The "head in the sand" movement
Well-known in this category are those who either ignore the methods of
contemporary history, or reserve the methods of history for only part of
The former are pejoratively called "fundamentalist." I
won't here pay much attention to them, except to say that their position
is logically incompatible with all
contemporary knowledge. As Van A Harvey writes ,
the historical method cannot in itself be reconciled with the
type of thinking which produces traditional Christianity. To say
both that the Bible is beyond historical investigation and that
you believe that Jesus existed as a matter of history is a
Those who do try to sustain the latter approach seem to be able to
deny the validity of historical research when it comes to religion, but
allow it when reading about, for example, the Second World War. They
appear able to hold within their cognitive frameworks what seem to me to
be two completely incompatible ways of perceiving the world.
Of more immediate interest, however, are reactions to methods used
very recently by the Jesus Seminar of the Westar Institute to
arrive at what they hope is an irreducible residue of historical New
Testament material. This is material which by their account would
probably be recognised as good history even by secular historians.
Their findings have been dismissed by a large swathe of Christian
opinion as laughable. The main ground for this verdict appears to be
that the 200 or so scholars of the Jesus Seminar
"voted" on what material should be retained and what shouldn't.
This response shows, I think, a woeful lack of understanding of
current historical methods. Scholarly consensus worldwide is achieved,
as far as I can tell, by the emergence of an informal but nevertheless
widespread opinion which dismisses patently bad history more or less out
of hand. This process can take many decades.
Good history is accepted when it has been discussed, modified,
quoted and used as reference material. Some history turns out to be so
good and to meet so many of the tough standards of scholarly debate that
it becomes essential reading for student historians and others.
Perhaps aware that this process can take a long time (in some special
cases centuries), the Seminar, after detailed discussion of
material, has achieved a limited consensus very quickly. It has done so
by using a weighted average to assess the degree of consensus among its
members at a point in time.
This can be caricatured as "voting." Or it can be recognised as a
device which understands that, in line with history's built-in
provisionality, historians increasingly state their conclusions in a
On matters for which the data are extremely strong, the modern
historian will say, for example, that an interpretation or explanation
is "almost certainly" the case. Instead, therefore, of bluntly stating
that the resurrection didn't happen, the modern historian is more likely
to maintain that if the resurrection "really happened" it must have been
an unimaginably rare historical event.
None of this renders the Seminar's findings absolute or final
- though it seems to its critics that the weighted scores and subsequent
ratings are claiming both. I doubt very much that the Seminar's
conclusions are understood by its members as anything but provisional.
Those who mock its findings apparently have no understanding of what was
attempted and what has been achieved.
The provisionality of the historical method has proved
unpalatable not only for traditionally-minded Christians, but also for
some secular minds.
The latter have turned to what is called "historicism" -
an attempt to use history to explain more about the world than it is able.
They have searched for laws of historical process. Such laws would allow
clear and certain conclusions about the past on one hand, and predictions
about the future on the other.
That is, they have tried to sever any links between
individual choice and events unfolding on the larger canvas of social
history. Their direction is strongly deterministic.
Chief among these attempts was the "historical
materialism" proposed by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels (usually called
"materialism" because it contrasted with the "supernaturalism" of
Christianity). Not only has Marxism proved untenable as an historical
hypothesis, but it appears to have been overtaken by events of the late
However, its failure lies at a deeper level. Marx and
Engels did not comprehend the almost infinite complexity of the systems of
cause and effect which comprise what we somewhat blithely term "history."
The complexity is so great that no historian can claim any more than a
surface knowledge or understanding of its details. On the larger scale,
observations are always highly abstract, and depend for their validity and
usefulness on an often problematic step down into the details which back
up the broader conclusions.
The most an historian can claim is to understand an
event as a "guiding thread" for the future, something which might provide
a sufficient condition for an event to occur. It's significant that Marx
and Engels evolved their socio-economic theories at roughly the same time
as physicists were proclaiming that Newton's laws were definitive for all
of reality. Marx and Engels appear to have hoped that their analysis of
history and society would have the same characteristic.
Newton's laws have been shown to apply only in limited
conditions. All laws, including Newton's laws of motion and
thermodynamics, have exceptions. To put this another way with regard to
history, all so-called historical laws will be shown to be wrong if
contradicted by even a single historical event. Marx, Engels and their
disciples imposed on historical processes a degree of order and certainty
they can never possess. Significantly, this absolutist political dogma
closely resembles absolutist Christian dogmas. Both have brought great
misery to humanity.
Yet again, if laws of history do exist then there is a
class of historical events which are not unique but repetitive. The
existence of a law of history implies that an event will always occur when
certain conditions exist. What we now know is that no event is ever
repeated. Indeed, there is no such thing as an historical "event". We only
separate "events" out from the seamless flow of history for our own
convenience. An event is merely an abstract device we use so that we can
talk about the past. No "event" has objective reality.
If this is not recognised, then history becomes a search
for a complete system of laws rather than the study of what really
happened. Discover all the laws, it is supposed, and the future
becomes completely predictable. History as we know it then becomes
redundant - at least in theory.
If there are no laws in history, but only rough and
uncertain guidelines, is it possible that some events are in a class of
One of the strongest historical arguments for the
resurrection of Jesus after death is that it is a unique "event" in
history. It can be argued that even though our evidence for the
resurrection appearances isn't the best, it's sufficient to persuade a
reasonable person that this event could have happened if it was of a kind
that happens only once.
Uniqueness, it might be said, is an essential
characteristic of history. It appears that time flows in only one
direction, just as water always flows downwards. This conclusion is in
turn derived from, amongst other things, Einstein's discovery that time
and space are inseparably linked in a space/time continuum. When you and I
say, "I am here" we are also saying something about a particular time. And
when we say, "It is now," we are also maintaining that we're at a
particular point in three-dimensional space.
As far as we can now tell (all knowledge being
provisional) if two identical events exist, they cannot either occupy the
same space at the same time, nor occur at the same time in the same space.
Two otherwise identical events must therefore mean something
different in the seamless web of history because their contexts are
In this sense it is possible that there has only ever
been one resurrection from death. There may have been only one human being
who, like Jesus of Nazareth, could be described as belonging to both the
natural and the supernatural realms. The debate about the usefulness of
the historical method for Christianity might cease here - if it were not
for one important, if not critical, consideration.
Historians are experts in a single field of knowledge.
That field, however, can be classed as "field encompassing." It can and
does use any datum from any other field of knowledge to help gain
greater certainty. All historical conclusions are provisional because,
according to contemporary thought, they state not absolutes but degrees of
probability. The greater the range of data which support an historical
conclusion, the more likely it is to be true (that is, highly probable).
However, history can only be field-encompassing if the
nature of Truth (with a big "T") is the same across all fields. If
evidence from chemistry, physics, medicine, archeology, biology,
astronomy, linguistics is to be validly used in historical research, what
applies to one must apply to all. In saying this I accept that Truth is,
and has always been, a human invention. This implies that Truth today will
not be the same tomorrow (but the implications of this are too wide to be
dealt with here).
Let's assume now that the resurrection of Jesus is a
stand-alone event in all of history, past and to come. The assumption can
stand only if all the findings of all modern disciplines indicate that
such a thing is possible. But if they lead to the conclusion that such a
unique event is impossible, then only the brave or foolhardy historian
will assert that the Resurrection is something "which really happened, but
Further, it is argued by many historians that what
applies now (if only provisionally) must always have applied. Physics as
we know it today, for example, would have yielded the same kind and
degrees of truth if it had been possible in the 1st century. Atoms, for
example didn't come into existence only when we discovered them - they
have always been there. The value of gravity has always varied according
to the square of the distance; its dimensions and nature have always
Similarly, modern doctors, if they had been members of
Alexander the Great's entourage, would have been able to inoculate him
against the virus which many historians (but not all) suspect killed him
in 323 bce. As it turned
out, inoculation came some 2 300 years too late for this unfortunate
A result of this line of thought is that historical proof that something
happened only once would have to be cast-iron proof. It would have to
survive not only the torture of its sources, but also the verdicts of all
or most of the scientifically-based disciplines which inform the modern
age. Extraordinary historical claims require an equally extraordinary
degree of proof. No reputable historian is likely to demand anything less
for an event as out-of-the-ordinary as resurrection from death. Historical
evidence for the supposedly unique resurrection of Jesus from death does
not remotely match this extremely demanding, but essential, degree of
In short, unless there is an equivalence of
understanding across all knowledge today and all knowledge over the whole
of time, history as we know it is impossible. Just because historical
methodology was crude two thousand years ago doesn't mean that what we
today use is wrong. Nor will our history be invalidated in the future if
historical methods improve greatly. Some conclusions will fail, perhaps,
and some methods will be seen as inadequate. Unless this equivalence
exists, nobody can say that two differing events occurring at the same
time operate according to the same processes.
Human death, for example, is now what it has always
been. If the principle of equivalence is wrong, and death is one thing for
Jesus and entirely another for Napoleon, the word "death" doesn't have a
single meaning. We are forced to say that Jesus died one kind of "death"
and Napoleon another.
So if I say that death is the irreversible cessation of
cellular activity in the human body, I must change that definition for the
death of Jesus. If I do that, who is to say that Napoleon died the same
kind of death that his adversary Wellington died? Even if there is only a
single exception to the nature of death, the historian must allow the
possibility of infinite variability in kinds of "death".
In such a situation, what can be said about history as
a seamless web of interlocking events? We must conclude in this case that
every historian is free to make his or her own idiosyncratic version of
history, without check or correction by others - if only because there is
no way of establishing common ground whenever an event is addressed
One final possibility remains. It is that the background
assumption of our forefathers that the supernatural (God) can, as it were,
invade and impact the natural world in fact applies. This appears to be an
invincible position to hold - and it is indeed held by many. How is anyone
ever to demonstrate that a supernatural dimension or world doesn't
But I think it's difficult to hold this position and
put any trust in modern history. History as we know it explores and
interprets a seamless web of events. Even to talk of an "event" is
strictly speaking to distort reality since the flow of what we call "cause
and effect" is without break. The isolation of an "event" is artificial,
made so that we can talk about a more general flow of "events."
Let's suppose for argument's sake that God, operating
from the supernatural into the natural, invaded or otherwise decisively
influenced the United States' President Truman when he finally sanctioned
the dropping of the first atom bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. If this is what
really happened, then the seamless web of normal history was broken at
that point. Something happened which was not caused by events preceding
In a very real sense, therefore, the entire course of
history as a seamless web would have to begin anew at that point. The only
reason for studying the history came before God's intervention in 1945
would be to know how it ended before the point of intervention. And the
only true history remaining to us would be that after President
Truman's momentous decision (which, when all is said and done, wasn't
really his, but God's).
If one multiplies God's interventions to any great
degree, it seems to me that history becomes essentially the art of
detecting when the supernatural has impacted the natural. If God is
totally in charge, if every event derives from outside nature, then cause
and effect as we normally suppose them to operate in history, disappear.
God becomes the only direct cause of everything from microsecond to
In that case, how I am able to tell whether anything I
encounter is supernatural becomes an absolutely critical question. What
are the criteria for differentiating between supernatural and natural
events? If I'm to know anything about history I must be able to detect
when God has intervened and when not. Perhaps God intervenes only when
necessity dictates, or only when normal history reaches certain critical
points. If that is so, how do I tell when God has intervened?
Those who assert a supernatural key to the historical
process, who tell us that God intervenes in the systems of the universe,
must know the answers to this question. If they don't know, I question
their conclusion that a supernatural dimension exists and that God does in
fact intervene in history. Is their statement that God is in charge of
nature and therefore of history founded upon observation? Or do they rely
for their assertion upon some indisputable authority or other? Or perhaps
they know it through a communication direct from the supernatural - which
in traditional theology is usually called revelation.
Historians must be told the answers to these questions,
or they cannot distinguish natural events from supernatural ones. Nor, if
they cannot differentiate between the two, can they write history of any
To sum up:
- Christianity is an historical faith, derived from the life of a real
man who actually existed in history just as we all do.
- History is the study of "what really happened."
- The Bible as the infallible revelation of God direct to humankind
was once the definitive source of historical truth.
- Modern knowledge is characterised by a break from revealed truth
accepted on the say-so of authority.
- The fundamental characteristics of modern history are shared by all
branches of contemporary knowledge.
- Two defences against historical truth are the "faith is all" and the
"head in the sand" movements.
- Historicism attempts to use history for purposes to which it is not
suited. One example is the historical materialism of Marx and Engels.
- It is possible that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are a
unique series of historical events. Even the most rigorous historical
method must allow this possibility - but the cost is high.
- Another possibility is that some historical events in time and space
result from interventions out of a supernatural dimension. But if so,
difficult questions remain to be answered.
- The principle of historical equivalence (analogy) requires that
truth is the same all through history. If this is so, even unique events
which contradict the entire body of modern knowledge are suspect.