Herodotus…that scoundrel

I highly recommend iTunes U (for “University”). Selected colleges and universities around the world publish lectures, even entire courses, on podcasts. So far I’ve listened to everything from Modern Controversies in Astronomy, Early Middle Ages, the American Revolution, and the 20th Century International Political System. I’ve just started a new course on the American Civil War.

That scoundrel revisionist

As a professional historian at Yale, he and his colleagues are often criticized as “revisionist historians,” or historians that revise history in order to set an agenda rather than historians who pass on historical facts. One of his colleagues was interviewed by a reporter and was asked, “Who started this revisionist history?” The professor replied, “Probably Herodotus.” The eager journalist, smelling blood, quickly asked, “Do you have his phone number?”

Sorry if you’re not laughing. It’s a history joke. Herodotus lived in the fifth century B.C. and composed the first work of history in the western world (“The History,” a work about the Persian invasions of Greece). And of course Herodotus was the first revisionist historian because that’s the only type of history. The other thing, storytelling, is not really history; that’s just another form of entertainment.

My credentials as an armchair historian are above reproach: a B.A. from UT in history, a master’s thesis on church history, and a proud member of the Historical Society of the Episcopal Church. So I often hear this, “Hey Jimmy, you like history, right? Well, I have a story for you…”

Yes. I like studying history. But often what I hear is simply a story from the past. Now don’t get me wrong, these stories are often entertaining. I enjoy listening to them. But I enjoy stories because I’m a human, not because I’m a historian. Rarely can one extrapolate any larger understanding of the past and its consequences from an entertaining anecdote.

The true work of history takes facts, causes, effects, consequences, and yes, stories, in order to lay out a broad understanding of the past. What’s more, my own point of view is taken into account when I write a piece of history. We would be living under a delusion if we thought we could write “objective history.” All history is subjective and subject to points of view. It’s downright preposterous to assume that one could ever put away your beliefs, theories, even how your digestive system is working that day, and produce a piece of unbiased history.

So let’s take something that happened in the past and look at it anecdotally and then look at it like a historian. That event is the most important event for Christians – the resurrection of Jesus from the dead (I know that some, if not many or all of you, will have issues with my statement that the resurrection is a fact of history. That’s another blog post for another day.)

Christ is risen!

The crucifixion and resurrection are a great story. Wow! A first century prophet was killed and raised from the dead – how cool! But as a story, it stops there. There is no movement, no impact beyond that. We are entertained for a few brief moments, but then we put another log on the campfire and move onto the next story.

But look at the resurrection through the eyes of a historian. A first century Jewish prophet was crucified by the Roman Empire and rose again from the dead. His followers, though they were despondent after his execution, then go on to preach this very message to the ends of the earth. The resurrection is not an anecdote – it is the historical event that explains the growth of Christianity.

My argument here is that Christians already know how to work as real historians. We already know that the stories of the past have real and profound consequences today. They are not entertaining anecdotes to tell around a campfire – they are narratives that produce ideas, visions, causes, effects, and consequences.

Every time we pray, receive communion, do works of charity and justice in the name of the risen Lord, we are acting as revisionist historians. We are being compelled by a story from twenty centuries ago to work its way through time and affect how we behave today.

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One thought on “Herodotus…that scoundrel

  1. I too consider myself a “Historian.” I have a degree in History and taught (successfully is another question) World & U.S. History for a number of years. I defign a historical revionest as one who rewrites or reinterprets history to meet their personal agenda and I cannot agree with that. History should be the accurate telling of “the story” of what happened. Yes, the story teller’s (the Historian’s) views are shaped by their personal opinions, beliefs, and experiences, but good Historians still strive to use their research and their usderstanding of the event to tell the story as unbiased and objective as they can. Years ago, I started my search for the historical Jesus in a way to add truth to and justify my Christian beliefs. As you know, during the 1st centry Middle East, another Messiah, another person perclaiming to be a God of virgin birth was nothing unusal. I doubt that telling people that Jesus rose from the dead got that much attention, after all , he did perclaim to be the “Son of a God.” There were two events that got this history researchers attention that indicated that something different happened around 32 CE. One was the people of The Way did not dissappear after Jesus was gone. The followers of all the other 1st century “Messiahs” disbursed or dissappeared after the death of their leader, but Jesus’ followers kept standing there and telling people; Guess what, you didn’t kill him, he didn’t die. We saw him and talked to him! The second event, and the one that remains to me the most important, is Pentecost. What I think makes this event different from others in the Bible is that those who witnesed and wrote about it really have trouble explaining what happened that day. They were not revionest, they were not trying to rewrite or reinterpretate an event, they seem to be just trying to explain something that that was so different from anything they had seen before that their writings reverted to simple graphic descriptions. No thundering music from above, no clouds of angels, just we don’t know what is was, but it looked like fire comming down from above and suddendly everyone could understand us and we could understand them. Looking at is from a historical perspective, something happened that day that changed the course of this small group of belivers in a person called Jesus into a movement that changed the world. That should get the attention of any Historian.

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