Like philosophers and theologians, historians are supposed to be seekers of truth. Yet the connections between truth and history are often elusive. Once history moves beyond the acquisition of basic facts, truth becomes a matter of interpretation.
Many historians would be hesitant to admit it, but history is far from foolproof.2 As a form of knowledge and a means of accessing the past, the historical method has definite limitations. Although there is a “scientific” method for evaluating historical sources, the writing of history is fundamentally a literary art form, not a science. Beginning in the late 19th century there was a movement in higher education to distance history from the humanities and place it within the realm of the social sciences, but in fact, by nature and practice, history has always been a branch of literature. It is, after all, the story of the past. It is “scientific” only in the sense that it is a systematic collection and analysis of historical material using criteria and methods that have proved themselves generally satisfactory over time. Realistically, history is often messy and complicated – full of contingencies, ambiguities, and paradoxes – but these are some of the very factors that make it so intriguing. Like life, it is not neat and simplistic, and those who try to treat it as such only fool (and eventually discredit) themselves.
One of the obvious limitations of history is that it is by nature selective. Not everything that happened in the past is recorded (let alone, recorded accurately), and not everything recorded has been preserved. In fact, much has been lost. When Julius Caesar’s troops burned the Alexandria library and
museum in 48 B.C. (purportedly by accident), they inadvertently perpetrated one of the great cultural disasters in history. According to the ancient sources, the library contained nearly a half-million volumes, including copies of all the known books in the known world at the time. And of course, similar disasters have occurred repeatedly in history from the destruction of the great Assyrian Royal Library at Nineveh in 612 B.C. to the looting of European museums by the Nazis during World War II. The amount of knowledge that has been lost is incalculable. What we’re often left with, especially when it comes to ancient and medieval history, is at best only a fragmentary record of the past. So we know in part and we write history in part, and the problem is generally worse the farther back in time we go as gaps in our knowledge become gaping chasms.
History is not only selective but highly interpretive, the product of human intelligence and, undeniably, human imagination. Other than the indisputable facts, history is mostly interpretations of the past – i.e., making sense of what happened. Therefore, to a certain extent, history is created by the historian. There is no purely objective, unbiased history because there are no purely objective, unbiased historians. All have a guiding philosophy, whether they realize and admit it or not, and all operate on the basis of certain presuppositions. Likewise, all are a product of their age, their environment, and their life experiences – although the better ones understand this and conscientiously endeavor to transcend the strict limitations and prejudices of their particular situation. This is another reason why the dominant historical theses vary from generation to generation and must be constantly reinterpreted and revised.
These same realities hold true for Christian historians, including the writers of the New Testament. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Peter, Paul, and James all had their biases, their agendas and their priorities (not to mention their individual temperaments). When it comes to historical credibility, the issue is never if the historian is biased. What matters is whether the historian is able to transcend these biases and record what happened accurately. Good historians write as objectively, as fairly, and as truthfully as possible, based on the facts. And of course Christians believe that this was the case with the writers of the New Testament gospels and epistles who were inspired by the Spirit of God, who is the Spirit of Truth. One of the 20th century’s great church historians, Kenneth Scott Latourette, emphasizes this point in the Prologue to his History of Christianity:
No one can hope to write history
Without presuppositions... Every attempt
to tell the human story... involves
[selectivity]. Back of the selection is a
conviction of what is important. Governing
this ‘value judgement’ is, consciously or
unconsciously, a philosophy....3
Furthermore, Latourette argues, a sterile and detached “objectivity” is not even preferable because historians must care about what they research and write:
history.”4 Another problem is that much of what we call history deals in the realm of probabilities, not certainties. Even multiple attestations of the same fact do not constitute proof – at least not in the clinical, scientific sense. Historical interpretations cannot be verified in a lab. Nevertheless, sane and rational people can still rest assured that certain historical facts are true – but the assurance comes via the laws of probability and reason, not scientific proof. Did the physical bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ actually happen in a particular time and place in history? This is not a matter that can be proven. But what the Christian can argue is that the resurrection of Christ can be substantiated on the bases of sound reason and honest historical research. Therefore, we can accept the historicity of the resurrection as assuredly as we can know that anything happened in the past.
Christians have to be knowledgeable and honest about the limitations of history (and this includes biblical and Christian history) lest we succumb to the common human temptation to exaggerate and overstate our case. We must respect the truth, and we have to understand that the cause of Christ is not advanced by stretching the truth. Those who resort to exaggeration, even for a good cause, wind up losing credibility and discrediting the faith. In our apologetics we go as far as the facts take us, but there is always a faith factor involved. In the realm of Christian history, as in every area of life, we live by faith.