History’s Detectives

shroud_of_turinThe 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.

 

31 comments:

  1. This was a very good article for me as it was a corrective to the way that I viewed the past. There is more to this tradition thing than I imagined. Thank you Fr Stephen for sharing this. (I’m sorry, but as I read the article, I imagined a guy up on the roof playing the fiddle 🙂 )

  2. There was an article published today by a Mormon apologist addressing the subject of historical evidence, found here: http://www.deseretnews.com/article/865628607/Much-left-to-discover-between-archaeology-and-the-Book-of-Mormon.html

    He seems to be doing what you discourage, though; he maintains that there might not be any evidence for the Book of Mormon YET, but he is confident that there one day will be. Such an approach is a good example of what will make disbelievers of faithful adherents, who will learn to maintain their faith only as long as there is material evidence, or the possibility of such evidence.

  3. Isaac,
    It would seem to me that there was already overwhelming evidence of fraud surrounding J. Smith and his claims. Of course, I didn’t grow up Mormon and see it completely from the inside.

    I am not one to want to disparage the usefulness of historical evidence – when historical evidence is called for. The Book of Mormon, for example, purports to be historical in the extreme sense, i.e. the sense in which a mid-19th century Upstate New York protestant would have thought his Old testament was (and is only occasionally). Among the most damning bits of historical evidence viz. the Book of Mormon is precisely that it is so 19th century in every respect. Indeed, it’s almost unimaginable outside of that context.

    What is more problematic, I think, is when moderns try to make the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments into a 19th century notion of the historical.

    There is plenty of “historical” evidence in the NT – but plenty of 1st century handling of that evidence (as we should expect). And the same can be said about the OT.

    For example, I do not think there is much “historical” material in the 1st few chapters of Genesis, and yet they are profound beyond imagining, particularly when read through a Christological lens. They carry an evidence of inspiration that is staggering to me.

  4. You know, Jim, I think you unintentionally make a very good point by referencing that movie. The traditional Jewish life is representative of this view of history. Orthodoxy is actually very Jewish in its worldview, and the way it engages with its own tradition, preserving what has always been there and adopting the best of each generation’s thought (much as Jewish rabbinical literature continually grows without rejecting what has come before).

    I once heard a joke told by a Jewish friend of my father’s: what’s the difference between a Jewish house and a gentile house? A Jewish house is a museum, while a gentile house is a construction project. The limits of Western discourse make this the best description possible, but the reality is that the Jewish house lives in tradition, while gentiles are constantly reinventing and appropriating.

  5. Matth,
    The death of Tradition in Fiddler is the exaltation of a Romanticizing of love and its elevation above all things. “But she loves him…” the Father sings as his daughters increasingly jettison Tradition – a destruction that will, in the end, be far more devastating than the Russian Pogroms.

  6. As a student of history for my entire adult life I give a hearty shout of approval for what Fr. Stephen says here. There is nothing more deadly to understanding ourselves than putting our history “in the dead past”.

    Unfortunately most introductory history classes are taught without imagination or knowledge except the sketchiest knowledge of a few selected facts.

    I was fortunate and had exceptional teachers that went well beyond that limited kind of thinking.

    As I have lived in the Church, my appreciation for the actual connections we each share with our “past” and the people there. If we don’t understand these as present realities we are terrifically impoverished. Life is not linear. The Life is everywhere present and fills all things. We are irresistibly and inevitably part of that.

    It is the demonic consciousness that rejects that Life and therefore cannot know much of anything really (see prior discussion) except pain, suffering, anger and angst of various types of which the suffering of hell consists–the slide toward non-existence.

    A brief story from the communist times in Romania

    Always Rejoice

    The first man was a priest who was put in jail at the age of seventy. His name was Surioanu. When he was brought in with his big white beard and white pate, some officers at the gate of the jail mocked him. One asked, “Why did they bring this old priest here?” And another replied with a jeer, “Probably to take the confessions of everybody.” Those were his exact words.

    This priest had a son who had died in a Soviet jail. His daughter was sentenced to twenty years. Two of his sons-in-law were with him in jail — one with him in the same cell. His grandchildren had no food, they were forced to eat from the garbage. His whole family was destroyed. He had lost his church. But this man had such a shining face — there was always a beautiful smile on his lips. He never greeted anyone with “Good morning” or “Good evening,” but instead with the words, “Always rejoice.”

    One day we asked him, “Father, how can you say ‘always rejoice’ — you who passed through such a terrible tragedy?”

    He said, “Rejoicing is very easy. If we fulfill at least one word from the Bible, it is written, ‘Rejoice with all those who rejoice.’ Now if one rejoices with all those who rejoice, he always has plenty of motivation for rejoicing. I sit in jail, and I rejoice that so many are free. I don’t go to church, but I rejoice with all those who are in church. I can’t take Holy Communion, but I rejoice about all those who take. I can’t read the Bible or any other holy book, but I rejoice with those who do. I can’t see flowers [we never saw a tree or a flower during those years. We were under the earth, in a subterranean prison. We never saw the sun, the moon, stars — many times we forgot that these things existed. We never saw a color, only the gray walls of the cell and our gray uniforms. But we knew that such a world existed, a world with multicolored butterflies and with rainbows], but I can rejoice with those who see the rainbows and who see the multicolored butterflies.”

    In prison, the smell was not very good. But the priest said, “Others have the perfume of flowers around them, and girls wearing perfume. And others have picnics and others have their families of children around them. I cannot see my children but others have children. And he who can rejoice with all those who rejoice can always rejoice. I can always be glad.” That is why he had such a beautiful expression on his face.

    Surioanu understands history. Christ is Risen!

  7. “I once heard a joke told by a Jewish friend of my father’s: what’s the difference between a Jewish house and a gentile house? A Jewish house is a museum, while a gentile house is a construction project.”

    I find this joke quite wonderful, Matth! Many thanks for it!

  8. The simplest illustration of tradition is language. It is “handed down” to us. It is what I meant in the article by saying that history is in our tongue. The wonderful little book by Owen Barfield (CS Lewis’ friend) called, “History in English Words,” is a wonderful read that brings out our history as it is carried in words. If you were a student of language, this would be overwhelmingly obvious at all times.

    Language is indeed a “living” tradition. It is from the past and is handed down, but is of the present and lives. It can be strangely driven by poetry, just as various forms of Rap (just as jazz once did) are contributing new words to the mainstream language.

  9. Fr. Stephen, your statement about language reminds me of the death of Latin in the 14th century as a living language, when the humanists sought to resurrect the high Roman oratorical style and in doing finished off Medieval Latin as a daily written language. In seeking out the true “historical” language, they disregarded the previous millennium of life of the language.

  10. Matt,
    Of course, Latin is alive and well on the tongues of all speakers of Romance languages: Romanian, French, Spanish, Italian, etc. Indeed, there is far less difference between any of those languages and Latin, than there is between modern English and Middle English (ca. 1000). I majored in Latin, and have hacked my way through both French articles and Italian articles with only moderate difficulty.

    I rejoice in Google translate today – allowing me to read a lot more stuff.

  11. Matth’s comment reminds me of one detail that gave me a surprising amount of emotional reassurance the first few times I went to an Orthodox service: despite the unwavering and pronounced claim of being the one original Church, the spoken name of Christ is consistently [‘d͡ʒi:.zəs], except only when actually speaking in another language for the benefit of those who do not natively speak English or quoting something that was not written in English when the untranslated original is specifically required.

    Not Yeshua or Joshua or [je.sus] (“Yay Soos” however spelled) any other imposed etymological reconstruction, just Jesus as people speaking English have pronounced the Name for generations.

    Somehow that just gave me this huge reassurance that all the robes and bells and candles and incense that this wasn’t a wilful exercise in creative anachronism, but preserving something that has actually been handed down to us. It communicated that this is a Church that works with and brings out good in a living tradition, not a Church that makes up and imposes arbitrary, hopefully still-good pieces of a dead (or at least mutilated and frozen) one.

  12. When I was in high school, my father who knew several languages, told me that “we live as many lives as the languages we speak”….

    I think that is so true, each language makes us look at life and the world in a little different way. Maybe it’s a little like looking at the world with the head vs the heart (with a different part of the brain?).

    I am certainly a little different person in my native Polish than in my learnt English. I feel like my best “me” would be in French, except I forgot most of what I once new 🙂

  13. Interesting post. I think that history is never really history apart from the theological. Apart from the knowledge of God, history just becomes the chronological arrangement of meaningless facts. There is no true narrative. when there is a “narrative”, it is always one based on the assumptions of naturalism. This is entirely why modern historians cannot look at the Gospel without skepticism. The Gospel tells us that the world does have a True history apart from the aimless and formless view of naturalism.

  14. Years ago my mom and I went to Israel. While we were visiting one of the many ancient sites, she said something that has stayed with me. “I just realized that there were people here just living their lives and raising their families just like I am doing today”. Simple and profound. I see it as we are reaching backward through time, in a way, as we live. And we are reaching forward as well. In God’s world we are timeless. Not our physical selves, but our selves that reside in Him. My soul understands this much better than my brain. 🙂

  15. I am one of those who went through a distressing “crisis of faith” outside of Orthodoxy while wrestling with these historical issues. I was raised to believe that if Genesis, for example, was not literally historical down to the tiniest detail, then it undermined the entirety of Scripture and the whole thing fell apart.

    It was not until reading Fr. Andrew Louth’s Discerning the Mystery (the first Orthodox text I ever read, apart from a few Fathers themselves) that I began to understand history, and our relationship to it and the Scriptures, in a very different and more Orthodox / classical light.

    I have witnessed friends from my youth head down a similar road. Their crises, however, led them to atheism, because that is precisely what they’d been taught they must do by their well-meaning Christian parents. I cannot count the number of times I heard, “If Genesis is not literally historically true, then the whole of Scripture is undermined and faith in Christ is in vain.” (Or some similar variation.)

    It saddens me that we don’t see their actions (the rejection of Christianity) as consistent with what they were taught, and that if we don’t want them abandoning the faith, perhaps we should start with what is being taught in the first place…

  16. I wonder if a comment could be made regarding how and in what way should we read hagiography.

    Without going into much detail, some of the accounts provided by our fathers of the Church seem to provide more theoretical (theoria) than historical (historia) information.

    One example comes from the Syrian life of St. Ephrem the Syrian, where St. Ephrem is depicted as meeting St. Basil the Great, and, during this meeting, St. Ephrem miraculously learns Greek. The first account we have of this occurrence dates over 150 years after St. Ephrem lived and contains a number of errors. (eg., it describes St. Basil dying before St. Ephrem, when we know that he died 6 years after St. Ephrem.)

    I guess I’m trying to ask then how we understand some of the material we have had handed down to us? Is the value in our traditions viz. stories which surround our saints mostly in what the Church wants to tell us today, regardless of whether they are factual? Furthermore, if we consider these hagiographical accounts more allegorical than historical, then in what way can we have a ‘ypostatic union with our saints via their icons?

    I apologize for any lack of clarity: I feel this could be said better.

    I always appreciate your posts, Fr. Steven – thank you.

  17. Fr. Stephen,

    “For example, I do not think there is much “historical” material in the 1st few chapters of Genesis, and yet they are profound beyond imagining, particularly when read through a Christological lens. They carry an evidence of inspiration that is staggering to me.”

    I have read once somewhere that there was/is an Antiochian way of reading the Bible and the Alexandrian way. Antiochian way is more historical, realistic and rational. The Alexandrian way approaches the Bible as a metaphor, we read it to takes symbolic meanings and spiritual truths.

    My notes on that reading say:

    “The richness of the Bible is only limited by the richness of your imagination. It’s LIMITLESS if you can imagine limitless possibilities. Read the Bible with your heart flying, your mind wide open, with all your earnest desires, fully alert. The Holy Spirit will lead you to see the answer you need. Read stories, take new meaning from them and apply them to your life. You don’t have to see a town as a town, or a war as a war. *You* can see them all as symbols for things inside *you*.
    The richness of the Bible is not a literal prison, a straight jacket that you put on and then you can’t move…. It’s a sea in which you can go for a swim.”

    Blessed Feast Day to all!
    God has gone up with a shout! The Lord with the sound of a trumpet!

  18. Allegory is not the only issue here, there is such profound depth in Scripture that it goes beyond what we conceive. Although the simplest way to to read has safety in it, it is also crucial to have the patient and humble understanding of a ‘simpleton’ while reading simply, knowing that it makes ‘sense’ as a whole even if it makes little sense to me on this particular page; (i don’t always like calling this ‘allegory’ when it is obviously more precise to call it ‘hidden cosmic profundity’) the way Scripture is delivered and explained in Church and in her Hymnography attests to the belief that it was all written for ‘me’ now from the start, penned ‘back then’ for us today, for its reader and his/her present moment and as a whole, including chiastic patterns that conjoin this particular page with that other one thousands of page later… It is as if there’s a secret code including chiasmus of the first and the last, narratives that cannot stand fully on their own but find their answer and meaning somewhere else in Scripture. And none of this works without Grace ‘opening up our minds’…

  19. Athanasios,
    The modern version of literalism combines with a modern version of historicism that creates, I think, a platform for the destruction of faith. Orthodox who defend literalism (and there are a number of them out there) do not realize that they are advocating a world-view that is simply alien to the Fathers and the faith – but is at home with a Protestant historicism that originates primarily in the 19th century.

    Among the many things I concentrate on with catechumens in my parish is the nature of the Scriptures. The arguments between Protestant Liberals and Protestant Fundamentalists should have nothing to do with the Orthodox. They’re both wrong. Glad you read Louth. It’s an outstanding book –

  20. Dino,

    You wrote:
    “…it is also crucial to have the patient and humble understanding of a ‘simpleton’ while reading simply, knowing that it makes ‘sense’ as a whole even if it makes little sense to me on this particular page; (i don’t always like calling this ‘allegory’ when it is obviously more precise to call it ‘hidden cosmic profundity’)…” – which I find to be very profound! As St. Paisios has reminded us, patience and humility are rather like twin sisters, from whose company we should gladly learn.

    I would extend the point you make about it “making sense as a whole, even if it makes little sense to me on this particular page” adding: at this particular time and place.
    Time and experience, as St. Andrew of Caesarea has said, will reveal the fullness/meaning of the Scriptures. Consider, for example, the imagery described by St. John in the Apocalypse…1,000 years ago the locusts could never have been thought to possibly be fighter planes (like those from WWII) – which is what they might be considered to be today. Time and experience do reveal a great deal, if we are patient enough – and humble enough.

    In Christ,
    Eleftheria

  21. Fr. Stephen:

    In case you have not read it, C.S. Lewis’s Studies in Words makes many of your points about language and parallels in a practical way some of Barfield’s thinking.

    (And to think it was taken from notebooks assembled as a hobby. Sheesh).

  22. I would simply add that my introduction to icons and the lives of the saints was tremendously beneficial in understanding God’s work in a continuum. Having grown up Protestant, there are debates on whether or not people still have miraculous gifts, and that stems from a historical view of what God “did back then.” It was refreshing to have a record of many ways God has worked since the New Testament was written. Similarly, what you’ve often noted about Scripture itself is that it captures and provides witness to what God was doing at that time, whereas the Bible-centric view of scripture is that the scripture is what happened and all the info we need is somewhere in there. But God continues to work and God continues to speak. Glory to You, O Lord.

  23. Agata wrote: ““The richness of the Bible is only limited by the richness of your imagination. It’s LIMITLESS if you can imagine limitless possibilities. Read the Bible with your heart flying, your mind wide open, with all your earnest desires, fully alert. The Holy Spirit will lead you to see the answer you need. Read stories, take new meaning from them and apply them to your life. You don’t have to see a town as a town, or a war as a war. *You* can see them all as symbols for things inside *you*.
    The richness of the Bible is not a literal prison, a straight jacket that you put on and then you can’t move…. It’s a sea in which you can go for a swim.”

    My only caveat to this is to remember that the context and interpreter of Scripture is the Church. I read your quote/notes and immediately thought of New Age Spirituality though I know you didn’t mean it that way! So I guess my point is that some restraint and humility must be used by us when we read. Not a critique of your notes but something that I think is worth adding.

  24. Byron,

    I sort of presume that all who post here are Orthodox, and not just theoretically, but practicing it: going to confession regularly, attending the Liturgy regularly, having a spiritual father/mother to guide and direct them, even just a little. Maybe even practicing the Jesus Prayer….

    Those are the foundations of our life in Christ in the Church. Without it, you are right, you can do all sorts of interpretations (as people do all the time). Fr. Zacharias had a story about a girl for whom he prayed long and hard, without much effect. He was surprised and puzzled that there were no effects… And then he found out she never went to church, to the Liturgy… He said we have to be with Christ in the mysteries before He can even begin to influence our life…

    These notes came from a program about a Coptic monk who lives in a cave of St. Anthony the Great in the Egyptian desert. He was an Australian atheist who slowly progressed in his discovery of God, to the point of being a hermit. It’s a program for a Coptic Youth Channel. And this Bible reading advice was prefaced by telling them that they should isolate themselves from the worldly life (God always made His people “separate” from the rest of the world), because only then they will have a chance to live life in obedience to the Commandments of the Gospel…

    The Bible reading advice was also given in context of being immersed in church life, in the Tradition of the Orthodox Church and Holy Fathers.

    But of course thank you for reminding us about it!

  25. Fr. Stephen, Thank you for these words:

    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.

  26. Allen,
    Quite so. Last Sunday in my homily, speaking about the Tradition of the Fathers, I used the example of language. Language is absolutely a Tradition. It is handed down. Every child masters it first – and then we teach them the rules!

    But, as I noted, Latin is still spoken. In Romania, it sounds like Romanian, France like French, etc. But modern Romanian and French are closer to classical Latin than modern English is to Old English.

    Doctrine is part of the “grammar” of Tradition. The words can change, for example, but the grammar must remain the same. Thus, the Christian faith rightly spoken, maintains the grammar of the cruciform human, of the Crucified Christ, of salvation as union with God through Christ, etc. Orthodox Christianity is simply what “fluency” in Christianity looks like.

    There are all of these “invented” forms of Christianity, but they have forgotten the grammar and, in fact, are saying something quite different. Modernists of all stripes think that an “invented language” would be an improvement (to extend the metaphor). But, in fact, a language is far too complex a thing to just invent. Instead, they simply ruin the one that they have been given.

    It is not a coincidence that “political correctness,” just like Marxism before it, pays great attention to words and changing meanings, or outlawing certain expressions. The babblers will have their “newspeak.” But I think that God’s Pentecost will overcome their nonsense.

  27. “I sort of presume that all who post here are Orthodox, and not just theoretically, but practicing it: going to confession regularly, attending the Liturgy regularly, having a spiritual father/mother to guide and direct them, even just a little. Maybe even practicing the Jesus Prayer….”

    Thank you, Agata. I sort of presume that most of the readers are not Orthodox although it seems many of the posters are. I myself am not (yet) but I am seeking it. I supposed I am “reading myself” into this too much!

  28. Fr. Stephen,

    My apologies for the presumption.

    But we Orthodox need your teaching and explanations even more than the rest of the world!

  29. Hello Father!
    You have a lot of interesting comments on history and how we modern Americans view it. I’ve undertaken homeschooling my children, and, mostly because of your comments, I’m really stuck on I should approach history with them. I don’t want to go the typical modern American education route. I’m looking into history being told through stories/literature – seems like it was done that way in the past. Do you have advise on this topic?

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