Entries from May 2010 ↓

Comment: Limits of History

Historians tell stories about events in the past, events occurring in actual times and places. All historical stories are reconstructions of events from physical evidence and oral histories set within interpreted causal frameworks. Though answering ‘why’ is popular by historians today, this is controversial with some (David Hackett Fischer, Historians’ Fallacies : Toward a Logic of Historical Thought, 1971) and sometimes challenged as going too far, being too speculative. Ultimately the cautionary note for readers is to be aware that these stories are products of the particular historians as well as the events they seek to cover. So we must consider the historical accounts as probabilistic by nature rather than declarations of certainty. Frustratingly for those seeking the ‘truth’, we can have two or more quite contradictory and but plausible explanations for the same series of events from equally respected historians. Perhaps the first ban in history should be on the word ‘truth’ and its associated question ‘what really happened?’ Or, at least, give them nuanced understandings different to our everyday usages. If we can never know in any absolute or definitive sense, what keeps us separate from the past?

Consider the search for the historical Jesus, a person living some 2000 years ago in the Middle East. We can only reconstruct Jesus as the man of history from physical evidence – surviving texts and archaeological finds, and our reconstructions must necessarily be schematic at best. Historians talk of primary sources, those most closely connected to the events in question. We could use written texts from participants or observers even physical remains, such as the gun used in an assassination. Closely related secondary sources like newspaper reports of the time or official reports from investigations can add depth with more immediate interpretations. In the case of Jesus we have no contemporaneous sources. Jesus left no writings: his literacy is still an area of dispute. For many Christians, it’s hard to imagine that the Jesus of faith – the only Son of God – could have been illiterate. We have found no writings by his immediate followers, those who knew him directly. We have found no government records of Jesus, execution records, birth records, and so on. The earliest writings about Jesus that we have are later copies of Paul’s letters to his fledgling Christian communities written some thirty years after his death. Paul acknowledged that he never met the historical Jesus. In fact, Paul offered only a passing reference to Jesus as a man: his interest was with Jesus as Christ, the risen lord. Even when the sayings of Jesus were relevant to his argument with his communities, Paul was silent, preferring to use earlier Jewish scripture. He showed little interest in or knowledge of the historical Jesus. Our earliest full copies of Paul’s writings are some 400 years later from manuscripts like Codex Alexandrinus, fifth century document.
Our only real evidence for the historical Jesus comes from our scholarly reconstructions of the first four books of the New Testament, the gospels, supplemented by some non-canonical writings like the Gospel of Thomas. Again our fullest physical sources, mostly complete texts, are from some 400 years after his death. Unfortunately the gospels are of unknown authorship written in unknown locations some forty and eighty years after his death. For the record, the New Testament gospels are considered by virtually all scholars as anonymous with apostolic attributions given later for authority.Though broadly biographical in style they were really proclamations of faith – essentially Christian propaganda – for local Christian communities. Today most scholarly effort is with dissecting these texts in light of the archaeological finds from the Middle East. Not surprisingly, the question ‘who was Jesus’ needs to be replaced by many plausible Jesus reconstructions derived (creatively) from a paucity of physical evidence. Not surprisingly, critics – conservative and skeptical – argue that Jesus scholars find the Jesus of their liking, a man from personal speculation as much as from historical research.
So are all historical reconstructions of equal value? I am not taking a post-modernist view of value equality. Like the sciences, historians argue out the relative merits of their different analyses. Internal coherence of the arguments; correspondence to the physical evidence; and reasonableness of the model presented of human capability and motivations in the constructed historical context are argued. Historical evidence is often in the footnotes.
What about miracles? This is a vexed question for people dominated by religious faith. Unfortunately, for them, historical research is a naturalistic process and as such most historians reject miracle claims even if they can find no other explanations. Typically three reasons are sighted. Firstly, people today cannot walk on water unaided so there is no reason to believe they could have done that in the past: that’s the argument from analogy. Secondly, if you accept one miracle claim, you really need to accept them all as there is no ‘physical’ test to differentiate one miracle claim from another, by definition. So Christians who readily accept the virgin birth would also need to accept the miracle claims associated with the birth of Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome. Finally, historical research can already be problematic, weighing the possibilities of sparse evidence without including the possibility of improbable or physically impossible acts. Most historians prefer to leave that to the theologians.
Historical research has produced powerful and controversial conclusions. But like all human intellectual endeavour it is limited by our human capabilities and perceptions. We are locked on our own world-views. A god-like view of truth must necessarily restricted to the divine.

Alex McCullie