Benefiting from History
BY ONE definition, history is a record of the events of man’s past. There is more than one way of looking at such history, of course. On the one hand, it is said that those who refuse to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, many now assert that ‘history is bunk.’
A degree of truth is found in both views. If a person can learn from the past to avoid errors and direct his life in a wise way, history has served to his benefit. However, history can be used to lead one astray. A generation ago the Nazis used a perverted version of “history” to try to fortify their myth about a Germanic “superrace.” This contributed to disaster and death for millions.
To benefit from history one must have the proper outlook about the past. How is this gained?
Sources of History
Very importantly, by considering the real source of the information one is reading. Why do we say that? Because what is written in a modern history book is ordinarily about things that happened long before the author of that book was born. He must rely on information handed down in one way or another from the past. He may learn a few things from archaeology or geology. But the ideal source of information is usually a written record, and, preferably, one compiled by an eyewitness to the events he tells about.
For instance, if a modern historian alludes to the life of a certain Roman Caesar, you might ask yourself, Where did he get his information? Perhaps it came from the second-century Roman biographer Suetonius. Suetonius himself lived under the Caesars and also appears to have had ready access to the Imperial and Senatorial archives, as well as other contemporary documents. By reading the works of Suetonius oneself, of course, one learns what that ancient writer himself really said. One would thereby probably get to the closest available source of history about many Caesars.
But most records regarding people and events of the distant past are scanty. Therefore, to make a connected account from the available information the gaps must be filled in and the whole body of material tied together in some form. Where does the modern writer get what is needed to ‘fill in the gaps’?
If an expert in his subject, he may be able to make educated guesses as to how seemingly isolated bits of information should be brought together into a connected whole. Is this wrong? Not necessarily. It makes history books easier for the average person to read, providing smooth flow and coherence of thought. As long as the historian clearly informs his readers that such and such an event “may have” or “possibly” or “probably” took place in such and such a manner, he is being fair and, in a sense, helpful.
Some writers, however, merely accept someone else’s interpretation of what happened in the past and adopt that into their own material as actual fact. They fail to check older, firsthand sources. Misunderstandings about the past, yes, untruths, get passed down for decades in this manner and come to be accepted as fact, simply because so few have taken time or cared enough to examine the authenticity of the statements.
Consider an example. The ancient Babylonians of ten centuries and more before the Common Era are sometimes glamorized as possessing great astronomical abilities. They are often made to appear as having detailed knowledge of planetary movements due to their observation of the heavens. The entire Babylonian culture, as a result, is made to appear highly advanced and sophisticated. Surrounding peoples, conversely, are pictured as slower and are asserted to have made progress only when they came in contact with the Babylonians. But do the original sources substantiate this view?
Well, there is no doubt that the ancient Babylonians had some knowledge of the subject of astronomy. The astrological aspect of Babylonian religion clearly reflects this. However, the available factual material as respects Babylonian astronomy is found on clay tablets. What do these tablets reveal? One scholar, O. Neugebauer, who, in his profession, deals not with what other men assert about the ancient clay documents but with the actual documents themselves, says in The Exact Sciences in Antiquity:
“There is scarcely another chapter in the history of science where an equally deep gap exists between the generally accepted description of a period and the results which have slowly emerged from a detailed investigation of the source material. . . . Early Mesopotamian astronomy appeared to be crude . . . quite similar to contemporary Egyptian astronomy.”
The evidence shows that Babylonian astronomy was not carefully developed as a science until a few hundred years before the start of the Common Era.
When the Babylonians are stripped of the glamorized tinsel wrapping with which many modern writers popularize them, the real facts assert themselves. The ancient Babylonians, while still shown to be civilized, lose some of their assumed cultural luster in the eyes of modern readers of history.
The same process of embellishing the past also distorts ancient events and biographical accounts. Only by going to the earliest sources of ancient history can one be sure of finding the best available facts about the past. But more is necessary to benefit from the past than simply finding ancient records.
Is the Source Correct?
Even if a writer today is able to get to ancient sources and properly translate them, the view of history that the modern man presents may still be somewhat stilted. Why? Because the ancient sources on which he is depending may themselves be in error.
Remember, those ancient writers possibly lived at a much later period than when events that they describe took place. Or, they may have dwelt in an entirely different part of the world. So, like writers today, they, too, were compelled to accept information from other people, not one of whom was perfect.
Further, it should be noted that the ancient writers had the nationalistic prejudices, loyalties and religious feelings common to all men. These, too, surely influenced what was written.
As a case in point, look back at Tacitus, thought to be among the more accurate of the ancient men of letters. His cultivated Roman view shows decidedly strong prejudices. As a result, some of the information Tacitus presents is misleading.
Thus, he writes about the Jews in The Histories (Book V):
“Some say that the Jews were fugitives from the island of Crete, who settled on the nearest coast of Africa about the time when Saturn was driven from his throne by the power of Jupiter. Evidence of this is sought in the name. There is a famous mountain in Crete called Ida; the neighbouring tribe, the Idaei, came to be called Judaei by a barbarous lengthening of the national name.”
Documentation clearly revealing otherwise, from the Jews themselves, was available when Tacitus wrote in the first century C.E. Yet in this discussion he did not so much as acknowledge it.
How the prejudices of the ancient writers entered into their writings may be illustrated, too, by the controversy over an account by Josephus. This first-century C.E. Jewish writer says that Alexander the Great came to Jerusalem after his conquest of the cities of Tyre and Gaza. He was met with great pomp and shown the prophecies of Daniel about ‘one of the Greeks who would destroy the empire of the Persians.’ Alexander is said to have applied this prediction to himself. For these reasons the city of Jerusalem, Josephus shows, was spared ravaging by the Greek armies. On the other hand, Arrian, Alexander’s most noted biographer, does not mention such an event. Why such a discrepancy between the two writers?
Possibly, it has been argued by some, because of a strong anti-Jewish sentiment on the part of Arrian. Of course, his failure to mention Alexander’s visit to Jerusalem (if it did indeed occur) does not make Arrian inaccurate; an omission is not necessarily a mistake.
But, then, too, it must be recalled that Josephus was not unknown to exaggerate the truth in order to glorify his own Jewish nation. Since each man, Josephus and Arrian, is considered somewhat prejudiced, today we cannot say for sure that Alexander did or did not visit Jerusalem.
Because of the uncertainties regarding some of the material presented by the ancient writers, persons today may pronounce them all bigoted and entirely useless, of no benefit to modern students. But that would not be an entirely proper analysis.
There is no reason to believe that their motive in writing was necessarily bad. They no doubt often wrote factually what they learned, with no attempt purposely to falsify their reports. But even when the ancient writings are obviously pocked with bias and personal loyalties, certain descriptive material and circumstantial evidence may be correct and quite valuable.
Rather than giving up on history and pitching it all aside as useless, one needs to develop that important quality—discernment.
Discerning Beneficial History
Of necessity, most modern readers must rely on what others have learned from reading ancient historical sources. The average person does not have time to dig out all the sources and compare them, one against another, to determine the truth of a matter. Still, he does want to benefit from history. Therefore, the discerning individual will keep in view questions such as these when reading historical works:
How are the facts (which may be correct) being used by the writer? Does he have an ‘ax to grind’? Are you asked to believe something that you know from your own sense of justice is wrong? Or, are you told to accept as truthful matters that you know from your own experience run counter to human nature? Is the writer using the past in some way to glorify a system of religion or politics or a way of life that has already shown itself unable to cope fully with the problems facing mankind? Is there an attempt to glorify one nation or race unduly or to downgrade another? If so, a person with discernment knows that caution is definitely needed when reading such histories.
There is a source of ancient history, however, to which one can turn with full trust.
The Bible as History
That honest history is found in the Bible. The more intently a God-fearing person studies history the more he appreciates the value of the Bible’s historical narratives. It is the oldest connected history to which man has access. Historian H. E. Barnes admits: “The honor of having first produced a true historical narrative of ‘considerable scope . . . must be accorded to the Hebrews of ancient Palestine,” who were used to put together the Bible.
But, some ask, how can the Bible’s history be said to be so outstanding? Does it not glorify one nation, Israel? Does it not ask us to believe the incredible, even the miraculous?
It is true that much of the Bible concerns the history of Israel. But who can deny that the presentation of Israel in the Bible is an honest one? Israel’s bad characteristics, not just its good ones, are frankly acknowledged. The nation and her people are used to illustrate the penalties coming on anyone who refuses to live by God’s high standards. Bible history shows how God severely chastised Israel, eventually casting the nation off entirely as his special covenant people.
No, the Bible’s history does not glorify any one earthly nation or race. Rather, it plainly declares: “In every nation the man that fears [God] and works righteousness is acceptable to him.”—Acts 10:35.
It is true, too, that there are miraculous elements in its history. But before one casts it off for that reason, it should be remembered that the framework in which these miracles are found is definitely historical and believable. In what way? In that time and place are stated.
This can be illustrated with the Bible’s historical account about the opening of the Red Sea to allow the nation of Israel to leave Egypt. Some persons find this account, written by an eyewitness, Moses, hard to accept. Often the persons who reject it have never actually read the account closely for themselves.
But one who thoughtfully considers this material (found in Exodus chapters 12 through 15) for himself will observe that the names of persons and places are recorded.—Compare Numbers 33:1-8.
The time when Israel’s stay in Egypt was drawing to a close is also stated: “The dwelling of the sons of Israel, who had dwelt in Egypt, was four hundred and thirty years. And it came about at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, it even came about on this very day that all the armies of Jehovah went out of the land of Egypt.”—Ex. 12:40, 41; compare 1 Kings 6:1.
Thus, an entirely credible framework of time and place for the Red Sea incident is included in the Bible’s history. What else could any historian, living at any time, in any place, possibly have provided in his account to prove that he wrote down what he actually saw? Nothing. On what basis, then, can this Biblical account be set aside as nonhistorical? None!
The Bible’s historical accounts are reliable. They, like no other history, accurately emphasize the certainty of God’s Word of prophecy, the superiority of his moral laws and his continuing interest in creation. The greatest benefits come to men who acquaint themselves with the dealings of the God of history, found in the Bible.—Rom. 15:4.
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