Saturday, April 18, 2009

Historical writing

[I originally wrote this back in 2009. Rereading this in 2019, my recollections haven't change in the succeeding 10 years.]

In this post I’m going to comment broadly on how liberals and other unbelievers freely impute historical errors to Scripture.

It’s difficult to write accurately about the past. And one major reason is the phenomenon of historical change. Changes come in different shapes and sizes. Big and small. Abrupt and incremental. Big abrupt changes. Big incremental changes. Small incremental changes. And so on.

I’ll begin with a personal example.

Modern Change

i) I was born in Seattle, but grew up on the Eastside. I was born in 1959, but moved out of state in 1999.

I’ve been back there are two occasions since I moved away. And, out of curiosity, I keep up with certain developments via the Internet.

When I was a kid, the Eastside was a bedroom community of Seattle. But it underwent a great deal of change in the 40 years I lived there.

When I was a kid, the Eastside consisted of small towns with a lot of “open space” in-between. Farms and woodlands. Over time, the Eastside underwent a lot of gentrification, urbanization, and suburban sprawl. Towns like Redmond and Woodinville are practically unrecognizable.

When I was a kid, downtown Bellevue consisted mainly of one- and two-story buildings. Two lane roads. Few high-rises. No covered malls.

I spent my growing up years in Kirkland and Juanita.

When I was very young, we used to shop at Roy’s, which was a little mom-and-pop store. After the PX moved in, we stopped shopping a Roy’s because the PX was cheaper and offered a wider selection.

At some point, Roy’s went out of business. Eventually the whole building was demolished and replaced with a gym.

At the corner of the same block there was, at one time, an Arctic Circle fast food joint. It went out of business. Was converted to a private post office.

Across the street was an autoshop that went out of business. It was torn down. A fast food restaurant took its place. Taco Bell? I don’t remember. That went out of business. A Greek restaurant took over.

Behind it was another grocery store–which went out of business. It was taken over by an artsy-craftsy shop.

Downtown Juanita used to have three taverns. Two went out of business.

The PX changed hands many times. Eventually, that shopping center was demolished and replaced with a faux European village.

Juanita used to have a golf course that went out of business. Kirkland purchased the property and turned it into a public park.

Juanita had its own park–Juanita Beach. At one time, Juanita Beach Park had a number of beach cabins–which were torn down.

There was a bridge connecting Kirkland to Juanita. The bridge was closed, and turned into a pedestrian thoroughfare. A new road was put in, rerouting traffic around the old bridge.

At the time I lived in Juanita, some of our neighbors died or moved away. Next door, when I was very young, the Rogers had a front lawn with grassy rolling terraces. When they moved out and the Gardeners moved in, the new owners put in rockeries and flowerbeds.

The house where I grew up was torn down. Across the pond, Sand Point Naval based close. Became a public park.

In Kirkland, my parents ran a private school for the fine and performing arts. They bought the building from the Knights of Pythias. At one time the building was used as a livery stable.

Down the street was Central Elementary, where I attended kindergarten. It was later torn down to make way for the new city hall.

Across the street was Kirkland Junior High, where my father taught. Kirkland Junior High consisted of Terrace Hall, Waverly Hall, and some administration offices.

When Terrace Hall burned down, the school relocated to another school building. That, too, was recently torn down and replaced with a new school facility.

At a later date, Waverly Hall caught fire. Terrance Hall and Waverly Hall were bulldozed. The property was turned into a public park.

The elementary school (Thoreau) where I attended 1-3 grade was built in my lifetime and demolished in my lifetime. Another school facility took its place.

The elementary school (Juanita) where I attended 4th grade was demolished. Another school facility took its place.

My old junior high school (Finn Hill) is still there, although it’s undergone some changes since I was a student. They turned the old library into a classroom, and built an extension to house the new library. They moved the portables. They removed some of the trees lining the baseball diamond.

My old high school (Juanita) is still there, but it underwent drastic remodeling after I left.

According to their websites, I notice that both Finn Hill Junior and Juanita High now have security guards on staff–which wasn’t the case when I was a student.

There are other random changes that I recall. When I was a kid, there was a Time gas station in Kirkland. That’s long gone. A convenience store became a Chinese restaurant.

When I was a kid, the residential part of Kirkland consisted of small, postwar, working-class bungalows or modest apartments.

When I was a kid, Kirkland had a naval shipyard. That was eventually converted into an upscale joint with a marina, hotel, restaurants and trendy shops and boutiques.

ii) In addition to my own memories, there are historical photos of Kirkland. Some of these are available online. It can be interesting to compare my recollections with the historic photos.

There are some old photographs of Kirkland Junior High. There are also some old photographs taken from Kirkland Junior High.

I’d forgotten how big Terrace Hall was, and how, up on the rise, it dominated the landscape of downtown Kirkland. I’d forgotten what the waterfront looked like before they put in Marina Park. I’d forgotten those big ugly telephone poles.

I’d forgotten about the A&W, which was across the street from Kirkland Junior High.

From cars, haircuts, clothing styles, and eyeglasses, you can roughly date some of the photographs.

I can also tell where some of these shots were taken. There’s a shot of residential Kirkland, which was taken from the slope of Terrace Hall. There’s another shot taken from the tennis courts below Terrance Hall.

Some of the chronological cues can be misleading. In one shot, there’s a car from the 1930s. However, in the same picture, there’s a female pedestrian dressed in the fashion of the 1950s. So while the car gives you the terminus ad quo, it doesn’t give you the terminus ad quem.

iii) For someone who didn’t grown up on the Eastside, this must all seem pretty boring. Why do I mention all this ephemeral minutiae?

I do it to make a point. For the past is full of ephemeral minutiae. And to write accurately about the past requires a very exacting command of ephemeral minutiae.

Take the historic photographs. Some of these have captions or labels. But suppose all you had was the unadorned photograph.

Would you know where it was taken? Would you know when it was taken? It requires very specific knowledge to identify the location. A very specific knowledge of the time and place.

I can place the A&W in relation to other buildings. The Creative Arts League is right behind it. To the side is a church I used to see all the time coming and going.

I know that two of the shots were taken at Terrace Hall because I myself have seen the area from that location, as a kid.

Yet much of this is long gone. One the one hand, some of the photographs help to jog my memory. On the other hand, my memory enables me to identify these photographs. To place them in their historical setting.

To write an accurate history requires a very specific knowledge of the time and place. And oftentimes, there’s not much margin for error. Things change. It’s very hard to get it right, and very easy to get it wrong. A few years earlier, a few year later, and your description is out of date.

It’s very challenging to write about a time and place distant from your own. So many different ways to slip up. So many little ways to slip up.

I can write a fairly accurate account of my own life because I lived it. I simply describe what I saw. Much the same thing if I rely on the eyewitness testimony of others.

But if I’m a complete outsider in time and place, and have no good insider contacts, it’s almost impossible to pull that off.

iv) In addition, it’s quite possible for an eyewitness account to contain some anachronisms. Due to change, it’s easy to misremember later developments as though they were identical with earlier events. It’s easy to unconsciously retroject the way things are into the way things were. I see things as they are today. Or the last time I saw them. My latest memory may unconsciously map back onto how I picture the way things used to be. I recall what is earlier through the lens of successive memories.

I’m not claiming that Scripture contains anachronisms. I subscribe to the plenary inspiration of Scripture. I am, however, commenting on a fallacious inference by many Bible critics.

Even if, for the sake of argument, the Gospels contained some anachronisms, that wouldn’t mean the Gospels had to be written by authors who didn’t live at that time and place.

For example, famous people often write autobiographies. And because they’re famous, historians write biographies of famous people. Historians make use of autobiographies. The autobiographies contain information that isn’t available in any other source. At the same time, historians, in commenting on autobiographies, keep a running tally of a little mistakes. Where the autobiographer got the a name, place, or date wrong.

v) There’s a flipside to what I’ve been saying. If it takes very specific knowledge of the past to write accurately about the past, then, by the same token, it takes equally specific knowledge of the past to detect historical inaccuracies in a historical account.

Now, I have many reasons for believing the Bible. And I have many reasons for rejecting facile attacks on the historicity of Scripture.

But one of my reasons is that, when I run across breezy attributions of historical error to Scripture by modern “scholars,” I think of my own experience.

It would be very difficult to fake a history of what it was like to grow up on the Eastside in the 1960s or 1970s. So many time-sensitive changes to keep track of.

And, by the same token, it would be very difficult for a total stranger to detect these mistakes. Unless you were there, there’s quite a lot that you’re in no position to know.

And these are scholars writing 2000-3500 years after the fact, no less! Last year someone phoned me from the reunion committee (for my 30th high school reunion). We feltlinto a conversation about old times. There was the instant recognition that comes between two people who’ve been to the same place at the same time. A flurry of in-house allusions.

iv) This brings me to a related point. Giving how easy it is to make a misstep when writing about the past, if a writer seems to get most things right, that tells you something. How could he get so many things right unless he was in a position to know just what he was talking about?

Unless he was alive at that time and place. Or unless he interviewed other men and women who were alive at that time and place.

Getting a lot of things right creates a presumption about the writer. He couldn’t do that if he were out of touch. Either he’s describing something he’s seen, or he’s describing it through the recollection of other eyewitnesses.

vi) Corroboration can be either specific or generic. Corroborative evidence can sometimes corroborate a specific detail (e.g. person, place, event), or it can corroborate the fact that things like that happened.

vii) Our surviving evidence for Bible times is quite random. It’s quite surprising that we have as much corroborative evidence as we do, given the random state of the extant evidence.

Ancient Change

Someone might object that my comparison with my own life is disanalogous. Rapid change is characteristic of modernity. By contrast, life is ancient times was far more stable.

To that objections I’d say two things:

i) There is a discontinuity in terms of the amount of information we have. But that discontinuity reinforces my point rather than undercutting my point.

For example, an outsider could reconstruct life in Kirkland in the 1960s by combing through back-issues of the Eastside Journal, day-by-day and year-by-year.

But an ancient author wouldn’t have a resource like that.

ii) Life in the ancient world was subject to many dislocations. In some respects more so than in modern times. Due to trade, migration, warfare, famine, slavery, natural disaster, pandemics, political upheavals, and cultural diffusion, &c., life in the ancient world was quite unstable.

For example, ancient cities didn’t have fire codes, fire hydrants, fire engines, fire extinguishers, sprinklers, &c., to prevent or contain fires.

There were no vaccines to prevent pandemics. No weather forecasters. No airdrops of emergency food rations.

Armies used scorched earth tactics. Cities were razed. No smart bombs.

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