Catchup — for you latecomers the history-basics lecture

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by Neil Godfrey

Just for the record and for easy future reference I want to post here two more points Leopold von Ranke is famous or infamous for as the “father of modern history”. Not that this is some mere antiquarian interest on my part; my real interest is in the way historical studies are practised in biblical studies, especially in relation to the historical Jesus and Christian origins but also with respect to history behind the Old Testament — and very often in these discussions quite misinformed references are made by postmodernists to the legacy of Ranke and the way history was supposedly done before Hayden White.

The formatting, insert and emphasis is my own:

Ranke’s contribution to historical scholarship was threefold.

Finally, in tracing the beginnings of the opposition of a political party in Germany against the Emperor and of an ecclesiastical party in Europe against the Pope, this chronicle seeks to pave the way for a more complete insight into the history of the great schism brought about by the Reformation. . . . This book tries to comprehend in their unity all these and the other related histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples. To history has been given the function of judging the past, of instructing men for the profit of future years. The present attempt does not aspire to such a lofty undertaking. It merely wants to show how it essentially was (wie es eigentlich gewesen).

But from what sources could this be newly investigated? The foundations of the present writing, the origins of the subject matter, are memoirs, diaries, letters, reports from embassies, and original narratives of eyewitnesses. Other writings were considered only when they seemed either to have been immediately deduced from the former or to equal them through some kind of original information . . . .

— From Ranke’s Preface to the First Edition of Histories of the Latin and Germanic Peoples, October 1824. (Translator, Georg G. Iggers.)

First, he helped establish history as a separate discipline, independent from philosophy or literature. ‘To history,’ he wrote in the preface to one of his works, ‘has been assigned the office of judging the past, of instructing the present for the benefit of future ages. To such high offices this work does not aspire: it wants only to show what actually happened.’ This last phrase is perhaps Ranke’s most famous, and it has been widely misunderstood. The German phrase which Ranke used –Wie es eigentlich gewesen’ – is better translated as ‘how it essentially was’, for Ranke meant not that he just wanted to collect facts, but that he sought to understand the inner being of the past.

One sees this misunderstanding painfully repeated over and over among biblical scholars who think they are denigrating an approach to history they believe to be old-fashioned yet which they really seem to scarcely understand at all first hand. They scoff at the notion that the old “positivists” thought they could just find and record “the facts” while they, the more sophisticated moderns, on the other hand, more modestly admitted they could only deal in “probabilities”, what “probably happened”, not “facts” or “what actually happened”. There is a deep misunderstanding here that I will cover in future posts. Suffice to say for now that I don’t think very many biblical scholars will be content to yield genuine room for doubt by declaring “Rome probably ruled the Mediterranean world” at the time of Jesus; or that Rome “probably destroyed Jerusalem in the war of 66-70 and Josephus probably wrote an account of that war”; or that “Jesus probably existed and was was probably crucified”…..

Next, we come to Ranke’s second “contribution” that does indeed enter the nebulosity of divine territory, but we have an interesting teacher in Richard Evans and he turns the lemon into lemonade for our benefit:

In pursuit of this task, said Ranke, the historian had to recognize that ‘every epoch is immediate to God.’4 That is, God in His eternity made no distinction between periods of history; all were the same in His eyes. In other words, the past could not be judged by the standards of the present. It had to be seen in its own terms. This was the second major contribution which Ranke made to historical scholarship: the determination to strip away the veneer of posthumous condescension applied to the past by philosophizing historians such as Voltaire and to reveal it in its original colours; to try to understand the past as the people who lived in it understood it, even while deciphering hieroglyphs of interconnectedness of which they had been largely unaware.

One conclusion that followed from this doctrine was that at any given time, including the present, whatever existed had to be accepted as divinely ordained. Ranke was a profoundly conservative figure, who equated the actual and the ideal and regarded the European states of his day as ‘spiritual substances … thoughts of God’.5 This distanced him from the Prussian school of German historians, from nationalists such as Treitschke, who condemned his impartiality and regretted his universalism. The fact that he regarded all states, not just Prussia, as supreme examples of God’s purposes working themselves out on earth, gave him on the other hand a reputation for impartiality that greatly helped the spread of his influence abroad.6

Evans, Richard J. In Defence Of History (Kindle Locations 416-436). Granta Books. Kindle Edition.

Hence our need to guard against the all-too-easy tendency to interpret the past through the way we perceive our own world today.

For the third contribution, the one of most significance for today, see the previous post.

I should add here that the study has moved on since the nineteenth century. The above and the previous post are nothing more than attempts to set out the record, according to one very prominent modern historian (Richard John Evans), of the pioneering contribution Ranke made for the study of history in modern times.

For the record I heard of E.H. Carr and cut my teeth on his book about the nature of history and historical facts well before I even heard of Ranke. I am very aware of the place of subjectivity and interpretation of data in historical research, and of the necessity for historians to create narratives from the raw materials they unearth in the archives. Unfortunately after some years of exchanges with various biblical scholars and engagement with some of their works I have concluded that too many biblical scholars who align themselves with postmodernist approaches to history have jumped into the field prematurely without a genuine knowledge of what has preceded them in the wider field of historical studies. Perhaps their understanding was limited by the way history was practised for too long within the antiquated and outdated theologically dominated classrooms.


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Neil Godfrey

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2 thoughts on “Catchup — for you latecomers the history-basics lecture”

  1. I guess my own practice of historical research, is a kind of balancing feat. Between two very different ideas.

    One is 1) the critical poststructurist and philosophical sense: that we are human beings, and will always be writing things to a degree, in accordance with our own biases, or limited perspectives. So a degree of subjectivity is inevitable.

    However, that recognition of our inevitable subjectivity, should constantly be 2) balanced by the opposing belief that we can still sometimes, somehow, get past this limitation, to some extent. By using science, reason, and the best search for objective evidence we can still perhaps, bring to bear.

    We are normally rather subjective. But if we work harder at it, we can probably get more informed, more objective.

    So we admit that no one is absolutely objective. But we don’t give in to subjectivity. Believing that SOME degree of objectivity is still possible. And of course highly desirable.

  2. We are left with the conundrum that the history of a region, state, or country is of the most interest and importance to the people there, hence an inherent confirmation bias is built into the study; just as the “history” of Christianity will be of greatest interest to people already indoctrinated into the religion as children, and whose confirmation bias is not simply built-in, but is the motivating factor for their study. The surest way to achieve potential objectivity in the study of history is for someone completely removed from the region or religion to write about it, and this usually only happens with major world figures or events (Englishman Evans’ study of Germany and Hitler). Yet without an emotional connection of some kind, historical research and writing is often unrewarding and quixotic. How many Buddhist scholars ever bother to study Christianity?

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