Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Modern and ancient historiography

A problem I've noticed is that some Christians defend the Bible by emphasizing the difference between ancient historiography and modern historiography. We mustn't hold the Bible to modern standards of historical accuracy. 

Now, I think that's half right. When we read ancient historians, we need to adjust to the conventions and expectations of the time. But my problem is with the invidious contrast. With the assumption that modern historiography has higher standards. But what, exactly, is the standard of comparison? 

Take a critical biography by an academic historian. That will have copious footnotes, verbatim quotes, quotation marks or indented block quotes, dates, places, a rigorous chronology, and a bibliography of primary and secondary sources. 

But compare that to an encyclopedia article on the same figure. That, too, will reflect modern academic standards. The editor will pick a scholar who's an acknowledged expert on that figure. Nevertheless, the encyclopedia entry will be far simpler than a critical, book-length biography. 

Some historians are popularizers, viz. Stephen Ambrose, Barbara Tuchman, Doris Kerns Goodwin. 

What about TV news reports. These will be a brief summaries of the event in question. 

These are all examples of modern historiography, yet they are hardly equivalent. They don't necessarily set a higher standard of historical accuracy. For instance, news reports can be notoriously biased. 

Conversely, take historical accounts of the WWII by Churchill and Eisenhower. Are they inferior to the work of academic historians? Their value lies, not in the accoutrements of an academic historian, but in their high-level, insider perspective of the topic. Indeed, academic historians mine these accounts as primary source material for their own writings. 

The upshot is that we should resist overgeneralizing about modern standards of historical accuracy in contrast to ancient historiography. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this article! When taking a WWII history class a few years ago I wrote a term paper on "The Wild Blue" by Steven Ambrose. I had hoped his history of B-24 operations in Italy and North Africa would shed some light on an incredible aircraft manned by incredible men fighting against incredible odds. Instead it turned out to be an ode to George McGovern who only had a couple of missions near the end of the war, and those were considered "milk runs" In my paper I lambasted Ambrose for stretching 1 chapter of material into a novel length book (My professor informed me when I handed him my paper that he was a personal friend of Ambrose, but I got an A+ because my Prof agreed it was Ambrose' worst effort)

    Another professor of mine was writing a book praising Neville Chamberlain's kow towing to Adolph Hitler. Ignoring the outcome of Chamberlain's actions, my prof is hailing him because his actions reflects my professors personal political theory on how to handle a ruthless tyrant.

    My point is that we need to keep in mind that historians, whether they realize it or not, will have an agenda going into a project, be they an ancient scribe or a modern academic who supposedly is above such a thing. Should we hold the Bible to modern standards of historical accuracy? Only if you can prove to me that modern standards of historical accuracy includes being God-breathed and useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.