Baker Academic

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Does Anachronism Hinder Historical Knowledge? - Le Donne

I've found Dale B. Martin's Sex and the Single Savior: Gender and Sexuality in Biblical Interpretation quite helpful.  It is generally bad form to pick out one paragraph of an otherwise fine work and showcase it in a demurring light.  Now that I've written that, I can do the opposite with only a hint of justification for my obvious breach of professional courtesy.

Martin writes:
Some might argue that even to raise the question of Jesus' sexuality is to introduce an anachronism. But who says anachronism is wrong?  Only if one is "playing by the rules" of modern historical criticism can anachronism even be raised as a delegitimating factor.  Why should a modern person, a modern Christian or non-Christian, be worried about anachronism?
At first glance this statement seemed absurd to me.  Of course we will try to avoid anachronism as best we can if for no other reason than this: my historical portrait of Jesus has to make sense to me.  Further, when I write, I have several mentors looking over my shoulder in spirit.  This is to say that "me" in this case is a collective identity projection.  I will always be trying to make my historical subject make sense for myself and the ghosts I carry with me.  If my Jesus seems at odds with what I've been taught of his historical context, I've got some explaining to do. 

But not all anachronisms are created equal.  We can trot out examples of Moses' wristwatch in The Ten Commandments or da Vinci's seating arrangement of The Last Supper.  But these are too easily debunked.  What about sex and gender?  The difference between gender and sex (although there is an obvious overlap) is that gender refers to how folks understand their identity while sex can be limited to physicality.  It may well be that the ancients did not make this distinction.  (Although one wonders about the difference between arsenokoitēs and malakos in Paul's thinking.)  But sometimes I wonder whether an undue fear of ancient/modern analogues is more of a hindrance than a help. Sure there must be many attitudes and postures with regard to human nature that are analogous.  Should we assume that our experiences are chronologically idiosyncratic until proven otherwise?  Isn't it better to acknowledge some basic analogies and then nuance the differences from there?


  1. So, in other words, anachronism is bad but unjustified fear of anachronism is also bad. Yes.

    On the other hand, we do well to be cautious when we *know* we're merely retrojecting assumptions.

    Btw, I'm pretty sure retroject is a word. I've used it lots before now. ; - )

    1. Not only is retroject a word, it is a totally rad word.


    2. It used to be a really popular word, then it died-out. Now all the cool kids use it.

  2. What is the writing of history but the *knowing* exchange between past and present ideas? Whether to emphasis continuity or discontinuity is more of a rhetorical issue than an epistemological one, I think; it is a matter of your aims and audience as a writer.

    Personally, I am all for using "anachronistic" concepts as long as differences are acknowledged and points of contact are explained. We ought to represent the past as fairly and accurately as possible. We are not obligated to do only that.


  3. Martin asks "Why should a modern person, a modern Christian or non-Christian, be worried about anachronism?" I think the better question is, should we be so worried about anachronism, or for that matter so worried about the hermeneutical issues interfering with understanding ancient texts in accordance with ancient world-views, that we judge it impossible to do Biblical history or Biblical theology, and we limit ourselves to what the Bible means to us today?

    Well, maybe Martin's question is better, after all. It is shorter, and I think easier to answer.

  4. Two points worth consideration (I think):

    1) There are always bound to be lacunæ in history, and the only way to fill them (should one feel the need to fill them) will be to insert ideas from other times into to the particular time frame one is working with and in. This interjecting of ideas from other periods should stand insofar as there are no competing ideas which would render them invalid—or, in effect, *actually* anachronistic. As I see it, there are anachronisms which are invalid because other evidence shows that they cannot apply to the time under discussion without contradiction or tension; and there are anachronisms which are basically just the placing of either earlier or later information into another time period, regardless of their correctness.

    2) That there are human universals is once again I think becoming scientifically acceptable. (See Steven Pinker's The Blank Slate; Donald Brown's Human Universals; these seem to be the assumptions of behavioural economics; sociobiology; evolutionary psychology; neuroscience). They are also presupposed in much of the biblical scholar's work. How do I begin to think that I can say something accurate, and thus useful, about First Century humans, for instance, unless I think that I share something in common with humanity two thousand years ago. All of our work on memory presupposes that memory works the same way now as it does two thousand years ago. And if there are differences (I haven't been able to see any), the differences are so negligible as to be hardly worth pointing out.