Historical documents as an unreliable narrator

42 posts / 0 new
Last post
Jared Alesi's picture
Historical documents as an unreliable narrator

Some months ago, I debated JoC over the notion that the scientific method is the only known method for discovering objective truths. A large portion of his counterpoints revolved around the claim that historical documentation is indeed another method. Flawed as that may be, I am here to offer a scenario that highlights the degree to which historical documentation is unreliable.

Imagine that civilization as we know it is wiped out, rendering the whole world to be much the same as the Minoans or the Roanoke colony. However, evidence of us still exists, as well as most of our popular culture such as books, movies, and even digitally recorded music.

With that in mind, imagine that a team of researchers far in the future finds a shit ton of recordings of Christmas carols, publications of Christmas books, and copies of Christmas movies. Using these documents, the team would surmise that Santa Clause was a historical figure who used alien science known colloquially as magic to deliver presents to nice children once a year. They would also find that he lives in the Arctic with a bunch of reindeer as pets and elves as workers. The team would assume that the elves were long since extinct, and Santa's methods forever lost.

Now imagine that this team is us, with any other well known historical figure that predates cameras. Maybe Hannibal didn't, in fact, war against Rome and march elephants over the Alps, but he was just a fictional character associated with Carthage by Cato and other Romans to boost morale, just like Jerry for the Americans during WWII. We know Santa doesn't exist, but this is so obvious that we don't document that fact. Perhaps the Romans thought the same way about Hannibal.

Subscription Note: 

Choosing to subscribe to this topic will automatically register you for email notifications for comments and updates on this thread.

Email notifications will be sent out daily by default unless specified otherwise on your account which you can edit by going to your userpage here and clicking on the subscriptions tab.

Diotrephes's picture
Jared Alesi,

Jared Alesi,

"Maybe Hannibal didn't, in fact, war against Rome and march elephants over the Alps, but he was just a fictional character associated with Carthage by Cato and other Romans to boost morale, just like Jerry for the Americans during WWII."

They found the shit from Hannibal's elephants in the Alps.

Tracing Hannibal's Elephants -- With Dung
"The route taken by Hannibal and his army – including some 40 elephants – across Rome’s “impassable” Alpine border has been revealed by the dung they left behind, say scientists.

The Carthaginian general, a strategic genius the equal of Julius Caesar or Alexander the Great, marched up to 40,000 infantry, 12,000 cavalry, and an extensive baggage train from Spain to Italy in 218 BC."
https://www.forbes.com/sites/paulrodgers/2016/04/05/dung-points-to-hanni...

BTW, did you know that the Bible has 18 stories about using war elephants in the Middle East against the Jews?
https://www.biblegateway.com/quicksearch/?search=elephants&version=CEB&s...

Jared Alesi's picture
Cool. Obviously I didn't mean

Cool. Obviously I didn't mean to say that Hannibal is fake, but I just picked a historical figure to use as an example. The point was still made.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ Jared Alesi

@ Jared Alesi

Uncorroborated historical documents are and can be subject to wide interpretation. Reliance on them alone can lead to errors. As Diotrephes points out the documents can be confirmed to contain errors or conformed as true accounts by archeology or the discovery of other contemporary documents. That is how historical research works.
One presents (as in science) a hypotheses that fits the available credible evidence, then others will examine that evidence and eventually agree or disagree until more evidence is discovered, a new hypothesis is published and the cycle repeats.

Theology (which you describe in your Santa/aliens) starts from a supposition of unassailable truth and will retrofit documents, archeology and other discoveries to fit the supposition.

Sapporo's picture
@Old man shouts

@Old man shouts
Yes. JoC is wrong because historical documents are falsifiable like any other form of evidence.

JoC's picture
This is actually why genre is

This is actually why genre is important. As important as any historical document or any literary work is the genre it’s written in. Is it a parable? In the case of movies, is it a documentary or was it’s primary goal to entertain? Even if people uncover these Christmas movies and such, if they know how to evaluate the genre of these works, they won’t misunderstand anything.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ JoC

@ JoC

Of course they will misunderstand; "genre" only has relevance in the time, or near after, the artifact was made.

Even a millenial nowadays will struggle to understand the supposed "genre" of Paul's letters. They need a pastor to "explain" and "interpret" the contradictions.. Never mind the infinitely more subtle variations of the Christmas Story.

That wont be a resource available to an alien in the future.

"genre" will be a totally inaccessible concept to a future human never mind alien archaeologist.

Sheldon's picture
"This is actually why genre

"This is actually why genre is important. As important as any historical document or any literary work is the genre it’s written in. "

So a document claiming to have been inspired by an omniscient omnipotent deity, and part of that deity's complex plan that was the reason for literally everything that exists, is a genre demonstrably different to all other historical data. It would logically follow then that if such a deity's sole purpose in communicating with us was to save us from an eternity of torture, and an essential component was that we believed it's message's veracity, then this unique genre in historical data ought to contain evidence of a calibre far above what we would normally demand in establishing historical facts. Yet we see quite the opposite where the facts simply don't reflect many of the claims made in the bible.

A written historical account cannot of course evidence supernatural claims, the idea would mean we would have to give credence to the legends of Hercules.

JoC's picture
Well, you’ll have to show me

Well, you’ll have to show me where any of the NT and OT books claimed to be inspired by God then I’ll agree with you. As it is, they don’t claim divine authorship. As such, as historical documents, you’ll need to look at the literary genre and read them as such.

The gospels, the letters, revelation need to be read in context.

The idea of divine authorship was given to these books after they were written.

Diotrephes's picture
JoC,

JoC,

"Well, you’ll have to show me where any of the NT and OT books claimed to be inspired by God then I’ll agree with you. As it is, they don’t claim divine authorship.

What do you think about 2 Peter 1:21 (NLV) = "No part of the Holy Writings came long ago because of what man wanted to write. But holy men who belonged to God spoke what the Holy Spirit told them."

JoC's picture
So...

So...

Where does the letter of Peter claim to be divinely written? Even that quote doesn’t say that what Peter is writing is divinely written.

Again, none of the books claim divine authorship in and of themselves.

Jared Alesi's picture
2 Timothy 3:16-17

2 Timothy 3:16-17

"All scriptures are inspired by God, and are profitable for teaching, reproof, correction, and training in righteousness, that every man of God may be adequately equipped for all good works."

Tin-Man's picture
@Joc Re: "Again, none of

@Joc Re: "Again, none of the books claim divine authorship in and of themselves."

Sooooo, if what you say is true, then that means every single preacher, Sunday school teacher, and pretty much every Christian I ever knew as a kid (and know now) have been lying to me all these years? Huh.... *scratching chin* Guess they didn't get the memo you got. Perhaps you should start spreading that information around to all your Christian buddies so that you all can be "on the same page", so to speak. Oh, then again, never mind. Why go through all the trouble? You all would just end up interpreting it a thousand different ways anyway.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ JoC

@ JoC

"as historical documents, you’ll need to look at the literary genre and read them as such."

However many times you repeat a lie it is a lie.

None of them are "historical" documents, in the sense they accurately describe actual events.

3 Of Paul's letters are blatant forgeries 3 more are most likely not by the writer claimed. All of them were heavily edited at some point.
The Synoptic gospels are not contemporary to the period claimed and therefore must be read in the context of later editing to satisfy that theology.
Johns account is written by at least 3 people over an extended period and dates from at least 90CE at very earliest

"Revelation" are the hysterical scribblings of an unknown writer, who, in context today, would be on large doses of Prozac and regularly be detained in a public facility for his own protection.

That the documents have historical significance, I agree, but that they describe actual events as in a "historical" document is a silly statement.

JoC's picture
That’s not actually what I’m

That’s not actually what I’m asserting. All I’m pointing out is that Sheldon said the books claim to be divine (that is their genre), which they don’t actually claim.

So fancy that! I agree with you.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ JoC

@ JoC

"The idea of divine authorship was given to these books after they were written."

This sentence is 100% accurate. But as a good Catholic you should be aware of the following;

You should get a good burning at the stake (after a chance to recant at least).

I refer you to Wikepedia (your favorite source:)

"The Roman Catholic Church holds the Bible as inspired by God, but does not view God as the direct author of the Bible, in the sense that he does not put a 'ready-made' book in the mind of the inspired person.

Pope Benedict XVI gave the following (non-dogmatic) explanation in 2007:

The Scripture emerged from within the heart of a living subject — the pilgrim people of God — and lives within this same subject. ...[T]he individual author or group of authors ... are not autonomous ... they form part of ... the "people of God," ... the deeper "author" of the Scriptures. ...[L]ikewise, this people ... knows that it is led, and spoken to, by God himself, who — through men and their humanity — is at the deepest level the one speaking."

(First two sentences added for comprehension)

JoC's picture
Tell me who died and made you

Tell me who died and made you the church authority to judge heresy.

Here’s an enclyclical from Pope Paul VI, Dei Verbum. Check out chapter 3. First two paragraphs.

http://www.vatican.va/archive/hist_councils/ii_vatican_council/documents...

It’s actually in keeping with the idea that by themselves (apart from divine inspiration), the authors are free to write in their own style and genre.

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ JOC

@ JOC
Your exact words were "inspired by god"

You've been answered and debunked.

No one disagreed about "divine authorship" which is another subject entirely.

JoC's picture
Exactly. Christians believe

Exactly. Christians believe the NT documents are inspired by God. Everyone else doesn’t think so. It still remains as historically significant literary work.

And looking at these works’ literary genre, they’re not written as fiction (ie, the people who wrote them at the very least thought what they were writing was true).

Old man shouts at clouds's picture
@ JoC

@ JoC

"And looking at these works’ literary genre, they’re not written as fiction (ie, the people who wrote them at the very least thought what they were writing was true)"

Of that we have no idea. We cannot say for certain whether the scribes who embellished these stories "thought what they were writing was true". We can only say the authorship is murky and that the balance of probability is that the events described did not occur as written.

Then we can agree.

I retierate:
"That the documents have historical significance, I agree, but that they describe actual events as in a "historical" document is a silly statement."

(Edit:last para added)

Nyarlathotep's picture
JoC - Well, you’ll have to

JoC - Well, you’ll have to show me where any of the NT and OT books claimed to be inspired by God...

Well that is what your church claims.

JoC's picture
It’s actually not. None of

It’s actually not. None of the NT or OT books claim divine authorship. The link you included actually states what I have been saying.

That the divine authorship of scripture was recognized by the church (not the authors or the works themselves).

Sapporo's picture
@JoC "inspired by God":

@JoC "inspired by God":

John 1:1-18

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. 5 And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.

6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 This man came for a witness, to bear witness of the Light, that all through him might believe. 8 He was not that Light, but was sent to bear witness of that Light. 9 That was the true Light which gives light to every man coming into the world.

10 He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. 11 He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him. 12 But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: 13 who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

14 And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 John bore witness of Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is preferred before me, for He was before me.’”

16 And of His fullness we have all received, and grace for grace. 17 For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him.

Revelation 1:1-8

The Revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave Him to show His servants—things which must shortly take place. And He sent and signified it by His angel to His servant John, 2 who bore witness to the word of God, and to the testimony of Jesus Christ, to all things that he saw. 3 Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of this prophecy, and keep those things which are written in it; for the time is near.

4 John, to the seven churches which are in Asia:

Grace to you and peace from Him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven Spirits who are before His throne, 5 and from Jesus Christ, the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth.

To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, 6 and has made us kings and priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

7 Behold, He is coming with clouds, and every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him. And all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of Him. Even so, Amen.

8 “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End,” says the Lord, “who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.”

JoC's picture
So.... None basically.

So....

None basically.

Diotrephes's picture
JoC,

JoC,

"None basically."

Well, if the Bible wasn't inspired by Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews and the God of the armies, why do so many claim to read it? It must be because they like all of those murder and ghost stories.

JoC's picture
Like I said, it’s certain

Like I said, it’s certain groups of people who came together and decided that those works were inspired by God at a later time. Like I said, none of the books of the Bible (in and of themselves) claim divine inspiration. Not one goes, “Signed, God” or “I write to you know inspired by God”

LogicFTW's picture
Heh, I know I am late to add

Heh, I know I am late to add my 2 cents, but, are we really arguing if god "signed" the NT or the OT? Or that the works are divinely written/inspired somehow?

The argument should really be about is nt/ot historical fiction or not.

Of which there is an easy answer. Any book that makes great claims about past events w/o corroborating evidence must be deemed fiction.

Sheldon's picture
"The idea of divine

"The idea of divine authorship was given to these books after they were written."

Are you saying they are just human stories? Only this would rather enforce the point I was making? I already know what I think, but I had assumed you held a different view.

As I said, the idea an all powerful deity with limitless knowledge would take the time and trouble to orchestrate all this then not provide proper evidence beyond mere anecdotal claims from ancient superstitious humans is absurdly irrational. You seem to be making my argument for me.

JoC's picture
Let’s put it this way,

Let’s put it this way, whatever you and I believe on “divine authorship” of the Bible is totally irrelevant to the idea of the books of the bible being historical documents.

If you’re saying you won’t accept them as historical documents because if they were divinely inspired, why do they have so many errors or whatever reason you have, then fine. Go on and believe that the Bible isn’t inspired. Now, will you accept them as historical documents?

Sheldon's picture
JoC "Let’s put it this way,

JoC "Let’s put it this way, whatever you and I believe on “divine authorship” of the Bible is totally irrelevant to the idea of the books of the bible being historical documents."

No it's not and that was precisely my point, and am at a loss as to how you could so spectacularly have missed this? There is zero evidence they were divinely inspired, but again you miss the point, do YOU believe them to be divinely inspired? If so why are they not better evidenced if they contain the most important message ever, indeed the only important message that can show us the entire purpose of our existence, and the existence of everything?

"Now, will you accept them as historical documents?"

Which ones, and what evidence from sources other than the bible, and those whose religion is based on it, can you demonstrate that they are historically accurate?

Sheldon's picture
Can you imagine how bloated

Can you imagine how bloated and incomprehensible historical data would be if humans took the time to deny every claim that was untrue?

Pages

Donating = Loving

Heart Icon

Bringing you atheist articles and building active godless communities takes hundreds of hours and resources each month. If you find any joy or stimulation at Atheist Republic, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner.

Or make a one-time donation in any amount.