Truth and History

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by Neil Godfrey

Come on, Bart. You can do better than this. Think through this postmodernist jargon.

In my recent post in which I made a paean to memory – which will be the way I end my current book dealing with memory and the historical Jesus — I said the following.

MY REMARK:  “The comment that I sometimes get from readers that I find puzzling or disheartening is when they tell me that if there is something in the Gospels that is not historical, then it cannot be true, and if it is not true, then it is not worth reading.  My sense is that many readers will find it puzzling or even disheartening that I find this view puzzling and disheartening.   But I do.

Please call me a prophet if you must, but I would like to point out that a number of readers on the blog did indeed find my view puzzling and disheartening.   Mainly puzzling.   The following was a very well reasoned response from a reader, to which I would like to reply:

READER’S COMMENT:  Indeed, stories that aren’t true are no less worthwhile to read. The Bible most definitely is an important part of literature that should be read and studied (I wouldn’t want you to be out of work!). However, I’m not sure I understand what you mean by the word ‘truth’. To me (and I am not a native English speaker so maybe this is a linguistical problem), truth has always meant something that corresponds to reality. If a story didn’t happen, I don’t see how it can be true. The very definition of a true story is that it happened. It can still be important, have significance in our lives, etc, but I don’t see how it can be called truth.

I completely understand this point of view.  It is a point of view that I myself had for a very long time.  It’s not one that I hold now, and I want to explain why.

In my view, there can be true stories that never happened. . . . 

(From http://ehrmanblog.org/truth-and-history/)

That’s postmodernist semantic confusion. (The remainder of the article turns on the example of the story of George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, but you have to donate to Bart’s own favourite charities in America to read this.)

To say a story that never happened is nonetheless a true story renders the word “true” meaningless. I know what is meant. The moral of the story is relevant to the readers, for example. Aesop’s fables tell us about many true real-life principles. The story of Pinocchio teaches the “true” principle that lying can lead to trouble. I learned in primary school that tales about talking animals and lies causing noses to grow embarrassingly long are not true. I also learned to enjoy these stories and knew well the “truths” they taught: that I should beware of tricksters, be prudent and not tell lies.

As Paul Boghassian has observed [in another context]: “To say some claim is true according to some perspective sounds simply like a fancy way of saying that someone, or some group, believes it. (Cited in Richard Evans, In Defence of History, p. 220)

I recall years ago Christians expressing abhorrence at the relativism being espoused by postmodernism. That was quite some time ago. I have since seen Christian scholars embracing postmodernism as their own intellectual saviour and defender. It enables them to argue for the relevance of the Bible by means of semantic confusion such as Ehrman is recycling.

Let’s not lose grip of semantic and logical coherence and consistency.

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10 thoughts on “Truth and History”

  1. Neil, the study of literature is the study of truth and beauty as expressed in largely fictive works. Hemingway used to talk about writing a “true” sentence in a work of fiction. In my book, “Son of Yahweh,” I talk about the Gospel of John as being about the Spirit of Truth. This does not mean that the events in John happened. It means that truth is a larger concept than facts. The “true” Jesus is the fictive one, the one who performed miracles and rose from the dead. The “factual” Jesus may or may not have existed, depending on one’s analysis, which must allow for the fact that the modern concept of a fact did not exist in 100 C.E. Things were either true or not true back then, and it was up to individuals to exercise their practical wisdom to determine which was which. There were some who were more empirically minded, and others willing to see divinely-enacted exceptions to common experience, which were the miracles. We have less latitude today, speaking of facts, but again, truth is a larger concept. In short, truth is largely subjectively and morally (i.e., socially) defined, whereas the post-Enlightenment concept of a fact is linked to post-Enlightenment concepts of scientific or empirically-based verifiability. We did not have a theory of gravity until Newton! Let every one have his or own truth; but if you claim historical verifiability, give me some evidence, and let it be reliable, coherent, consistent, and most of all, disinterested.

    1. Your distinction reflects the popular distinction between not only 1) the truth of fiction vs. science, but also 2) the Christ of Faith vs. historical. Jesus. However, there is an argument that any credo that wants to rule our entire life, as religion often does, should have a much stronger sense of physical science and it’s truth, than fiction and religion currently do.

    2. A work of “sublime” fiction, with a dramatic plot and didactic content, may well express a “great truth” about the human predicament and/or express an ideal ethic. A controversial example might be Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”. Its hero did not “really exist” except in the imagination of a novelist-philosopher who really did. But the traditional mainstream ecclesiastical claim for Jesus has been that he was actually crucified under Pilate and survived the experience to deserve worship as an objective if intangible and invisible personage who “lives” today.

      A minor example is a fairy tale that tells us something about human relations, such as Cinderella, which has the girl who wishes to marry a prince and sisters spitefully jealous because ugly. Even PC objectors, however, do not bother demanding evidence of Cinderella’s date of birth and home address. In the case of “Our Lord”, who shared in the creation of the cosmos, that sort of question however has some importance.

    3. Is not Hemmingway’s “true” a metaphor? I can understand the word being applied by artists in an “in-house speak” but Ehrman is addressing the public. I think we have abundant evidence that prior to 100 CE people conceptualized a clear difference between myth and reality, falsehood and truth, whether or not they believed as truths what we today consider myths and falsehoods.

      1. What do we think Ehrman will say when he explains how something can be true even though it did not happen? He’s going to get into the game of defining truth; he has to. The word “true” has more than one meaning. A carpenter uses it to mean that the boards are straight. Thus, yes, “true” is metaphorical in one sense when applied to a sentence, because the sentence can be well-structured. In another sense, it can express a universal and recognizable human experience without describing an event that actually happened. Is that a metaphor? When you say there is abundant evidence that ancient people made clear distinctions between myth and reality, I wonder what is meant by myth and reality. Paul Veyne wrote a book asking whether the ancient Greeks believed their myths. When historians discuss this question, they acknowledge that ancient epistemology is different from modern epistemology. The ancient Greeks understood their world differently. They would have to have so understood their world, because they did not have centuries of modern science under their belt. They also did not have millennia of Christian-dominated culture inhibiting their thought. I don’t think the questions were so clear-cut.

  2. It is difficult for me to accuse Bart Ehrman of postmodernism when Philo of Alexandria said basically the same thing about the Torah two thousand years ago. I imagine that approaching the Bible as fictional literature instead of as history is quite freeing and lends itself to the discovery of truths previously obscured due to the insistence that the Bible is “the Truth.” My bet is that Thomas Brodie has been able to maintain his faith by shifting his approach to the Bible in just this way. When the theology of Truth is stripped away, the philosophy of Aristotle and Plato remain there to be discovered, pondered and discussed.

    1. Seeing the Bible CLEARLY and explicitly as fiction – or here, myth – can be useful. But the problem is that religion often claims to be more broadly true or more important than it is, and not fictional at all.

      Postmodernism by the way, is found as early as at least Philo. It isn’t really an historical term.

      Plato? Pretty good for his time, but….

      Much of Christianity by the way, and Gnosticism, is platonistic dualism, favoring spirit over matter. But then this turns into” hate” for the physical” world.”

  3. I think I agree with Neil’s point – I don’t know for sure what Ehrman argues, because I’m not a member of his site. However, it is indeed a semantic problem, so there’s not a lot of point in arguing about it unless to point out some specific confusion it is causing.

    One can learn a lot about reality by reading fiction, but it’s still an abuse of the English language to call a fictional story “a true story”. As, I believe, Gene Callahan once observed, everything is real if you know what it is. A dream is a real dream. Pinocchio is really a fictional wooden boy. I could say “Pinocchio is real!” and in some sense that would be true. But I would be doing a very poor job of communicating if I said that, because I’m not giving you an impression what I think Pinocchio is.

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