The Problem with History

The problem with history is that it shows foundational views are constantly shifting.  Let me preface this statement by noting that although I taught Hebrew Bible for many years my training was primarily as an historian of religion.  More specifically, the history of a religious idea that shifted over time.  My dissertation on the topic of Asherah required specialization in Ugaritic and in the religions of the ancient world that included Israel.  I have subsequently been researching the history of ideas, and my current, apparently non-sequiturial books on horror and the Bible are simply a further development of that interest.  The focus has shifted more toward the modern period, but the processes of uncovering history remain the same.  Many people don’t like horror.  I get that.  It is, however, part of the larger picture.

History, to get back to my opening assertion, is not fixed.  It’s also tied to the dilemma that I often face regarding religion.  Since Jesus of Nazareth never wrote anything down, and since Paul of Tarsus was writing to specific groups with their own issues, no systematic theology of Christianity emerged during that crucial first generation.  What eventually grew was an evolving set of premises claimed both by Catholicism and Orthodoxy to be the original.  Neither really is.  Then Protestantism made claims that the establishment had it wrong and the Bible, which was a bit ad hoc to begin with, was the only source for truth.  It’s a problematic source, however, and systems built upon it have also continued to evolve.  Herein lies the dilemma.  With stakes as high as eternal damnation, the wary soul wants to choose correctly.  There is no way, though, to test the results.

Eventually a decision has to be made.  Christian history is full of movements where one group or another has “gone back” to the foundations to reestablish “authentic” Christianity.  The problem is that centuries have intervened.  That “original” worldview, and the sources to reconstruct that worldview, simply no longer exist.  The primitivist religions have to back and fill a bit in order to have any foundation at all.  What emerges are hybrid religions that think they’re pristine originals.  Historians know, however, that no originals exist.  We have no original biblical manuscripts.  Teachings of Catholicism, and even Orthodoxy, change in response to the ongoing nature of human knowledge.  History contains no instructions for getting behind the curtain to naked reality itself.  At the same time the stakes have not changed.  The consequences are eternal.  Those who choose must do so wisely. 

3 thoughts on “The Problem with History

  1. Jeremiah Andrews

    Hi Steve.
    i studied biblical and Christian history and my now faded piece of paper that gives me credence as a degree holder went nowhere. But you know, over the years, I have had my issues with literalists and orthodoxy. There are just those who believe, with all their hearts, unto the pain of death that “The bible says it, I believe it, that settles it!” Those thumpers will never be swayed into even pondering that the bible is not an original source, nor that like you said above, “there are no original manuscripts to decipher.”

    I read as much “side literature” that I can get my hands on, some of it was good, much of it wasn’t, but I read these texts to get a sense what writers are thinking, as they move around the center of Christianity and Jesus, so forth and so on. Jesus might not have written anything down, but one book I read by Reza Aslan, was incredible.

    The bible is a book. And historical manuscripts originally transcribed by scribes in the past, were riddled with mistakes, choice words omitted or changed. When I studied Greek, that got me closer to the center.

    Every historical piece of information needs to be looked at critically, and an understanding of their origins are necessary as well. Religions put together by man, inherently, are flawed, and are not perfect, as you stated. There are those who will argue for the One True Christianity, speak out of one side of their mouths, then with the other blaspheme others around them, without nary a second thought. That’s what I know about some literalists. I choose not to engage them.

    But like you, there are those of us who know the truth about historical religions and their origins and how they came to be. People read the bible as a historical document that is set in stone as it is written. That is a human flaw that exists. Neither you, nor I, are going to change any minds with our degrees, teachings and education.

    I take what I like, I do good, I try to live by principles, some religious some not so much. Religion, like the present, changes as circumstances and the times change. But until someone writes a Good Book, about the Good Book, some things will never change.



    • I agree, Jeremy, that reason will never change the faith of those convinced. Or at least seldom—it has happened before, but it is rare.

      You might enjoy Matthew Larsen’s The Bible before the Book—he explores how the concept of “book” distorts what we think of as biblical “books.” The work of explaining goes on!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.