Should History Be Rewritten?
THE very thought of “rewriting history” upsets some persons. They consider it a dishonest attempt to manipulate the past to fit a current theory or to glorify one nation, race or religion. Is that the case?
Yes, it is—sometimes. The record of man’s past has been “rewritten” on occasions in order to fit certain political or religious ideologies. But this is not always so. There are also circumstances under which history should be revised.
The important thing to keep in mind is this: Why is it being rewritten? What is the motivating spirit or reason for adjusting history? Let us see.
Getting the Facts
One legitimate reason for rewriting history is that more information has come to light. Despite what some people think, it is often difficult for a writer to get the “facts” about history. Why?
One particular problem, surprisingly, is the superabundance of material facing the modern writer; this can act as a barrier to his research. It is humanly impossible for him to comb through all the information available on some subjects. At the same time, paradoxically, very basic material regarding events of even relatively recent times is often missing or is unclear in meaning.
For instance, do you know who discovered the North Pole? A check of references will reveal to you that there are claims and counterclaims for at least two men, Robert E. Peary and Frederick A. Cook. Many books have been written on the subject. But who today can really say for a certainty who was first at the North Pole—an incident that took place less than seventy years ago?
And just a little over ten years ago, American President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in the view of many persons. Was he murdered by a lone assassin, as generally believed? Or were there really a number of conspirators responsible for the president’s death? The answer to those questions is still debated in some circles.
Yes, as these examples show, just gathering the “facts” alone makes the modern historian’s challenge a large one. Suppose any one of the points here mentioned could be resolved. It would be necessary to rewrite history in that light. But at times the history books must be adjusted for other reasons.
Time may cause nations and people to develop new viewpoints toward the past. Through diplomacy and trade agreements former enemies become allies. The perspective from which the past is examined shifts and history books and monuments written at an earlier period come to sound out-of-date or harsh. What once seemed bad, with the passing of time, may seem good. History is then often rewritten to fit a later situation.
Thus, back in 1868 the New Mexico territorial legislature wanted to honor its dead soldiers. A thirty-three-foot-high obelisk was dedicated: “To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico.” Now, more than a century later, even most white Americans will agree that the Indians living in that territory were no more “savage” than the invaders. So a number of modern New Mexico officials want to erect another marker explaining that the monument’s original language ‘reflects the thinking of a bygone age.’
How changing attitudes affect historical point of view is seen, too, in the so-called modern ecumenical religious spirit. Formerly, Catholic histories regarding the Inquisition tended to defend that Church court’s actions during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. But now, a recent book called The Inquisition, by Notre Dame’s John A. O’Brien, is described by Catholic writers as taking “the new vantage point of post-Vatican II Catholicism” and thus is “notably more honest and free of special pleading.”
Similarly, the ecumenical spirit seems to have affected the way Jewish publications refer to Jesus Christ. For centuries Jewish tradition forbade even the pronunciation of Jesus’ name. But today, a Jewish study reveals, modern schoolbooks used by Israeli youngsters present some of the most sympathetic pictures of Jesus Christ ever offered to modern Jews.
Time has altered the viewpoints of New Mexico state officials, the Catholic Church and Judaism. Each has thought it wise to “rewrite history.”
The Other Side
There is another matter. One viewpoint may be well known; it is popularized history. But it may make another country or race appear backward or foolish. The latter people eventually want to tell their side of the story too. This is to be expected, is it not? So history is rewritten.
There is, of course, an obvious danger here. The usual tendency when rewriting history in an effort to support a certain view is to “pick and choose” information, finding that which paints a noble picture of the writer’s side of the story. This is somewhat like the method of a clever lawyer who sifts through evidence and selects only the material that will benefit his client while ignoring or suppressing other information. When this “pick and choose” spirit dominates, the rewritten version of history is likely to be as lopsided as an earlier one.
Then, if a person reads one nation’s history book he will likely get one impression; to read a book from another country will give an entirely different view. Currently, for instance, a commission of Germans and Poles is revising school history textbooks regarding the border between the two countries. Strong hatreds have percolated in this vicinity for generations. Now both sides say they want new history books to help soothe over the heated border disputes of the past. But they cannot agree on certain points.
If you ask the Germans about the Teutonic incursions eastward into Poland about six hundred years ago, they may call that a “civilizing mission.” But ask the Poles. They may tell you that the same activities were “aggression under the guise of missionary work.” Each side therefore has a certain view of what took place in the past. Each can point to certain evidence to support its side of the story.
It is similar with African history. Ask yourself, ‘How much do I really know about Africa’s past?’ Frankly, most persons today have learned African history through European eyes. To the European, Africa was the place where the trader, missionary, explorer and conqueror made names for themselves. Europeans often considered Africa backward and called it the “Dark Continent.”
But do the Africans consider that they were really as backward as the Europeans imply? One answer is produced by Nwabueze Chukwemeka Okoye of New York’s State University College, Department of African and Afro-American Studies. Of European expansion into Africa, he says: “The effort was clearly to justify European dominance of the Africans not in terms of sheer force (which it was) but in terms of a cultural superiority (which it was not).”
Today, wise Africans and Europeans realize that some Europeans have had honorable reasons for going into Africa and have really done a certain amount of good. On the other hand, they acknowledge, after the arrival of foreigners, many of the African people were clearly exploited.
The person reading history and trying to be as objective as is possible appreciates that all sides—Germans and Poles, Europeans and Africans—have a story to tell. He knows that there is ordinarily a degree of correctness in each view. But he also is aware that, to arrive anywhere near the truth, he properly must counterbalance one history against its opposite.
Search for a Pattern
Men rewrite history, too, because they are looking for a pattern in all the events that have occurred. Elaborate theories have been developed in an attempt to explain why things took place as they did. Historical narratives are recast to fit those ideas.
Thus one modern historian sees the seeming cyclic rise and fall of empires as “waves,” one following the other, reaching a crest and plummeting. Another writer may analyze all human history as an accretion or steady buildup of ideas and ideologies that have reached their zenith in contemporary Western civilization. Others assert that the same growth of ideas, however, points toward worldwide Communism. The men who have surveyed the past looking for some pattern have reached many different conclusions, and each has written and rewritten history accordingly.
Is there really a pattern to history, however? Well, many of the professed patterns in history exist largely in the minds of their creators. Oftentimes they seem contrived and artificial, although some contain kernels of truth. But there is one pattern on which nearly all students will agree. What is that?
That human history has been mostly bad. Bloodbaths, economic crises, scandals, and assorted forms of sadistic cruelties and tortures have been mankind’s stock in trade. Few students fail to see that pattern.
Why This Pattern of Evil?
Most historians point to something impersonal, which they call “historical forces,” and say that these are responsible for what has occurred. But why have “historical forces” done so much damage, created so much trouble and unrest when ordinarily people prefer peace and calm? Men’s theories of history, though they bulge library shelves to the point of overburden, have produced no really satisfying answers to that question.
But the Bible explains why this tumultuous pattern has so branded itself into man’s history. It clearly explains what the real “historical forces” motivating men have been. First of all, the Bible is not oblivious to the natural outworking of things and circumstances; it shows that people and nations ‘reap what they sow.’ Both good and bad deeds have a way of catching up with nations—as they do with individuals—and awarding them accordingly. (Compare the example of the Amorites referred to at Genesis 15:16.) Further, the Bible reveals that many of man’s problems are rooted in his sin and greed, and it alone explains the origin of these. (Gen. chap. 3; Rom. 5:12) But the Bible puts much of the blame for man’s state of affairs, not on blind “historical force,” but on a person, the invisible Satan. It shows that he has aggravated bad conditions through history, making them worse by creating woe. Nothing else satisfactorily explains the consistently evil pattern to history.—John 8:44; Acts 10:38; Rev. 12:10-12; 13:1, 2.
God’s Purpose Through History
A correct assessment of history can be made only in the light of something else, however. What is that? God’s will and purpose. A proper view of history must take cognizance of the truth stated to the king of Babylon centuries ago: “The Most High is Ruler in the kingdom of mankind, and . . . to the one whom he wants to he gives it.” (Dan. 4:32) Where his purpose has been involved, he has intervened in human affairs. Anyone who overlooks this fact of history must revise much of his view of the past.
The Christian apostle Paul was aware of this important factor. In talking about God, Paul said: “He created every race of men of one stock, to inhabit the whole earth’s surface. He fixed the epochs of their history and the limits of their territory.” (Acts 17:26, New English Bible) In what sense has God ‘fixed the epochs of man’s history’?
For one thing, in that he has foreseen the rise and fall of various political empires and their relationship with his people. (Compare Deuteronomy 32:8.) The Bible book of Daniel particularly shows this. (Read chapters 2, 4, 7, 8, 11.) For several thousand years God has allowed men to try all forms of government. None have brought lasting peace to the earth, have they? None have settled basic social problems such as crime and immorality. None have stopped disease and death. But God has allowed them to try. The record they have made he judges as ‘beastly.’—Dan. 7:2-14.
Now a different ‘epoch’ is upon us. The time permitted by God for the nations to rule over the world of mankind has expired! He will soon act decisively to fulfill the prophecy at Daniel 2:44: “In the days of those kings the God of heaven will set up a kingdom that will never be brought to ruin. And the kingdom itself will not be passed on to any other people. It will crush and put an end to all these kingdoms, and it itself will stand to times indefinite.” Under the lasting rule of that kingdom of God the earth will become a paradise for those who love righteousness. And you can live then.—Matt. 6:9, 10.
Yes, there are indeed occasions when history should be rewritten. Most importantly, however, our own view of history must, if necessary, be revised to correspond with that of the One who has ‘fixed the epochs of man’s history.’