Friday, May 19, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Redefinition Fallacy

The next fallacy relates to my requiring you, when you write about Jesus in Talmud, to use ordinary word meanings, or else to justify that the text belongs to a specialized class requiring associated technical terminology, and refusing to let you say “if we define the word this way….” The fallacy is called redefinition.
There are two kinds of redefinition, low and high. High redefinition means restricting the scope of a definition. An example is that in Tannakh, the phrase “no X like that” occurs in several places. Sometimes it has a qualifier like a timespan and sometimes not. The high redefinition ignores the “like that” (quoting out of context) and restricts the phrase at all times to mean “never at all ever.”
A low redefinition broadens the meaning of a word or phrase. The problem is, sometimes it deprives the word or phrase of any distinction from other phrases with similar meanings. That can blur the lines between dictionary entries, and smooth out shades of meaning. Sometimes distinctions are necessary.
An academic writing about Talmud, an oral work, claimed that it could be edited, meaning that during oral transmission, some of the text that made it into the written record was intended to replace other material that made it into the written record.
The problem was that he chose ordinary concepts as signs of editing, for example, “I say that…” This is a high redefinition. It changes all proposals, intended to open a discussion, into definitive changes to existing material. Not every discussion ends in editing prior opinions. Sometimes the proposed alteration is rejected.
In Talmud, proposals are raised, discussed, and then Talmud says “and this is actually the law,” or “these are the words of rabbi X.” The latter is a polite way of rejecting the proposal. Talmud specifically states that when this latter comment is recorded, and somebody later uses the same argument, he could be told “you are only copying rabbi X” with the understanding that the new proposal is also rejected.
The academic writer’s problem was that he ignored this cultural phenomenon. (Failing the test of Occam’s Razor.) He also admitted he had not done the work necessary to see if his hypothesis checked out.
The third law of SWLT rejects changing a definition unilaterally without sufficient contexts to support the new meaning. This one paper cannot change the meaning of a term documented more than a millennium ago, in a work which thousands or millions of people understood to mean one thing, unless the author has substantial evidence that the work has been misunderstood. Some things in the paper suggest that the writer didn’t know the contents of Talmud or the history and metadata needed to prove his point.

To describe this writer's next problem, I have to teach you about a term thrown around a lot in oral traditions studies.  That's next week.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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