Other Possibilities

So often someone sends me a solution to a genealogical knot, along with the expectation I will see it as the final answer. That’s surprisingly common with reconstructions of early medieval dynasties but it also happens with routine research into ordinary people.

My expectation is quite different. A good test of the evidence is whether, given what we know, could it reasonably have been any other way. If yes, then we have a theory not an answer.

It might surprise you that I learned this perspective from years of reading material about the search for the Historical Jesus. (That’s the connection to Easter, today.)

I came across an excellent example last night, reading before bed.

John Shelby Spong (former Episcopal bishop of Newark), writing about influences of the Old Testament on the Gospels. has a passage about Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem (“Palm Sunday”). The episode parallels Zechariah 9:9. The debate here is whether this is a prophecy or propaganda. Did Jesus just happen to fulfill the prophecy or did he set it up so he would be seen to fulfill it? Most people I know believe it was a set up.

After briefly scoping the debate, Spong surprises us with an insight that transforms the problem: “The argument of the traditionalists that Jesus must have deliberately and overtly acted out this image as a way of making a messianic statement is, in my mind, the last gasp of a literalist mentality that is in perpetual retreat from reality.

Wonderful. There are more than just the two alternatives we hear about everywhere in the literature.

Spong suggests a third alternative: the Gospel writers are telling a metaphorical story inspired by Messianic prophecies. In fact (he believes), the Gospels follow a story line suggested by both Isaiah and Zechariah. (Jesus For The Non-Religious (2008), 189).

Wonderful. Now we have a fuller range of possibilities. To my way of thinking, that means less certainty. Given the evidence we have, it could have been at least two different ways, and maybe three. That means we don’t really know. And that’s huge.

Maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise alternative history works the same way. When I talk to anyone who has read Holy Blood, Holy Grail or anything on a related topic, I can pretty much bet the ranch they believe it. It’s rare, very rare, to find someone who also read something that challenged it and even rarer to find someone who read critically.

Bottom line: No matter the topic, everyone has a theory. And most people seem to believe the theory presented in the one and only book they read. A good genealogist will think of more possibilities, look for other reasonable theories, not try to cut off debate by being too sure, too soon.

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