The limits of secure historical knowledge

So a friend on FB recently had a really annoying guy insisting in the comments on his status that St Augustine of Hippo was a closeted homosexual. The main argument of the annoying guy was simply that there is no way you can argue against saying that someone was/is a closeted homosexual, since that’s the whole point of being a closeted homosexual. Mostly, he was doing it to annoy my friend; it seemed to work.

In the case of determining whether a historical person was a closeted homosexual or not, in the absence of any evidence of said person having secret relations with men, all that can be done is a psychological analysis. And psychological analyses even of the living can be wrong — given that we have very limited knowledge about the psyches of any dead people, even ones like St Augustine or Cicero who left us so many writings, this historical psychologising can only go so far.

I would be so bold as to say that you should probably even refrain from diagnosing Roman Emperors on whom the common consensus is that they were ‘obviously’ ‘crazy’ (e.g. Caligula, Nero, Commodus).

Our knowledge of the past is always and necessarily imperfect. Our knowledge, in fact, of the present and of our own, individual selves is as well.  When we want to get back to ‘what really happened’ or ‘what so-and-so was really like’, we have to rely on the various historical sources available to us — letters, memoirs, land grants, censuses, baptismal records, art, architecture, novels, photographs, films, epic poems, epigrams, funerary inscriptions, tombs, grave goods, your mom.

The further back in history we go — generally speaking — the fewer of these kinds of evidence are available to us. And amongst the remaining varieties of evidence, there are times when even these are sparse. Sparse(ish) for Roman history is the early fifth century AD. But that’s not as sparse as most Mesopotamian history.

And even when we have first-hand accounts, many questions remain.

Take C. Julius Caesar, for example. We have all sorts of stuff written by him about his campaigns and life, and things written by his contemporaries, and things written about him by those who came after, as well as portraits and archaeological remains. But we are still uncertain as to the locations of several major battles that took place in Gaul (modern France). And, even if Adrian Goldsworthy can put together a masterful, enormous biography of the man, a lot of that is still to be admitted as not entirely secure — new evidence could change one thing or tweak another or totally abolish the veracity of a third.

These considerations should be important for each and every Christian.

The Christian fait is founded upon the historical interactions between God and the human race, most especially in the events of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

When ‘historical Jesus’ books appear, or when we get into arguments with people about persons or aspects of the faith, we have to realise how far the reasoned knowledge we possess can go. For example, conceptually and from a rationalist perspective, the goal of the Jesus Seminars — to determine which things Jesus did or did not say — is perceptibly laudable. It is also impossible, even with a better methodology than theirs.

Or take the Resurrection. A complaint raised against NT Wright’s book The Resurrection of the Son of God is that, at heart, much of it is old argument dressed up in contemporary methodologies. But the work of the person who said that, Robert M Price ‘the Bible Geek’, has been accused of the same thing. We have so little new evidence (i.e. none) about the Resurrection of Jesus, and the ability of historical data to pinpoint any single, precise, individual event is so weak that the arguments for something that can only run around each other in circles, no matter how clever you are.

The best NT Wright can do for Christians is demonstrate that belief in the Resurrection is not contrary to reason (that is, if you believe that a reasonable universe includes a God who acts in human history). The best the Bible Geek can do is demonstrate to those who do not believe in a bodily Resurrection that the likelihood of such an event is very small and there is no burden of historical evidence that forces them to accept it.

That is to say, history will never give us the certainty about our faith that we want it to.

What a lot of good history can do is make sense of the sources. And here is its strength. Rationalistic approaches to the past cannot say whether or not certain, particular events happened, especially the supernatural or miraculous. But they can survey a wide array of evidence from a period and give us the cultural background to help us make the stories make sense and contextualise them. They can tell us what sorts of things our ancestors thought possible or reasonable. They can tell us what sorts of events are more or less likely to have happened. They can tell us the significance of a particular event in a particular culture.

But they will never be able to prove to anyone, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that Jesus rose from the dead or that St Augustine was or was not a homosexual.

Thus the limits not only of historical research but of human reason.

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