Saturday, March 10, 2012

I Don't Think That Means What You Think It Means

This just in: I have a sleeping baby! That means I have a few moments to myself this morning as Sebastian is off at the office for a bit, and rather than going back to sleep right away (which was my original plan for this time, I must confess), I decided to catch up on some blog-reading and blog-writing. Oh...and this post I've been mulling over is entirely off the topic of baby things.

I am a historian. I may not be employed at the moment, but it's what I studied to do, and I think I did pretty well at it, all things considered. Really, E is most of the reason I'm not still in school, working on a PhD and teaching classes at a university right now. So anyway, considering that History as an academic discipline is something I've spent 5 years of my life getting qualified to do and talk about, I've got some opinions about it. I have my own ideas - shaped, of course, by my experience in academia - about what history is as a discipline, about what the term means, and what it doesn't mean.

So where am I going with this? Well, as I briefly mentioned in another post, we finally got door-knocked by some Jehovah's Witnesses the other week and had them round to our place on Saturday (last week) to let them have a chat. This was not a Bible-bashing session, nor was it an attempt to make the JWs look bad. I quite liked the mom and son who came to talk at Seb's invite: they were nice people. But, I do have one criticism I'd like to level. I'll be honest and fair: the criticism I have isn't specific to Sue, the lovely Witness who came to see us, but she reminded me of it, and it's a particular bee under my bonnet. Actually, I had a very similar discussion with missionaries from our own church just the other week when we had them round for dinner.

My problem is this: when Christians of any stripe try to defend the Bible (or when Latter-Day Saints defend the Book of Mormon) by calling it a "historical document." This is where I break out my Inigo Montoya Princess Bride reference. That word does not mean what many religious people seem to think it means. It's like we've set up the god of History whose only aim is to support the veracity of our traditions about the God of Israel. Mmm...not so much.

In instances like this, people seem to take the moniker "historical" like it means "irrefutable" or "uncorrupted". As if, to call something a "historical document" means that it is a perfectly accurate representation of the world as it was, with no mistakes, biases, or extrapolations. This pathetic definition could not be more wrong.

First: everything is a historical document - at least in theory. From your mom's journal to the Magna Carta and everything in between. If a document is written to capture the story of one real person, or can be used to reconstruct certain elements of a by-gone era, then it can be a historical document. The Magna Carta can tell us about medieval English law; your mom's journal could tell you about how she coped with you as an annoying eight-year-old; the Bible can tell us what pre-Christian Jews thought about themselves, their neighbours, and their god. For that matter, the receipt in my purse from the other month can give a glimpse of what my usual weekly expenditure on groceries is and that could be a historical document if it helps to piece together a picture of life in southern England for newlyweds in the early 21st century. For heaven's sake, I did my dissertation using fashion magazines and business cards from Georgian England: ephemera are historical documents just as much as charters, court transcripts, treaties, or scriptures. So on this basis alone, calling the Bible a "historical document" is like calling a sparrow a bird. Well, obviously.

Second: everyone has an agenda. Let's stop being naive and admit that not everyone writes something down with the lofty vision of generations to come reading their work and thinking, "wow; I never knew things were like that back then. Thank goodness someone wrote it all down accurately so that I could correct my mistaken impressions." That's not how it works. If you write something down, you usually have a reason for doing so. Maybe you wrote that passive aggressive note to vent your frustration at the roommate who 'never' replaces the toilet paper roll he finishes. Perhaps that painting was meant to make Napoleon look a little less like a ragged hobo and more like a debonair conqueror when he was crossing the Alps. (note: it was. I spent a lot of time writing about Delaroche and David's differing images of Napoleon crossing the Alps, and if you Google David's picture, you'll see my point: that is a purposely fictionalised image.) Perhaps that book of scripture was written specifically to convince us of the divinity and Davidic lineage of Jesus.

With my last example: yeah, books in what became the New Testament were written with that specific goal in mind. "Let's make sure we present the case for Jesus as Messiah and Son of God. Let's make sure we stress the ways in which His life fulfills prophecy." Understand that I'm not saying that this automatically makes the document false. What I am saying is that it necessarily means a bias in what information was presented and what information was neglected. It means that there is a slant to the way in which certain information is phrased. Therefore, you can't say that it represents Roman Judea and the people of Jesus' time exactly as they were: every individual will see the world through a different filter, different preconceived notions, and different prejudices. That already puts a skewed perspective on any observations made. It doesn't necessarily mean that their reporting of a given event is inaccurate, but the conclusions they draw from an event will almost always colour the text when they make it a written account of a historical event.

Third: historical documents have room for allegory. If we took the word "historical" to mean "literally true and accurate" then we'd run into loads of problems. Let's look at Homer's Iliad: ever heard of Heinrich Schliemann? He was the guy who took some ancient poetry literally and went on an almost devastatingly inept excavation for the lost city of Troy. Schliemann took this backwards view of a historical document and assumed that it meant that every detail contained in Homer's work was describing actual events, literal places, and real people. Now, whether Homer actually believed that Apollo shot arrows of the plague into the Greek army as they waited to cross the Aegean is beside the point: the fact that the poem was written down can be used in a historical context to give us information about (to name just a few things):
-ancient Greek language
-ancient Greek mythology
-the culture of bards, poets, and song at the time of the Iliad's creation
-the conception of warfare in art
-the romanticising of the past 
See? Just because it's a fictional account doesn't mean that it can't tell us things about archaeologically proven history or history that's corroborated in outside sources.

Want another example? Let's again look at David's Napoleon Crossing the Alps. Let's actually look at it, too:

If we take it literally, this painting is not only useless, but it looks like it defies the laws of physics. Look at that horse! Napoleon's cape is caught in an awkward breeze, he's calmly seated on a rearing mount, he's insanely over-dressed, and he apparently had time to halt the army and do a bit of graffiti, carving his name into the mountain next to Hannibal - who crossed the Alps with elephants - and Charlemagne. Now, if we look at this as a piece of propaganda, we can see that Napoleon and David were constructing an image of a heroic conqueror in a historic line of awesome military men. Napoleon was a poised, dashing, and Classical leader of men. Whether or not he actually was all of these things can be debated: the point is that the painting loses no value as a historical document if we remember that even allegory, exaggeration, or outright lies can tell us just as much about a given circumstance as the truth itself. The key is to remember how a document functions.

The Bible occasionally functions as a history: it gives lineages of individuals, gives a census of the tribes of Israel, and attempts to record how the world got started. It gives law codes and tells the narratives of battles. But it also teaches morality, it very blatantly uses allegory and parable at times. Its goal was not always to simply record events like a post-dated DayPlanner of the Israelite nation! Plus, to riff on Napoleon again, "history is written by the victors." Bias, anyone? If you win a fight, when you tell the story later, won't you make yourself look as good as you can to your audience? If you lose a fight, won't you downplay how bad your shameful ass kicking was? It's not that you're lying outright: if you won, you say so; if you lost, you say so. But, as ever, the devil is in the details.

And so, to my last point: people make mistakes. Lots of mistakes. Memory is faulty. Ever sit in a concert for an artist you really enjoy? You're really getting into the zone, the music is amazing, the performance is flawless, and on the last breathtaking note, you hear that obnoxious Nokia ringtone as someone's phone goes off? You probably said afterwards that the phone ringing ruined the whole concert, right? Well...actually, you were enjoying it until that phone rang and only then was the experience tarnished. The point is we remember things differently to how we experience them. Therefore, in looking back on an event to record it, the way we remember it will be different to how we experienced it. We have to package things up in our minds to process them and make sense of them in the larger narrative of our lives. (Or the larger narrative of the record we're keeping) So once again, error creeps in. 

My overall point, then? The word "historical" is not a substitute for saying "archaeologically-proven", "unbiased", "inerrant", or "literally true". We always have to consider several things when looking at a document from the angle of interpreting, clarifying, or describing history:
- Who wrote/made/painted this?
- Why did they write/make/paint this?
- Who was the intended audience?
- What is the author's background?
- What would the audience already understand when seeing this?

And that, of course, is just the beginning. I'm clambering off the soapbox's time to nap alongside E before the day gets too far gone.


  1. Want to get back on the soapbox to discuss causality next?

  2. haha...I might just do it at some point.