Monday, November 19, 2012

Mythic and Phenomonological Language Use as Description for What Is Unknown

Nick Norelli recently posted his doubts that certain diagrams of the ancient Near Eastern conception of cosmography (such as the one above) could be gained with much certainty, and Kyle Essary, one of his readers, sent over a paper affirming the same suspicion. You can read that here:

There was some doubt expressed in the comments about doubting such a supposedly wide array of evidence that scholars use to reconstruct such a cosmography; but I wanted to throw in my hat here, affirm Nick's doubts, and say what I alluded to in my book on Genesis, namely, that scholars have shown very little caution and sophistication in their methodologies in obtaining said reconstructions.

For instance, much of the material that is marshaled in order to reconstruct this cosmography is mythic or poetic. It should be understood that such is not appropriate material to use for this purpose. Nor is it a strong objection to suggest that if one sees a widespread use of such language, it must mean that the reconstruction is more certain. We use the phraseology of the sun rising and setting across a wide spectrum of literature and with some great uniformity, and yet, it does not explain our cosmography proper.

Now, one might say we know the form of the object and its literal ontology and the ancient Near Easterner did not; but this misses the point. I am not saying that the ancient observer held to a modern scientific view of the universe. Instead, I'm saying that (1) together with Dr. Walton, the ancient mind is not as concerned with the form as it is with the function (likely only when speaking of things where the form was elusive), and (2) even if it had known the form in general, the lack of specifics caused the ancient observer to speak of things in more imaginative ways, using either phenomenological language, or more often, mythic terms.

In other words, when specifics were not available of an event or object, it was spoken of in more mythic terms. We can see this not only of objects (such as the ancient Egyptians depicting the universe as being held up by Nut, as though she were forever bent over the earth in a backbreaking position to hold up waters above it), but also of events, such as primeval history, where the details of the events are not necessarily known.

Every young scholar seems enamored with getting ancient cosmography from works like Enuma elish, but very few note the uniqueness of that work as a mythological presentation of the creation event as a means toward ceremony (i.e., as a way of functioning both as the exaltation of Marduk over chaos and fulfilling the excitement of storytelling). When this same creation event is spoken of again in another text, we just see Marduk piling up dirt on a primordial raft and creating the world without conflict from Tiamat, who in this text, is depersonified. The text is still mythical, but it's a different myth that describes the event. That very fact should cause us to take caution in assuming that the ancient observer is literally attempting to construct a cosmography when, in fact, he is most likely only seeking to describe these objects and events dynamically in his use of mythic language. The specifics of the universe and its history are unkown. He cannot describe them literally, and my point is that he is not attempting to do so in the first place.

The Bible also indicates this by presenting the creation event in a variety of ways. The text of Genesis itself presents two descriptions of creation, both using mythic language. This is not even to bring up all of the descriptions found in the Psalms that use the same types of language in different ways, and in Proverbs, where wisdom itself is personified in creation, yet another imaginative way of describing the event.

So these reconstructions, in my mind, are completely bogus. They help us understand ancient Near Eastern language and religious/social concepts, but they don't help us understand the ancient view of the universe, as though the ancient observer thought himself capable of such a literal construction.

Now, just as a final note, it should be said that one cannot say that everyone in the ancient Near East believed this or that. Some people probably did believe the mythic language was literal. Some people probably did not. Some people probably believed a mixture. One of the gigantic holes in scholarly methodology is assuming that one can say, "the ancient Near Easterner believed so and so" by merely pointing to a few texts. What we really should say is that such and such a concept seen in this or that text may help us understand this text as well; but we cannot say that everyone believed the same thing about the same things anymore than we can say that about people today. We ourselves can only speak about specific texts, but not the culture and each individual within it as a whole.

I try to show in my book that the time of creation is spoken of in such a variety of ways simply because it cannot be spoken of in terms of literal time, since time does not yet exist, nor is the event known to the ancient mind. Hence, in ancient texts, the original time of creation is spoken of generically (as "when," "in the beginning," "on the first occasion,") or in a variety of numerical designations ("on a day," "on the first day," "in ancient days," "in ancient days and nights," "in ancient years," etc.). The point is that the time period is not known, and hence, one is free to speak of it as he wishes, filling in what is unknown with mythic description for the purposes of filling out the story or just as a way of giving the speaker, who would otherwise be incapable of speaking literally about an object or event, an ability to talk about objects and events that are unknown.

The problem with the modern scholar is that he is a product of the Enlightenment-oriented need to know everything and believe he is superior to those who came before him. He must see the ancient as a lesser evolved tribal primate who has ridiculous beliefs. In this way, we can discount whatever else he says, and mock anyone who may speak of such things in a similar manner; or more likely, due to his need to wage war upon the Bible and the Church, the central authority of Western society, by presenting its ancient (and mythic) language used as intended factual propositions that one can now prove to be false if taken literally. Many such paradigms as this, therefore, grow more out of a need to present an apologetic for one culture's superiority over another; and many times to ease one's conscience in rejecting the Scripture. Others may simply come from the employment of improper methodologies and a mistaken interpretation that misses the purpose of a particular text and language used. Either way, I don't trust these paradigms for purposes of literally reconstructing an ancient view of a conception never held in the first place. Ancient man was often more humble in what he thought he could know (humility was still a virtue in the ancient world), and hence, he may not have been the complete dupe the modern Western scholar often makes him out to be after all.

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