Wednesday, April 20, 2016

What is historical accuracy?

1. Bart Ehrman spends a lot of time attacking the historical accuracy of the Gospels. However, he doesn't spend much time unpacking the concept of historical accuracy. Rather, he contents himself with examples of what he considers to be discrepancies in the Gospels. But what does it mean for something to be historically accurate? 

2. Perhaps we'd say an account of an event is accurate if the event happened, and the account corresponds to how the event happened. In a sense, that's unobjectionable, but it's fatally ambiguous. Let's take a few examples:

i) Was the healing of Jairus' daughter an event? That's a trick question. In a sense, it's an event. But in another sense, it's a series of events. In Mark's account, Jairus comes to Jesus. That's an event. He talks to Jesus. That's an event. Jesus goes with Jairus. That's an event. While they are on their way to his house, servants come to say his daughter has died. The sending of the servants is an event. Her death is an event. And so on.

In other words, we can view this as one event, or a series of related events. And that's not a pedantic distinction. If we say an accurate account should correspond to the event, are we saying it must correspond to every link in the chain? But what if that makes the description bloated? Stuffed with extraneous details? Is it inaccurate for a narrator to cut the dead wood?

If, to be accurate, an account must correspond to every link in the chain of events, then where's the cutoff? You could always go back another step in the series of events leading up to the conclusion. When did the daughter take ill? What was the history of the pathogen (if that's what it was)? 

Any description of the event must somewhat arbitrarily isolate what's relevant from all the precipitating factors leading up the denouement. In terms of causality, the event isn't a self-contained incident. Rather, it's the end-product of an ever-receding series of cause and effect. Any account will have to omit many details. 

ii) Take another example: suppose we say an accurate account of the Civil War is an account that corresponds to what actually happened. In a sense that's a truism. But the Civil War isn't a single event. Rather, it's a network of various events at different times and places. That can't be shoehorned into one linear plot. Rather, you have multiple chains of events. What was happening in Virginia, South Carolina, Missouri, the District of Columbia, &c. What a Union general was doing, what a Confederate general was doing, what a Union politician was doing, what a Confederate politician was doing, and so forth. 

No single narrative can correspond to everything that was happening at the same time, or different times, in different states during the Civil War. At best, you can have multiple narratives that correspond to one chain of events or another–related, but distinct–chain of events. 

3. In one sense, a time machine is the ideal standard of historical accuracy. By taking you back into the past, that's an exact match. 

In another sense, that's not what we mean by historical accuracy. For accuracy involves the concept of representation, not identity. 

4. Apropos (3), take holodeck simulations of the past. The computer creates an interactive, 3D facsimile of the past. That would certainly correspond to the past. 

But, of course, that's science fiction. Even if we had the technology to pull that off, we lack the fine-grained knowledge of the past to reproduce details. The computer would have to pad the simulation of generic, imaginary details to plug the many gaps.

5. Let's take another example. Suppose I'm a director. I'm going to make a miniseries on the Civil War. A nonfiction dramatization. I wish to make it as historically accurate as possible. 

i) One challenge is dialogue. To my knowledge, not much original Civil War dialogue has come down to us. By that I mean, you didn't have stenographers following soldiers and statesmen around, taking down their informal conversations in shorthand. So how do I supply authentic dialogue? Or do I?

I could simply invent dialogue that's the kind of thing that characters might say in that situation. It would be accurate in that very broad sense.

However, it's possible to get much closer to the reality. There's tons of primary source material consisting of speeches, sermons, letters, memoirs, diaries, journals, essays, tracts, pamphlets, editorials, biographies, news articles, &c., by Civil War observers or participants. That could be mined for raw material to turn into dialogue. 

Although it wouldn't be what they said in conversation, it would be in their own words. It would be about the war. 

Therefore, I'd have the Robert E. Lee character saying things Lee actually said. Same thing with all the other characters.

Sure, that's not something they said on that exact occasion. As a filmmaker, I've changed the setting by adapting their statements to dialogue. But that's a necessary adjustment to the medium. No, it's not something they said at that particular time or place, but it is something they said about that particular time or place. 

ii) Another challenge is viewpoint. Should the series have an editorial viewpoint? That's unnecessary. Different characters would naturally present different viewpoints. North and South. Generals. Statesmen. Foot soldiers. Slaves. Abolitionists. And the dialogue would be taken from things they actually said.

iii) On a related note, how would I depict battles? Well, if I have descriptions of the same battle from a Union soldier and a Confederate soldier, I might show the battle from both perspectives. After all, each soldier experienced the battle differently. 

iv) Some of the original settings are gone. There are different ways to finesse that. There are still Antebellum buildings around. I could substitute one of those. I could build period sets, based on historic photographs. And in the age of CGI, I could simulate period landscapes and cityscapes, based on historic photographs. I could even digitally alter the facial appearance of the actors to make them look just like the historical figures they portray. 

Now, all these devices are one or more steps removed from the original event. Yet all of them strive for authenticity. 

Suppose I go to all the effort, only to have film critic Bart Ehrman exclaim that my miniseries wasn't historically accurate in any modern sense of the term. Really? Would any rational person agree with his review?

6. I think the Gospels are much closer to reality than the scenario I proposed in #5. But even if, for argument's sake, the Gospels were like my hypothetical miniseries, they'd be highly informative about what happened in the Civil War. If that's historically accurate in the case of a representation which is more steps removed from the original event, then that's even more accurate in the case of a representation which is fewer steps removed from the original event. 

1 comment:

  1. Dr. White recently went over some of this.