History’s Detectives

saviour2The search for the historical anything is an exercise in fantasy and imagination, a good movie, but not good for much else. C.S. Lewis noted that reviewers of his books, speculating on how they were written and other such intimate historical matters, were almost universally wrong. He wondered out loud why we should presume historical critics of the past, sometimes of a past stretching back for millennia, should be taken at all seriously. Why should we consider with any weight any scholar’s statement concerning the background and shaping of St. Matthew’s gospel (to use only a single example)? The answer is simple: we shouldn’t.

This is not to say that we should not consider history, nor ask historical questions. It is rather to affirm that things in history have long since passed beyond the bounds of human knowing. Those who make great assertions about the historical reasons for their present decisions are not saying anything about the nature of history, but are revealing the nature of their ideological commitments.

The “history” with which we live today, is not, in fact, history, but those parts of “history” which are present. The Scriptures are not only a historical book, but are also a present book. I have a copy in my computer. Thus the Orthodox do not think of Tradition as something of the past, but something of the present. Tradition is literally, “that which is handed down,” paradosis. It is not a reference to that which was, but to that which is. Modernists do not reject the past when they ignore Tradition – they ignore part of the present for their own perverse reasons.

Every human being is himself a Tradition. The life which I have is not a new, modern creation which suddenly came into being. The better part of all human experience lives within me (in some form) in the record of my biology. However, the modern world treats us as though we were each a tabla rasa.

There is a false dilemma created by the modern consciousness (which itself is strange form of selective amnesia). The dilemma is to insist that all knowledge of the past, resides in the past, and that modernity can only approach it as detective and archaeologist. We dig for knowledge of the Roman empire when its language and history exist in our tongues. We are taught that these ancient lives belong to aliens, as though the past were another planet and not the extension of the present through time.

Many Christians suffer deep anxiety from this false consciousness. Some fool with a PhD announces that the Christian story is simply the propaganda of a Roman ruling class to pacify the Middle East (an actual recent Facebook headline), and the faith of the weak is shaken. A public whose knowledge of its own civilization extends no further back than the last episode of TMZ is undermined by every pseudo-historian’s claim (cf. Mary Magdalen, Gospel of Judas, Rudolf Bultmann, Jack Spong, etc.).

But these modernist delusions are not the enemy. Their invitation is to a world of false historicism in which the past is inherently lost and obscured. Christian fundamentalists (of whatever stripe) who search for historical remnants of Noah’s Ark (or other similar forays) in order to substantiate the historical claims of Scripture have already consigned themselves to lives of anxiety and their children and grandchildren to unbelief. For it is the nature of the modern conception of history that the past is lost. Even the discovery of its older artifacts is not its restoration to the present, but the unearthing of artifacts into the maw of historicist argument. Our knowledge of what is past, as a part of our present, properly rests on other grounds.

St. Paul’s treatment of the resurrection of Christ, makes use of what moderns would call “historical evidence”:

For I delivered to you first of all that which I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He rose again the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He was seen by Cephas, then by the twelve. After that He was seen by over five hundred brethren at once, of whom the greater part remain to the present, but some have fallen asleep. After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles. Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time. (1Co 15:3-8 NKJ)

He cites the eyewitnesses – or so it would seem. However, the thrust of his statement is not to the eyewitnesses as such, but to that “which was delivered.” This is the paradosis, the Tradition.  For that which was delivered to the faithful in Corinth (as it was doubtless delivered to every Church of apostolic foundation, and to every Orthodox believer to this day) is the living content of the Apostolic witness. The resurrection of Christ is not news about a fact, but the very content of the Tradition itself. The historical evidence of the resurrection is the continuing life of the Church itself. The risen Christ is eaten and drunk by believers to this day. St. Paul adds himself to the list of “historical” witnesses. The exact character of that appearance is not described by Paul himself (it may be gleaned from the book of Acts). But he does not denigrate his own experience and witness – though it occurred at least three years after the ascension of Christ.

The security of our faith is not found within the diggings of archaeology or the arguments of textual scholars. It rests within the living Tradition, the paradosis, that abides in the Church. That Tradition does not lessen the importance of the witness within the Scriptures, nor the continuing emptiness of the tomb in Jerusalem. But it describes the proper nature and character of that witness. The witness of the resurrection is indeed that which is delivered to us – it abides.

 

Comments

  1. says

    Thank you Fr. for this wonderful essay! A few years ago, I took some college history courses, and I was blessed to have as a tutor, a wonderful retired Priest from the Traditional Anglican Communion. He called such tendencies “presentism” and he showed me the folly of all that you are pointing out. He would applaud you standing up if he could read this entry. I also got all A’s in my classes. :) You are, as usual, right on! Thank you Fr!