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Tuesday, August 05, 2008
  On unconscious prejudice in assigning relative probability to biblical characters.
There has been, of course, the usual ballywho around the announcement that a bulla (seal impression) with the inscription "Belonging to Gedalyahu son of [P]ashhur" since a person of this name (provided as almost everyone does we accept the reading P for the patronymic) is mentioned in Jeremiah we are treated to the usual "this demonstrates the historical reliability of biblical narratives" and "this proves nothing" snarls. There have also been a couple of more interesting posts. Among them Claude Mariottini summarised his dictionary article on the five biblical Gedaliahs, and Chris and Duane added epigraphic Gedaliahs for a fuller picture (both conclude that the seal that made this bulla is indeed likely to have belonged to the person mentioned in Jeremiah.

What I found abnormally interesting though were some details from Duane's listing of the biblical Gedaliahs, I'll cite the relevant section (bold highlighting added):
  1. 2 Kings: 25:22-26: Gedalyahu son of Ahikam, exilic governor of Judah under Nebuchadnezzar. He didn't last long.
  2. I Chronicles 25:3: Gedalyahu, a prophetic musician said to be from the time of David
  3. Ezra 10:18: Gedalyahu, a postexilic priest married to a foreign
    woman. He had to send her away and provide a guilt offering. Can't have
    any of that marriage to a foreign woman stuff, at least not at that
    time.
  4. Jeremiah 38:1-6: Gedalyahu son of Pashhur, an official of King
    Zedekiah, who along with other officials, thought someone should kill
    Jeremiah because he was demoralizing the troops. Can't have any of that
    demoralizing of troops stuff going on. Oh, no, I forgot Jeremiah was a
    good guy, a prophet of God. A eunuch Cushite finally rescued Jeremiah
    but not before Jeremiah did some quality time in a royal cistern.
  5. Zephaniah 1:1: Gedalyahu son of Amariah, grandson of King Hezekiah
    and grandfather of Zephaniah, or so it says Zephaniah. Being in a royal
    line is always a good thing.
There is evidently an informal, and unacknowledged hierarchy of probability at work here. The Gedaliah from David's time is merely "said to be" - so biblical texts telling earlier events are less likely to be accurate. The semi-royal is also dubious - claims to distinction render a character less plausible. (Actually on this Gedaliah I am not sure whether Duane is dubious of his existence or merely that he was Zephaniah's grandad, but somehow his royal connection renders him a doubtful character ;)

But the other Gedaliahs all squeak in, some of them I suspect simply because they had already provided a nice opportunity for humor.

Similar (usually partly unconscious) prejudice operates in most assessments of the likelihood of the existence of biblical characters in more serious writings. With maximalists more likely to doubt "minor characters" and minimalists more likely to doubt religiously significant ones perhaps ;-)

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