Baker Academic

Saturday, November 10, 2012

In Defense of Revisionist History (Part III) - Le Donne

My first two posts on this topic can be found here and here.

In my first post on this topic, there were several helpful comments. Although his post was a bit more hostile than I would have preferred, I did appreciate C.J. Obrien’s comment. C.J. wrote:
It is a misuse of terminology to conflate the fact that history is always reconstructive with "revisionist history". That term has a meaning which you completely obscure. Revisionist history is tendentious. It begins with a conclusion and cherry-picks evidence to support it. It is pseudo-historiography with an agenda.
C.J., this is exactly how most Gospel scholars view the Gospels:

1. tendentious - i.e. they have a tendency to favor a particularly (Jewish/) Christian perspective.

2. They begin with conclusions concerning Jesus as the resurrected son of God and cherry-pick evidence to support this claim (because they honestly believed it was true).

3. They are pseudo-historiography with an agenda. - The term historiography has a fairly wide range of meanings, so I’ll leave this one be. But the Gospels certainly have agendas. Every commentary on the Gospels tells me so. The Gospel of John tells me that it is written so that I might believe – sounds like an agenda to me.

For the record, I’m not sure than the category of “revisionist history” is the most helpful modern analogue to discuss ancient biography for the very reason that C.J. illustrates. People generally prefer denotative and connotative values more than etymological values. But perhaps the category is sufficiently jarring for our purposes. A change in nomenclature is one way to get people to think about reality differently—but this isn’t the only way. For example, we don’t believe that the sun “sets” or “rises” anymore, but we keep those antiquated denotations around anyway. I tend to buy the general principle of “words shape worlds”, so I’m simply pointing out that the concept of “revision” might be useful.

Back to my main point: Even if the Gospels are “revisionist histories” (and I’m not saying that they are), they would still offer extremely valuable historical data.

Can you imagine if we found four revisionist histories of the life of Abraham, each at variance, but with significant overlap? And what if these were written within fifty years of his death? Nerds all over the globe would be jumping for joy! Or rioting in the streets, I suppose. Probably both. 

If we turned up four revisionist histories of the life of Abraham we would analyze them carefully, offer arguments about the tendencies, purpose, audience, themes, authorship, etc. of these documents. Then we’d come up with the best explanation of the relationship that these documents have with each other. There would be detractors, but eventually a few theories about their origins would emerge. 

At the end of the day, we’d know significantly more about the life of Abraham than we do now. And please hear my point: we could achieve all of this without having to prove the accuracy of these revisionist histories. It simply would not matter if these biographies were tendentious and fraught with agenda. As long as the agendas were discernible, we would be able to point out the literary tendencies of these documents. Even better, if these agendas were divergent, we could postulate the historical memory that most plausibly explains their divergent distortions. Or in simple terms, what portrait of Abraham bests explains the varying portraits of all four revisions?

This is what I've termed the triangulation of memory refraction. I do it by analyzing the title "Son of David" in this fancy book here.


  1. Well said... although I still think "revisionist" is distracting and unhelpful, but your point about etymology clarifies things.

    Overall, Anthony, your last big paragraph is the reason I'm becoming a big fan of this new approach, in which we take *from* the Gospels as much as we can. Slanted testimony provides light from surprising angles indeed.

  2. Before I comment on this latest, and re: the gospels specifically, let me say that what I took issue with was the assertion in the original post that "All histories are revisionist." We had a brief exchange and I gave it some thought after that, and I came to a little more clarity about what is the difference in my mind between the tendencies of truly revisionist history (in the modern sense) and what you and I both agree is the ineluctably reconstructive nature of any historical inquiry.
    Take for example the fall of the Roman empire in the West. Over the course of the fifth century, the Danube frontier became porous, the power and influence of Roman institutions waned in the West, formerly centrally administrated political and military units were reduced in authority and sphere of influence, Italy was overrun and Rome was sacked, and ultimately Ordoacer declined to install a puppet Emperor in favor of ruling Italy himself. These are facts of history. What needs to be reconstructed is the "why?". But a revisionist history, in the strict meaning of the term, actually begins with the agenda that one or more of these facts actually is not. That certain events simply did not occur. The difference is between incorporating the known facts in an over-arching explanation that accounts for each one of them in the context of reconstructing the motives of various actors, the larger economic and political trends, and similar considerations, as opposed to constructing a version of past events that adds in facts not generally credited or elides facts or is over-interpretive of certain facts at the expense of others, or, usually, all three. Historians can argue about the validity of different reconstructions without disagreeing about what constitute the bedrock facts of the matter, but revisionism is not a good-faith exercise. It is an attempt to mislead, at the very least to misdirect attention away from certain facts, and so to contradict prevailing reconstructions by subterfuge and not by engaging them with a competing, valid reconstruction that has to likewise incorporate all the facts of the matter. Historiography without the net, you might say.

    1. Thank you CJ,

      I won't address all of this (due to time constraints), but you seem to suggest that the historian begins with facts and then asks why questions - as if the interpretive process begins after the facts have been established. What is missing here is the necessarily agenda-driven elements and unwittingly interpretive process of selecting "facts".

      My point is that interpretive elements are at work at every stage of the process. Interpretive frameworks are already in place before anything happens, they are at work during the events themselves in the minds of the doers and the minds who perceive. Every memory that carries these perceptions forward are interpretive. Memories become memories of previous memories. And all of these stages repeat a million times in thousands of minds for a thousand years before the modern historian enters the equation to establish the "facts".


  3. Okay, perhaps that clarifies, or maybe you understood all that anyway and it's a long-winded way of saying the obvious. However it may be, I'll turn to the nature of ancient discourse, where I take you to be saying, in part, such hard and fast lines about what constituted a good-faith enterprise and even what were facts of history were not in force. And I can agree: rigorous, consistently critical historiography is not to be found among the works of antiquity.
    But that should not lead us to abandon all hope of making discriminations between works on matters of provenance, genre, use of sources, authorial intent, and implied audience. Alexander’s general Ptolemy is believed by most scholars to have written a memoir of his time with Alexander on his conquests, but that text is lost. This work is also most probably the basis of the large part of Arrian’s life of Alexander, so in a sense we have some of what Ptolemy wrote, though Arrian makes reference to other sources. Now, it’s unlikely that Ptolemy wrote without any agenda. He was a key player in many of the events of Alexander’s life, and after his death he parlayed his lifelong friendship with the famous conqueror into a dynastic kingship in his own right. Chances are good that the materials Arrian had from Ptolemy were written partly with the goal of portraying Ptolemy (and Alexander, where the two agendas would not conflict) in the best light and his dynastic rivals poorly. But we can still fairly say: “Even if Ptolemy’s memoirs are ‘revisionist histories’ they still offer extremely valuable historical data.” However what about the various Alexander Romances? I fear the gospels stand in closer affinity to those by analogy than to Arrian. If so, that is, if the “refracted memory” of Alexander represented in Arrian is nothing but a springboard for the flights of fancy in the Romances, at what point does the “extremely valuable historical data” dry up? Perhaps more importantly, at what point do we have to accept that our own predispositions to see Alexander/Jesus in one way or another is going to determine whether we judge one bit of the Romances/gospels a refracted memory and another bit the invention of a late author, a pure fiction?
    Perhaps what you are saying in your own analogy to Abraham is that even if the four independent revisionist histories of Abraham are pure fictions, we can still glean historical data from them about Abraham, the man, his life, as long as “the agendas were discernible”. And if so, there I disagree strongly. You’re working with a different kind of historical data that the agenda might reveal: what a certain author from a certain viewpoint (geographical, cultural, ethnic, theological, etc.) thought would suit his agenda in writing about Abraham. You’re a level removed from data about the figure, as we are with the Alexander Romances, and the data on offer are all about something other than what it is you say you are interested in, whether it be the historical Abraham, Alexander, or Jesus.

  4. Oh, finally, sorry I came across as hostile in the comment you reference here.

  5. Even if the revisionist histories are perceived to be tendentious, that does not mean that they are not useful for our own historical understanding. Yes most historical reconstructions are somewhat influenced by the historian's own biases, to produce a completely unbiased historical account is impossible. But even though a historical account is influenced by a particular agenda, we can take this into account when we analyze it and localize it.

  6. This feels like I am picking one particular part (cherry-picking? I'm sorry bad joke) and commenting on it, but I will do it anyways. On number 2: I had never thought about what may be left out in a particular gospel in such words. It hadn't even occurred to me that, indeed, the Gospel writers were, as is written here, "cherry-picking" out what they wanted in their Gospel. It's a concept that I knew and understood subconsciously, but was never put into terms like this, where it would come out into my consciousness and even make me backtrack for a minute to think about what this means: that the Gospels are, in some parts, indeed historical fiction. Perhaps this is because I have always seen the Gospels as holding the truth, maybe from being raised a Christian?

    But just because the Gospels may hold parts that are "cherry-picked" does not mean that the Gospels do not hold some truth as well. Looking through the Gospels, we can see much of how people thought in the time, and that makes the Gospels a treasure, fiction or not.

  7. I think the Gospels push a certain agenda and are their for that particular reason. Thats why people identify with certain gospels because they share the same agenda. Just like the authors picked certain points to use in their gospel to prove their point we the reader take certain points out and use it as our evidence to our agenda. It is a cycle that never stops and we do in our everyday lives.It is part of human nature.