Monday, October 27, 2008

Historical Evidence

I recently received a giftcard to Barnes and Noble, for which I was extremely grateful. However, I sometimes have a hard time spending bookstore giftcards in the actual brick-and-mortar bookstore itself, unless of course that bookstore is Archives here in Pasadena. However, this time around I found two great books: Five Books of Moses by Robert Alter and Cities of God by Rodney Stark. I have already read Strak's Rise of Christianity and found it both fascinating and fun to read, so I have really been looking forward to his newer book on early Christian history. After finishing about 3/5 of the book, I've not been disappointed yet!

In an effort by the publisher of Cities to sell books, there is a quote from Booklist on the front cover that says the following: "This book will spark controversy." Of course, that piqued my interest, so I picked up the book and read the first few pages of the first chapter in the store. Here are the first two paragraphs:

New ccounts of early Christianity are everywhere. A book claiming that Jesus got married, fathered children, and died of old age has sold millions of copies. Bookstores are busting with 'new,' more 'enlightened' scriptures said to have been wrongly suppressed by the early church fathers. Often referred to as Gnostic gospels, these texts purport to have been written by a variety of biblical characters -- Mary Magdalene, St. James, St. John, Shem, and even Didymus Jude Thomas, self-proclaimed twin brother of Christ. Meanwhile, a group calling itself the Jesus Seminar receives national media attention each year as it meets to further reduce the 'authentic' words spoken by Jesus to an increasingly slim compendium of wise sayings.

But is any of this true? How can we know? Presumably, by assembling and evaluating the appopriate evidence. Unfortunately, far too many historians these days don't believe in evidence. They argue that since absolute truth must always elude the historian's grasp, 'evidence' is inevitably nothing but a biased selection of suspect 'facts.' Worse yet, rather than dismissing the entire historical undertaking as impossible, these same people use their disdain for evidence as a license to propose all manner of politicized historical fantasies or appealing to fictions on the grounds that these are just as 'true' as any other account. This is absurd nonsense. Reality exists and history actually occurs. The historian's task is to try to discover as accurately as possible what took place. Of course, we can never possess absolute truth, but that still must be the ideal goal that directs historical scholarship. The search for truth and the advance of human knowledge are inseparable: comprehension and civilization are one.

I guess Booklist was right, this book is controversial...and from the very first paragraphs!


Momma B. said...

Matt Barnes!! Who knew you got so serious!! I can't wait to dig in and read some of your posts!!!
Kelli Bragdon

J. Matthew Barnes said...

Kelli, thanks so much for the comment! I've always had this serious/nerdy side to was just hidden under layers of silliness and laziness in college!

Anonymous said...

I much prefer this much more honest history of the church as a power and control seeking institution.

Plus this image gives a very stark image of the role of the church altogether in the Western imperial project.

J. Matthew Barnes said...

The first "reference" that you site is highly biased against Christianity as a whole, thus greatly (if not completely) clouding the author(s)'s understanding of historical data. There is more evidence that Jesus existed than there is proving that Julius Caesar did. Only the most skeptical scholars make the claim that Jesus didn't exist. Most competent scholars argue about who Jesus was, what he really did and said, and how the Church sprung up as a result of his life and death.

The second link is an image which rightly critiques the Church's role in the colonial expansion of European nation-states. Simply because people did (and do) bad things in the name of Christ does not prove anything about Christ himself. Instead more is stated in those cases about the one committing the wrong.