Monday, August 25, 2014

The Gettysburg Hypothesis: What If Bible Critics had a Crack At the Text?

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Even the most casual reader cannot help but be struck by the unorthodox numbering system that the writer employs here.  One suspects that it was an anachronistic flourish added at a significantly later period and meant to emotionally connect the listener to the well-known folk origins of the nation - to a time in which this "primitive" system of counting was widespread. 

Most scholars now agree that the notion that "all men are created equal" is a relatively recent innovation and shows signs of editing in our text.  There is a well-intended desire to want to push back notions of equality to earlier and earlier epochs in the nation's history to assuage feelings of guilt at the true, rather unequal nature of the nation's founding.  The people who are apocryphally supposed to have penned this idea could not possibly have held such views in their day and a cursory survey of all of the extant literature of the time shows no trace of such egalitarian sentiments.  Are we to suppose that they were developed in a vacuum?  History conclusively shows that such concepts can only be developed over long periods of time and that the development can be clearly traced.  We may never know the true "proposition" that the writer references but it is of little consequence as the redactor's heavy hand has sealed the sentiment for posterity.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

The author never actually experienced the war but only heard oral accounts of it of course.  This is clear as stylistically, the piece is cobbled together from earlier and later periods as mentioned above. Many cultures have nostalgically claimed minor skirmishes as "great" wars whereby the war legends of multiple generations are rolled onto the back of these relatively inconsequential conflicts and recounted generationally - mostly for their moral instruction and entertainment value.

The author is depicted as being literally on a battle-field fraught with existential danger (not ideal conditions for composition one would think).  Here the text surprisingly shifts and the battlefield becomes a martyrs memorial. This shows evidence of competing traditions - one written at the height of pitched battle and the other long after its denouement.  Wishing to preserve both of these traditions, the editor references them both here.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate -- we can not consecrate -- we can not hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

Here the phantasmagorical notions of the people comes into play with the revelation that the battles of the "great wars" were fought both by the living and the dead - ostensibly raised from the netherworld to fight alongside their brethren of flesh and bone.  Such notions were common currency in many theologically rooted cultures.

We conclude our analysis by noting a unique instance of prophetic flourish.  The author predicts that the world will not even bother to note the actions of the people on the battlefield nor even the content of the document that the redactor has dedicated himself to.  Clearly, the author was not too accomplished of a prophet as here we are, years hence, pouring over the enduring literary achievement of this remarkable group of people.

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