Wednesday, August 4


Cow Tools: Some Remarks on What Historians Do

I was recently talking with a friend who was raised Catholic, and had retained an amateur's interest in theology, and the conversation turned to religion--though in a quite affable sort of way. My friend asked, as we moved into the depths of the conversation, with quite cheerful curiosity, "But have they found any evidence any of this happened? Man, I had high hopes for the Shroud of Turin. Has anyone looked into any of this?"

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to frame a response for him, since our chat was interrupted--though I managed to comment the Turin Shroud had so many supremely odd things about it that the dubious radiocarbon results were hardly enough to disqualify it as an entrant in the authenticity sweepstakes. There are plenty of tales one hears of the whether the face of the Shroud matches that of the Veronica, or the Sudarium of Oviedo's bloodstains, or whether the spear-point of the holy lance fits its broken-off shaft, or whether the Holy House's foundations in Nazareth match up with its walls in Loreto. I am inclined to believe at least some of such stories, or at the very least to not disbelieve them (I find the long preservation of said objects often better evidence than the objects themselves as they existed in a vacuum, or even carbon-dating, which can easily stray into false positives and negatives; also, their numerous miracles, but that isn't exactly historical evidence), but mentioning them brings up the matter of what precisely can be called historical evidence, and the larger question of what historians actually do. Historical research is not so much a matter of CSI-style swoopy Science-with-a-capital S-and-exclamation mark as it is reading the laundry lists, receipts, and newspapers of our ancestors.

Which is to say that texts, often the least reliable bits of evidence in the popular mind, are considerably more useful to the professional "scientific" historian than the very tangible if inexplicable souvenirs of past epochs. Gary Larson once did a Far Side cartoon with a cow standing behind a series of lumpy, inexplicable domestic objects it had made. Naturally we, not knowing the context, are clueless as what the heck all these things do. (One of the reason relics do not really fall into this situation--with the exception of silly faddy things like the so-called "Jesus ossuary" is we usually have the paper trail, though sometimes only up to a certain point in some cases.)

In the popular mind, the historian is only a few steps away from being Indiana Jones. If he (or if the popular mind is trying to score with the 18-24 male demographic, she, i.e., Lara Croft, Holy Sepulchre raider) is pouring over ancient texts and dusty tomes, they are codices and scrolls he found deep in some cave in Upper Egypt. This isn't to say this doesn't happen, as astounding tales like that of the Dead Sea Scrolls or the discovery of St. Peter's tomb underneath the Vatican (exactly where we said it was this whole time, mind you--this comes of the problem of trying to treat a living faith as if it were the religion of the Pharaohs), do happen from time to time. But most of the time, a historian's work is sifting through old texts for things he or she (in this case, "she" is probably Caroline Walker Bynum rather than Lara Croft) might have missed or misinterpreted or trying to track down even older texts that might have gotten misfiled in some moldy monastic basement during the reign of Charlemagne.

Often it is something as simple as parsing linguistic tics. Admittedly, some of this can get a bit out of hand, as in the rather casual and highly theoretical habit of slicing up the Bible and tying the fragments to alphabetical authors on the basis of somewhat plausible if shifting evidence, which—though this sometimes it turns up something useful, as when we discover a certain bit of Paul is written in translation-style Greek, suggesting the interpolation of an even more ancient Aramaic Christian hymn addressed to Christ as God.

Much is made in the popular mind of the comparative paucity of evidence regarding Christ's life. Yet Christ's life is far better attested than that of Shakespeare's, and was written down (even with the latest dates) far closer to His life and death than that of the Buddha's, and few people would think to disbelieve either of these important historical figures were figments of someone else's imagination. Indeed, one scholar (whose name I have, unfortunately, and I admit, quite conveniently, forgotten) has commented we have more evidence for the historicity of Christ than we do for the world-spanning conqueror Alexander the Great.

Partially, this doubt comes through automatically disqualifying the Gospels on sectarian grounds, and partially through the fact that the popular mind has not caught up with the most recent scholarship. Or they don't realize there even is scholarship on the issue that goes beyond History Channel talking heads. People have been trying to find holes in the Gospel narrative for ages; such complaints and examinations are old hat to Catholics.

This is even more unfair than trying to write a biography of Shakespeare without admitting the existence of his plays as evidence. (Though a good deal of bad history has been written by psychoanalyzing those plays, I will grant.) Certainly it would not really be provable through the confines of secular historiography that Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, but it is fairly settled scholarship, even in the secular sphere of serious Biblical scholars and historians that at the very least Christ had lived. The Jesus-Myth school of thought of the 19th century is now mostly extinct; considering its strongest arguments were between pagan agricultural myths and the death and resurrection of the Lord, and that Christ appeared in the one culture of the Mediterranean with little to no interest in such myths in their own system of belief, it is perhaps not a surprise. Even today, the most liberal Jesus Seminar folk admit He at the very least existed, and start with the canonical texts--even if they sift them by a voting method that just about every mainstream historian finds hard to take seriously.

In any case, I suspect this prejudice in the popular mind has much to do with our notions of science and history and what might be called "Science!" with an exclamation mark. Chesterton once said something to the effect that people think we know more about cavemen than about medieval man. The opposite is certainly true--a good historian would never think to identify the use of, say, even a potsherd, without some written evidence to back it up. Otherwise, we're looking at cow tools. While certainly we can make educated guesses about our distant ancestors, our more recent ones have, at least, the advantage of something close to real memory for us to tap into (that is, tradition and written records), which is, even allowing for lapses and legend, a truly living thing inscribed on parchment, rather than the dead bones of a nameless Neanderthal. The historic past is knowable.

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