The Nature of History
Historian David McCullough has said “we need history as much as we need bread or water or love.” History is tremendously important.
When consulting a physician, it is crucial to have one’s medical history. Frequently, in transacting business matters, chronicling one’s financial history is essential. History is vitally important in religion; the Christian’s faith, indeed his hope of eternal life, depends upon history.
Some religions are born merely of ideas — esoteric concepts initiated in the minds of fallible, illusionary people. They have no roots in actual history, hence are but vapors of no substance, wafting in the winds of passing time. Christianity is not of such character. It is grounded in history; its validity is determined by whether or not the events connected with its commencement actually happened. The documented evidence, and the case for its genuineness, are overwhelming.
What is “history”? History is not what “shall be,” or what “is.” Rather, it is what “was.” The construction of the pyramids is history. The founding of our nation is history. Your birth is history. History was yesterday — even earlier today. When this sentence is closed with a period, it will be history.
How does one separate genuine “history” from the mythical? If the historical event was recent, the testimony of eyewitnesses certainly will be relevant. Written documents can be helpful. In our modern world, movie film or videotape could contribute significantly (e.g., in documenting the tragedy of 9/11/01).
The evaluation of historical evidence is a science all its own, and historians frequently disagree on the evidence. The credibility of documents, the reliability of witnesses, the interpretation even of visuals can be controversial. The significance of the Zapruder film of the John Kennedy assassination was disputed intensely.
Since the early centuries of the common era there have been “revisionists” who have sought to “tamper” with the historical facts. A flood of rewritten monstrosities clutters the modern literary landscape.
Historical “revisionists” are of that journalistic species that, for some reason, are infuriated because certain events of history do not measure up to their perceptions of what is reported to have happened at a given point in time.
Additionally, in the frantic hope that they may implement some personal agenda that will affect the future, revisionist authors reconstruct certain historical episodes. Such outrageous fantasies may be palmed off as “science,” “just fiction,” or rationalized as a playful exercise in what “might have been.” But make no mistake about it; the motive behind the subterfuge is deadly serious.
A few examples will illustrate what we mean by revisionism.
A century and a half ago, there was the Charles Darwin / Alfred Russell Wallace effort to deny man his divine origin, hence personal moral responsibility. The aim was to provide humanity with the freedom to craft a new code of ethics (rather, non-ethics). After all, if humanity’s existence can be explained naturally instead of supernaturally, God is dismissed and, as the atheist Jean Paul Sartre reasoned, “everything indeed is permitted” (Marsak, 485).
Over the last half-century there has been a movement to revise the history of Jewish persecution by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime during World War II. A few writers have denied that the Third Reich government had a policy of targeting Jewish people for extermination. In spite of ample eyewitness and photographic documentation that the Nazi regime executed more than five million Jews in the extermination camps of Germany, revisionists contend such never happened, or that this “purging” has been exaggerated grossly.
Over the past twenty centuries the indisputable facts of Christian history have been subjected to the revisionists’ cut-and-paste techniques, with new theories constantly emerging that bear no resemblance to reality.
In the post-apostolic period, the idea evolved that Peter founded the church in Rome, and became “the bishop” of that metropolis. Later, he was touted as the first “pope,” and the head of the church on earth. Of course there is not one shred of biblical evidence for these assertions, but revisionists distort history to buttress the theory.
“Rationalists” correctly observe that no miracles are in evidence in the modern era. Consequently, they assume that supernatural events never happened. Thus the life of Christ is rewritten to portray the supernatural “signs” for which he was renowned as ordinary events that, upon closer inspection, have perfectly natural explanations. Rudolph Bultmann (1884-1976), a prominent German theologian, characterized the surgical procedure “demythologizing” the New Testament.
In 1966, Jewish writer Hugh J. Schonfield authored his infamous volume, The Passover Plot, in which he argued that Christ was a Messianic manipulator who plotted and perpetrated his own “death” (which he never intended to happen) in order to realize his grandiose dream of being the Jews’ king.
A few years ago (1985), the mislabeled “Jesus Seminar” completely reconstructed the deeds and teaching of Christ with their color-coded massacre of the Gospel Narratives. More recently there was Dan Brown’s bestseller (along with the subsequent movie), The Da Vinci Code. This ludicrous volume fabricated history by making Jesus of Nazareth the husband of Mary Magdalene, and the father of an unidentified child. The so-called Gospel of Judas, similarly has received significant publicity of late; with a literary makeover, it rehabilitates Judas Iscariot and transforms him into a hero grander than all the other apostles.
Characteristics of History
Some thirty years ago, noted scholar Stephen Neill, one-time Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies at the University of Nairobi, prepared an essay that defined certain traits of genuine history (Green, 71-78). Some of the observations made in that presentation annihilate the very foundation of revisionist “history.” With my own applications accompanying Neill’s cannons of history, I submit the following.
History Is Unique
History is rather like a movie film — a long series of individual frames, frozen in time. Once an event transpires, no other event ever again will precisely replicate it. Many of us vividly remember the assassination of John F. Kennedy; the visual details via television are forever etched in our memories. Other assassinations have occurred, and doubtless will again as time progresses, but none will ever be a Xerox copy of that horrible day.
The events in Christian history were unique. For instance, there have been a number of historical situations that vaguely shared a few similarities to some of the circumstances in the life of Christ. Lincoln was assassinated as he attempted to emancipate the slaves. Gandhi was murdered as he opposed the harsh imperialism of England. And Martin Luther King was killed as he led the civil rights movement.
Absolutely no one, however, has precisely replicated the unique life of the Son of God. Christ claimed a relationship with God rivaled by no one else. His teaching and works were supernatural, inadvertently conceded even by his enemies (John 11:47-48), and they impacted world history.
The mystical notion that history is cyclical, and that it may repeat itself eventually, e.g., in the recycling of one’s former life into another form (reincarnation) is a fantasy with no basis in reality.
History Is Unpredictable
One might reasonably speculate that eventually there will be military conflict between the United States and Iran, or possibly with North Korea, but no ordinary human being can predict the future with precision (see Isaiah 41:21-24).
This fact is but one of the features that makes the Bible so remarkable. There are hundreds of detailed prophecies recorded in the Scriptures. J. Barton Payne’s Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy lists 1,239 prophecies in the Old Testament, and 578 in the New Testament, for a total of 1,817. These encompass 8,352 verses. It must be noted, however, that the total depends upon how one has calculated the prophetic information. Actually, there are many more prophetic points that those figures reflect.
For example, while some would consider Isaiah 53 a “prophecy” pertaining to the coming Messiah, there are more than two-dozen individual “prophecies” within that compact narrative. Most of the Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled already; and the “non-conditional” prophecies that have been fulfilled, demonstrate amazing and infallible accuracy.
History Is Unrepeatable
No matter how much the movies and television may fantasize about entering a “time-machine” and returning into the past, it cannot and will not be done. How I have wished on occasion that I could return to the times of my childhood for just one day, visiting the old home place and seeing there my mother at the stove, preparing supper for her family. I would throw my arms about her neck and thank her with many tears for having blessed my life so abundantly. But the historical terrain cannot be reclaimed. We cannot return to the “good ole days.”
In religious matters, certainly we will never witness those miracles that so adorned the era of the apostolic church. They had a temporary design and were divinely terminated with the close of the first century (1 Corinthians 13:8-13). Elsewhere see our article on Miracles.
It is almost certain that we will never experience the rapid growth of Christianity, such as was the case at the commencement of the movement, for Heaven’s great plan of redemption was accommodated by centuries of the most ideal circumstances of divine planning for the success of the movement (cf. Galatians 4:4).
History Is Unalterable
No matter how men may wish it were otherwise, history is what it was. It cannot be changed. Alexander the Great’s conquest of Tyre cannot be altered to suggest that the Greek general led the victorious Union army at the battle of Gettysburg. Hitler’s death cannot be recast to have consisted of the peaceful demise of an aged, benevolent gentleman in Argentina.
Christ cannot be joined to a first-century woman in marriage by modern literary hocus pocus (e.g., The Da Vinci Code_; and even earlier, Brigham Young of Mormon fame). The traitor who sold out Jesus cannot be subjected to moral cosmetic surgery that creates loyalty (_The Gospel of Judas), and the Savior cannot be un-crucified or left in a tomb.
Thomas Arnold of Rugby described Christ’s resurrection as the “best-attested fact in human history” (Thomas, 4.2569), and this historical reality cannot be repudiated simply because someone has determined in his own mind that the reanimation of a dead body cannot occur. The case for Jesus’ resurrection will stand or fall on the historical documentation available — and that is considerable.
As Professor Neill sharply observed:
There is no heresy so dead that someone will not attempt to resuscitate it; there is no error so frequently denounced that someone will not try once more to deck it in the garments of truth (Green, 72).
Practically speaking, that is why it is so important to do today what you will be unable to do tomorrow. Those religions that advocate a “time-warp” are characterized by a mind-warp. The sects that have invented post-mortem “plans” for the salvation of those now deceased (e.g., purgatory, baptism for the dead, etc.) have ignored this reality regarding history.
History Is Irreversible
Paul the apostle was haunted by the bitter memories of his pre-Christian days when he so viciously persecuted the cause of Jesus of Nazareth, putting to death both men and women (cf. Acts 26:10-11; Ephesians 3:8; 1 Timothy 1:13). But the past could not be reversed. The only remedy for relief was pardon.
From a personal vantage point, none of us can reverse the countless blunders that marred our earlier days. Horrible acts cannot be undone; the bullet cannot retrace its path back into the pistol. Razor-sharp, wounding words cannot be unwritten or unspoken.
But one can be penitent, and profusely thankful to God for the forgiveness that is available through the atoning death of Jesus Christ.
Those who are motivated by faith in Christ, who repent of their wrongs, and become united with the Lord in the likeness of his burial and resurrection through baptism (Romans 6:3-4; Colossians 2:12), can be refreshed with the confidence that he/she is pardoned. One’s history cannot be changed by an impossible reversal of action. But the spiritual consequences of such may be removed, though temporal penalties linger on. This is as amazing as it is exhilarating! “Thanks be to God for his unspeakable gift” (2 Corinthians 9:15).
When one is grounded in truth, he is not “tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, in craftiness, after the wiles of error” (Ephesians 4:14). Christianity is a religion grounded in history; one must not attempt to tamper with it!
- Green, Michael, ed. (1977), The Truth of God Incarnate (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).
- Marsak, Leonard M. (1961), French Philosophers from Descartes to Sartre (Cleveland: World Publishing Company).
- Payne, J. Barton (1973), The Encyclopedia of Biblical Prophecy (New York: Harper & Row).
- Thomas, W.H. Griffith (1939), â€œThe Resurrection of Jesus Christ,â€ International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, James Orr, ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).