S. Numbers: Dates vs. Citations

One of the strongest impressions that I took away from ETS & SBL is that certain Biblical Scholars don't necessarily know their own numbers. I'm talking about major figures who've published opinions on dates - scholars I like, even - who can't cite the right numbers in passing conversation.

I can only conclude these (honestly) brilliant scholars must not think dates are very important. This is partly confirmed by another statement I've seen that there is no Math in Biblical Studies, but that gentleman never writes about dates. Dates are inherently and thoroughly mathematical. Dates are numbers with value. A "year" has its own four-dimensional size and shape - a finite geometrical volume that can only be filled up in so many ways. A date can be used as a label, but dates themselves are so very much more.

In stark contrast, the numbers I heard cited (ad nauseum) in paper after paper were almost always mere textual references. A thought began to occur to me. If numbers are always citations, in Biblical Studies, how could scholars NOT be conditioned to treat numbers non-numerically? Whatever the reason, it seems clear that Biblical Scholars use numbers primarily as addresses. Thus, a debate over "57" or "58" (for Paul's Letter to Rome) comes across like debating which house Aunt Bitsy said we were looking for. In other words, the distinction is presented as no more significant than whether the verse we're trying to remember is 2:20 or 3:16. A scholar slaps a number on the "background" section of her remarks, and moves on.

To be fair, Classical Historians encounter many more numeric values in their textual investigations: finances, inventories, military statistics, travel details, etc - and they still don't always do full diligence on logistical reconstruction. Herod's Temple is a great example. However, it takes a strong break from reality for someone to argue that Paul and Barnabas - the two of them - hauled in enough grain for thousands of people and drug it right through the middle of famine-starved Jerusalem! That, of course, is merely the unrealized implication of an abstract 'chronological' conclusion which can't actually have been thought through in 4-D space/time.

Faith-based Biblical Scholars are notoriously fixated on theology/ideology, but dating the NT Events is less like graduate level Social Science and more like what your Junior High Math Teacher called "Word Problems". Chronological work is mathematical.

I certainly don't assume all Biblical Scholars must have struggled in Math. (Although as I've said before, I would love to take a poll.) The simple truth is that Mathematics of estimating Event Logistics is like anything else.

Folks just need to re-train their brains...

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