History, the Bible and rethinking Apologetics

At the beginning of the year, I gave a makeshift review of what I had learnt theologically in the previous year. As I said The Memoirs of God: History Memory and the Experience of the Divine in Ancient Israel by Mark S. Smith, an Old Testament scholar, caused me to rethink the Old Testament and how I thought about the Bible in general. It was the biggest paradigm shift I had experienced in the last few years. The realization was the Bible is not a history text book.

This is a very long post so brace yourself.

In hindsight, it was surprising how come it took so long for me to come to the realization but I guess the directness with which Prof. Smith addressed those issues is what jolted me wide awake. A few years ago, it did not take much for me to accept that the Bible did not contain science and was not a scientific document in any shape or form. Yet it took me so long to accept the Bible is not a work of historiography. I was heading down this path for a while now but what I think prevented me from making peace with that reality is the Bible and the faith it professes is much more closely related to history than it is to science. Chapter 4 “The Formation of Israel’s Concepts of God: Collective Memory and Amnesia in the Bible“, and the post script “Biblical Memory between Religion, Theology and History” in The Memoirs of God challenged me on what Smith called the “Idol of History”, causing me to re-evaluate the Bible’s relationship with history as well as thinking more carefully about what history means.

It was round about the time I was reading The Memoirs of God that I came across N.T. Wright’s lecture on the meanings of history which you can find here with helpful lecture notes. (I will be repeatedly reference that lecture here so it is well worth checking out.) There are even more than the 8 meanings of history that Prof. Wright outlined but it goes to show history is polysemous and without much thought we use it in a number of nuanced ways. However, when it comes to the Bible we do need to take care with how we use the word because problems arise when we confuse the different senses of the word. First of all the Bible is not history in every sense of the word. It’s specifically not Wright’s third meaning which is a work of historiography i.e. what the professional historian does. Yet Christians, particularly for apologetic purposes, want to consider the Bible as empirically accurate history according to modern standards. This insistence is what Smith calls making an idol out of history, where ones faith is built upon modern empirical standards. In the course of this piece I will expand on what I mean by these things.

For a while I knew that doing history would not confirm every single detail of events spoken about in the Bible. However, I was comfortable enough with the Bible being in some empirical sense historical because I was dealing with the New Testament. Of course, I knew there were still many historical questions surrounding the New Testament but I thought of them as largely minutiae of interest to professional historians because there was a good, sometimes even strong, correspondence between the New Testament and historical scholarship. More over scholarship does a vital task of making the New Testament more accessible and understandable. For example, the story of the early Jesus movement, corresponds quite well with what is found in the gospels. (Richard Bauckham’s seminal work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses demonstrates this quite well.) Not only, that history sheds important light on the gospels. (N.T. Wright’s Jesus and the Victory of God is a wonderful example of this. It is one of the best academic books on Jesus which is also accessible to the general reading public.) Learning about New Testament history, or properly speaking Christian origins, helped me understand what doing history meant. (Again N.T. Wright’s The New Testament and the People of God was very helpful.) The veritable successes of studying Christian origins for the church is significantly due to the New Testament being written with a great flurry of activity within a generation, in some cases two, of events that it claims to have witnessed. So you have things like early and multiple attestation which are all stuff historians like. Historically speaking there is a lot more evidence for Jesus and the events of his life than many other famous figures of history (which makes it curious why some think he is a myth. Reject Jesus and you might as well get rid of the historical method.) So when it comes to New Testament history, it sits pretty comfortably with traditional Christian views. When it comes to the Old Testament things start to heat up.

Listening to an interview of Mark Smith on the “bodies of God” over at OnScript is when for me things began to finally click. I finally recognized that the history of God in the Old Testament did not match the traditional Christian view but definitely arose from within the context of ancient Near Eastern polytheisms. I had earlier encountered this view but I did not take it very seriously until that point where all that I had previously read and learned put me in a position to duly acknowledge it. (I hope to discuss this more in the future.) This recognition began to shift my paradigm because God is the most important character in the Old Testament and so when how you view him changes, so does your view of the rest of the Old Testament. The religious history of God in ancient Israel is quite distinct from the canonical history of God in the Hebrew Bible. With other people this should have automatically led to a crisis of faith but I was prepared to quite comfortably receive a shock. This rocked my world, or should I say worldview, in all sorts of good ways. So even though all these realizations came quite slowly, perhaps it happened in just the right period of time. In comparing religious history and canonical history, I quickly recognized while they are closely related history and (Christian) theology should not always match because they have different yet independently valid agenda.

The historian’s task is to attempt to reconstruct past events. Due to the nature of the time, it will always be a partial reconstruction, which is particularly true of ancient history. He therefore selects and arranges the relevant historical data and tries to construct a plausible narrative account of what happened in the past. While no historian is truly neutral and the results of their inquiry can be used for all sorts of purposes, the primary aim is to do history for its own sake. This is what historiography, the modern theory and practice of writing history, is all about. Those who wrote and compiled the Bible were not doing that. They had different aims for their their various writing projects. So while the historian will look to the Bible as a source of historical data in the relevant period of inquiry, he is not beholden to pursue the same aims of the biblical authors, unless simply to uncover them as part of the historical task of determining why those texts were written, what they mean etc. While the religious believer in the canon will specially privilege the biblical texts over and above other historical sources, there is no historical warrant for doing this. Remember the historian is aiming to do history for history’s own sake. Therefore, the religious historian of ancient Israel will examine all sorts of historically relevant evidence, including the Bible, and make judgments about their value and usefulness based on how he applies certain historical criteria. All this is to say studying the Bible historically will yield different results to looking at it theologically. This is because while they may be looking at the same material they are applying different criteria to it so there will definitely be different outcomes. This is not to say every historical reconstruction or theory should be accepted uncritically. There is lively critical debate always going on in the field itself. The historical task should be respected for what it is and it should not be held to another project’s standards. All this being said, history obviously cannot be totally divorced from biblical theology. It is impossible to do the latter without the former, however we need to recognize where one ends and the other begins.

If the ancient compilers of the biblical canon were not doing historiography, at the very least not any modern understanding of it, what then were they doing? We need to carefully look at the Bible to determine this. As I earlier said, God is the most important character in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew canon is religious in nature. It is about a people and their god, or rather from their perspective, the god and his people. Canonical history is therefore the metanarrative of the covenant relationship between YHWH and Israel which shaped Israel’s worldview and culture. So the canon reflects on the past not for its sake. Mark Smith therefore astutely, and correctly in my opinion, observes that what is going on is something in sociology called collective memory and social identity formation (see The Memoirs of God, Chapter 4.) While there are many details to this theory, essentially he is saying that the biblical writers are remembering their past and not doing a history of their past. This might be a subtle distinction but it is a world of difference.

History and memory are of course related. Both are attempts in the present to access the past so they often overlap. While history is studying the past for its own sake, memory is for the sake of the present. We remember who we were, where we are, to gain a sense of why we are, who we are, where we are. So while history deals with events, memory is about experiences, which is more than an event in itself but its significance and effect on people, in this case an entire community. In our personal experiences we remember the things relevant to us for whatever reason. What does not matter we tend to forget. Historians also pick and choose what to include in the historical account they are constructing. It’s just that what is not pertinent for their task is not forgotten as in the case of our memory. Ordinary people are not that interested in precise reproductions of the past unless it does something for them in one way or another. So I’m sure there have been situations where to our surprise we realised how we remembered the past is quite different from what happened. It does not mean something did not happen but our recollection of it is not always defined by historical accuracy. While historical accuracy is valuable, and sometimes human memory is remarkably accurate, there are other mitigating factors shaping how we remember things. Now take the phenomena to the scale of an entire culture and it resembles what happened in the Bible. Things are remembered and forgotten just like in our lives. Just as this does not mean how we remember our past is wrong because it is not historically rigorous, so is it the same for the Bible.

Smith again observes it is apt to call what they were doing ‘remembrance’ and not ‘history’ because that is what the biblical writers repeatedly called it! The call to remember is made several times in the Hebrew Bible and they never once call what they were doing history. For me this was such an important point to note because it means we ought to be thinking about and evaluating the Bible the way it thinks about itself. Cultural memory is not simply formed by lots of individuals remembering. It is about an entire culture associating things and places with certain memories. In other words it is about creating memorials. For ancient Israel this included geographic locations such as sacred sites like Bethel or Sinai, ritual practices like Passover (which is discussed here in more detail in ritualed knowing), as well as creating written memorials which is what the Holy Scriptures are. All these things and others constitute social identity. They defined them as a people, the people of God.

Recognizing the differences between the historical project and the cultural/theological project allowed me to understand why examining the same material could result in different conclusions. Let’s go back to the history of God for a quick example. Biblical theology sees Israelite engagement in polytheism as a serious problem, the enemy of the worship of the true God which is to be vehemently rejected. In the canonical view, all the biblical prophets from Moses to Zechariah share that strong sentiment. Religious history sees Israelite polytheism, which they call folk religion, as simply a historical feature of ancient Israelite religion. For them it is what it is and they have no business in making pronouncements about which religious cult is valid. Those are theological judgments that extend beyond the domain of history. To take another example, this time from the New Testament, you could plausibly historically argue Jesus was seen alive after he was successfully crucified according to eyewitnesses. (N.T. Wright’s The Resurrection of the Son of God claims this.) However to say God raised Jesus from the dead is not a historical claim but a theological claim. As you can see theology and history have a lot do with one another, especially for Judaeo-Christian religion. However, history can only take us so far and we do well to recognize those limitations as productive as an activity as it is.

This leads to some important philosophical questions about how we know things as well as evangelical issues about how Christianity is presented. Gaining this perspective for me raised a lot of concerns with how apologetics is traditionally done, particularly the historical/evidentiary kind. The most obvious problem is Christian apologists give the impression or make the outright claim that Bible is absolutely “historically reliable.” I love apologetics and I think it is a necessary task but it is not the apologist’s place to make such claims. Professionally trained historians should be the ones making judgments about historicity. There are many examples where the Bible has been historically corroborated, many of which don’t make the headlines in Christian news. The Bible is a valuable historical source because it is an ancient document. However there are also many things in the Bible that are not historically verified. Some may be corroborated in the future and for others there is simply no other evidence for it.

For those reasons apologists tend to present evidence from the New Testament and not the Old. The Old Testament tends to lack the relative luxuries of evidence for doing history the New Testament enjoys. For various reasons, like historical anachronisms and signs of redaction, we can tell the Old Testament was largely composed in the forms we are familiar with today mostly far removed from the events it refers to. Moreover, the further you go back in time, the harder it is to do to history. A great example of the difficulty with the Hebrew Bible, which is quite unnerving for believers, is that there is no material evidence for the exodus and the biblical account of it was composed in a much later period. Actually beyond the late Iron Age, that is about the period of the Judges, there is no archaelogical record of Israel. (see “The Biblical Backdrop to the Story of Israel” in The Memoirs of God by Mark Smith which deals with the historicity of the Hebrew Bible.) Of course the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence but as it stands right now, and will probably remain, the exodus is not historical. It does not mean nothing happened but the event cannot be historically corroborated. Whatever you make of that is really up to you. While history helps us learn truth it is not the same as truth. (This raises epistemological questions we will soon look at.)

This leads to the second problem: the skewed presentation of information by apologists. The apologist’s aim is to be persuasive so I understand why they must select the material and make the arguments that favour their position. However, when you listen to apologists, you gain the impression that history always favours the Bible and when it doesn’t there might be a conspiracy afoot. If that was truly the case,  there would be no need to do history and we could read the Bible like a text book. The academic guild, which includes people of all persuasions, and peer review is there to prevent those implied conspiratorial cabals from forming. The problem is apologists do not explain how doing history works, or perhaps they are not competent enough to do it, so it does not create an informed and balanced view of historical evidence (or the lack of it) among their audience. While we can have reasonable confidence in doing history it is always going to be incomplete. As I just explained the facts do not always support the Bible and that is OK. Audiences need to be introduced to a more holistic picture that takes an honest look at the seemingly intractable difficulties. In my experience there are good ways of dealing with them without screening out what does not work in our favour. I think it all ultimately works in our favour if we approach it circumspectly. Doing this means we would avoid misinformation and false confidence in the value of the scriptures which sometimes leads to disastrous consequences. To be clear I do not mean all apologists are bad at doing doing history. A few are pretty good but the majority in my experience aren’t. I therefore think how popular historical apologetics is done needs to change. This leads to the philosophical problem I have with apologists.

Their epistemology, or how they represent the Bible’s epistemology, is problematic. I spoke about being comfortable with apologetically unfriendly “facts.” A fact is rational information that is empirically verifiable. A fact may be logically true or false but fact is not necessarily the same as truth. The way faith and truth are often explained by apologists means having factual certainty. It could be argued “fact” is more a modern category than a biblical one. The same goes for “evidence.” I have heard many apologists say faith is based on evidence. Sometimes they say faith is based on reason. I am more comfortable with “reason” because there are all sorts of reasons. Where I get uneasy is when by reason they mean rational proof or certainty. I am obviously not against fact, evidence and reason. I also understand that they are reacting against popular fideistic understandings of faith. However, I think they have swung the epistemological pendulum to the other extreme.

Modern historiography arose in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries where empiricism and positivism were in their hey day. For history to develop as a methodological discipline in its own right, it had to be based on empirical evidence. The hard core positivism of that era has been wisely tempered by the postmodern observation that evidence does not interpret itself. People with all their biases do. Total objectivity is impossible but we should strive for it any way, which means recognizing and being upfront as much as possible with our biases. In that regard many apologists are more positivistic than the contemporary historian. The thing is the Bible never says faith or trust is based on evidence or fact neither is it a proponent of fideism (the belief that true knowledge depends purely on faith.) Apologists are reading Enlightenment philosophical categories into a collection of ancient texts. Analytic philosophers and theologians are recognizing the Bible has its epistemology, that is ways of knowing, many of which are quite similar to what we do in our everyday lives.

From what I can ascertain, the sources of knowledge in the Bible are revelation, experience, remembrance, testimony, tradition, reflection and hope, all situated in and shaped by the environment. It is beyond the scope of this piece and my competence to give a thorough exposition of each potential epistemic category I have identified. I am certain I have not captured every facet or nuance but we must start from somewhere. I do think we can quite easily observe in the text that they engender and characterize the biblical understanding of faith, allegiance and truth. These epistemic categories are all closely associated with one another in the biblical texts. Like with memory, most of them are terms that the Bible actually and repeatedly uses in association with matters of knowing, or at the very least the most appropriate extra-biblical terms we have to describe specific biblical language. For example, when in the Psalms people are being encouraged to trust in God, it often asks them to remember what he has done or talks about the “testimonies of the Lord.” The foundation of the Christian faith is the resurrection and it is believed on eyewitness testimony.

Now with the exception of revelation, they are all things people ordinarily have or experience. When you think about it, most of what we know is based on the testimony of others. Testimony has to be respected epistemologically because of how fundamental it is to most of what we know. Other than perhaps in philosophy, testimony is taken seriously in well-known areas like law and jurisprudence as well as in our subject of discussion: history. In fact many of the other epistemic categories are real areas of scholarly research. Memory as I have already said is researched in sociology as well as obviously in cognitive psychology. Even something that you might not think would be the focus of serious academic attention like revelation is studied, along with other mystical phenomena, in anthropology, which I talked a little about in my series on mysticism. So while these things may not be popular or traditional apologia for the Bible, they are are reasonable and sound alternatives. In fact, I think they are biblical.

Before I conclude, I wish to add fairly quick notes on hope and environment. All the other six epistemic categories I outlined in a sense lead up to hope. (They all intersect with one another to some degree.) The reason why I chose to distinguish it as a seventh category is because hope is more than those things. Hope requires the believer to cross an important epistemic gap, the separation between the known present and the unknown future. All the other categories deal with the past to the present. Hope gives you the courage to walk into the future across the bridge of hopeful confidence. You still do not know for certain what you will find out when you get there but you know enough to trust there is a future and an expected end. As such hope in the scriptures is a veritable means of knowing and is a rallying cry for bold action. Hoping is always a risky endeavor but there is a conviction that it will be and already is worthwhile.

By environment I do not only mean geographic locale even though that is clearly important. Our most significant memories are associated with places. They become memorials to us and the same is true for biblical Israel. By environment I also mean the personal environment of our bodies. For whatever reasons, the significance of the body is underplayed in popular Christian thinking. Quite the opposite is true of the Bible. Memories are always embodied because as bodily creatures we have bodily experiences. Even what we describe as “out of body experiences” the body still remains important. After all if you are not re-embodied it is impossible for anyone to know what happened. Also, it is overlooked that when we examine accounts of mystical experiences in the Bible, the mystic never describes being taken out of the body. If anyone is taken out of place it is the mystically embodied person who has embodied sensations somehow in a mystical experience.

The body itself can be a memorial. I’m not simply referring to circumcision or other bodily experiences. We sometimes describe people as living reminders when they represent something significant from the past. The body is integral to who we are and not of secondary relevance. Our experiences, as well as our memories of them, all happen to us in the body. So the living body is also a living memorial of the things it has experienced. There is evidence that experiences can alter the structure of our brains. Our bodies are quite literally physical memorials that we carry with us and are who we are. I think part of the reason why ritual in the Bible is closely associated with remembering is that it seeks to embody memory through the experience of bodily ritual action. A great example is the Passover ritual where it suggests when you do these things you become a part of the original Passover experience. The Lord’s supper, which is a modified Passover meal, is similar. While it does not have that “we were once there too” quality, it connects bodily ritual activity to remembrance and proclamation. Memorials “proclaim” things too. Our bodies are quite literally talking memorials of the things we have experienced in them.

I have already written quite more than enough so I will not waffle on. It is my prayer that what I have said will help people, as it helped me, have a better understanding of scripture and the type of faith it requires from us.

6 thoughts on “History, the Bible and rethinking Apologetics

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