Christian Historians when Those Two Conflict

Marc Bloch, a twentieth-century Jewish historian of medieval France, once wrote, “Christianity is a religion of historians.”  He meant not only that Christian scripture and liturgy recount and commemorate historical events, but also that according to Christianity the fate of humanity played out (and continues to play out) within historical time.  While it is not true that all Christians are historians, I find as a professional historian that my understanding of the past greatly enriches and deepens my faith.  But as a professional, I have been trained to think in certain ways about the past, and sometimes those ways of thought seem to conflict with my faith.  What is a Christian historian to do in such cases?

First of all, one must acknowledge such cases to be rare, on the whole, and always of a certain sort.  While some more militant atheists insist that Christianity is debunked by history at every turn, this is not at all my experience.  And where problems arise, I have never known such problems to be issues of evidence, but instead issues of methodology.

For example, by far the most common example of a disagreement between historians’ training and Christian faith is the issue of miracles: historians are trained to think as materialists and discount the possibility of miracles, whereas Christianity depends upon certain key miracles (such as the resurrection of Christ) having actually happened in the real world.  This is a real disagreement, but it’s not a disagreement about evidence.  When miracles are alleged to occur, countervailing evidence would be the perspective of someone who was there who denies that the miracle happened.  In the ancient world, such sources are rare, but if there were a first-century text by someone who was in Jerusalem in the 30s that said that the body of Jesus was still dead after the apostles began to claim he was raised from the dead, this would be evidence against the miracle of Christ’s resurrection.  It need not be a literary text like the New Testament or the writings of Josephus; inscriptions are often regarded by historians as more reliable, for not having been transmitted (although it would be an admittedly strange thing for someone to pay to inscribe into stone).  Even an ossuary with an inscription which said, “Jesus bar Joseph of Nazareth” would be suggestive evidence (although not unassailable, due to the probability that Nazareth was home to other boys named “Joshua/Jesus,” whose fathers were named Joseph).  But no such evidence exists, and so the disagreement is instead a question of whether miracles ever happen, or can ever reasonably be believed to happen, or not.  This is not a question of evidence, but of how to approach the evidence that exists.  All disagreements I have found between professional historians’ training and Christian faith are of this sort, though usually more subtle.

Experts have been trained very carefully in how to think about their areas of expertise.  The methods they use are not obvious; otherwise, everyone would be experts!  But because the methods are not obvious, it is often equally not obvious whether the methods lead to actual knowledge or not.  To assess whether possible methods are good methods or not, experts use a range of other criteria, such as consistency with other beliefs, aesthetic appeal, ability to explain puzzling evidence, or even fruitfulness for raising other questions.  But experts are not infallible when they make these judgments, and so it is entirely possible (I would say likely) that some of the ways by which experts distinguish truth from falsehood are themselves misleading.  The methods of the experts are what we humans have come up with by trying to figure out how to think about things, but we humans are not only limited, but also not always interested in the truth above other goals (such as tenure, prestige, etc.).

That paragraph is very abstract.  What it means is that when professional historians’ training contradicts Christianity, we cannot assume that it must be Christianity that’s wrong.  Instead, Christian historians need to examine each case in detail and weigh what is the most plausible explanation for the disagreement.  In other words, Christian historians need to treat differences between disagreements between their professional training and the Christian faith as they would any other disagreement: consider the arguments on both sides, and infer to the most plausible outcome.  It’s not magic (though prayer for clarity of understanding is never amiss).  The result of such reflection should make us both better historians (because more aware of our methods, and their limitations) and better Christians (because more aware of our limitations, and God’s grace to us).


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