Glenn Giles A. The Objectivity of History: Philosophical considerations
1. Skeptics assert that history is not objectively knowable. As such you
cannot trust the history claims of the Bible. This they
support with ten arguments:
a. Three epistemological (i.e., how one knows) objections of the
historical relativist who says that “the very conditions by which one knows history are so subjective that one cannot have an objective knowledge of history.”1
1) History, unlike empirical science, is not directly
observable and thus the historian deals “with facts in an imaginative way . . . facts . . . exist only in the creative mind of the historian.” The event cannot ever be fully recreated and as such the “historian must impose meaning” on the record. So past events will of necessity be a “subjective construction in the minds of present historians.”
2) Historical accounts are fragmentary and thus the
documents historians use “at best cover a small fraction of the events.” “Because the documents are so fragmentary and the events so distant, objectivity becomes a will-o’-the-wisp” (or ghost light) for the historian.
3) Historians are historically conditioned. That is, each
historian is a product of his own time and as such sees things through that conditioning and cannot “stand back and view history objectively because” he himself as an observer “is part of the historical process.”
b. Three methodological objections
1) The selective nature of research is subjective. The
historian never uses all available information but selects what seems the most important. Objectivity is not possible because the actual selection among the fragmentary accounts by the historian for doing history “is influenced by subjective and relative factors, including personal prejudice, availability, knowledge of languages, personal beliefs, and social conditions.” So one cannot know what “really” happened. Facts of history cannot speak for themselves but only through historian opinions and interpretations.
2) The need to structure the facts. Since the historian has
only partial knowledge of past events, he has to “‘fill in’ gaping holes with imagination.” The historian “is not content to tell us simply what happened, but feels compelled to explain why it happened.” As a result, subjectivity is injected into the process through the historian’s interpretive structure. This makes objectivity impossible.
3) The need to select and arrange the fragmentary
documents by the historian into its own “value laden” worldview causes events “to be understood from the relative vantage point of the historian’s generation.” The end result or final product is thus a “prejudiced” view of what actually happened.
c. Value (axiological) objection: The actual language used by the
historian is “value charged.” For instance the use of the tem “dictator” or “benevolent ruler” is a “value judgment” of the historian and as such not objective. “Every writer will inevitably evaluate things from a subjective perspective and chosen words.”
d. Three metaphysical objections
1) The unavoidability of worldviews. Whatever the
worldview of the historian it will impose value and bias on the history he writes. “Without a worldview the historian cannot interpret the past; but a worldview makes objectivity impossible.” Facts cannot speak for themselves as they only gain meaning “in the overall context” of a worldview.
empirically verifiable and are myths (i.e., Geschichte not Historie or empirically testable) which offer “subjective religious significance to the believer” but lack “objective grounding”. Miracles are thus not part of history.
3) Miracles are historically unknowable and cannot ever be
established “based on testimony about the past.” This is based on the concept of analogy. To understand something we as humans need an analogy from the present that relates to the past. “Without an analogy from the present” we can “know nothing about the past.” “No amount of testimony is ever permitted to establish as past reality a thing that cannot be found in present reality.”
2. Answers to historical relativity
a. The problem of indirect access. History can be seen as objective
if does not mean “absolute knowledge” but rather “a fair but revisable presentation that reasonable men and women should accept.” Paleontology is an example. It is accepted as history but deals with “facts and processes of the past,” things that are not repeatable nor are those past events and processes directly accessible.
Also scientific facts do not “’speak for themselves’ any more than do historical facts.” Facts do bear meaning but “there are no so-called bare facts.” What historical relativism has not proven is that “facts bear only one meaning and that they bear it evidently.” Every “fact” has meaning only within a worldview. Finite human minds can only give different interpretations of the “fact” from each individual or societal perspective.
However, an infinite Mind (i.e., God) can give “an absolute interpretation of them” and ultimate meaning to them. A relativistic worldview does not allow for any absolute meaning and so objectivity is not possible. (But complete relativism is self-defeating since it makes relativism absolute which is contrary to relativism). Within a theistic worldview “objectivity in history is possible, since in a theistic world history would be His-story.” Hence, “objectivity in history is possible within a worldview.” It then behooves us to choose the correct worldview if we have any hope to find truth whether historical or otherwise.
b. The problem of the fragmentary nature of historical accounts.
Paleontology is fragmentary also but this does not destroy its objectivity. Even if there is only a tiny percentage of the past which has been found this does not make the discipline non-objective. Worldview is indispensible to objectivity. “If there is a God, then the overall picture is already drawn; the facts of history will merely fill in the details of its meaning. If the universe is theistic, the artist’s sketch is already known in advance.” In this sense, Geisler contends that objectivity “most certainly resides in the view that best fits the facts consistently into an overall theistic system which is supported by good evidence.” Without an overarching perspective that a theistic system gives, there can be no objectivity for any view of facts, fragmentary or not.
Discussion: Can relativism be objective?
c. The problem of historical conditioning. Each person does indeed
occupy a relative place in a changing universe. “However, it does not follow that because the historian is a product of a time that the person’s historical research is also a product of time.” Relativity is avoidable.
“If relativity is unavoidable the position of the historical relativists is self-refuting. For either their view is historically conditioned and therefore unobjective, or else it is not relative but objective. If the latter, it thereby admits that it is possible to be objective in viewing history. On the contrary, if the position of historical relativism is itself relative, then it cannot be taken as objectively true.”
Even the fact that history is constantly being rewritten speaks toward the belief that objectivity is possible. “There is no reason to eliminate the possibility of a sufficient degree of historical objectivity.”
d. The selectivity of materials. Selection of materials “does not
automatically make history purely subjective.” Geisler states, “The selection of facts can be objective to the degree that the facts are selected and reconstructed in the context in which the events represented actually occurred.” However, as stated before, worldview is indispensible. Geisler states,
. . . the problem of finding objective meaning in science, is dependent on one’s Weltanschauung (i.e. comprehensive worldview). Objective meaning is system dependent. Only within a given system can the objective meaning of events be understood.
e. Structuring the Material of History. “The problem of the
objective meaning of history cannot be resolved apart from appeal to a world view.” Without a worldview,
“there is no way to know which events in history are the most significant, and, hence there is no way to know the true significance of these and other events in their overall context.”
f. Selecting and arranging materials. It is possible “to rearrange
data about the past without distorting it.” “As long as the historian consistently incorporates all the significant events in accordance with an overall established worldview, objectivity is secure.” Again the correct worldview is paramount.
Discussion: How does one determine what event is
“significant” and should be incorporated into
g. Value laden language judgments. Language is “value laden”
but that “by no means makes historical objectivity impossible” if the historian ascribes “to the events the value which they had in their original context.”
h. Indeed an overall worldview is necessary for any objectivity. In
a theistic worldview,
“all events fit into the overall context of an ultimate purpose. One can determine the facts and assign them meaning in the overall context of the theistic universe by showing that they fit most consistently with a given interpretation. Then one may lay claim to having arrived at the objective truth about history.”
i. The unknowability of miracles. This is based upon a naturalistic
interpretation which locks the idea of God out of the universe. It is a
“mistake to import uniformitarian methods from scientific experimentation into historical research. Repeatability and generality are needed to establish a scientific law or general patterns (of which miracles would be particular exceptions). What is needed to establish historical events is credible testimony that these particular events did indeed occur.”
Discussion: Does the naturalistic worldview allow credible
testimony? If not then it could never discover a miracle and would be blind to any actual event that would be classified as “suprahistorical.” The naturalistic worldview cannot handle miracles.
B. The Objectivity of History: Hume’s Criteria for Witnesses Applied to
the New Testament.2
1. David Hume, “the skeptic exemplar for modern times” stated
concerning the credibility of witnesses:
“We entertain suspicion concerning any matter of fact when the witnesses contradict each other, when they are but few or of doubtful character, when they have an interest in what they affirm, when they deliver their testimony with hesitation, or with too violent asservations (declarations).”3
2. Geisler frames these into four questions,
a. Do the witnesses contradict each other?
b. Are there a sufficient number of witnesses?
c. Were the witnesses truthful?
d. Were they nonprejudicial?
3. Geisler then applies this to the New Testament witnesses with respect to
the resurrection of Christ
a. There is no contradictionof the witnesses:
1) Christ was crucified under Pontius Pilate in Jerusalem.
2) He claimed to be the son of God and offered miracles in
support of his claim.
3) He was crucified, confirmed to be dead and buried, and
people over the next weeks, in the same nail-scarred body that had died.
5) He proved his physical reality to them so convincingly
that these skeptical men boldly preached the resurrection a little over a month later in the same city, whereupon thousands of Jews were converted to Christianity.
b. The number of witnesses is sufficient:
1) There are 27 NT books written by at least 9 different
writers, each one either an eyewitness or a contemporary of the events testified to.
2) Direct eyewitnesses would include, Matthew, Mark,
John, James, Jude, Peter, and Paul (at least by extension as he saw the Lord after his resurrection).
3) Scriptures in support of this eyewitness testimony
include Acts 4:20; I Pet. 5:1; II Pet. 1:16; John 19:35; 21:24; I John 1:1-3; I Cor. 15:6-8; Acts 9.
c. The witnesses were truthful:
1) The Apostles held to Jesus’ high standard of morality
expounded in Matt. 5-7; 22:36-37 and reaffirmed in Rom. 13, I Cor. 13, Gal. 5)
2) Peter writes that “We did not follow cunningly devised
fables” (II Pet. 1:16) and Paul commanded, “Do not
lie to one another” (Col. 3:9).
3) The history found in the writings of the New Testament
that can be verified is supported by outside
d. The witnesses were unprejudiced:
1) The witnesses were not “predisposed to believe the
events” that they testify to. In fact it was hard for them to believe.
The apostles themselves did not believe at first. The
story “seemed to them like idle tales, and they did not believe them” (Lk. 24:11). Other passages in support of this are John 20:25 (Thomas’s doubts) and Lk. 24: 25, 41.
It was not just to believers (or followers) that Jesus
appeared. He also appeared to unbelievers including
his brother James (I Cor. 15:7) and Saul (Paul, Acts
4) “Witnesses of his resurrection had nothing to gain
personally from their testimony.” In fact witnesses
were threatened with death (Acts 4, 5, 8).
e. It is not right to reject a witness just because they have a bias
as everyone has a bias. It would be more valid to reject a witness because they are not truthful with the facts they observed.
f. Geisler states that to discount the New Testament witness
“of those who believed in the resurrected Christ is like discounting an eye-witness of a murder because he actually saw it occur. The prejudice in this case is not with the witnesses but with those who reject their testimony.”
C. The Historical Rooting of Christianity: Luke/Acts as an Example:
1. Luke grounds his historical writing in reports of eyewitnesses and
servants of the word (Lk. 1:1-4).5
2. He sets the stage of when he begins his report about John the Baptist as
“In the time of Herod king of Judea” (Lk. 1:5), a real historical figure.
of “Caesar Augustus” when he “issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Lk. 2:1). It was the “first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Lk. 2:2).6
4. He grounds the beginning of John the Baptist’s ministry by saying,
“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—
when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanius tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert” (Lk. 3:1-2).
All of these are historical persons.
5. Throughout his gospel and the Book of Acts, Luke names real places
(e.g., the lake of Genesaret (Lk. 5:1), Jerusalem, Galilee, Judea etc. (Lk. 5:17)), real religious leaders (e.g., Pharisees and Scribes (Lk. 5:17)), and even states Jesus’ age when he began his ministry (“Jesus himself was about thirty years old when he began his ministry” Lk. 3:23). He also gives Jesus’ genealogy (Lk. 3:23-38).
In the Book of Acts he narrates the journeys of Paul to real places (e.g., Philippi, Athens, Ephesus, etc.), reports Herod’s death (Acts. 12:23), reports about Governor Felix, Claudius Lysias, and Porcius Festus, and Agrippa (Acts 23-25), all historical figures.
All of these show Christianity to be grounded in real history and real time,
undergirded by eyewitnesses
D. Non-Christian Sources as Evidence of Jesus
1. Tacitus a first-century Roman historian says:
“Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures of a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered an extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment again broke out not only in Judea, the first source of evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their center and become popular.” (Annals 15:44).7
2. Suetonius, the chief secretary to Hadrian (Emperor from 117-138
“Because the Jews at Rome caused continuous disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus, he expelled them from the city.” (Claudius, 25). 8
3. Flavius Josephus (37/38-97 AD), the first century Jewish historian
“Now there was about this time Jesus, a wise man, if it be lawful to call him a man. For he was a doer of wonderful works—a teacher of such men as receive the truth with pleasure. He drew over to him both many of the Jews, and many of the Gentiles. He was (the) Christ; and when Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us, had condemned him to the cross, those that loved him at the first did not forsake him, for he appeared to them alive again the third day, as the divine prophets had foretold these and ten thousand other wonderful things concerning him; and the tribe of Christians, so named from him, are not extinct at this day.”9
4. Thallus (52 AD), of whom Julius Africanus (221AD) states:
“On the whole world there pressed a most fearful darkness; and the
rocks were rent by an earthquake, and many places in Judea and other districts were thrown down. This darkness Thallus, in the third book of his History calls, as appears to me with out reason, an eclipse of the sun.”10
5. Pliny the Younger, a Roman author and administrator writes to Emperor
Trajan (c.112 AD) concerning Christian worship:
‘These were in the habit of meeting on a certain fixed day before it was light, when they sang in alternate verses a hymn to Christ, as to a god, and bound themselves by a solemn oath, not to do any wicked deeds, but never commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble to partake of food—but food of an ordinary and innocent kind.” (Letters, 10:96).
6. Emperor Trajan in response to Pliny’s letter gives guidelines to punish
“No search should be made for these people; when they are denounced and found guilty they must be punished; with the restriction, however, that when the party denies himself to be a Christian, and shall give proof that he is not (that is, by adoring our gods) he shall be pardoned on the ground of repentance, even though he may have formerly incurred suspicion” (Pliny, Letters 10:97).
7. Emperor Hadrian in a letter to Mincius Fundanus, an Asian proconsul
(recorded by church historian Eusebius) states:
“I do not wish, therefore, that the matter should be passed by without examination, so that these men may neither be harassed, nor opportunity of malicious proceedings be offered to informers, If, therefore, the provincials can clearly evince their charges against the Christians, so as to answer before the tribunal, let them pursue this course only, but not by mere petitions, and mere outcries against the Christians. For it is far more proper, if anyone would bring an accusation, that you should examine it” (Ecclesiastical History, 4:9).11
8. The Jewish Babylonian Talmud (compiled between 70 and 200 AD) in
Sanhedrin 43a states:
“On the eve of Passover Yeshu was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Any one who can say anything in his favour, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favour he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”12
9. Lucian of Samosata, a second century Greek writer, a critic of
“The Christians, you know, worship a man to this day—the 13distinguished personage who introduced their novel rites, and was crucified on that account . . . You see, these misguided creatures start with the general conviction that they are immortal for all time, which explains the contempt of death and voluntary self-devotion which are so common among them; and then it was impressed on them by their original lawgiver that they are converted, and deny the gods of Greece, and worship the crucified sage, and live after his laws. All this they take quite on faith, with the result that they despise all worldly goods alike, regarding them merely as common property.” (Death of Pelegrine, 11-13).
10. Valentinus (135-160) upholds Jesus as an historical person:
“For when they had seen him and heard him, he granted them to taste him and to smell him and to touch the beloved Son. When he had appeared instructing them about the Father . . . For he came by means of fleshly appearance.” (The Gospel of Truth 30:27-33; 31:4-6)
“Jesus was patient in accepting sufferings . . . since he knows that his death is life for many . . . he was nailed to a tree; he published the edict of the Father on the cross . . . He draws himself down to death through life . . . Having stripped himself of the perishable rags, he put on imperishability, which no one can possibly take away from him” (The Gospel of Truth 20:11-14, 25-34).14
11. There are other non-Christian sources that point to Jesus of the New
Testament as an historical person.15 Geisler notes that from non-Christian sources we can determine that, like the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels,
“(1) Jesus was from Nazareth; (2) he lived a wise and virtuous life; (3) he was crucified in Palestine under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish king; (4) he was believed by his disciples to have been raised from the dead three days later; (5) his enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats they called “sorcery”; (6) his small band of disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading even as far as Rome; (7) his disciples denied polytheism, lived moral lives, and worshiped Christ as Divine.”16
Geisler notes that from non-Christian sources we can determine that, like the depiction of Jesus in the Gospels:
Jesus was from Nazareth;
he lived a wise and virtuous life;
he was crucified in Palestine under Pontius Pilate during the reign of Tiberius Caesar at Passover time, being considered the Jewish king;
he was believed by his disciples to have been raised from the dead three days later;
his enemies acknowledged that he performed unusual feats they called “sorcery”;
his small band of disciples multiplied rapidly, spreading even as far as Rome;
his disciples denied polytheism, lived moral lives, and worshiped Christ as Divine.”
1 Quotes and information in this section comes from Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia of Christian Apologetics, 320-29.
2 Material in this section comes from Geisler, 779-81.
3 Quoted by Geisler, 779.
4 For example, see Craig Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels (Downers Grove: IVP, 1987), and Josh McDowell, The New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999). 33-68.
5 A good recent study on the concept of “eyewitnesses” with respect to the gospels is Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony by Robert Bauckham (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, (2006) who shows that the gospels do contain eyewitness testimony.
6 This first census seems to be during the period of 6 to 4 BC. A second census (noted in Acts 5:37) seems to have been done during 6 to 9 AD when Quirinius was in office for a second term.
7 Quoted by Geisler, 381.
8 Geisler, 381.
9 William Whiston, translator, The Works of Josephus (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson, 2003), 480.