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Q. We can't know what really happened two-thousand years ago. Why do you present as fact something that is objectively unknowable? Ancient history is way past and beyond knowing anything provable today. (A.M.)
Doddering Old Fools
Yeah…What are those doddering old fools at Harvard, Princeton, Cambridge and Oxford thinking when they pour over dusty old manuscripts, outdated languages, and twisted relics - and come up with something they dare to call "ancient history?" Besides, the fields of Classical History or studies of great thinkers like Socrates or Alexander the Great are just the hallucinations of past cultures. We can't know anything about them today.
What Proves "You?"
Hey…I don't even know for sure that YOU are real, let alone me! After all, quantum physicists tell us that we actually live in an elaborate, digital simulation and that humans consist of more hot air or space than substance.
Seriously though, it's true that we can't know anything with absolute certainty. I can't know with 100% certainty that you or I even exist in the present. Nor can I prove with any surety that something happened in the past.
But, we can use the tools of historiography to determine if an outcome is more certain than not. The study of history is an academic discipline included among the social sciences at major universities for good reason.
Historians use study tools like archaeology and ancient languages, methods like interpreting court procedures or written debates, and approaches including how to study events no longer accessible to observation.
Historians try to get past objections like the accusation that historians are just products of their own cultures, worldviews and time periods. As you might imagine this crosses over into philosophy.
For example, let's assume it is a fact that John died in 2004. The newspaper obituary notes the date and time of his death. His wife, parents, and children are listed.
But, really…how did John die? Why did John die? Was his diagnosis of cancer confirmed by more than one doctor? Are they sure it was really cancer? Could it have been pneumonia? Could it have been both pneumonia and cancer? Did John have chemo and surgery? Could the chemo and surgery have actually caused his death? Is death a "real" event? How do we know death is real? Could death just be an illusion? We know that matter or energy is neither created nor destroyed - it just changes form. So why do modern scientists and doctors say that John really "died" in 2004?
Do you see the problems here?
Moving Past Bias&Philosophy
The historian has to attempt to move past cultural biases and philosophies. He must try to determine what likely happened, what really happened, why it happened, who believes it happened, how it happened and so forth. The historian's job is to sift through all of the evidence and historical documents and report his findings in a reasonably objective manner.
When we deal with history, people, and supposed miracles we usually have to use what we know for sure (the evidence) and the law of probabilities. If it's "too weird," then it probably isn't true - either that or it is not likely enough to consider it seriously.
In the case of Jesus rising from the dead, for example, we need to consider all of the evidence - including what we now know from science. Our current knowledge of science makes "rising from the dead" more possible or probable than it used to be. This is because we now know that people can be "cloned" from DNA material. So the idea of a resurrection of the physical, human body isn't so foreign anymore.
Do we believe in a closed system or an open system? In a closed system it is impossible for God to intervene in history. At best He is one who created the universe and left. At worst He does not exist. It is ludicrous to believe in "miracles" if there is no God. All that is possible is coincidence or chance.
However, in an open system the God of creation can and probably did enter human history to intervene and display His existence and redemptive powers. In an open system C.S. Lewis postulated that we are a "visited planet." "God became one of his own creatures and lived among us."
Whether or not one believes in the possibility of an open system influences his interpretation of historical events as they relate to Judaism and Christianity. (See C.S. Lewis, The Case for Miracles).
Dying for a Lie?
The people whose lives changed dramatically after Jesus' resurrection are another testament to historical credibility. People do not willingly suffer intense persecution or go to their deaths for something they know is a lie. They will, however, die for something they believe is truth. It is the historian's job to find out why Christians willingly died for their faith and to learn about the evidence that motivated them.
Surprisingly, we have at least thirty-nine sources outside of the New Testament testifying about Jesus' life and miracles. It even includes enemies who verified the darkness that covered the land at the time of his death. Some assert that he performed healings or was guilty of "sorceries," thus inadvertently attesting to miracles performed by Jesus. Other hostile witnesses claim the disciples stole Jesus' body from the tomb (thus verifying the tomb was empty). The historian must sift through all of this evidence to determine the nature of the hostile as well as non hostile sources of information about Jesus. It isn't as easy to dismiss as you might think.
The Science of Evidence
British historian-philosopher Robin Collingwood states, "History, then, is a science, but a science of a special kind. It is a science whose business is to study events not accessible to our observation, and to study these events inferentially, arguing to them from something else which is accessible to our observation, and which the historian calls 'evidence' for the events in which he is interested" (McDowell 1999, 673).
Historians assemble birth records, census records, eyewitness accounts, ancient documents, commentaries, speeches and things like that to "prove" something like the life or resurrection account of Jesus of Nazareth. Historians have plenty of evidence to look at among first-century documents.
Historians use primary sources - or the testimonies of eyewitnesses - and secondary sources - testimonies of those who are not eyewitnesses.
Louis Gottschalk lists four essentials in writing history:
- "The collection of the surviving objects and of the printed, written, and oral materials that may be relevant.
- the exclusion of those materials that are unauthentic.
- the extraction from the authentic material of testimony that is credible.
- the organization of that reliable testimony into a meaningful narrative or exposition" (McDowell 675).
Sophisticated Tools of Science
This isn't a "slap-happy" methodology. Ancient historians make use of laser-scanners, sophisticated dating methods, the analysis of print-types specific to certain time periods, microscopic analysis of materials such as papyrus, leather, limestone, and so forth to determine regions and dates of origin. Sometimes such analysis even reveals seeds and foods indigenous to specific locales.
Sadly, all too often post-modern students living in Western civilization reveal their own astonishing ignorance and bias when evaluating social sciences such as archaeology, history and historiography.
They tend to think concretely: "If I can't see it then it does not exist." Or, "If it happened before I was born, it isn't real." That kind of attitude and relativistic thinking is leading some to deny the Holocaust actually happened!
This is a shallow, narrow-minded, terribly constricted way of thinking. Please…don't embrace primitive, magical thinking.
We live in a world that teaches there is no objective truth and nothing can be known with certainty. While it is true that nothing can be known with 100% certainty, scholars have access to sophisticated tools when assembling historical data. We don't work in a black-and-white world. Rather, we can work with the probabilities that something is true or not.
If You Believe it - Is it So?
It isn't smart to "check our brains at the door" and dismiss all ancient history as "unknowable." Indeed, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard, and Oxford scholars spend lifetimes analyzing the data about New Testament history and often reach conclusions about Jesus Christ that are acceptable in a court of law.
Just because we do NOT WANT something to be true does not make it so. Your desire to avoid accountability before God does not make your unbelief a "fact."
Just because I believe something, does not make it so, either.
A smart, sophisticated person weighs all of the evidence for and against a particular event and comes to a reasonable, justifiable conclusion.
Please consider visiting the library and browse through the following scholarly tomes.
Craig, William Lane. 1994.Reasonable faith. Wheaton, ILL: Crossway.
Evans, Craig A. 2006. Fabricating Jesus: How modern scholars distort the Gospels. Downers Grove, ILL: IVP.
McDowell, Josh. 1999. 'Is history knowable?' The new evidence that demands a verdict. Nashville: Nelson.
Moreland, JP. 2003. Philosophical foundations for a Christian worldview. Downers Grove, ILL: Intervarsity Press.
Witherington, Ben. 2006. What have they done with Jesus? Beyond strange theories and bad history. San Francisco: Harper Collins.
Authors Valorie Mays Emilio holds an M.A. in History from UCLA having specialized in early church history. Ken received his B.S. from CSULB and an M.A. in biblical studies from Louisiana Baptist University.
Students: Note that we are using the Harvard Citation Style (similar to Turabian author-date) which is computer-friendly and allows for some variations in format - not in content. Always check with your professors for required format.
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