Saturday, September 22, 2007

Scripture and History: Part II

[Part two in the Scripture and History series]

I ended part one by saying this

A history textbook implies that the text was written with the primary purpose of documenting historical fact.
is not what historians do, nor is it what historical texts (or textbooks) present. Certainly, we have to agree on a definition of what a historical work does in order to decide whether the Bible has historical purpose and/or content. In the discussion that started this post I said
every bit of "real history" they read is written through some other theological or ideological lens.
Historical works have a viewpoint, and historians are pretty honest about that. As they examine, organize, and interpret the source documents and facts in order to arrive at the analysis that becomes a work of history - they are aware of their lens. Certainly, they try to have the facts lead them to a conclusion, rather than the other way around - but that is the difference between good history and bad history - and not between it being history and not history. One would only probably have to look at the history of World War II as taught in the Japanese schools and that taught in US schools to see the difference in viewpoint and analysis based on the same facts.
"History is the study of the past, focused on human activity and leading up to the present day. More precisely, history is the continuous, systematic narrative and research of past events as relating to the human race; as well as the study of all events in time, in relation to humanity . . . All events that are remembered and preserved in some form is seen as the historical record . . . In German, French, and indeed, most languages of the world other than English, this distinction was never made, and the same word is used to mean both 'history' and 'story' " - Wiki section on History
Nor, are we talking about historical works containing just facts. This is the section on "Social History" from an older edition of Compton's at my house:
Nothing is more fascinating than the true story of how people lived in the past - their houses, food and clothing; how they cultivated their fields, manufactured goods, and traded with their neighbors; their beliefs God and the world of nature; their laws and manner of government; the songs their poets sang, and the beautiful things their artists made. All this is included in the social history taught today.
Obviously at least the Hebrew scriptures are that kind of work. The question is: was it intended to be that kind of work? I would contend that a (not the) major purpose of those who collected and canonized at least the Hebrew Scriptures was to compile and preserve for following generations of Jews just this kind of social history about their culture and religion. So yes, the Hebrew Scriptures are a social history textbook of the Hebrew people prior to about 400 B.C.

Next, as one commenter said and I believe, every historian (pretty much by definition) organizes and interprets their work for their own purposes. It is a Western, and more narrowly modern, idea that those purposes and interpretations must be rationalistic and materialistic - one of those little prejudices that destroys objectivity. So, in looking at the purposes of the history written in the ancient near east, we cannot decide what history is, or is not, based on anachronistically applying our definitions of what constitutes history to the Biblical historians. They wrote history for their people in their time - and it is their purposes that decide what was historiographic and what wasn't.

In the next part, I will look at "Miracles and History" .

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How to debate charitably (rules are links to more description of rule):
1. The Golden Rule
2. You cannot read minds
3. People are not evil
4. Debates are not for winning
5. You make mistakes
6. Not everyone cares as much as you
7. Engaging is hard work
8. Differences can be subtle
9. Give up quietly