Tuesday, 11 September 2007

My Kind of Evidentiary Standard In his 1987 bestseller A History of the Jews, Paul Johnson claims the story of Moses must be true because it is "beyond the power of the human mind to invent" (27). The preceding sentence is instructive: That is why the contention of Wellhausen and his school that Moses was a later fiction and the Mosaic code a fabrication of the post-Exilic priests in the second half of the first millennium BC—a view still held by some historians today—is skepticism carried to the point of fanaticism, a vandalizing of the historical record. The historical record, then, consists of material too outlandish to invent, the likes of which only a fanatic would challenge. To question its outlandishness is vandalism; one must merely acknowledge it and move on. This odd logic obtains despite the fact that, as Edward Said discusses in "Invention, Memory, and Place" (2000), Jewish historians are well-aware of the purposes to which Jewish history has been deliberately put: In her 1995 book Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of an Israeli National Tradition, the Israeli-American historian Yael Zerubavel shows how before the late nineteenth century the story of Masada was unknown to most Jews. Then in 1862 a Hebrew translation of the Roman sources of Masada in Josephus's War of the Jews was published, and in a short time the story was transformed by reconstruction into four important things: "a major turning point in Jewish history, a locus of modern pilgrimage, a famous archaeological site, and a contemporary political metaphor" (63). So another story "beyond the power of the human mind to invent" must also be true, again on the basis of its outlandishness, only now everyone knows the fix is on. General Yigael Yadin excavates Masada in 1948, finds no compelling proof that a mass-suicide didn't occur, then declares that it did. And people believe him. Despite how it looks, this must be a compelling argument: Concoct something unbelievable. Locate a place in which no evidence of the unbelievable event can be found. Declare the absence of evidence proves the unbelievable occurred because it cannot be disproved. I think I'm going to wander back north and see what evidence I can't find. I know I should have my outlandish claims prepared before I leave, but that's what's so wonderful about this methodology: I need only concoct something outlandish enough there's little chance any relevant evidence (contradictory or otherwise) will ever be found. I can picture the opening line of my first article already: "Scholars have long believed Jack London possessed the power of flight ... "

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