Home » Biblical Studies » Bible Backgrounds » Historical History &the Little Scholar Who Could

Historical History &the Little Scholar Who Could

historical history sxc hu smallOne of the benefits of a being raised in a blue collar environment and receiving academic training is that I tend to experience the full force of learning. This means that no matter how much I succeeded in my education, writing and research, I labored hard for it… I labored in such a way that every lesson was a strain and every pain soaked gain was marked indelibly into my mind.

This helps me as a teacher. I tripped over almost everything that my students will trip over. My own journey from plumber to biblical theologian was a wrestling match to learn the language and processes of academia. The path from devout church goer to scholar was paved with blood, sweat, tears and not a little anxiety over the cherished fallacies that died and fell away of their own accord. I have never forgotten how cumbersome many things were to my “Hand me a Philip’s Head screwdriver” nature.

One of these lessons was learning the difference between history and history.

A common use of the term history is in reference to “What happened in the past.” According to some dictionaries, (but not by my way of thinking) this is an incorrect definition. “Properly defined,” History speaks only of the description of the events, intentions and cause-effects of the past.

If one is prescriptive, (Telling what’s right & wrong) then he or she wants to tell people what a word means and doesn’t mean.

At some point, however, a person has to reckon with two facts:

First, when enough people use a word a certain way, that use, no matter how erroneously it was absorbed into the community, becomes part of a word’s meaning. Thus, to be descriptive, (Describing the way things are and NOT how they should be) means that a person deals with the fact that people use and, thus, understand words (rightly or wrongly) to mean certain things.

FACT: People commonly use the word history to speak of what happened in the past. Deal with it.

Second, a person uses words to communicate, and the only way one communicates well is by understanding how people actually understand words. If people use the word “history” to speak of what actually happened in the past, (rightly or wrongly) then one can assume that using it another way can end in confusion. Thus, a good teacher anticipates the confusion that often results when he or she uses the word “history” to speak only of the description of events, intentions and cause-effects of the past and NOT of the events themselves.

FACT: It is common for people to confuse the telling of a story about the past with the events themselves.

The relationship between an event and the description of an event is tenuous at best.

The truth is that the real events of the past are largely lost. Every moment in time is conditioned by a myriad of causes and effects; they are intimately connected with all the events and personal and interpersonal elements that go into the choices leading up to and from them. The only thing that remains of past events are the records of events. And, no matter how articulate the record, (and I include actual filming in this description) the record is partial and liable to biased interpretation and presentation. Every telling has a perspective, even a camera and audio recording, and perspectives only ever capture part of what goes into creating an event.

This is why the word “history” is rarely applied to actual events in technical definition by academia types.

This truth is particularly relevant for reading the stories of the Bible.  If we don’t know the difference between the biblical stories as presentations of events… however inspired we may regard those presentations… and between the events themselves, we will make a lot of false assumptions about the events standing behind Scripture.

FACT: Every biblical story is an interpretation of an event. Scripture does not give us events, it gives us interpretations of events. However powerful, however meaningful those original events were for the people who experienced them, all that remains to us is someone’s record, someone’s presentation, someone’s interpretation of the meaning and significance of them.

This does not mean that doing a great deal of study about the events that are presented in sacred Scripture is a waste of time… far from it. Learning as much as we can about the actual events from other non-biblical records of them can be a big help in better understanding the biblical author’s inspired interpretation of them, but let us never forget that the inspiration we seek is not in the original events… not for us.

Scripture is not a window to an event whose recreation provides an inspired message from God. No! Scriptural record, scriptural interpretation is that inspired message itself. Background data, which I regard as vital to interpretation, serves only to make that message more clearly understood in an ever-changing world.

If you wish to engage biblical stories to the most profit, set yourself to discover the author’s intentions in the telling of the story.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

%d bloggers like this: