It has been a long time since my last post in this blog, so I am going to summarize where I am at right now. I started laying base “foundations” for truth, talking about its objectivity and exclusivity. I talked about different areas of truth such as morality and religion in terms of their objectivity. And I started to talk about the search for truth through science. I will continue off that last post by talking about finding truth through history, and will probably continue to other areas thereafter.
Anyway, on to history. People, including historians have various definitions for history. Some of these definitions involve what people wrote down (hence their biases get involved), and how people today interpret the past. However, for simplicity, I will use the definition that history is “all true past events”. Along with being simple, I think this is the best fit for a definition of history. For example, the fact that I wrote this sentence is a true event of the past. Even if there was no evidence that would help someone determine if I did write that sentence (i.e. if my computer broke and I never told anyone about it), that event would still be history.
The historian’s task is to attempt to determine what actually happened in history. There are issues that cause uncertainty with what actually happen, especially with ancient history. Today, video cameras allow us to see what happened in the past, sometimes with complete certainty when there are multiple camera angles and eyewitness testimony. However, with ancient history, we do not have that convenience. Instead, we have writings from people who had a particular worldview and biases which influenced their writing. And oftentimes, we do not have multiple “angles” as we would today. Instead, we have one writing (or a few writings) about a person or event, which becomes even more problematic when the person wrote with a bias.
Should we give up on figuring what happened in ancient history because of these problems? I do not think so. Although we cannot have absolute certainty about what happened in ancient history, we can come to a reasonable conclusion about some events that happened using the evidence (i.e. the copies of writings that did survive through thousands of years) that we do have.
Historians tend to “want” certain things from ancient writings in order to help them determine the truth about a particular event or person. Some of these things include:
1. Multiple attestation – This goes along with the “multiple angles” idea that I discussed above. Historians prefer having multiple perspectives about, for example, a particular event. Even though there are biases that affect how the writers describe that event, multiple attestation can allow historians to determine if the event did indeed occur.
For example, assume there are two sources about Alexander the Great conquering Persian. One of these sources is from the perspective of one of Alexander’s soldiers. The soldier essentially lifts Alexander up as a god when talking about his conquest. The other source is from the perspective of the Persian King, and the king writes constant insults about Alexander and complains about being conquered by him. Even though these are two completely different perspectives, and certain details about the conquest likely differ, historians can still determine that Alexander most probably 1. existed and 2. conquered Persia.
I used the term “most probably” there because possible theories could be made that Alexander did not conquer Persia. It is possible that someone made up the story 100 years later to elevate Alexander’s status after his death. However, in this case the best explanation for these writings (after consideration of other factors) would likely be that Alexander’s existence and conquest of Persia are true. I personally like New Testament historian NT Wright’s use of the terms “extremely unlikely”, “possible”, “plausible”, “probable”, to “highly probable” in reference to the certainty we have about a particular historic event.
2. Date of original writing close to the events written about – This one is pretty simple. The closer that the writing was to the events, the better. There is less time to fabricate a story to the point that the main events that the writing discuss are false. Legendary material (i.e. elevation of the details of an event or person) tends to build up over time. This is especially true in ancient history, when stories were usually passed down through multiple generations before the story was written down. If the author used source material that has an earlier date than the original writing, is can also strengthen the reliability of the writing.
3. If we do not have the original writings, there are multiple copies of the original writings that are close to the date of the original writing – this factor is important to determine if the copy of a source that we have today matches the original source. If there are multiple copies, then historians can detect if errors have been made from some one copying either the original source or another copy. If the copies were written close to the time of the original writing, there is less time for these types of errors, as well as manipulation, to occur. It is important to point out here that we do not have ANY original writings from ancient history, so these problems are present for every ancient writing we have today.
4. Archeology backs up what was written down – this factor does not lead someone to prove that an event happened, but it can build up the reliability of a writing. If findings from archeology do match up with details form a writing, it shows that the writer was not just making things up; there was some care with getting the facts right.
5. Embarrassing material – this is information that historians would not expect the writer to include in the writing based on historical context. This is a minor factor compared to the others, but still something to look at.
There are more factors, or “criterion”, that historians consider to help determine if an event occurred. The first two are most relevant for historians to determine what happened, number three helps determine the accuracy of writings we do have, and 4 and 5 provide additional evidence for the reliability of a source.
I also want to point out an important distinction to make – historical facts vs. interpretation of those facts. Once a historian determines the events that happened at a time in history, there may be different conclusions about what those events mean.
For example, two historians could agree that Alexander conquered Greece, Persia, and then turned back once he got to Asia. Virtually ALL historians who study Alexander may agree that this is true based on the writings we have. However, the two historians could disagree on why Alexander turned back. Maybe Alexander just got tired and thought he conquered enough, or maybe his soldiers complained enough to force him to turn back. No matter what answer is correct to the question of why Alexander turned back, the base historical facts of his conquering and turning back are still true.
I know my example of Alexander is simple and probably not historically accurate. However, I am just using that example to show why multiple attestation is important (in factor #1 above) and how interpretation of facts do not take away from the truth of the facts themselves. And by historical facts, I mean events that almost certainly happened based on the data we have. As discussed earlier, complete certainty in ancient history is nearly impossible.
There is more to talk about with ancient history too, especially the difference between oral tradition and how we record history today. But I’ll leave it at this for now, and move on to the next area we can use to discover truth, philosophy.