Can We Trust History?

People feel so skeptical these days. We eye science, medicine, and even history with suspicion. “History is written by the victors,” as they say. It is true that sometimes our great institutions of knowledge let us down. But how much skepticism is warranted, and in which cases?

Evolutionary science is, in part, one based on historical evidence. One of the chief misconceptions people have about evolution is that, if it is true, then there should be way more fossil evidence of transitional species. People don’t realize that the formation of a fossil is incredibly rare. The conditions must be exactly right. So, finding any transitional fossils at all is quite remarkable. You should recognize this fact regardless of your feelings about the theory of evolution.

Image result for mt wycheproof

I mention this because it helps us understand standards of evidence as they relate to historical theories. Before we evaluate any evidence, we must be clear on what the standards are. Here’s a non-scientific, non-evidential example of varying standards. If I told you that it took me 10 hours to climb Mount Wycheproof, would you think that was pretty good? You might think, “that sounds pretty good for climbing a mountain.” Or you might answer, “I have no idea, because I don’t know how long it usually takes someone to climb Mount Wycheproof.” The truth is, Mount Wycheproof’s peak is less that 500 feet above sea level. That’s small. So, now what do you think of my 10 hours? Given a standard climbing rate of 30 minutes, you would judge my ascent unreasonably slow.

The Right Stuff

So when it comes to history (and just about anything, really), we must establish what the standard of evidence is for a claim. For evolution, finding any fossils at all is quite amazing, so the fact that we have as many as we do says that the evidence is quite strong. (This doesn’t “prove” anything–it just means there is a strong inductive case for the theory.) But what about other kinds of historical events, like resurrections? What kind and how much evidence is “the right stuff?”

I often hear people object to the claim that Jesus rose from the dead, and the most common argument is that the evidence is inadequate to support belief. Well, what is the standard of evidence for ancient events? We don’t expect video or audio recordings, or photographic evidence. The best evidence available is written testimony, preferably from those very close to the event. If you say, “Well, that isn’t good enough,” then are you prepared to toss out all historical knowledge prior to recording technology? Most reasonable people would not. Most scholars believe that we have sufficient evidence to know things about history, and this evidence typically comes either in written or archaeological form. The available evidence for the resurrection of Jesus seems to be the right sort and in the right amount, relative to other well-established historical events.

Image result for manuscript evidence for the new testament

Pants On Fire?

Some will still object that the evidence we have can’t be trusted. The primary writers had an agenda they were pushing, and so they had reason to fabricate the story. This is a debate for another post, but I would simply ask, “how do you know this?” And any reply would be based completely on the exact same body of evidence in question, plus 2,000-years distant psychoanalysis. The evidence should be evaluated on the same basis as other contemporary historical documents, and without a presupposition against the supernatural. Such a presupposition results in circular reasoning.

This week at the University of Missouri, Dr. Mike Licona is presenting historical evidence for the resurrection. I look forward to hearing his arguments, as well as how he handles the most serious objections. Here’s a sample of his work. And here’s his debate with noted scholar Bart Ehrman:

6 thoughts on “Can We Trust History?

  1. Hmm. Interesting take. I’ve not watched the video or read Dr. Licona’s paper yet. My own take… Well, I would say that we have enough evidence for evolution that if evolution weren’t true, the second best explanation for all of the evidence would be that some “supernatural” intelligent and powerful agent is attempting to trick us. Even so, until recently, there was enough of a lack of ape fossils in the Rift Valley at about the time where our human lineage diverged from the chimpanzee lineage that there was a minority theory that proto-chimp/humans had died out in East Africa, and had resettled that area from the Near East. On the gripping hand, somebody once point out that every “missing link” that paleontologists find creates two more “missing links” – specimens that link the new fossil with ones both past-ward and future-ward.
    There is enough evidence for the historical existence of Jesus that the last time I came across somebody who denied this claim, that person was also claiming that Christianity was a conspiracy concocted by the Free Masons in order to better unify the Roman Empire. (Yeah… let that sink in…) Not bad for a 1st Century carpenter!
    Even so… The earliest non-Christian record we have is Flavius Josephus, a Roman-Jewish historian. His Antiquities of the Jews was written about 60 years after the Crucifixion, and provides information about John the Baptist and James the brother of Jesus. The versions we have also include the claim that Jesus 1) existed, and 2) was executed by Pilate, but there is some worry among secular scholars that that was smuggled in by later Christian editors. With John and James, were on more solid ground, since Josephus’ account of those two doesn’t exactly match up with the New Testament, so probably wasn’t thrown in by later Christians.
    For Christian sources, secular scholars say that the earliest gospel we have is Mark, written about 30-40 years after the crucifixion, and the latest was John, which was still being worked on as late as 110 AD. None of them were written by first-hand witnesses, but the three synoptic gospels probably were based on first-hand accounts.
    So, I would say that we have reasonably solid evidence for the historical existence of Jesus, which is very rare for a commoner from that time period. But our evidence for the Resurrection is less firm, and “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”
    From my secular, atheistic point of view… we have a Messianic cult whose Messiah just died. They also existed in a milieu where mystery cults centered around a dying-and-rising god or demigod were common. (For example, Mithras.) It is possible that a conspiracy among the inner circle of the cult developed which created the narrative that their Messiah had come back from the dead, and would return again in their own lifetimes. (That last claim seems to have been falsified, even according to their own PR…) A pretty bold move, if so. The Gospels name quite a list of witnesses to the Resurrection, some of whom may well have been still alive at the time the earliest gospels were being written, and might have been motivated to call shenanigans. Still, the goal of any conspiracy isn’t to fool everybody for all time, but to fool enough people for long enough to achieve their ends. (See, for example, the Bush administration’s use of torture and manipulation of the post-9/11 outrage to start the Iraq War. Though, no, 9/11 was not an inside job.) Given the existence of Christianity as the world’s largest religion, I would have to say that this hypothetical conspiracy succeeded.
    For a sanity check, I would suggest the Christians think about how well evidence for the resurrection might also tend to confirm the claim that Mithras died and was resurrected. We have much less evidence that Mithras ever existed (consensus of scholars is that he was a myth), but Mithraism does predate Christianity. See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dying-and-rising_deity Is it possible that Mithras and Jesus both tapped into the same mechanism for resurrection?

    1. Bleech, sorry for the formatting, hard to tell where one paragraph ends and the next begins. Still getting used to this sight.

    2. Thanks crazyeddie for your comments. I don’t think you’re as crazy as your screen name says! I can tell you’ve read on these topics and are thoughtful.
      You wrote: “They also existed in a milieu where mystery cults centered around a dying-and-rising god or demigod were common. (For example, Mithras.) It is possible that a conspiracy among the inner circle of the cult developed which created the narrative that their Messiah had come back from the dead, and would return again in their own lifetimes.”
      A few questions: if such cults were common, what are the others besides mithras? How familiar are you with 1st century Judaism? From my understanding, the idea of a Jew adopting pagan ideas into their religious beliefs is a more extraordinary claim than the resurrection itself. The best explanation for their belief in the resurrection is that they actually saw the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. It is highly unlikely that they would ever adopt such an idea unless their conscience dictated it. Also, what would be the motive for creating such a false cult, when they knew all too well what the fate of such Jewish sects would likely be. Doesn’t it seem rather odd that a sect with a leader of such unrivaled compassion, love, honesty, mercy, and commitment to Scripture would then contradict everything he stood for by fabricating a lie for their own gain?

  2. Also, possible equivocation in that table. Is it listing authors who we have historical manuscript evidence for? Or is it historical subjects that we have manuscript evidence for? Maybe Julius Caesar didn’t write that many books (although he did write the Gallic Wars), but a lot of books were probably written about him. With Jesus, he didn’t write any books at all, but, yeah, a lot of books about him. In some ways, early manuscripts about historical figures might be better evidence than manuscripts supposedly written by them, but it’d be nice if that table made that distinction. Again, haven’t RTFA yet, so maybe there’s some context I’m missing.

    Quite a few religious figures didn’t actually write anything, but certainly had things written about them. Jesus, Mohammad (the Koran was his recitation, which his audience wrote down), the Buddha, Confucius (tradition claims he edited one classic text, but his own Analects were written down by his followers), Moses (secular scholars seriously doubt he wrote the Torah). It almost seems like a tradition for the founders of major world religions to not write books! Probably too busy preaching!

    1. Eddie — yes, there is some unclarity in the chart. I think a charitable interpretation brings our the gist of it, though. You can’t list a single author for the NT, of course, and some of the others are probably written by someone other than the person named. The point of the chart still stands.

  3. This is a fun site. Thanks. Also wonderful to see Sir Edward-of-Crazy, making interesting comments and suggesting the other possibilities for perhaps up to now have been erroneous historical claims. I would like to see these threads continue and I have only joined in, so that I can keep getting updates as the story to unfolds.

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