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Home » News » Analysis » The use and abuse of “History”; religion as an example

The use and abuse of “History”; religion as an example

Publishing Date : 20 July, 2015

Author : DR EDWARD T MAGANU

In the last fifteen or so years, I have read extensively on the subject of religion, especially the way religion came to be so important to human beings. I have particularly focused on what has been described by historians as “the quest for the Historical Jesus”, and on the origins and evolution of Christianity up to its current state.


What motivated me to go into this subject? It started as an attempt to reconcile what I was learning as a scientist and what religion had taught me as a child. Like many children from Christian families, I had grown up being taught certain things about a transcendent being called “God” and the demands that “he” makes on us- how we are to behave etc. 

I remember in Primary School how we were taught about the various stories of the Old Testament, about creation, about the Israelites as the chosen people of God etc.  and moving on to the New Testament and learning about Jesus, and about how his crucifixion brought salvation to mankind etc. And all this, like the other children, I absorbed with the naivety of childhood, and believed everything that I was taught on the subject to be the only truth.


When I was in secondary school in the early 1960s, I was exposed to two Christian denominations. At home I was Lutheran, as my parents were, and I went through Luther’s catechism and the rites of confirmation. At St. Joseph’s College, I was exposed extensively to Catholic doctrine, because every student there had to go through some religious teaching of the Catholic Church.

All students had to go daily to Mass, irrespective of their denomination, and in the classroom we went through religious studies  based on catholic teaching, including the Catholic catechism, and a book I vaguely remember called “Student’s Catholic Doctrine”. All this I absorbed without critical appraisal.


When I got to University, I studied Natural Sciences and then Medicine. I started to learn that there were other perspectives about what life is and the position of the human being in the whole spectrum of organisms (living things) and in the universe as a whole.

For example, how could one reconcile Genesis and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species? How could I as a scientist reconcile what I knew or had learnt with the supernatural?  As an example, supernatural stories like the story of creation, the many things that are said to have happened in the Bible such as the sun standing still, the Virgin birth, the ascension and the miracles generally did not make sense to me as a scientist. 

These could not be explained empirically, through our regular senses or through rational thought; they could only be explained as mysteries or supernatural things done by God. It is not only religion that I had a problem with,  I had a problem with all things attributed to the supernatural. I stopped believing in witchcraft- I could not for example see how somebody could send lightening to strike another person, or get him to get ill and die by remote action without poisoning him or touching him. I could not see how divining with bones (ditaola) could diagnose somebody’s illness or identify that somebody is getting bewitched and by whom.


It was in view of all these things that some years ago I decided to read extensively on the subject of religion, especially on Christianity since that is the religion I grew up under. My initial enquiry was into the figure of Jesus, because I realized that for Christians that was the fulcrum of all belief.  After going through quite a number of books I realized that the subject automatically moved into the beginnings of the Christian religion or the Church.

And then I realized one could not really understand Christianity without going into its forebear, namely the Judaism as laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament. Of course when we talk of the Christian Bible, or Scripture,  the most widely read book in the world, we are talking of the Hebrew scripture, now called the Old Testament,  and the Christian Canon, or the New Testament. The New Testament is made up of 27 books that were selected by Christian fathers from hundreds of books to form what is now the official Canon. They are made up of different genres such as letters, like the letters of Paul, Gospels, and the Apocalypse (Revelation).

There were many other writings which for different reasons were not included in the Canon. There were for example many other Gospels which the Christian fathers decided not to include in the official Canon.


During this literary journey, I came to realize that it all boiled down to one thing; history. I came to learn that from the 18th century, the Bible has been subjected to what is usually called the historical critical study method, as opposed to devotional study. Up to that time, it was just taken for granted that the Bible was written by authors who were divinely inspired, and therefore it was the word of God. In their historical critical analysis  of the Bible, historians used methods such as source criticism, text criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism, and they generally came to the conclusion that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is not really history in the modern sense of the word.

For example, the Torah or the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), also known as the Law, could not have been written by Moses as it was claimed. At least four different authors or groups of authors could be traced for the Torah, writing over several centuries, and it was evident that it was extensively edited during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, about eight centuries after the period Moses is purported to have lived. It also turned out that extensive archaeological excavations have shown no evidence of human movement in the Levant of the scale described in Exodus; there is virtually no historical evidence of even the existence of a figure fitting the description of Moses.

A similar analysis of Psalms shows that contrary to belief, they could not have been all authored by King David. Some of the Psalms refer to a time several centuries after David, like Psalm 137 that refers to the Babylonian exile, almost 500 years after David. As for the New Testament, except for the seven genuine letters of Paul, all the other writings are of unknown authorship, including the four Gospels and all the other letters, as well as Revelation.


So it is all a matter of history.  Some historians doubt the very existence of Jesus, although those are a small minority; there are even non-Christian sources that attest to his existence. What is in great dispute is what he was and what he did, or even what he claimed to be. That he was baptized by John the Baptist and that he was executed by the Romans during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate pass the tests of multiple attestation and dissimilarity very well, as well as the fact that he lived and operated most of his life in the Galilee. That he was executed by Romans in the manner reserved for those guilty of subversion (crucifixion), and that his followers were not also executed still interests historians up to now. The titulus on the cross  (INRI), “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” supports the theory that he was executed for subversion.


This brings me therefore to the matter of “HISTORY”, what it is and what can be achieved by it. I have always been interested in history because I believe one can learn a lot about the past and plan for the future using history. We all know what great men have said about the importance of history in knowing who we are; our first President is quoted often on what he said of a people without a history etc.  My fascination with history goes back to my Secondary School days, where I did South African history in Primary School and Junior Certificate and then European history (1815-1945) and African history for my COSC (Cambridge Overseas School Certificate). I happened to be the first student in Botswana who got a 1 in History in 1966 after the adoption of the COSC a few years before, and this was because of my absolute fascination with the subject, and an inspiring teacher in the name of Themba Vanqa.


“History” is not as straightforward as people believe. My interest in the “Historical Jesus” and in the history of Christianity generally has rekindled my interest in history in general. What actually is history? What can we learn from history? What role does personal interpretation play? How much is it subject to abuse by those who want to use it for their own purposes etc., for example politicians? To answer some of these questions, below are extracts from some very reputable academics and historians on their views about history, particularly as it applies to religion or the “Jesus of history”.


James D.G. Dunn believes that there are two wrong assumptions about history;


“That there is an objectivity in history (the past) which allows history (the discipline) to be treated on the analogy of the natural sciences; that is, historical facts are objects in history which could be uncovered or recovered by scientific method like so many archaeological artefacts (Positivism);


That the historian could be entirely impartial, strictly objective in his/her treatment of the historical facts, and could therefore avoid prejudicial value judgements (Historicism).
Behind these lay the Enlightenment assumption that human reason is sufficient measure of true and false fact. Reason was once understood as God-given, but the increasing secularism of modernity more and more reflected the triumph of autonomous human reason as axiomatic.


Behind this in turn was the assumption, drawn from Isaac Newton’s discovery of the universal laws of motion and gravity, that the cosmos is a single harmonious structure of forces and masses (itself an ancient conviction), and that the world is like an intricate machine following immutable laws, a closed system of cause and effect.

Probability not certainty: The historical ‘event’ belongs to the irretrievable past. All the historian has available are the ‘data’ which have come down through history- personal diaries, reminiscences of eyewitnesses, reports constructed from people who were present, perhaps some archaeological artefacts, as well as circumstantial data about climate, commercial practice, the laws of the time and so forth. From these the historian attempts to reconstruct the ‘facts’.

The facts are not to be identified as data; they are always an interpretation of the data. Nor should the fact be identified with the event itself, though it will always be in some degree of approximation to the event. Where the data are abundant and consistent, the responsible historian may be confident of achieving a reasonably close approximation. Where they are much more fragmentary and often inconsistent, confidence of achieving a close approximation is bound to be much less. In historical scholarship the judgement “probable” is a very positive verdict.


None of this is to deny the importance of the past, or that historical data have a recognizable objectivity. It is, however, to recognize that the movement from data to fact is a good deal more complex than is usually appreciated.”

John Dominic Crossan takes this further.  According to him

“History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse. There are times when we can get only alternative perspectives on the same event. (There are always alternative perspectives, even when we do not hear them). But history as argued public reconstruction is necessary to reconstruct our past in order to project our future.
History is not the same as story. Even if all history is story, not all story is history.”

Paula Fredriksen, another prominent Christian historian gives the following view:

“The ‘backward’ thrust of history also poses intellectual dangers. Again like the reader of the twice-read novel or the viewer of the twice-seen film, we cannot help knowing more than we should. Beyond the moral discipline of allowing for otherness, then, we need to cultivate as well the intellectual discipline of viewing the past as if we knew less than we know.

This is difficult precisely because history in its very nature is retrospective. We start from our vantage point in the present and work ourselves back into an imagined past. But although history is always done backward, life is only lived forward. We all move from our present into the radical unknowability of the future. If in our historical work we wish to reconstruct the lived experience of the ancient people we study, then we must forswear our retrospective knowledge, because it gives us a perspective on their lives that they themselves could not possibly have had. We, looking back now, know how their stories ended; they, living their lives, did not.  

To understand our ancient people from the evidence they left behind, we must affect a willed naiveté. We must pretend to an innocence of the future that echoes their own. Only then can we hope to realistically re-create them in their own historical circumstances. Only by accepting- indeed, respecting and protecting- the otherness of the past, can we hope to glimpse the human faces of those we seek.”

Lastly but not least, these are views from Karen Armstrong, a very reputable author on the history of religion:

“Despite my years as a nun, I do not believe my experience of God is unusual. My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas; I had come to a more mature understanding of complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in the kindergarten. Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed. People without my peculiarly religious background may also find that their notion of God was formed in infancy. Since those days, we have put away childish things and have discarded the God of our first years.


Yet my study of history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religious. Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art…………Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to. Like any other human activity, religion can be abused but it seems to have been something that we have always done….. Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have to see how it will work……Our ethical secular ideal has its own disciplines of mind and heart and gives people the means of finding faith in the ultimate meaning of human life that were once provided by the more conventional religions.”

I wanted to share these views because I have seen a lot of writers and columnists in our newspapers venturing into history. The writings of Jeff Ramsey impress me because they are obviously very professional.  About many others, I don’t know; one can’t help but feel that they are obviously pushing particular agendas. There are of course two columnists who write on the history of Judeo-Christian religion from a very unconventional view point (Leteane and Saili). I take it they are deliberately provoking controversial views.

Early in my readings into the Historical Jesus, I read a book from a Barbara Thiering, a respected academic from Australia, who presented a very unconventional view of Jesus: that he actually did not die on the cross, that he lived to old age, was married and had children. This is a very good illustration of how inexact history can be, as quoted from the above authors, especially James D.G. Dunn, who has become one of my favourite authors on Christian beginnings.


James D.G. Dunn(2003) Christianity in the Making Vol. 1; Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

 John Dominic Crossan (1998) The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (HarperCollins Publishers).

 Paula Fredriksen (1999) Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (Macmillan)

 Karen Armstrong (1993) A History of God (Vintage)

 Barbara Thiering (1992) Jesus the Man (Corgi Books)

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