Jim Carroll is a supporter of ABR and blog author, at www.jiminger.com/blog.
Unlike all other religions which are comprised centrally and mainly of a set of abstract principals, Christianity (along with Judaism) is rooted in a series of historical events. That’s not to say that principles are not integral to Christianity, but those principles are relayed mostly through historical narrative and less so by direct propositional teaching. It’s for this reason that the findings of archeology (and specifically Palestinian archeology) impinge upon Christianity so much, and for this reason I appreciate so much the work done by Dr. Bryant Wood at Associates for Biblical Research (ABR).
On Saturday, October 1st, 2005, Dr. Wood and ABR put on a seminar in my area which I attended. I had planned to write a post on one of the topics that he spoke about and discuss some of the details of his work but since then I’ve found myself preoccupied with a related but different issue.
In response to a question that I asked, Dr. Wood readily admitted that his ideas are ignored by much of academia. A cursory survey of some of these discussions on the internet often reveals Dr. Wood’s ideas carrying the argument. However, these internet conversations are not happening at the academic level.
Dr. Wood related an interesting story that I think highlights the real reason for this resistance. In a debate with another academic archeologist Dr. Wood laid out his case for a Late Bronze Age date for the destruction of the city of Jericho. In examining the finds of former digs at the site he pointed to numerous lines of reasoning. From the dating of pottery shards, to the design of the battlements, to carefully explaining the mistaken assumptions of some former examination of the evidence, Dr. Wood laid out a careful detailed analysis of the evidence. In contrast his interlocutor made a philosophical case as to why the Bible is an insufficient source for archeological data based on what we “know” about how it was written and constructed – that is, it was manufactured history during the period of Babylonian exile.
This anecdote highlights the explicit use of unquestioned modernist and minimalist assumptions that preclude certain conclusions and interpretations of the evidence. For Dr. Wood’s counterpart, the details didn’t matter – they could be ignored in favor of an explicit appeal to preconceived notions. As a result Dr. Wood, originally trained as an engineer before pursuing his Ph.D in Archeology, has rightly lamented the fact that his discipline is controlled by Humanities departments rather than more technical or scientific departments.
The philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his seminal work “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,” makes the point that, analogous to an individual’s worldview, scientific communities operate within a ‘paradigm.’ This paradigm directs, not only the range of valid answers within the discipline, but also the domain of questions that are asked. A paradigm consists of the shared unspoken assumptions that underlay the community’s entire way of thinking. Theories that challenge any of those assumptions, whether good or bad, are usually dismissed out of hand – even if they hold the promise of solving certain intractable problems.
This system is not unique to scientific disciplines but seems common to all academic disciplines. Sometimes these paradigms can be challenged and modified and (with providential support) even destroyed. In Analytical Philosophy a shift has taken place through the efforts of a single great mind who, from the sixties onward, has gone toe-to-toe with the leaders of the reigning paradigm (that of modernist logical positivism) and has virtually controlled the discussion. Christian philosopher Dr. Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame University has made ‘theism’ a tenable and even respected position within this discipline to such an extent that some of the old gatekeepers are lamenting the fact that they cannot find an atheist disciple.
Dr. Wood has not had the success that Dr. Plantinga has had (though he has not been at it nearly as long either). It may be that, even if Dr. Wood’s research is impeccable (disclaimer: though I find him convincing, I am not an academic), gaining an academic respect may be more difficult than even in Dr. Plantinga’s case. There are a number of interconnected disciplines built on a common set of presuppositions and together they form a massive edifice. These interconnected disciplines include Archeology, Biblical Scholarship, Textual Criticism, History, Theology and many sub-disciplines of each. Unlike Plantinga’s ideas in the area of analytical philosophy, Dr. Wood’s ideas, though they may not seem all that threatening in one area, often have the possibility to undermine a multitude of Ph.D theses in a series of other disciplines. It’s for this reason that he will have even more difficulty not being written off without a hearing.
I do not believe there is a conspiracy or any intentionality involved; only a logical outworking of established presuppositions best explained with the framework that Thomas Kuhn has applied to science. I stumbled across a discussion by V. Philips Long, on the discourse between minimalists/liberal/critical scholars and maximalists/conservatives (none of these terms seems appropriate, but …). I think Dr. Long deals well with some of the details of the problem and criticisms from the critical scholars, and does a good job of pointing out how the worldview one brings to the observations (what he calls “other issues”) can affect scholarship. He sums it up with this concluding quote:
To borrow words from Hans Barstad, we are “all in fact practicing some sort of philosophy, and it would certainly not hurt [our] work if [we] realized this.”
That is, it is not a matter of quality of scholarship; it is an unrecognized and unacknowledged paradigm that controls the discourse. Perhaps Dr. Wood would make better headway if he pointed out explicitly that this is the reason his contemporaries refuse to deal with the evidence. For example, if Dr. Wood had pointed this out during his debate would the outcome have been different?
I pray that Dr. Wood’s excellent work continues because it’s only a matter of time that chipping away at the right points of the edifice will expose weaknesses that can only strengthen the disciplines as a whole in the future.
Recommended Resources for Further Study