History: Its Nature and Truth

M James Sawyer, Ph.D. 

The Importance of History for Christianity

Now if Christ is being preached as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is futile and your faith is empty. Also, we are found to be false witnesses about God, because we have testified against God that he raised Christ from the dead, when in reality he did not raise him, if indeed the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is useless; you are still in your sins.

The Apostle Paul

As a people we as twentieth-century Americans devalue history as a source of knowledge guidance and authority. We value not historical rootedness, but forward thinking . . . the hope of the future rather than the weight of the past. This was starkly illustrated in the media during the third week of President Bush’s second term. During his annual State of the Union address the President laid out his agenda for the coming year and more broadly for his second term. Most controversial was his proposal to overhaul the now six decade old Social Security system by introducing private accounts for workers to contribute and build their own personal “nest egg.” A day or two later the Democratic Party leadership gathered around the statue of Franklin D. Roosevelt and declared their support for the program as it was forged during the Great Depression era. Political pundits had a heyday with the symbolism. “The leadership of the party that has been dominant for nearly seventy years was stuck in the past.” “They were out of ideas.” “They were not looking into the future.”

This historical rootlessness affects the Church as well as the broader culture. Church historian Kenneth Scott Latourette observed that since the nineteenth-century American Protestants have tended “to ignore developments which had taken place in Christianity in the Old World after the first century.” [1]

Contemporary evangelicals turn immediately and intuitively to scripture as the guarantor of the truth of Christianity heedless of the fact that the truths we hold dear were established by historical realities and worked out and articulated in the historical process. We often do not realize that our faith itself is an historical faith. In opposition to the other major world religions Christianity alone would fail if it could be proved to be historically fraudulent. As John Zeisler has observed “Christianity is an historical religion, that is to say, that it would quickly wither away if it were shown that Jesus never existed, or that he was substantially different in character from the New Testament picture of him. . .” [2]

B.B. Warfield, one of the architects of the modern doctrine of inerrancy and tireless defender of the inspiration and authority of the Bible, argued that history itself was the guarantor of the supernatural nature of Christianity.

“. . . we may say that the condition of the validity of the Christian teaching and of the Christian hope, is no more than the fact of the supernaturalism of Christianity, historically vindicated; practically we must say that the condition of the persistence of Christianity as a religion for the people, is the entire trustworthiness of the Scriptures as the record of the supernatural revelation which Christianity is.” [3]

C.S. Lewis has noted that, “To study the past does indeed liberate us from the present, from the idols of our own market‑place. But I think it liberates us from the past too. I think no class of men are [sic] less enslaved to the past than historians.” [4] As Americans we tend to be far more parochial than other parts of the world. We are isolated by two oceans; geography itself as well as the fact that a majority of us are monolingual reinforces the conceit that all people in some sense see the world as we do. Lewis notes:

We need intimate knowledge of the past. Not that the past has any magic about it, but because we cannot study the future, and yet need something to set against the present, toCS%20Lewis.jpg remind us that the basic assumptions have been quite different in different periods and that much which seems certain to the uneducated is merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age. [5]

On the other hand, how do we know that the past is accurate? If we listen to many contemporary historians we are led to believe that history itself is suspect. What is presented is the story the winners wanted us to hear, rather than having any necessary relationship with what really happened.

Traditionally defenses of the faith have involved proving the possibility of miracles, the truth of the resurrection, the inspiration of scripture and the like. The present controversy raised by such groups as the Jesus Seminar, and brought into the popular culture by such works as The DaVinci Code, go beneath the traditional arguments and strike at the level of the possibility of knowledge, particularly historical knowledge. This undercuts traditional apologetics by moving the argument into a new realm. We cannot simply quote the Bible since the origin of the Bible is now suspect. We cannot appeal to the events spoken of in the gospels since they were stories created by the community of faith that have no basis in space-time reality. The fabric of the historical record as we have understood it is being ripped apart and stitched together to tell a story that does not enhance or shed new light on what we have held true but challenges the truth of Christianity at every significant point.

What is History?

The term history is in English ambiguous in that there are several different senses in which the term is used.Napoleon%20quote%20copy.jpg The Germans employ two major terms that help to clear up meaning, Geschichte and Historie. Geschichte is derived from the verb that means “to happen” (geschehen). When we use history in the sense of the German Geschichte [6] we mean something that actually happened in the past. [7] It is absolute and objective. However there is a hook here; the only events that can be known in this sense by us as human beings are those in which we individually participate. As such Geschichte is not available to the historian.

The other term employed for history, Historie, encompasses the work of the historian. In this sense we can see four different emphases. The historian does not have direct access to the past (Geschichte). By definition his access to the past is indirect through sources. We can term sources information. Historical information consists of “records, recollections of events by contemporaries or later individuals,” remains and archaeological relics. [8] The historian’s job is first one of investigation, gathering material. This gives rise to the second emphasis of Historie, inquiry. The historian cannot take the information he has gathered at face value. He must critically evaluate the data he has gathered for its authenticity. [9] Just because something is old does not make it true. Forgeries exist. A recent example of an artifact hailed by some as genuine and forgery by others is the “James ossuary.” Several years ago an ossuary (bone box) appeared among the antiquities in Israel. The inscription read “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” This led to an initial conclusion with much media hoopla that physical proof of the existence of James the brother of Jesus was finally available. This would be the strongest physical evidence for the existence of Jesus unearthed to date. However when the ossuary was subjected to scientific inquiry the decision was split. All agreed that the ossuary was ancient, and that part of the inscription was ancient. However, the evaluators disagreed when it came to the “ brother of Jesus” portion of the inscription. Some said that the style of the letters and the patina (rock aging) of this portion of the inscription demonstrated evidence of forgery, while others roundly disagreed. At this writing the status of the ossuary remains undetermined.

Perhaps the most significant historical forgery was the document known as “the Donation of Constantine” upon which the Vatican based its claim for temporal power in Italy. The “Donation” claimed that Constantine had been healed of leprosy by Pope Sylvester I. In gratitude Constantine gave to the Church what became the Papal States in Italy and then withdrew to Constantinople so as not to interfere with the imperial powers of the Pope.

The Donation was not revealed to be a forgery until 1440. In that year Lorenzo Valla published his Discourse on the Forgery of the Alleged Donation of Constantine, in which he enumerated the large number of historical anachronisms that pervaded the work. For instance, it referred to Byzantia as a province when in the fourth century it was only a city, it referred to temples in Rome that did not yet exist, and it referred to 'Judea' even though in Constantine's time the Romans referred to this territory as 'Palestina.' Valla could have added that Emperor Constantine never had leprosy, making it impossible for Pope Sylvester to have cured him of this disease. The Catholic Church suppressed Valla's work for years. Centuries later, it publicly conceded that the Donation was a fake. [10]

The third sense of Historie is that of interpretation. [11] The individual pieces of data that the historian gathers, taken by themselves, do not have any inherent meaning. The historian’s task is making sense of the data. His interpretation of the data involves a reconstruction of the space-time events of the past (Geschichte). No historical “reconstruction of an event can ever be perfect” [12] because the historian is Glasses%20copy.jpgworking from meager sources compared to what actually happened and his own worldview and personal interests and sensibilities affect his interpretation. But even with these subjective factors at work radical skepticism about what we can know is not called for. While one individual historian’s conclusion may include idiosyncratic elements, historians as a group verify one another’s labors and when through the lens of several interpreters a general consensus arises, we can have a comfortable degree of assurance that the portrayal under discussion is reasonably accurate. [13]

Interpretation is admittedly subjective. “That’s just your interpretation,” has become a common charge among those who want to challenge an accepted understanding of a text or of a past event. While there is truth to the statement that all knowledge, and even history involves a subjective evaluation, it is one thing to interpret data in such a way to bring coherence and meaning to them, it is quite another to say that the data itself is fraudulent.

Remember the Scott Peterson murder trial in 2004? Peterson was convicted of the murder of his pregnant wife and unborn son. Judicial pundits waxed eloquent for months about the weakness of the case and the ineptitude of the prosecution. Especially they hammered on the fact that there was no hard evidence linking Scott to the crime, as well as the fact that there was no provable cause of death. Yet when the case was sent to the jury they deliberated only hours before coming back with a verdict of first-degree murder. It actually took the jury several times longer to determine the penalty of death than to agree on the question of guilt. The point is that circumstantial evidence can establish a case so compelling that ordinary citizens in twenty-first century America will be so convinced of the verdict that they will be willing to send a defendant to his death without hard evidence.

The final sense of Historie is impartation or the writing of history. The art of communication has too often been ignored by professional historians particularly those who view history as science, nothing more or less. These historians have in their writings tended to pile fact upon fact with little attention to meaning or communication with readers. Those who have given attention to the literary aspect of history have broken out of the guild and enjoyed readership. [14]

Looking then at the different senses in which the term history is employed we may define it as a narrative interpretation of past events which have enduring significance for humanity that is based upon data that has been verified by critical evaluation. [15]

Weighing the Evidence

Philosopher Richard Swinburne, Oxford Professor Emeritus and expert in the field of epistemology (how we know) has laid out principles for weighing evidence in the field of historical knowledge. He contends that historical evidence can be divided into three primary categories: personal memory, the testimony of witnesses and physical traces, [16] as well as one contextual category: general background evidence.

Personal Memory

If we reflect for only a few moments we will realize that we all trust our memories. I know the way to work because I have driven the route for the past 18 years. I recognize the landmarks, know where to expect traffic congestion, given the absence of an accident or road construction, and to expect my journey to take between 50 and 90 minutes. I don’t need to look for the entrance to or exit from the freeway. I know the way as a result of my past experience—my memory. While few of us would claim perfect memories (I have on more than one occasion been accused of being an “absent minded professor”), they are our access point to the world. In fact “. . .if memory does not provide reliable evidence of what we did and experienced, we could have no knowledge of the world beyond what we immediately perceive, experience and do.” [17] We do not as a matter of course doubt our memories. We live our lives in such a way that we all trust our memories. In fact, “. . .memory as such, all memory, is to be trusted in absence of positive counter-evidence that it is untrustworthy.” [18] We recognize that we all mis-observe on occasion. There may be cases that things remembered did not in fact happen (e.g. in the case of brainwashing). In these cases positive counter-evidence would act to correct the error in memory. But even in this case memory is involved: “. . . positive counter-evidence will ultimately rely on other memories (or the testimony of others . . .) which clash with the given memory and are stronger or more numerous.” [19]

Direct Historical Evidence: Testimony of Witnesses

When we gain information, whether directly from individuals or from written sources the initial interpretive grid that we apply is what we call “normal” or “literal.” We interpret what we read or hear within the “normal” sense, i.e. within the literal dictionary definitions of the terms. While it is true that on occasion there may be more than a single “literal” understanding of a statement this is not frequent. As we read statements we assume that they are to be interpreted in a “normal” or “literal” sense unless we have some hint that the speaker/writer intended some other sense. [20] Sometimes however, a “literal” understanding can be disconcerting. Many years ago, I worked as a manager for a security company. My responsibilities included hiring and firing security guards. On one occasion I left home to meet a guard that I had to fire. When I toldSecurity%20guard%20shield%20copy.jpg my young sons that I was going to fire the guard they got very upset. Their experience led them to associate the term “fire” with guns. My wife had to explain to them I was not going to shoot him but to terminate his employment. On the other hand when a student tells me that his computer ate his homework I do not believe that the computer chewed up digested the work. I recognize this as a figure of speech based on the old grade school excuse (the dog ate my homework) students told their teachers when they failed to complete their homework. As a child I grew up in a very closed community in a very physically beautiful part of the Northeast. On numerous occasions I have been asked how I liked that area. My standard response is “It’s cold there. (pause) And I don’t mean the temperature.” I add the qualifier to make it clear I am not speaking about the bitter winters but the inhospitable culture. If I did not add the qualifier my hearer would think that I didn’t like the winters (which is also true). If we did not start the interpretative process with the normal sense of an utterance as a baseline communication would be all but impossible.

In the ancient church a form of biblical interpretation, allegorical interpretation, became popular particularly in the area of Alexandria. Arguably the greatest practitioner of allegorical interpretation was the early third century theologian/exegete Origen. Employing this method of interpretation the reader sees the words as standing for something other than what a literal reading of the text would allow. “It is difficult, and perhaps even impossible, to list the exegetical principles that Origen follows in his allegorical interpretation. The most that can be said is, first, that every text is pregnant with profound mysteries that are to be discovered through allegory.” [21] One scholar made a list of the spiritual meaning that Origen found in words of scripture. This list includes:

"Horse" in the Bible usually means "voice"; "today" means "the present…age''; "leaven" means "teaching"; "silver" and "trumpet" mean "word"; "clouds" . . . mean "holy ones"; "feet" mean "the counsel by which we tread the journey of life"; "well" means "the teaching of the Bible"; linen" means "chastity"; "thighs" mean "beginning"; "unmixed wine" means "misfortune"; "bottle" means "body"; "secret" and "treasury" mean "the reason." [22]

“Ultimately this scholar concluded perhaps a bit hyperbolically but not without justification that Origen ‘transforms the Bible into a divine cross-word puzzle the solution to whose clues is locked in Origen’s bosom.’” [23]

One might well wonder why I bring Origen into a discussion on the nature of historical knowledge. The reason is that there are contemporary historians doing the same thing with historical data that Origen did with the biblical text. Perhaps the most egregious example is the Australian historian Barbara Thiering. [24] Her Jesus the Man: A New Interpretation from the Dead Sea Scrolls and The Gospels and Qumran: A New Hypothesis as well as The Qumran Origins of the Christian Church argue that the key to understanding Jesus’ life teachings and associations is to be found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. While tabloid headlines consistently associate the Dead Sea Scrolls with the early church serious scholars from Christian and Jewish, as well as other traditions all agree that these documents pre-date Jesus and the founding of Christianity by about one and one-half centuries. No serious scholar has until now suggested that there was any hint of Christianity to be found in the DSS.

She proposes that by employing a “pesher” method of interpretation by which we may read the DSS as a coded history of the early Christian movement. Her hermeneutic allows her to claim that John the Baptist is the Dead Sea Scrolls’ “Teacher of Righteousness,” while Jesus is “The Wicked Priest,” who founded a rival division of the Essene sect (of which the Qumran community was a part), and that gospel accounts about healings are really about Jesus promoting individuals within the community. She even finds “Popes” and “Cardinals” coded within the texts! Jesus was crucified not in Jerusalem but in Qumran, however did not die. He rather was drugged and was revived. The two “thieves” between whom he was crucified were in fact Judas Iscariot and Simon Magus. Simon employed his medical knowledge to administer an antidote to the drugs Jesus took. After his “resurrection” Jesus made several excursions around the Mediterranean accompanied by Peter and Paul and presumably his wife Mary Magdalene. He ultimately died in the 60’s A.D. [25]

In Real Estate it is said that there are three things that are important when buying property: Location—Location—Location. The same is true in the interpretation of sources—valid interpretation of a text, utterance or event involves setting people and events in their proper location – contexts. These contexts include the literary, social and cultural.

Literary context:

The first level of evaluation of the testimony of the sources is found in the immediate and greater literary context in which the data is recorded (the surrounding sentences, paragraphs, and ultimately the entire document). This includes determining the type of writing (genre). Is it history like Tacitus, Livy, or Josephus? Or is it poetry like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey? Is it a personal letter? An official document? A diary? etc. Different types of literature call for different types of interpretations. To interpret poetry literally results in bizarre understanding. (See figure above.)

Social context:

The next level of context has to do with the social context shared by the author and audience. Recognition of this factor can have a significant effect in altering one’s understanding. The statement “Murder the guy in blue!” has one meaning when spoken in a bank, and quite another when spoken in a baseball stadium. While taken alone the statements may be ambiguous, but the social context in which the statement is placed makes the meaning abundantly clear.

Cultural context:

Moving outward to the next contextual circle places one in the realm of cultural context. New Testament scholar G.B. Caird [26] noted that to properly interpret the statement, “I am mad about my flat.” One must know whether the statement was spoken in England or America. If it is spoken in England the speaker is excited about his living quarters. But if spoken in America the speaker is angry about the puncture in his tire.

Culture gives meaning to actions. A Wycliffe Bible Translator acquaintance of mine was nearing the end of his New Testament translation. He and his translation helper (an indigenous tribal member) were checking the translation of the book of Revelation for accuracy. As my friend read Revelation 3:16, “Behold I stand at the door and knock . . .” the translation helper became very uncomfortable. They went over the translationstanding%20at%20the%20door.jpg word by word. All the words were correct. He read the translation again, “Behold I stand at the door and knock.” Again the translation helper squirmed. They double-checked all the words. Again, they were all correct. Finally the translation helper blurted out, “I just can’t believe that!” The translator was taken aback. “Believe what?” he asked. “That Jesus is a thief!” This time my friend was shocked. The words didn’t say anything about being a thief. But he investigated further. He discovered in that culture the only persons who knocked at the door of a dwelling were thieves who were double-checking to be sure that no one was home. Legitimate visitors would call out vocally as they approached the dwelling rather than knock.

Historians are usually in the business of cross-cultural communication whether they realize it or not. As we read, we interpret from our own background and experience. For example, i f we were to read the newspaper account of a wedding we would read in great detail of the attire of the bride. As a matter of course the groom and the guests are not mentioned. As westerners we understand that the bride is the centerpiece of the ceremony. Our experience of attending weddings makes the whole account lucid. However, were a member of the indigenous Matses tribe in Peru who had never left his jungle home to read the account, he might surmise that while the bride was clothed the groom and guests were not. We know the cultural form and its demands and our experience fills in the missing details. Someone not familiar with our cultural form may either fill in the details from his or her own experience or assume that the account gives us exhaustive details and since a detail is not mentioned it was not present. Likewise, the original cultural recipients of the document(s) that the historian reads knew the cultural context whereas the contemporary historian may not be fully conversant with the nuances.

The proper response to this situation is neither skepticism nor despair. Because something cannot be known fully does not mean nothing can be known. Rather this situation presents us with a call for caution in interpretation as well as diligent research about the culture to which the document(s) belong.

To the principle that absent contrary evidence, memory is to be trusted, Swinburne adds a second: “The Principle of Testimony.” The principle requires

. . . us to believe that—in the absence of counter-evidence—when someone tells us that so-and-so is the case (e.g. that Washington is the capital of the United States), that they have perceived or received testimony from others that it is the case. Without this principle we would have very little knowledge of the world. For clearly most of our beliefs about the world are based on what others claim explicitly to have perceived or tell us to be the case; beliefs about geography and history and science and everything else beyond our own experience are thus based. [27]

While to the critical/skeptical mind this may sound like credulity, it is in fact the way we acquire knowledge. We acknowledge that “certain witnesses, or witnesses positioned in certain circumstances, or a particular testimony by a particular witness are unreliable. But the evidence will only have force on the assumption that most other witnesses are trustworthy.” [28] The untrustworthiness of a single witness is established by the combined testimony from other independent witnesses about an event. Testimony by multiple witnesses can discredit a single witness. [29]

Physical traces

Beyond memory there may be empirical evidence that can establish the truth of evidence. Contemporary forensic evidence includes both fingerprints and DNA. The use of newly perfected technology has led police to open many “cold case files” and solve them on the basis of DNA testing. Forensics applied to historical questions has revealed that King Tut was not assassinated as had been assumed for decades but instead died of a massive fast moving infection. This is detective work, it is not “deduction” as Sherlock Holmes said, but rather induction from the data. Suppose that there was a robbery of a second floor apartment. In the robbery a large amount of cash was taken and a pillowcase was also missing. There was no sign of forced entry through the only entry door but co-incident with the robbery a window was broken, and a baseball was discovered on the floor below the window. Fingerprints not belonging to the resident of the apartment were discovered on the windowsill outside the apartment. These fingerprints were discovered to belong to John Smith, a known cat burglar. A few days later Smith made several large purchases, claiming to have won big at a casino in Las Vegas. However, the casino officials claim that they know nothing of Smith. These facts lead us to construct a theory of the crime: that Smith, the cat burglar, threw a baseball that broke the fingerprint%20copy.jpgwindow. After which he climbed up the side of the apartment building leaving his fingerprints on the windowsill as he reached inside to open the window. He entered and then located a stash of cash, which he put in a pillowcase that he took with him. The cash was later found in the trunk of a car parked at the residence of a known associate of Smith, a car to which Smith has a key. With this data at our disposal we construct a theory of the crime. Our theory pulls together various data which would otherwise be unrelated, the broken window, the baseball in the apartment, the fingerprints, the missing cash and pillowcase, and the discovery of the cash in a location to which Smith had access and that Smith was spend large amounts of money the origin of which he had no credible explanation, with a simple explanation that one individual is the cause of all the effects. Another theory could be constructed which would assert that the baseball was thrown by a neighborhood child, Smith’s fingerprints were on the windowsill because he had been hired to clean the windows of the apartment complex, the burglary was an “inside job” perpetrated by a “friend” of the resident who had a key to the apartment. This friend stashed the cash in the car to which Smith just happened to have a key. While the latter theory is theoretically possible, it is not the best explanation because of its complexity while the former theory is simple and straightforward. [30]

We have been using theory in a sense that is more properly applicable to hypothesis. William Lane Craig has noted that to be accepted, an historical hypothesis must fulfill seven criteria:

1. The hypothesis, together with other true statements, must imply further statements describing present, observable data.

2. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory scope (that is, imply a greater variety of observable data) than rival hypotheses.

3. The hypothesis must have greater explanatory power (that is, make the observable data more probable) than rival hypotheses.

4. The hypothesis must be more plausible (that is, be implied by a greater variety of accepted truths, and its negation implied by fewer accepted truths) than rival hypotheses.

5. The hypothesis must be less ad hoc (that is, include fewer new suppositions about the past not already implied by existing knowledge) than rival hypotheses.

6. The hypothesis must be disconfirmed by fewer accepted beliefs (that is, when conjoined with accepted truths, imply fewer false statements) than rival hypotheses.

7. The hypothesis must so exceed its rivals in fulfilling conditions (2)­(6) that there is little chance of a rival hypothesis, after further investigation, exceeding it in meeting these conditions. [31]

The historian like his counterpart the detective takes his data, documentary evidence as well as physical traces and relates them together into an explanatory theory/hypothesis. For the historian these traces may be archaeological discoveries that illuminate the daily life of the period under investigation or if the historian is studying more recent events they may include personal artifacts, and the writings or possessions of individuals falling within the purview of investigation. Physical traces can be invaluable in providing historical insights and in filling in details of the story. For example a visit to the John Knox house on High St. in Edinburgh Scotland provides understanding into the humble and even stark life that Knox lived as well as giving insight into the geographical interplay of the lives of Knox and Mary Queen of Scots. Knox’s home isDetective.jpg located across the street from his church half way between the Castle at the top of the Royal Mile and the royal residence of Holly Rood House at the bottom of the hill. Mary who is said to have feared no man except John Knox on his knees (praying) had to go by both Knox’s house and church in traveling from her residence to the castle!

As we have said, the historian is dependent upon sources for his reconstruction of the past. But it is not just access to past sources that produces credible history. It is examination of all the sources available. Historian George Elton insists, “. . . the student should never consider less than the total of the historical material which may conceivably be relevant.” [32] It is only by following this dictum and being aware of his own personal precommitments that the historian can guard himself against a prejudicial selection of evidence that builds the case for the historian’s pet interpretation. [33]

In 2004, the national media’s attention was riveted on the presidential race. CBS news’ 60 Minutes aired a report on the President’s National Guard service in the early 1970’s. They touted newly uncovered documents dated from May to August as proof that Bush had failed to report for his annual physical to keep his flight status current, and that there had been political pressure involved to get Bush out of the guard early. Within twenty four hours of CBS’s release of this proof, the authenticity of the documents was being questioned, not only by Bush supporters, but even by backers of the opponent, Senator Kerry.

The typeface on the documents was in a proportional font, unavailable on all but a few of the most expensive typewriters. The font appears to be Times New Roman, a font that did not exist in 1972. Further, at one point there is a small superscripted “st” which was not possible to produce on any typewriter in 1972. At other points the author of the document had typed a numeral and then left a space and then typed the “st”, not the usual way of delineating a numeric, but it is a way to force Microsoft Word not to superscript the letters in question.

While in the grand scheme of things this incident is of no great consequence, it does provide us with a living example of the historian’s task as well as its pitfalls. On the part of the historian there is the call for caution and disengaging his or her own biases. The behavior of much of the national media has been motivated out of a visceral hatred for the president, so when evidence was presented it provided another opportunity to attack the president and hopefully do damage to his campaign which is at present in better shape than it has been in months. The research department at CBS contacted a handwriting expert who pronounced the documents to be authentic. CBS aired the story. Less than 24 hours later, as the documents were posted, bloggers discovered the probable forgery. And the New York Times and other major papers which had only one day before run the story on the front page acknowledged the forgery.

Evidence must be examined for its authenticity. As the above example demonstrates, first of all, the historian’s responsibility is to adopt a critical attitude. When one wants to find something, he or she is likely to be less discerning or even skeptical when presented with material that confirms a bias than with material writing.jpgthat challenges it. Second, the historian must examine the purported document to see if it is authentic. Is it really from the period it claims to be? In the case of the memos, the fonts employed on the documents argue against them. If they are authentic to the period, are they written by the purported author? If so, was the author telling the truth? Or was he working an agenda in a larger context? Is what is said to be understood literally? Or is it hyperbolic? Or is it metaphorical?

During the nineteenth century the field of New Testament Studies saw the publication of numerous “lives” of Jesus. In 1906 Albert Schweitzer published his Quest of the Historical Jesus in which he proclaimed the decades-long “quest” a failure. During that decade George Tyrell, commenting on the research of Adolph von Harnack declared: “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.” In the same vein, New Testament scholar Martin Kähler in his critical evaluation of the whole project concluded: “What is usually happening is that the image of Jesus is being refracted through the spirit of these gentlemen .” [34] New Testament scholars are now in the midst of the third “Quest for the Historical Jesus” but they appear to have learned little from their predecessors over a century ago. The result may look a bit different on the surface but like the original “questers” their portrayals of Jesus “often look remarkably like the scholars who write about him: postmodern, ideologically reformist and eminently reasonable .” [35] But these portraits of Jesus bear little resemblance to one another. He is variously painted as a “sage,” a “subversive sage,” an “eschatological prophet,” a “social prophet,” a “rabbi,” a “Pharisee,” a “Cynic teacher.” As in the earlier quests the scholars have used sources selectively rather than comprehensively. They have chosen to use the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and Q (a hypothetical document reconstructed from the material common to Matthew and Luke but not found in Mark) and by and large ignore the canonical gospels. [36]

Background evidence—these types of things happen

The historical facts examined up to this point are causal insofar as the facts when taken together have a causal interrelationship. They fit together to form a coherent narrative. There is another important factor at work in the historian: background evidence. The story that the historian paints utilizes the canvas of background, ultimately the background of a worldview. Science is made possible by the fact that nature operates in an orderly and predictable fashion. So predictable are its workings that scientists have described the workings of the physical universe under the rubric of “laws of nature.” As originally conceived the term was taken as a descriptive figure of speech that communicated predictability. However over time the common understanding of the idea of “laws of nature” changed so that by the eighteenth century (1700s) the term was understood literally and proscriptively. “The laws of nature” came to be understood as established by God. law%20copy.jpgBecause God had established these “laws” it was argued that miracles were impossible since God would not break his own laws! This view of natural law held sway among scientists during the eighteenth, nineteenth and into the early twentieth century. Contemporary scientists have returned to the original understanding that natural law describes what ordinarily happens rather than prescribing what must happen. However, the idea of natural law and naturalism as it has taken root in the broader worldview of western culture has ruled out the possibility of miracles in the mind of many including those in the historical community.

The problem for the historian arises when the particular evidence and the background evidence are at odds with one another. The understandable first reaction of the researcher is to doubt reports of an event that contradicts the “laws of nature.”

In 1989 two researchers in Utah, Drs. Martin Fleischmann and Stanley Pons announced to a stunned world that they had produced fusion at low temperatures. Skeptical but fascinated, the media and scientific community swarmed to the idea in a kind of feeding frenzy. Heralded as a breakthrough discovery, cold fusion promised cheap energy without the high cost and danger associated with nuclear reactors. The idea wove its way into the popular imagination to the extent that the concept became a central plot device in the film The Saint . But as research scientists around the world tried to reproduce the experiments of Fleischmann and Pons they were unable to achieve the advertised result. The consensus was that there was a flaw in Martin’s and Fleischmann’s procedure or in their observations. One of the key facets of the scientific method as it is applied in physical research in the hard sciences is that of the reproducibility of experiments. Individuals in different locations using the same materials and same method must get the same results. History is not a hard science, but there is a science involved. In the case of History it is not the reproducibility of the results of the experiment, but involves instead checking the results of other historians’ work against the totality of the historical data available. This checking involves applying recognized and logical method to the data and checking the results of that application with the historical results of a previous generation as well as to contemporary proposals.

When the historian finds eminently credible data that contradicts background evidence he is faced with a dilemma. He must come up with a theory that explains why the testimony, which on first blush seemed credible, is in fact false and/or misleading and why there is no positive evidence to discredit the data that has survived. Swinburne observes that when it comes to the miracle of the Resurrection “Most people who think Resurrection%20copy.jpgthat the total evidence is against the traditional account do so, I believe, because they think the background evidence makes a Resurrection very improbable.” [37] In this observation Swinburne is undoubtedly correct. We know that dead people don’t rise. Even in the first century people knew that dead people didn’t rise. The problem comes in constructing a credible theory to explain why false evidence testifying to the resurrection arose and why no contemporary evidence against the resurrection survives. If the constructed hypothesis is ultimately less probable in explaining the evidence we must remember Sherlock Holms’ famous dictum: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” [38]

Historical Skepticism

Historical skepticism around the person of Jesus Christ and the reliability of the biblical texts is not new. The Enlightenment philosophers sought a mathematical certainty of knowledge and rejected claims about the possibility of divine revelation and even that truth could be found in history. For them history was a problem. Lessing’s observation about history has become legendary:

If no historical truth can be demonstrated, then nothing can be demonstrated by means of historical truths. That is: Accidental truths of history can never become the proof of necessary truths of reason . . . That then, is the ugly, broad ditch which I cannot get across, however often and however earnestly I have tried to make a leap. [39]

Lessing was not alone in his position. With reference to the Bible, Enlightenment historians, philosophers and theologians were adamant. The Bible was a strictly human book with no divine authority. It was not divine revelation or even a record of divine revelation. The miracles found therein were not to be believed. So stringent were their criteria for “truth” there was no possibility of even these non-inspired documents bearing testimony to the reality of miracles, let alone the miracle of the resurrection.

Contemporary examples of historical skepticism can be found today in the Jesus Seminar participants. In many respects the Jesus Seminar participants are the direct heirs of the Enlightenment project with reference to history. In fact the pronouncements coming out of the Jesus Seminar represent for the most part a repackaging of conclusions of skeptical New Testament scholars reaching back two centuries. The difference now is that the agenda of the Jesus Seminar involves bringing these pronouncements into the consciousness of the broader public to break the stranglehold of a “naive” biblical literalism held by traditional Christianity. Even more radical are fringe “historians” who claim that Jesus never existed and that he is a construct from stories of numerous pagan deities and historical personages.

Philosophical frameworks for historical study Historical Positivism: history as a scientific endeavor

The father of modern historical study, Leopold von Ranke (1795 - 1886), insisted that the goal of the historian was to discover and communicate the truth of the past history we es eigntlich gewesen (“as it actually happened”). [40] Ranke defined the task of the historian as involving the ability to set aside his prejudices and report the facts (defined as objective data). He asserted that by doing so the historian could construct a truly objective (scientific) account of the past. Following in Ranke’s footsteps, French philosopher Auguste Compte (1798-1857) is regarded as the founder of both positivism and historical positivism, [41] asserting that the scientific method was as valid in producing objective history as it was in discovering natural laws and investigating natural phenomena. Henry Thomas Buckle (1821 - 1862), a disciple of Compte, further developed the positivist mindset by contending that science could give the historian universal laws of human behavior which could be then applied to purify from earlier historical accounts of their subjectivity. [42]

The historical positivists argued that there are no essential differences between any of the legitimate branches of human knowledge. In their approach to history, the positivists conceded that history can never provide man with certain knowledge. But, they maintained, this was not due to the nature of history itself but to the methods used by historians in trying to understand the past. The nineteenth-century positivists sought new methods that would put history on a firm scientific basis. [43]

One of the results of this search for “scientific history” was the original Quest for the Historical Jesus that dominated nineteenth century German New Testament studies. (See above.)

Historical Idealism

Historical Idealism represented a pendulum swing away from the objectivity of historical positivism toward the subjective pole recognizing the role of the historian himself in the process of constructing history. The Idealists denied the key positivistic assumption of natural laws governing the recording of history and the scientific discernment of objective fact. They argued that subjectivity was inevitable in the construction of historical accounts. Subjectivity however did not imply skepticism. The idealists asserted that it was possible to discover objective history despite the personal subjective involvement of the historian. The fact that the historian himself shared in common humanity provided the bridge to this objectivity. His experiences were analogous to the experiences experienced by his sources and thus gave him a sympathetic understanding of his sources. If an historical document were, for example, written by an official of the government, the idealist historian would out of his own experience recognize the probability that the author was writing an account that stressed positive events and interpretations that would put the government in a good light while ignoring or downplaying the negative. Historical meaning was not to be found in the brute facts but was to be found in the inner significance of the facts. As opposed to recording history as detached observers following the laws of the natural sciences, idealist historians envisioned their task as the human or cultural science of explanatory history.

The historical idealist objected to historical positivism with its implicit determinism arguing that history is simply a unique, non-repeatable series of events. The actors of history were human beings who possessed will; will to make decisions that transcended so-called natural law. [44] In short, history was found in a combination of historical facts, the account of the initial reporter, the evaluation of the current historian, and an investigation of the underlying ideology.

Mark A. Noll refers to historical idealism as the “second contemporary presupposition about historical knowledge.” This presupposition is

. . . widely shared among both academics and non-academics. It is the assumption that historical writing exists in order to illustrate the truth of propositions known to be true beforeMark%20Noll%20copy.jpg study of the past begins. This stance may be called the ideological pre-supposition. In the modern world it is most certainly the most widely practiced form of history . . . Ideological history, however, was not invented by Karl Marx. It rather began with the ancient Greeks and Romans, and then received an especially strong boost from early Christian historians. [45]

Oxford professor R.G. Collingwood (1889 - 1943), contended that the historian’s task included the attempt to explain both the “hows” and “whys” of volitional human action. For Collingwood, history consists of both an outer dimension (factual) and an inner dimension (meaning). He used the classical example of Caesar crossing the Rubicon. The outer fact was that on a certain date Julius Caesar led his army across the Rubicon River in Northern Italy, while the inner fact involved Caesar’s defiance for Rome's Republican law in doing so. Collingwood, was no skeptic. He insisted that history is knowable, but only after looking beyond the observable happening of the action and into the human meaning behind the event. He noted:

To the historian, the activities whose history he is studying are not spectacles to be watched, but experiences to be lived through in his own mind; they are objective, or known to him, only because they are also subjective, or activities of his own. [46]

Historical Relativism

Historical Positivism, as well as Historical Idealism, has largely passed out of favor, viewed by many historians as two extremes of a continuum. According to Mark Noll historical relativism is the “third modern attitude toward historical knowledge” which:

. . . if not the most prevalent, is certainly the most articulate in the academy. It is the assumption that we cannot in any traditional sense really know the past, that all history is a creative reconstruction of how, for whatever reason, the historian would like things to have been. The theoretical denial of the objectivity of historical knowledge enjoys robust life in the academy. We may call it the relativistic view, a position with important, even contradictory, manifestations. [47]

Mandelbaum observed that there are three major problems with history that naturally opened the door to relativism. First, the nature of historical study inevitably led to a degree of distortion in the resultant narrative. Second, the demise of the Enlightenment cult of universal objectivity brought the recognition that the historian does not possess a privileged, detached “view from nowhere” but is himself a subject who is the product of a worldview and also imputes (often unconsciously) a structure into history. According to Mandelbaum, “Every historical account reveals its object as possessing a structure, a continuity, a pattern, which according to the relativist, the original occurrence did not in itself possess.” [48] Third, all historical knowledge is “value-charged,” meaning that . . .

According to the relativist, the historian, with a manifold of objective given facts at his disposal, unwittingly and necessarily constructs his account under the dominance of the particular values which are his. The whole account therefore, being a product of his synthetic vision, is through and through valuational: if one were to try to separate out the implicit valuations which the finished work contains, it would, according to the relativist, disintegrate into a compilation of disconnected, meaningless facts, and cease to be a history. [49]

Postmodern Relativism

The change in cultural ethos has affected historians as well as the larger culture. Particularly historical relativists have gravitated toward postmodernism. [50] Within the postmodern context the problem of truth has shifted from the subjectivity of the observer to the nature of language itself on a linguistic level as an inadequate vehicle to convey truth. The result is a radical subjectivism that cannot separate reality from fiction or truth from falsehood. The most radical school of postmodern philosophers, the French literary deconstructionist, questions whether a distinction can be drawn between fact and fiction, history and poetry. Led by Jacques Derrida [51] and Jean-Francois Lyotard, these philosophers view language itself has being only self-referential and not pointing beyond itself to an external reality. History too as a linguistic construct has no direct reference to reality. Not surprisingly few credible historians have adopted a radical postmodern perspective since to do so results in the annihilation of history as a discipline. [52] But some postmodernists suggest that historical narratives contain no criteria of truth and that historiography is simply a form of fiction. (Examples of this mentality are discussed below.) According to Hayden White,

Historical narratives are verbal fictions, the contents of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences. [53]

The deconstructionist philosophy of Derrida and Michel Foucault declares that language is the assertion of power and that there are ideological presuppositions that are hidden in each text, whether fiction or historical. This makes it imperative to sever the text from its author. The result is that postmodern historians who are concerned about the inherent subjectivity brought to the text by the historian, find themselves with a text devoid of any external significance and to which the historian can impute his own meaning. A vivid illustration of this is the work of Barbara Thering noted above. Any reality of the historical data has escaped and the explanatory work of the historian is to be expelled. The remainder left after deconstruction might as well be treated as creative fiction. According to Georg G. Iggers: [54]

. . . this philosophy of language lends itself better to literary criticism than to historical writing. For historical accounts, even if they use forms of narrative that are closely patterned on literary models, still claim to portray or reconstruct an actual past to a greater extent than is the case in fictional literature . . . the extreme position that ‘reality does not exist, that only language exists’ (Foucault) has been shared by few. [55]

Hermeneutic of Suspicion

Under the guise of history numerous skeptical New Testament scholars apply a ruthless hermeneutic of suspicion to the evidence surrounding Jesus. The presuppositions operating and the canons applied are far more stringent than professional historians espouse. These canons assume that the data about Jesus preserved in the Bible is false unless it is proved to be true rather true unless it is demonstrated false by contravening evidence. If this principle were applied in our judicial system it would turn the system on its head. A defendant would have to prove himself innocent rather than the burden of proof for guilt lying with the prosecution. When we are dealing with events and documents dating from two millennia ago this stacks the deck in favor of those who would discredit the record received by the Church in the scriptures.

The Jesus Seminar

The most well known current practitioners of the hermeneutic of suspicion are the members of the Jesus Seminar. Founded in 1985 by Robert Funk, a well known Greek Scholar, “the group embarked on an unprecedented project, to examine the available sources, canonical and non-canonical, in quest of ‘the voice of Jesus,’ i.e. ‘what he really said.’” [56] One of the stated goals is to bring to public attention the scholarly conclusions about Jesus that have been shut up in the academic community for nearly two centuries. To bring attention to their project the methodology of determining consensus among the members has employed a Public Relations gimmick, voting by casting colored beads, sure to gain media attention. When the group met every other year it would discuss a particular group of “Jesus” sayings found particularly in the gospels. This discussion would be based on previously circulated position papers. The goal was to achieve a consensus with respect to the authenticity or non-authenticity of each of the sayings. After the discussion the group took a vote during which each member would cast a colored bead into a box.

There would be four colors: red, indicating that Jesus undoubtedly said this, or something very close; pink, indicating that Jesus probably said something like this; gray, indicating that Jesus did not say this, though the idea(s) contained in it may reflect something of Jesus' own; and black, indicating that Jesus did not say anything like it, the saying in question reflecting a different or later tradition. [2] Each color would be assigned a rating (red=3; pink=2; gray=1; black=0), and the results would be tabulated to achieve a "weighted average" on a scale of 1.00 (.7501 and up = red; .5001 to .7500 = pink; .2501 to .5000 = gray; .0000 to .2500 = black). The tabulated votes would be reflected in the published results, in which sayings attributed to Jesus would be color-coded, in a kind of "red-letter edition" of the gospels. [57]

But beneath the PR gimmick of the beads there is a serious agenda that at its base is a wholesale attack on historic Christianity. There is a "call for a reversal of roles" in determining authenticity. The bottom line in the application of this criterion to the Jesus material is the assumption that the historical Jesus (as opposed to the Christ of faith created by the church) “must be viewed over against the Jewish society and religion in which he was reared. The key feature of the Jesus Seminar's method, which also inevitably results in the rejection of 82% of the sayings tradition from the data base of Jesus' authentic sayings …” [58] Among other things this leads to a wholesale rejection of any eschatological expectation arising from Jesus.

The some of the key principles employed by the Jesus Seminar are listed in the introduction to The Five Gospels (they include the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas and give it equal standing with the four canonical gospels).

1. The distinction between the historical Jesus and the Christ of Christian faith.

2. Preference for the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke) over John as sources for the historical Jesus.

3. The chronological priority of the Gospel of Mark.

4. The hypothetical source "Q" used independently by Matthew and Luke. (P. 3)

5. "The liberation of the non-eschatological Jesus . . . from Schweitzer's eschatological Jesus."

6. The fundamental contrast between an oral culture, such as that of Jesus, and a print culture.

7. The "burden of proof" on those who argue for authenticity, rather than on those who argue for inauthenticity. (Pp. 4-5) [59]

With Jesus set against Judiasm as his culture and religion, and with the eschatological material excluded, one must ask “What is left?” The answer is “Not much.” Jesus is a “laconic sage” self-effacing, modest, and unostentatious who itinerated in Palestine. This raises the question: Why would anyone want to crucify him? [60]

John Dominic Crossan

Crossan co-founder and former co-chair of the Jesus Seminar has become somewhat of a household figure to those who follow Jesus Studies by virtue of the fact that he is inevitably one of the scholars interviewed by theCrossan%20copy.jpg media in their numerous programs concerning Jesus or early Christianity. He has analyzed the resurrection material according to the methodology of a hypothetical tradition-history. This methodology British New Testament Scholar Bishop N.T. Wright has called “a trick of light and shade” [61] (and we in the US would say “smoke and mirrors”). In Crossan’s historical reconstruction the resurrection narratives are fictitious stories that arose out of a political power-play among the apostles. Crossan contends that the resurrection accounts “trivialize Christianity.” The gospel accounts of the resurrection are worthless as history: they are projected politics, and the politics (what is more) of the wrong sort of people, the wicked educated scribes instead of the noble virtuous peasants. While Jesus proclaimed “an aphoristic alternative‑lifestyle movement [the apostles transformed it] into a collection of power‑seeking factions.” [62]

Bart Ehrman

Duke University Historian and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman represents a critical historian who insists on evidence to come to conclusions. He freely admits that many can and do reconstruct Jesus to make himBart%20Ehrman%20copy.jpg conform to their agenda, e.g. “Jesus was married! Jesus had babies! Jesus was a magician! Jesus was a Marxist! Jesus was an armed revolutionary! Jesus was gay!” [63] He insists that any credible historian will insist on evidence before accepting such claims. Having said this he reveals a level of skepticism about sources that is beyond the normal critical evaluation employed by historians who specialize in areas other than New Testament Studies. His skepticism is seen by his invocation of our common childhood experience of the “telephone game” as an illustration of how the stories of the New Testament were changed and even made up before they were written down. [64]

We don't have written records from his [Jesus’] own day, only later accounts written by people who had heard the stories that had been in circulation for so many years. What happens, though, to stories as they circulate by word of mouth? Did you, or your kids, ever play the party game telephone? Kids all sit in a circle, one kid whispers a story to the one sitting next to her, who tells it to the one next to her, and so on, around the circle, until it comes back to the first kid‑and by then it's a different story. (If it weren't a different story every time, it would be a pretty pointless game to play.)

Imagine playing telephone not just in a living room among a dozen kids who are all from the same time and place and who all speak the same language, but among hundreds of people living in different countries, speaking different languages, living in different contexts with different needs and different problems—all telling the stories in light of their own situations. What would happen to the stories? Some of them may remain relatively intact, but lots of them would change, and change drastically. Some other stories would be made up for the occasion and then be told and retold until they too were changed. [65]

Ehrman’s skepticism is not as radical in his method as the Jesus Seminar members, but he still gives evidence of historical skepticism. For example he states, the gospels “could have been written later, by non-eyewitnesses, and still preserved the historical facts of Jesus’ life. But there are solid reasons for thinking that in addition to giving some historical facts these books also alter the facts in order to make important religious claims about Jesus.” [66] He lists what he considers to be numerous contradictions between the gospel concluding that “We could go on nearly forever pointing out the differences among our Gospels. . .” [67] He never acknowledges, even the slightest hint, that in many instances there are plausible ways to harmonize many of the accounts, or that good history does not depend upon complete agreement of the all the witnesses. Instead, he adopts the “guilty until proven innocent” approach. The gospels are rooted in oral tradition that was changed in the retelling, period.

Having said all this Ehrman’s plausible reconstruction of Jesus is closer to that of traditional understanding than that of the Jesus Seminar. Speaking as an historian, not a theologian, he states, “. . . Jesus appears to have been a Jewish apocalyptist anticipating the end of this present evil age within his own generation. This may not be the Jesus we have learned about in Sunday school or seen in the stained-glass window, and it may not be the Jesus touted in sensationalist claims. But it does appear to be the Jesus of history.” [68]

History and the Trustworthiness of Oral Tradition

New Testament scholar Darrell Bock has asked the question of how we are to view the oral accounts in the Darrell%20Bock%20copy.jpgNew Testament that were later reduced to written form. Were they live, jive or Memorex? [69] The ancient world consisted of cultures that were primarily oral and only secondarily written. They did not have tape recorders to capture the words of speakers verbatim. Nonetheless, in the larger Greco-Roman culture historians whose task it was to preserve remembrance of the past in a more permanent form took their task seriously. Thucydides, author of The Peloponnesian War describes his reconstruction of the speeches included in his account:

“With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases difficult to carry them word for word in one's memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said.” [70]

He aimed not for verbal exactitude in the sense that he was reproducing a tape recorded transcription of the words of the speaker. Rather he sought for the gist or the sense of what was said.

Likewise they also were not credulous believing every account that was told uncritically.

And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. [71]

Thucydides’ care was typical of the historiography employed by historians of the era, and in fact sounds strikingly like that endorsed by the author of the gospel of Luke:

1:1 Now many have undertaken to compile an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, 1:2 like the accounts passed on to us by those who were eyewitnesses and servants of the word from the beginning. 1:3 So it seemed good to me as well, because I have followed all things carefully from the beginning, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 1:4 so that you may know for certain the things you were taught. (NET Bible)

Thucydides, Tacitus and other historians “felt free to rearrange, condense and summarize material” from their sources but they refused to invent their material. [72] As moderns who live in a print-based society weThucidides%20copy.jpg distrust memory. But it is in fact the existence of printed records that has allowed us to forget. British journalist and researcher James Burke has observed that printing took away our memories. We find it incredible that vast amounts of material may be memorized and transmitted verbatim. We discount the “tenacity of oral tradition in a pre-literate society and the importance of reminiscence in such a society.” [73]

Jewish Culture and Memory

A culture of memory was woven into the warp and woof of Jewish culture from its inception (see Deut. 6:4-9). Later the Rabbis devised pneumonic tricks to enable them to transmit their tradition orally for centuries until it was finally codified in the Mishnah about a century after the writing of the New Testament. Rabbinic attitude was that if something was from God’s Law or communicated divine wisdom it ought to be remembered. [74]

Both Philo [75] and Josephus, contemporaries of Jesus, give evidence of the high regard that contemporary Jewish culture paid to memory of things divine. [76]

When one compares this to the New Testament one finds amazing parallels. Riesner’s analysis of the sayings of Jesus has led him to conclude that more than 80% of Jesus’ sayings are vivid style and structured in the literary form of parallelism (like Hebrew poetry) which lent itself to memorization. [77]


Rightly practiced, Historical Revisionism involves the re-examination of the accepted "facts" and interpretations of history, with an eye towards updating it with newly discovered, hopefully more accurate, and perhaps less biased information. Generally speaking, it is a skeptical approach presupposing that history asDetective.jpg it has been traditionally told may not be entirely accurate, i.e. unbiased on the one hand and employing all data on the other.

The reinterpretation of past events in light of new facts is the essence of good scholarship. History is not a static entity. “As events in history proceed, they develop their meaning through the interconnected events that give history its sense of flow.” [78] While the past is past, the changing location of the historian may bring to light different facets of the past that heretofore were not seen as significant, but in light of the historian’s contemporary situation now have relevance. However, Historical Revisionism also has a second and more specific sense as a label to describe the work of historians (professional or self-taught) who rewrite history by publishing works that deliberately misrepresent and manipulate history and even create “historical evidence” to fit an ideological agenda. In this sense it is thus the practice of inventing historical events that are contrary to the weight of evidence. The term in this sense is most strongly associated with Holocaust denial.

The idea of historical revisionism was introduced to many of us in high school when we read Gorge Orwell’s 1984. In this future totalitarian society all media is controlled by “the party” which runs the government. When world events change the foreign policy of the government history is rewritten and all the citizens are then indoctrinated with the new version of the past.

Under communist governments this tactic was not uncommon. On the original Star Trek series Ensign Chekov often claimed great and well-known technological discoveries were made in Russia. At which point Captain Kirk would shake his head in disbelief. This might be interpreted political/ideological stereotyping of America’s enemies were it not for the fact that we could see the process at work in both the USSR and Communist China. For example, in the USSR Stalin claimed to have invented the subway! In China Chairman Mao’s fourth wife Jiang Qing was an integral part of the inner circle of the revolution and accompanied Mao in the struggles that led to the establishment of the state. After the death of Mao, she and three others were accused of comprising the “gang of four” that threatened the political establishment. She became a virtual non-person to the point that her image was airbrushed out of historic appearances with her late husband.

A key factor that lends credibility to the revisionist is a deep distrust of authority in contemporary society. question%20authority%20copy.jpgThis goes hand in hand with the postmodern claim that there is no truth. There is only what is true for the interest group. The general population no longer believes that anything is right or, for that matter, wrong. “Everything is relative, including truth.” [79] Every story has “another side.” Every event has “another explanation.” Otherwise sane individuals remain convinced that George W. Bush “stole” the 2000 election, despite recounts by independent nonpartisan groups confirming his razor-thin victory over Al Gore. “Postmodern deconstruction strategies of recent years have created an intellectual climate in which it is (a) easy to level questions against any historical construction and (b) easy to believe that history is a matter of perception, language, and political agenda. It seems to me that revisionism is part and parcel of this whole movement.” [80]

JFK%20copy.jpgWe see this phenomenon in the popular media. Oliver Stone’s JFK suggests that since the conclusions of the Warren Commission are open to question there was a conspiracy to kill Kennedy involving the Vice-President, the CIA, the FBI, the Mafia and even the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Congress. On another front Afro-centrist interpretations of history advanced by the likes of Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan seriously claim that the origin of western, andThe%20Light%20and%20the%20Glory.jpg perhaps all civilization is to be found in black Africa. Following the logic that Egypt, located on the continent of Africa, is the mother of Greek and Roman civilization, therefore Egyptians are and were Africans, and since Africans are black, the Egyptians were Blacks. Even Evangelicals are not immune from the temptation of revisionism. The rewriting of history to make America the new covenant nation is found in The Light and The Glory, popular among many fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals. Likewise the popular mentality that America was founded as a Christian nation involves blatant historical revisionism.

"History Is Written By The Winners"

With the advent of the postmodern mindset has come the assertion that language is about power. When applied to history this has led to skepticism about the received historical record. The losers, the powerless and the marginalized were not represented. The record was untrue. History needed to be rewritten. Several years ago the refrain “Hey! Ho! Western Culture has got to go!” was heard on college campuses throughout the US. While there is more than a grain of truth in the assertion that the dominant history in a society is filtered through the grid of the legitimating narrative of that society, it does not follow that the events that underlie that narrative are false in the sense that they never happened. Rather, that issue is the prism of perspective one uses in interpreting these events. Whereas when we were children Columbus Day celebrated the discovery of the New World, now the celebration is muted at best. Columbus is not revered as a great discoverer but as one who oppressed and all but destroyed the native peoples with whom he came into contact. Everyone agrees that there was a Christopher Columbus whose discoveries led to the colonization of the American continents. The disagreement is over the effects of what he did.

While victims and observers of an automobile accident might be unsure as to the exact events leading up to it and the driver of the car that was hit would certainly have a different story than the driver who caused the accident, the damaged automobiles involved are witness to the fact that the accident occurred. The investigating police officer operates under the assumption that there is a coherent explanation as to the cause of the accident and in the vast majority of cases he will be able to determine what happened. Even on the rare occasion that he is not ultimately able to discern with any degree of certainty what happened, he will remain convinced that there is an explanation.

In the popular novel The Da Vinci Code, author Dan Brown uses the mantra “history is written by the winners” in a radically postmodern sense, not to suggest that there is a different interpretation of the history of Christianity, but rather that Christianity itself beginning with the person of Christ is a fabrication composed out of whole cloth by those who conspired to suppress the truth about Jesus and his teachings. This is not a difference in interpretation. It is a wholesale denial of the data itself, a denial of the data of the New Testament as well as that of the patristic records. Hilary Clinton’s vast “right wing conspiracy” can’t hold a candle to the conspiratorial view of history that Brown puts forth in his novel.

Denial Of The Holocaust

Perhaps the height of historical revisionism/skepticism does not involve events that took place thousands of years ago with a paucity of sources, but revolves around events that took place in the twentieth century, specifically the Holocaust. While the boomer generation has grown up learning stories about the holocaust, seeing documentary footage of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps, reading accounts like the Diary of Anne Frank, or Victor Frankel’s personal story in Man’s Quest for Meaning and even knowing individuals who lost relatives in Hitler’s attempt to exterminate the Jewish race, there are many particularly in Europe but also in America that deny the holocaust ever took place. So pervasive is this movement that a Google search for “historical revisionism” returns results relating to denial of the holocaust.

Revisionist websites try to turn the tables on those who work to keep the holocaust in the public eye.

The Simon Wiesenthal Holocaust Center, for example, charges that revisionists claim that concentration camp crematories were not really crematories at all, but bread ovens. Revisionists are often accused of claiming that the well-known photos of emaciated corpses found in camps at the end of the war are fakes, or that no Jews ever died in the camps. Such perverse misrepresentation is very reminiscent of the passage in 1984 which describes a "hate session" presentation of a concocted speech by the monstrous and semi-legendary arch-fiend Goldstein. [81]

Another revisionist website claims that

In contrast to establishment historians, Revisionists claim that the German State had NO policy to exterminate the Jewish people (or anyone else) in homicidal gas chambers or by killing them through abuse or neglect. Revisionists also maintain that the figure of six million Jewish deaths is an irresponsible exaggeration, and that no execution gas chambers existed in any camp in Europe which was under German control. Fumigation gas chambers, both stationary and mobile, did exist to delouse clothing and equipment to prevent disease at POW, labor, and concentration camps and at the fighting front. It is highly likely that it was from this lifesaving procedure that the myth of extermination gas chambers emerged. [82]

Did Napoleon Even Exist?

Late during the lifetime of Napoleon, Richard Whatley an Anglican Clergyman and fellow at Oxford UniversityNapoleon%20copy.jpg published a brief essay entitled Historic Doubts Relative To Napoleon Buonaparte. At this point Napoleon was in exile on St. Helena. In his essay Whatley observed that in all the reports about Napoleon that had flooded the British press for the better part of two decades, the most basic question about the French conqueror had been ignored: the question as to whether or not he even existed. [83] Press reports of Napoleon were unspecific about their sources and could not be verified. Newspapers had a vested interest in stories about Napoleon to increase their circulation. Even the stories published about important aspects of his career were contradictory. “In the accounts that are extant of the battle itself, published by persons professing to have been present, the reader will find that there is a discrepancy of three or four hours as to the time when the battle began!” [84] Of those who claimed to have seen Napoleon when he was aboard the British man-o-war in the Plymouth harbor he observed, “I am ready to allow that they went to Plymouth for the purpose of seeing Buonaparte: nay, more, that they actually rowed out into the harbor in a boat, and came alongside of a man-of-war, on whose deck they saw a man in a cocked hat, who, they were told, was Buonaparte.” [85] Whatley’s conclusion was akin to that of many contemporary biblical scholars and historians:

“. . . for the existence of such a person as Napoleon Buonaparte: I do not mean, whether there ever was a person bearing that name, for that is a question of no consequence; but whether any such person ever performed all the wonderful things attributed to him; let him, then, weigh well the objections to that evidence (of which I have given but a hasty and imperfect sketch), and if he then finds it amount to anything more than a probability, I have only to congratulate him on his easy faith.” [86]

Whatley’s essay was a satire directed at the radical skepticism of the Scottish Philosopher David Hume. [87] The point is that the skeptic can all ways gain a hearing and raise doubts. Anyone can raise questions and insinuate that the truth is not being told. This is a favorite tactic of defense lawyers whose job is not to establish fact or truth but to cast reasonable doubt on the case of the prosecution. In the Scott Peterson case, Peterson’s lawyer objected to the “rush to judgment” and that his client was being singled out by the police. He asserted that Lacey had been kidnapped by a group of hippies and killed. But he had no evidence to support his claim. However, the true historian must do more than play the role of the skeptic. He must do more than raise questions; he must deal with the evidence as it exists by providing counter evidence that shows why the traditional explanation is inadequate or wrong.

History as Conspiracy

trust%20no%20one%20copy.jpgGoing a step further than the revisionists are those who assert a conspiratorial view of history. “A conspiracy theory is an allegation or conjecture in which historical or current events are explained as the results of the actions of a powerful, secretive individual, clique or organization.” [88] In general, conspiracy theorists propose that conspirators have planned and executed actions— including manipulating governments, economies, or the legal system, suppressing key scientific discoveries or the like— and have successfully erased almost every hint of the plot and their involvement. Some conspiracy theories are highly developed and all encompassing. In such plans some type of unaccountable shadow organization is secretly influencing the course of history. Organizations often believed to have manipulated history include the Illuminati, the Jesuits, the Freemasons, the JewsI%20want%20to%20believe%20copy.jpg and the Bildebergers, the Rothchilds and numerous others. Among the Afro-American population there is a very high percentage that believe that the AIDS virus was created by the US government to decimate the American black population. [89]

While there are undoubted conspiracies the difficulty with them is the inability of the conspirators to keep them secret. Chuck Colson has cited this very problem with Watergate. The inability of people to keep a secret dooms conspiracies from the start. The evidence cannot be erased totally and the plots unravel. Those who argue that the early church engaged in a massive conspiracy to suppress the many gospels, or to suppress the role of Mary Magdalene and the like are akin to the X-Files’ Fox Mulder who has a conspiratorial explanation for every anomaly he and Scully investigate. While it makes great theatre, this is not the way the world works.

“Just the facts, Ma’am” –Can history be objective?

It is generally acknowledged by professional historians that the idea of detached scientific objectivity is not possible in the field of history. But from the perspective of the radical skeptic this means all knowledge is merely subjective, which is equally untrue. And it is as untrue even in science as it is in history. [90]

To those who point at the certainty and objectivity of science and the fact that the scientist unlike the historian has direct access to his data, we say this may be the popular conception but the reality is far different. Scientists as a matter of course rely on the results of other scientists’ work written up in journals and other reports. There are also whole areas of scientific exploration that are undertaken without any possibility of direct access to the phenomena under study. One such area is quantum physics. While conversant with such objects such as black holes, quarks, wormholes, and neutrinos few nonscientists recognized that these objects have never been observed and in some cases are theoretical constructs as the best explanation of data that can be observed. The skeptic would have a hard time denying that any of these objects are real just because they have not been directly observed. We must also insist that the historian is not totally cut off from the past. He does have the residue, the artifacts directly available to him. This means that while the modern historian is of course dependent on earlier sources, reports and historians, he is not totally dependent on their testimony. [91]

Skeptics have consistently overstated the limitations under which the historian operates.

The methods which historians have found to corroborate . . . statements by independent testimony and by indirect evidence have greatly increased the certainty which the statements possess . . . Historical events are therefore observed, and not only are they observed, they are in many instances also recorded, by many men in many countries, and this is analogous to the repetition to which the events in the natural sciences are subjected. [92]

The myth of scientific objectivity and of the ability of science to deliver truth is communicated in the image of the dispassionate scientist carefully engaging in experiments and patiently awaiting the results. The experiments are carried out and the facts gathered under carefully controlled conditions. Since the scientist deals with hard data, there is no room for deception or manipulation of the facts through personal prejudice or privately held convictions. The scientist is only a functionary in the process with no personal responsibility for the results. He or she constructs a descriptive story of the kind of place the world is. The story can then be verified by agreed upon methods.

Surely this is the Enlightenment ideal: the facts are merely “out there” to be collected, arranged, comprehended, and used, regardless of what our personal background, training, or beliefs happen to be. Facts are facts, pre-reflective raw data, unencumbered by any theory of interpretation and universally recognizable by experience. In reality, however, the assumption that facts are simply “given” is strictly an Enlightenment construction.

No one—not the historian, not even the scientist—is ever in a position to be totally neutral or just a passive receptor of pure data. This is not the way reality comes to us. Our responsibility toward knowledge is much more than merely preserving it unspoiled. The reality is that every act of knowing is an action that requires skill. To know, we must make use of various linguistic, conceptual, and physical tools. The process often requires us to make judgments and to commit ourselves to procedures and suppositions and previous results. The success of the knowing process is not guaranteed but is dependent on the knower’s own contribution to the process. [93]

So, contrary to the Enlightenment model, knowing is never an impersonal or passive transaction with the world. We bring existing frameworks of interpretation to even the most straightforward acts of knowing. These frameworks are not universal but rather a product of participation in our specific human community.

An example, on a most basic level, can be seen in a real-life situation. People raised in the cultural tradition of the modern Western industrialized world are accustomed to seeing many types of images and pictures: movies, videotapes, color photographs, black and white images, line drawings. When confronted with these, they immediately and intuitively understand and interpret the symbols they see. However, when Wycliffe Bible Translators prepare translations for indigenous populations that are largely or completely untouched by Western visual media, an astounding phenomenon occurs. For many of these indigenous people who only know a three-dimensional world, a two-dimensional representation—some form of picture—is abstract and, in some tribal contexts, nothing but meaningless lines or colors. In other cases, line art can be recognized, but drawings with shades of gray or color photographs or art are incomprehensible. [94]

We “see” by virtue of the mental categories we bring to the sensory data we apprehend. In this Kant was partially right: the mind is active in providing categories. These categories are not innate, however, but learned from the community we inhabit. Likewise, our memories act as filters to strain out much of the sensory data we experience. When we think of “facts,” we do not include the profusion of minutiae we constantly experience. Rather, we strain out what is not, and retain what is, significant for us. This, too, involves subjective judgment: we do not all see the same, identical “objective facts.” Thus the question “What are the facts?” involves knowing the relevant questions to ask of “reality” in order to sift the wheat from the chaff.

facts%20like%20telescopes%20and%20wigs.jpgThe upshot of all this is that facts are not pretheoretical, value-free units of pure information that is publicly available for all rational humans to see. Straightforward facts do not exist. Alasdair MacIntyre says, “Facts, like telescopes and wigs for gentlemen, were a seventeenth-century invention.” [95] Trevor Hart concludes, “Real facts are already theory-laden, quarried from the mass of our experience via a complex process of interpretation, in reliance upon tools to which we entrust ourselves and through the exercise of skills upon the performance of which the success of our quest for knowledge depends.” [96] These facts cannot be understood as neutral; they are in reality statements of belief. There is no absolute certainty available in the Enlightenment sense, since every fact rests on a bedrock of uncritically accepted pre-understandings. “All truth is but the external pole of belief. And to destroy all belief would be to deny all truth.” [97]

In recent years the whole Enlightenment approach to history has been challenged on several levels, especially with reference to the nature of historical knowledge as opposed to the “necessary truths of reason.” Key in this challenge is the emergence of the discipline of the sociology of knowledge—that is, “the study of the way in which the production of knowledge is shaped by the social context of thinkers.” [98] While not spoken in precisely these terms, there has long been an implicit recognition of the legitimacy of this concept in the historical disciplines. The question “Do the times make the man or does the man make the times?” reflects at least an awareness of the larger social context out of which great individuals arise.

These observations leave haunting questions about the certainty of our knowledge, and if pressed some would ask in frustration, “How can anyone know anything at all for sure?” From the perspective of the philosophy of history, Alister McGrath has addressed the issue of radical historicism, which is thoroughly relativistic, demonstrating the impossibility of its claims. The answer is not, however, to abandon the legitimate insights of historicism altogether. Rather, the legitimacy of three key insAlsiter%20McGrath%20copy.jpgights must be granted.

1. All thought is historically located. 

2. Historical thought is essential to self-understanding.

3. A flight from history is improper and impossible. [99]

“One primary target of historicism is . . . the tradition of Descartes and Kant . . . [with its] attempt to transcend all limitations of historical location by purifying thought of its historical contingencies.” [100] The offense of the Christian faith is the historical rootedness of its very core. The fact that God would privilege one people (the Jews), one place (Palestine), one time (the early first century); incarnate himself in one historic person (Jesus Christ); and designate one key historical event (the crucifixion-resurrection) as the standard of all human history flies in the face of the whole Enlightenment mentality.

One cannot assert that all beliefs (historical or otherwise) are equally true (the claim of the radical relativist) nor that all beliefs are equally false (the claim of the radical skeptic). In the case of the former, one need only ask, “What about beliefs that contradict one another?” In the case of the latter, the very assertion that all beliefs are false must in and of itself also be false! [101]

Another problem in judging what is true and false is that the judge, the historian is not in the privileged truth.jpgposition of neutral objectivity. What is “obviously true” depends on the presuppositions of the one doing the analyzing. Every discipline has developed its own commonsense presuppositions by which it judges truth and falsity. This fact leads to the uncomfortable conclusion that both the observed and the observer are socially conditioned, but there is no way to appeal to a neutral objective observer.

This would seem to lock humanity into hopeless cultural relativism, as the radical postmodernist would claim. But it does not. Rather, it obligates us to acknowledge the difficulty in communication between human beings even of the same culture, let alone of different cultures. It also demands that we abandon any thought of a universal framework of rationality that is independent of time and place. Our understanding of the past (and indeed of other cultures’ present) will of necessity be partial. The beliefs of the past are not invalid simply because they are past; rather, the past framework of belief must be carefully interrogated concerning its plausibility. [102]

The key to answering “the problem would appear to lie in the search for grounds of plausibility of belief. . . What factors led or lead to an understanding or belief becoming credible? Why did and why do people believe that? [103] The question for theology is, Why did a particular belief arise? “It is necessary to identify the constraints under which they were formulated as much as the factors which led to their plausibility in the first place. It is necessary to ask, not merely why anyone should believe that, but how that belief came to be expressed, articulated or conceptualized in the specific form which it assumes.” [104]


The problems in our age with historical skepticism and revisionism are epidemic. New historical data that is discovered is hailed as the real truth. The powers that be have suppressed the real story and given us their version that supports their interests. These themes are a staple in the popular media with programs such as the X-Files. Robert Ludlum made a career of novels built around conspiracy plots. His novels are now available on film in the Bourne Identity and the Bourne Conspiracy. Hollywood films like JFK are supposedly historical but in fact serve a paranoid ideological agenda. The line between entertainment and information is broken down. Digital technology such as that prominently employed in Forrest Gump enables the unscrupulous to easily distort reality. It also gives agenda-driven groups and individuals easy access to the ability to further blur the line between fact and fiction. We used to be able to trust what we saw, but digital imaging programs such as PhotoShop have brought this ability to the masses to change even the photo record of their own personal history.

The net effect is to set people up with an attitude that is rife with distrust toward the received history on most any subject and a tendency to believe most any conspiratorial theory that challenges the status quo. This is true not only of those who read the tabloids, but also in academia. One of our sons was informed in a literature course that Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code had disproved the historic record of Christianity. [105]

As we said at the beginning of this chapter Christianity is an historic faith. This makes it incumbent upon us as believers to understand history and how it works. The historical method is time honored and proven to give good results which can be checked by independent researchers.

The goal of historical knowledge is to obtain probability, not mathematical certainty. An item can be regarded as a piece of historical knowledge when it is related to the evidence in such a way that any reasonable person ought to accept it. This is the situation with all of our inductive knowledge including scientific knowledge: we accept what has sufficient evidence to render it probable. Similarly, in a court of law, the verdict is awarded to the case that is made most probable by the evidence. The jury is asked to decide if the accused is guilty not beyond all doubt, which is impossible but beyond all reasonable doubt. [106]

Employing proper historical methodology enables the historian to arrive at balanced and trReinvinging%20Jesus%20copy.jpgue statements about past events. [107] The methodology employed by those challenging the historic account of Christianity are applying standards that are far more critical than those we see operative in our law courts and beyond what historians in any other field use. The criteria are designed to eliminate traditional evidence from consideration and then place as primary “evidence” that which is drawn from conjecture. This is not serious historical study. It is agenda-driven revisionism pure and simple.

As Christians we do not need to fear these attempts, but we do need to understand more than the basics of the faith for our personal faith to emerge unscathed. Unequipped our faith can be shaken.

Present scholarly theories, like so many other attempts to reinvent Jesus, are a house of cards. While it is true that one can build a house of cards, one cannot live there for long.

[1] Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of the Expansion of Christianity (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1945), 4:428.

[2] John Zeisler, “Historical Criticism and a Rational Faith,” Expository Times 105 (1994): 270.

[3] B.B. Warfield, Revelation and Inspiration Works of B.B. Warfield 10 vols. (Digital Publications: Dallas, Texas, 2003), 1, 53.

[4] C.S. Lewis "De Descriptione Temporum" Selected Literary Essays, (1955), para. 21, p. 12.

[5] C.S. Lewis, "Learning in War‑Time," The Weight of Glory (1939), para. 10, pp. 28‑29.

[6] As employed by Neoorthodox scholars and theologians during the twentieth century these terms came to imply something different than their lexical definitions. Historie was used to speak of what could be discovered by the scientific historical method with its anti-supernaturalistic presuppositions while Gechichte was employed to speak of the meaning or significance of an event apart from a necessary connection with space time occurrence. Some New Testament scholars such as Bultmann drove a deep wedge between faith and history (significance and event) arguing that it was faith (existential significance) that was the key element of Christianity while event (e.g. the resurrection) was at best marginalized. Barth on the other hand refused to use the term Historie to speak of the resurrection because the historical method a priori ruled out the possibility of miracles hence by accepted standards of historical investigation it could not be considered “historical.” He used the term Gechichte to describe the event. While many (e.g. Francis Schaeffer) saw this as a leap into a spiritual realm of irrationality, this was not the case according to John Macquarrie. Barth was using the term Gechichte in the sense mentioned above. See John Macquarrie, An Existential Theology, (New York: Harper & Row, 1965) 185–89.

[7] Earl E. Cairns, God and Man in Time (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), 12.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] “The Donation of Constantine” http://www.museumofhoaxes.com/donation.html

[11] Cairns, 14.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] G.R. Elton has defined history as “those human sayings, deeds and sufferings which occurred in the past and have left a present deposit; it deals with them from the point of view of happening, change and the particular.” The Practice of History 12. cited by Barnnett, Jesus and the Logic of History, 18.

[16] Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 9.

[17] Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 10.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Ibid., 10-11.

[21] Justo González, A History of Christian Thought vol 1 (Nashville:Abingdon 1970), 220.

[22] Quoted by González, ibid.

[23] Ibid., 221.

[24] N. T Wright has discussed Thiering’s work at length in his Who Was Jesus?, (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 19-36.

[25] Ibid., 22-23. In reflecting on Thiering’s “life of Jesus” reconstruction, the truth of D.A. Carson’s observation is driven home with a vengeance: “if the history of life-of-Jesus research teaches us anything, it is that the latest historical reconstruction of Jesus rarely proves very enduring.” (The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996) 316.)

[26] G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1980) 50.

[27] Richard Swinburne, The Resurrection of God Incarnate (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2003), 13.

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid.

[30] This illustration is adapted from Swinburne, 15.

[31] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994), 183.

[32] George R. Elton, The Practice of History (Sydney: Sydney U.P , 1967) , 66.

[33] Ibid., 66-67.

[34] M. Kähler, The So-Called Historical Jesus and the Biblical Christ (Philedelphia: Fortress Press, 1964), 57. Quoted by Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Carol Stream: IVP, 1997) 17.

[35] Paul Barnett, Jesus and the Logic of History (Carol Stream: IVP, 1997) 17.

[36] Ibid., 16-17.

[37] Swinburne, 29. See his extensive discussion of this point 27-32.

[38] Arthur Conan Doyle, Sign of the Four.

[39] G. E. Lessing, Lessing’s Theological Writings, ed. Henry Chadwick, (A & C Black, 1956), 56.

[40] David Bebbington has argued that what VonRanke was actually asserting was that the historian was to communicate “what essentially happened” rather than “what actually happened”, e.g. that the historian must not seek for unvarnished objectivity, but rather penetrate an event and seek for its inner meaning. Patterns in History (Downers Grove: IVP, 1979) 108-109.

[41] Logical Positivism suggests that we cannot have knowledge of unobservable entities. Compte would apply this to his Historical Positivism as well. However, to many the concept embodied in Historical Positivism simply provided that many things about history could be observed scientifically. It did not necessarily eliminate the possibility of obtaining knowledge of history from other non-empirical sources.

[42] Earl Cairns, God and Man in Time (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979) 17.

[43] Ronald H. Nash, Christian Faith & Historical Understanding (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1984) 20 (Italics original.).

[44] William H. Dray, Philosophy of History (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1964) 10.

[45] Noll, “Traditional Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge,” Christian Scholar’s Review (Grand Rapids, MI) 19(4) (1990), 395-396.

[46] R. G. Collingwood, The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956) 218.

[47] Noll, “Traditional Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge,” 396-397.

[48] Maurice Mandelbaum, The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1977) 24.

[49] Ibid., 31.

[50] Two good introductions to Postmodernism from a Christian perspective are Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans) and Middleton & Walsh, Truth is Stranger Than It Used To Be (Downers Grove: IVP).

[51] For a good overview of Derrida and his contributions to postmodernism, see Jacques Derrida, Points . . . Interviews 1974 – 1994, Edited by Elisabeth Weber (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 1995). For a good short summary of postmodernism, see Ed. L. Miller, Questions That Matter: An Invitation to Philosophy, 4th ed., (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1996) 204.

[52] Raymond Martin, “Forum: Raymond Martin, Joan W. Scott, and Cushing Stroud on Telling the Truth About History,” review of Telling the Truth About History, by Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob, in History & Theory 34, 4 (1995) 326.

[53] Hayden V. White, “Historical Texts As Literary Artifact,” chap. In Tropics of Discourse (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978) 82.

[54] Iggers is a historian from the State University of New York – Buffalo.

[55] Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1997) 132-133.

[56] Birger A. Pearson , “The Gospel According To The Jesus Seminar”

http://id-www.ucsb.edu/fscf/library/pearson/seminar/js1.html. Pearson is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies. University of California, Santa Barbara.

[57] Birger A. Pearson , “The Gospel According To The Jesus Seminar”


[58] Birger A. Pearson , “The Gospel According To The Jesus Seminar”

http://id-www.ucsb.edu/fscf/library/pearson/seminar/js3.html. (italics added)

[59] Birger A. Pearson , “The Gospel According To The Jesus Seminar”


[60] Birger A. Pearson , “The Gospel According To The Jesus Seminar”


[61] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Philadelphia: Fortress, 2003) 18.

[62] Ibid., 19.

[63] Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 138.

[64] Ibid., 115.

[65] Ibid.

[66] Ibid., 112.

[67] Ibid., 117.

[68] Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004) 138.

[69] The material in this section is drawn largely from: Darrell Bock, “The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive or Memorex?” Jesus Under Fire ed. Michael Wilkins and J.P. Moreland (Grand Rapids: Zondervan 1995), 73-99.

[70] Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War, chapter 1, http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.1.first.html

[71] Thucydides History of the Pelopeniaian War chapter 1, http://classics.mit.edu/Thucydides/pelopwar.1.first.html

“And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the first source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other. The absence of romance in my history will, I fear, detract somewhat from its interest; but if it be judged useful by those inquirers who desire an exact knowledge of the past as an aid to the interpretation of the future, which in the course of human things must resemble if it does not reflect it, I shall be content. In fine, I have written my work, not as an essay which is to win the applause of the moment, but as a possession for all time.”

[72] Bock, 79. See also Charles Fornara, The Nature of History in Ancient Greece and Rome (Berkeley University of California Press, 1983) 143-168.

[73] Ibid. 163. Quoted by Bock, 79.

[74] Bock, 80. See Rainer Riesner, “Jesus as Preacher and Teacher,” Jesus and the Oral Gospel Tradition, JSNTMS 62, ed. Henry Wansbrough (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991) 185-210.

[75] Philo, The Embassy to Gaius “(210) for all men are eager to preserve their own customs and laws, and the Jewish nation above all others; for looking upon their laws as oracles directly given to them by God himself, and having been instructed in this doctrine from their very earliest infancy they bear in their souls the images of the commandments contained in these laws as sacred;” http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/text/philo/book40.html

[76] Bock, 80.

[77] Challenging the Jesus Seminar contention of the fluidity of oral teaching he asserts three key factors that would argue for the verbatim transmission of material: 1) the author was considered divinely inspired, 2) text being communicated had a recognized literary form, e.g. poetry and or parallelism, 3) the material is handed down to a group that had special training. In this case all three criteria are met. While the locations of the sayings sometimes vary, the content is very stable. (Bock, 96.)

[78] Bock, 81.

[79] Ben S. Austin, “Deniers in Revisionists Clothing”


[80] Ben S. Austin, “Deniers in Revisionists Clothing” http://www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/revision.htm

[81] Mark Weber, Historical Revisionism and the Legacy of George Orwell. http://www.ihr.org/jhr/v06/v06p--4_Weber.html

[82] The Holocaust Controversy, The Case For Open Debate. http://vho.org/Intro/GB/Flyer.html

[83] David Bebbington, Patterns in History (Carol Stream: IVP, 1979) 10.

[84] Richard Whatley, Historic Doubts Relative To Napoleon Buonaparte http://elvis.rowan.edu/~kilroy/CHRISTIA/library/doubts-napoleon.html

[85] Ibid.

[86] Ibid.

[87] Bebbington, 10.

[88] http://www.disinfopedia.org/wiki.phtml?title=Conspiracy_theories

[89] Ibid.

[90] Much of the following discussion is drawn from chapter 3 of The Survivor’s Guide to Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan) 2006 by M. James Sawyer.

[91] See William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith (Wheaton: Crossway, 1994) 176.

[92] Mandelbaum, The Problem of Historical Knowledge, 187-188.

[93] Trevor Hart, Faith Thinking (Downers Grove: IVP, 1995) 51.

[94] Conversation with Kirby O’Brian, Wycliffe Bible Translators, Dallas. O’Brian’s job is preparing the graphics for inclusion in various tribal translations. He must work closely with translators to discern what types of artwork and illustrations will be understood by a particular tribal group.

[95] Alasdair MacIntyre, Whose Rationality? Which Justice? (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1988) 357.

[96] Hart, Faith Thinking, 56.

[97] Michael Polanyi, Personal Knowledge (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974) 286.

[98] See http://csbs.utsa.edu/social&policy/SOC/MASTERS/topics.html.

[99] Alister McGrath, The Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1990) 92.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid., 94.

[102] See ibid. 96-102.

[103] McGrath, Genesis of Doctrine (Oxford: Blackwell, 1990), 100.

[104] Ibid., 101.

[105] In fact Brown’s research is based largely on the discredited book Holy Blood Holy Grail which was an elaborate hoax involving forged documents in the Louvre in Paris.

[106] Ben S. Austin, “Deniers in Revisionists Clothing” (http://www.mtsu.edu/~baustin/revision.htm) gives a powerful illustration of the fact that revisionist history will not stand the test of evidence that is employed in our justice system:

The celebrated case of Mel Mermelstein versus the IHR is an excellent example of this issue. In 1979, the Institute for Historical Review, at its annual convention, offered a $50,000 reward to anyone who could step forward and prove that there were gas chambers at Auschwitz and that any Jews were gassed there. In 1980, a Jewish survivor of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Auschwitz prisoner A-4685, answered the challenge by presenting affidavits detailing the deaths of his mother, father, brother and two sisters at the camp. The IHR refused to pay the reward so Mr. Mermelstein sued the Institute. The case never actually went to trial. Both sides agreed to a summary judgment by the court, and the court decided for Mel Mermelstein.

The Honorable Thomas T. Johnson, on October 9, 1981, took judicial notice as follows:

"Under Evidence Code Section 452(h), this court does take judicial notice of the fact that Jews were gassed to death at the Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland during the summer of 1944" and "It just simply is a fact that falls within the definition of Evidence Code Section 452(h). It is not reasonably subject to dispute. And it is capable of immediate and accurate determination by resort to sources of reasonably indisputable accuracy. It is simply a fact."

[107] N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003) 29.