Reading Historical Documents Historically: From Historical Criticisms to Literary Criticisms and Back Again
Writing history means diﬀerent things to diﬀerent people. In contemporary contexts, some people may be interested in cataloguing lists of monarchs, rulers, presidents and so on. Others may be interested in explaining why things happened, such as the various factors underlying the Second World War. Others still may want to write an explicitly ideological history defending their own perspective, an extreme example of which might include retellings of the past in Soviet Russia. While Soviet histories literally airbrushed the inconvenient out of history (think of Stalin’s removal of Trotsky from photographs of Lenin), partisan histories and interested parties can potentially provide insights others might miss. Perhaps a committed evangelical might pick up nuances of Paul’s theology of justiﬁcation that a non-believer might miss through lack of interest. A non-believer might think about reading New Testament texts like any other text and provide insights from diﬀerent disciplines beyond the interests of others. A Jewish scholar might bring insights from a range of Jewish texts and interests in Jesus or Paul as a Jewish ﬁgure. A middle-of-the-road Anglican or Episcopalian might happily absorb the lot. All these examples have happened and such perspectives or biases can bring insights as well as distortions. All of these approaches to history ultimately stand or fall by evidence and
yet none of these approaches to history, not even the most accurate, can be regarded as innocent. History writing will often tell us about the presentation of a given group’s or individual’s agenda and so we can also read the historians as history, so to speak (see Chapter 11). History writing can also tell us something about the historian and the historian’s time by, for instance, what they do not tell us. Why catalogue monarchs and not local folk heroes? Or why catalogue local folk heroes and not kings? Why catalogue both? Decisions have to be made when writing history and it is worth asking what informs those decisions. So much for contemporary history writing; what of ancient history? There
are plenty of diﬀerences between ancient and modern history writing. Modern
historians have signiﬁcantly better access to a greater range of evidence, resources and methodology so modern history is inevitably and obviously going to be diﬀerent. But there are general similarities too. Ancient historians and writers with an interest in history still had to select evidence and reports. Compare, for instance, the opening of Luke’s Gospel (Luke 1.1-4) with the words of one famous ancient historian, Thucydides:
With reference to the speeches in this history, some were delivered before the war began, others while it was going on; some I heard myself, others I got from various quarters; it was in all cases diﬃcult to carry them word for word in one’s memory, so my habit has been to make the speakers say what was in my opinion demanded of them by the various occasions, of course adhering as closely as possible to the general sense of what they really said. And with reference to the narrative of events, far from permitting myself to derive it from the ﬁrst source that came to hand, I did not even trust my own impressions, but it rests partly on what I saw myself, partly on what others saw for me, the accuracy of the report being always tried by the most severe and detailed tests possible. My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by diﬀerent eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other.