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By Anthony Esolen, The Catholic Thing, March 7, 2019
Ezra Pound was arguably a better hand with the scalpel than with the pen. “No man ever wished it longer,” said Samuel Johnson about Paradise Lost, and many a dazed student of English has felt that way about Eliot’s The Waste Land, only a few hundred lines to Milton’s ten thousand. But Eliot let his friend Pound advise him, and into oblivion went much that was silver, if not gold.
Pound was a cutter too when it came to such Anglo-Saxon poems as The Wanderer and The Seafarer. He did not believe that a poet with a heroic sensibility would play another kind of melody on the harp, to deliver a Christian sermon. He declared that the moralistic finales to those poems were the work of a later and lesser hand.
Christians recognize the dynamic at work in what scholars have said about the letters of Saint Paul. The man who wrote the letters to the Corinthians could not have written the letter to the Ephesians. That is like saying that the man who wrote King Lear could not have written Romeo and Juliet. Why not? The same Shakespeare also wrote the prosy and bourgeois The Merry Wives of Windsor, around the same year he wrote that sublime tragedy about the king and his daughters.
Scholars like to make work for themselves. It’s always easier to posit a second and unknown author, an assertion that cannot be demonstrated, than to bring into one comprehensive vision works whose differences puzzle or dismay you, but perhaps did not puzzle their author long ago. For the former, you speculate. For the latter, you need have both breadth of vision and penetration into the subtleties of the author’s thought.
I’ll add here that although Pound’s speculations were once popular among scholars of Anglo-Saxon, all the real action has been in the other direction. The Dream of the Rood was, it is now agreed, written by one poet. Even Tolkien’s brilliant speculations about the awkward hand of a later editor of Beowulf are no longer taken as likely. The poem is assumed to be a unified whole.
Such news hasn’t gotten to editors of the Bible. They still put forth their subtly disheartening theories about who wrote what and when, in the teeth of tradition and the witness of the scriptures.
There is one thing I know about Q. It comes between P and R. Yet that supposititious “source” (Q for German Quelle), of no documentary evidence, still reigns supreme in textual criticism of the Gospels.
There is nothing comparable for any pre-modern text I know. It persists not because it enlightens anything, but because of habit or scholarly pride, and because there can be no evidence for its non-existence. It would be like the “ether” of old, except that there were ways to search for ether, but no ways to search for Q.
These thoughts occurred to me when I read, in my 1872 edition of Harper’s Magazine, the results of bacteriological experiments by Ferdinand Cohn, the father of bacteriology. Cohn asserted that “when water from living Bacteria is evaporated, innumerable Bacteria are discharged into the atmosphere, principally as the smallest globular cells. . . .These are the germs of Bacteria, which are constantly ascending into the air during the evaporation of putrefying liquids, [and] are deposited with the rain upon all bodies.”
That’s a fascinating mix of correct and incorrect conclusions. The rain does not pelt bacteria down upon us. The term “germs of Bacteria” suggests that Cohn believed that minuscule seeds of bacteria – living matter from which fully developed bacteria would spring – rose into the air. That is not the case, as we know. There are no such “germs” or “seeds” of bacteria.
In a later entry I read that one of the pressing questions to be determined yea or nay was whether simple bacteria could, by ingestion of nitrogenous compounds, develop into more complex bacteria, thus concentrating into one organism’s life the species-leaping force of evolutionary eons.
The same was believed about fungi: spores from the simpler mushrooms could perhaps metamorphose into spores of more complex mushrooms, given the right environment. That was but a form of the question, very much alive, whether some force from without, such as a bolt of lightning, could transform inanimate protein soups into living things.
Galvanic twitches of dead muscle tissue suggested as much. That theory too has found no corroboration, though scientists cling to it, because they have no materialist alternative. Then there was an article suggesting that sunspot activity was correlated with outbreaks of cholera. Sure enough, they are, through the intermediary of climatic events such as El Nino.
Natural sciences advance when guesses can be tested, and yet it is humbling and embarrassing to encounter wrong guesses. Much of the scientific consensus in those days was incorrect, even wildly so, and to the extent that the working of a natural process can be neither observed, nor inferred with a minimum of assumptions, we must assume that the consensus of scientists now will prove to be no more reliable than the consensus was then. Less reliable, perhaps, insofar as political zealotry clouds the mind.
What then of Biblical scholarship? Archaeologists have done much good work that confirms the historicity of the Scriptures: discovering that there was a pool of Siloam, for example. But when you assert what you cannot confirm with evidence, because there is none and likely never will be, I do not know why Christians should give you more than a polite hearing. Such scholarship cannot fail, like a bridge badly built. It is like a bureaucracy, everlasting.
Or perhaps it is like a meandering poem that needs an editor. Might we ask Biblical scholars to be honest and distinguish knowledge from supposal? It might do a service to their weaker brothers. Might we ask preachers, too, if they will be skeptical, to doubt the scholar rather than the apostle? The Lord spoke to Paul, not to the professor.
*Image: An Alchemist in His Study by Egbert van Heemskerk, c. 1690 [Fisher Collection at the Science History Institute, Philadelphia]
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