Jim West is Right

Writing back to another blogger

Writing back to another blogger

Discussing the possibility that the American president Barack Obama is the Antichrist (something apparently believed by a minority of American conservatives), Biblioblogger Jim West makes a remarkable comment:

You know, don’t you, who the Antichrist is, right?  I do.

παιδια εσχατη ωρα εστιν και καθως ηκουσατε οτι αντιχριστος ερχεται και νυν αντιχριστοι πολλοι γεγονασιν οθεν γινωσκομεν οτι εσχατη ωρα εστιν. εξ ημων εξηλθαν αλλ ουκ ησαν εξ ημων ει γαρ εξ ημων ησαν μεμενηκεισαν αν μεθ ημων αλλ ινα φανερωθωσιν οτι ουκ εισιν παντες εξ ημων (I John 2)

No need for speculation.

I will not digress on the theological merits of West’s comment. After all, I am not a theologician. But his joke to keep the relevant lines untranslated, goes straight to the heart of an important matter, which is not just a problem to theology. Ancient history suffers from it as well: too many people think they can understand ancient texts without having the proper qualifications. Such as learning a dead language.

This is an odd idea. I would not like to go to an amateur dentist. No politician would pay for the experiments by amateur particle physicists. But if ancient texts are involved, expertise is suddenly unnecessary. Books by “self-educated historians” or theological code-breakers are printed by publishing houses that are, essentially, selling out scholarship to make a few quick bucks.

One of the reasons is, of course, that ancient texts are accessible and delightful to read. You easily get the impression that you can make sense of them. There is little to do against this – fortunately, because there is nothing against enjoying a good book. Yet, I would appreciate it if publishers stopped presenting Plato as if he were a normal writer whose books deserve in the bookstores a place between Sylvia Plath and Chaim Potok. He deserves a book with explanations and a lot of footnotes, nothing else.

Another reason is that scholarly levels are falling (example). It is possible to become an ancient historian without ever having visited an archaeological excavation; and it is possible to become an archaeologist without having been taught that Thou Shalt Not Take Texts Literally. Things go wrong when these specialists start to comment on subjects that are outside their direct competence.

For instance, many classicists have argued that the Battle in the Teutoburg Forest was the cause of a rift between German and Romance languages/cultures, confusing causes and conditions. They should have kept their mouths shut, and ought to have left history to historians. I have also heard an art historian say that it was virtually certain that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene, and I used to own a copy of a book by a professional theologian that starts with a remark that Mary Magdalene is depicted on Da Vinci’s Last Supper.

Irresponsible classicists and art historians, but also ancient historians and archaeologists, are showing by example that anyone can comment on everything; so we should not be too surprised that the man in the street, who would never visit an amateur dentist, does not realize that amateur scholars are just unqualified scholars.

3 Responses to Jim West is Right

  1. […] happened to see these words by Jona Lendering, and although there is something in this, I feel that I need to disagree profoundly.  It seems […]

  2. Bill Thayer says:

    And as might be expected — I’m your quintessential non-scholar, yet a regular fountain of strong opinions of the most varied kinds and applications — I come down on Roger’s side as well. More articulate than I, he’s saved me a feeble rebuttal; plus no one will try to rebut him by calling him an amateur, of course.

  3. duncanbcampbell says:

    Permit me to redress the balance, then! Roger Pearse appears to miss the point when he says, “A man who knows no Latin can master the thought of Cicero”. Who, exactly, is going to make Cicero accessible to the man who knows no Latin?! Is it acceptable to entrust this task to an enthusiastic dilettante who may not appreciate the nuances of Cicero’s milieu? (I avoid using the term “amateur”, as we are all amateurs!)

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