Doing history, not theology

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by Neil Godfrey

Historians — at least the historians I am most used to reading — attempt to explain facts by demonstrating their relationships with other facts.

I was introduced to my first truly historical question when I was in a high (secondary) school: What caused the French revolution? Okay, so what is a fact? We had to first decide what is meant by “French Revolution?” What exactly do people mean by “revolution”? And so on.

To answer the question we looked at the living conditions of the various socio-economic groups of society, the relationships between these groups, the ideas floating around among different sectors of society, recent past history to indicate any changes or ongoing dynamics in any of the above, specific events and dates and personalities. The fun was discussing all of these things in an attempt to understand their relationships and to find the most satisfactory explanation for what happened in 1789. It was fun, our conclusions varied, but we all had a much deeper understanding of the nature of a human society and what makes people and societies tick. The exercise opened our eyes to events around us too as we observed the dynamics making the daily news of our own time and place.

No one dreamed of taking a single book that purported to explain the French Revolution as the definitive guide, the final answer, to what happened and why. Every book had a different point of view. If we found one book that we liked the best then we were expected to argue our case against other books. This was all the beginnings of our undergraduate education.

With ancient history we have a different type of evidence to work with. Archaeology is an exercise in detective work in its own right. Understanding evidence must draw on specialist knowledge in the physics and biology of dating techniques and of the stone, clay, bone, dyes and other materials found. We attempt to understand how these finds relate to textual inscriptions in monuments, clay tablets, or other literature that appears to claim to refer to the times we are investigating. It is as important to understand the nature and provenance of the literary texts that are drawn into our investigations as it is to understand the nature and significance of the physical artefacts that are dug up. Do the texts explain the facts in the ground or do the facts in the ground tell us much more about the texts and their authors?

And then we had the good fortune to spend an entire academic year studying a single generation of Rome from the texts relating to that narrow band of time.We had inscriptions, coins, histories, dramas, poetry and letters to read, dissect and understand. We came to understand the personalities that produced the different writings — their biases, values, hates, loves, interests — and how useful any of them were for understanding specific historical questions and events and how much useful information they shed on other historical personalities. What were their sources of information? How much was third hand gossip, propaganda, misinformation, etc? What influenced them to write about this but ignore that, to attack this but to praise that, etc?

History books I have read since do the same. They examine facts in relation to other facts, source in relation to other sources, and in the process attempt to arrive at the most satisfactory explanation of how these relate to each other. This is what historians do.

They also attempt to understand what the data they work with means. What is the exact nature of each thing or text used as a bit of evidence?

Doing theology is different entirely. One approach to theology is to take a theological narrative at face value, and then making the external evidence support that narrative. There may be a few differences of shading that are forced into this process, but the narrative will remain essentially unchanged. The only question that arises in this process is, How can we use the data we find to support the narrative we believe to be mostly true?

And if there is little obvious connection between the biblical narratives and other data then complex hypotheses are constructed to create imaginary dramatizations of connections. There is nothing wrong with doing that but only to the extent that one then looks to see if there is supporting evidence for those hypotheses. And if there is none, then we are doing nothing more substantial than playing a game of “Let’s pretend this is what happened.” Let’s pretend that stories originating with eyewitnesses were passed down by word of mouth any number of times before they were put in written form, for example.

As far as I am aware that is only done by “biblical historians”. But not by all historians who look at the events and peoples who appear to have produced the biblical books. Those historians who do treat the bible literature in the same way as any other literature, and who approach historical questions and evidence that have some relation to biblical narratives in the same way they approach any other historical questions and evidence, are in some quarters labeled as “skeptics” (the American spelling is intentional) as if that word is an insult, or unfairly biased against the Bible. They are not unfairly biased against the Bible at all but are guilty of approaching the biblical texts no differently from the way they approach other texts for historical information. Their bias against the miraculous and supernatural is no different from their same bias against those same things in nonbiblical literature.The unscholarly bias is on the part of those who are really doing theology and who become upset with those who do real history on their favourite narratives.

  • hughstan
    2007-09-29 11:40:47 UTC - 11:40 | Permalink

    Treating this question purely from a historian’s and not a nationalistic point of view, a rationalist who believes in examining facts in relation to other facts, how would you, looking back as a future historian to what is happening in Burma now, connect, if there is any connection, the fact that it would be greatly in the interests of USA foreign policy to have ground troops and an airstrip in Burma?

    Or is a foreign policy interest not considered a fact.

    Or is neither consideration a factor in the mind of a historian.

    The assumption being that you were once more, at some time in the future spending a whole year studying one limited period of Roman(USA) history that just happened to be 2007.

  • 2007-09-29 12:19:22 UTC - 12:19 | Permalink

    I’ve no idea who you are but I feel like you are setting me up with a dorothy-dixer 😉

    The documented interests of foreign countries in Burma are certainly part of the “facts” that would be considered. We know there has been foreign support behind what is happening there now already.

    “Foreign policy” is not so much a “literal fact” as a “question” or issue that is understood by the “facts” or “data” historians work with. (I’m avoiding any discussion of the philosophical question of “historical facts” and that’s probably not what you are asking anyway.)

    The way I see it, for the historian the question might be: To what extent did U.S. foreign policy (meaning the policies of certain U.S. institutions and persons) influence the current Burma uprising and why? The documentation — both in the US and among Burmese groups and individuals — will go a long way to giving the answers.

    Hopefully what emerges out of Burma will be something truly independent but at the moment I’m biting my nails over what’s going on within the military behind the scenes with the memories of Burma 1988 still in my head. The hypocrisy of the pronouncements of some world leaders on these current events is too galling for words at the moment.

  • hughstan
    2007-09-29 19:15:32 UTC - 19:15 | Permalink

    No intended dorothy – dixer.

    You answered my question as a historian in your para, ‘ The way I see it . . . . will go a long way to giving the answers.’

    And I completely agree with your comment re the hypocrisy of . . some world leaders.

    What I hoped, and you gave it, was an unbiased view of how a historian would translate the issues.


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