The Uncontested Word: Why do Some Historians Treat Religious Texts as Sacred?

Richard Firth-Godbehere contemplates the historical provenance and value of religious texts.
Published for The Skeptic online on 17th April 2013.

Photograph: Kevin Peters

There are a great many historians who practice religions of all flavours. Some historians jump headlong into the history of their particular faith, blending it with apologetics and philosophy. Others simply ignore their religious predilections and concentrate on other areas of history, sealing their faith in a mental box with a sign huge on the lid reading ‘do not enter while studying’. I am sure this arrangement or something similar to it is found throughout all walks of academic life, but I find it particularly puzzling when I find it amongst historians. I know of many good historians who take their collection of fables as absolutely true; it is one of the most fascinating and puzzling examples of cognitive dissonance I know of.

After all, a historian is, by definition, someone who is deeply sceptical about old texts and artefacts. It is a historian’s job to dust off manuscripts, wade through archives, dig things out of dark corners and not believe a word of it (unless there is some good supporting evidence, of course). Even when a historian does believe a word of it, he tempers this with a deep analysis of the text or object at hand, stripping it down in order to work out what the narrative really is, as opposed to what the text or object claims it is. In short, we historians are deeply sceptical pedants: each and every one of us. So why does pedantry, suspicion and obsessive checking, cross-checking, double checking and rechecking disappear so often in the face of a religious text? Here, I’ll take a lightly meandering journey through the peripheries of the philosophy of history in order to find out if there is any validity in accepting a religious text as good source of history.

In history, there are two main types of document: primary and secondary. A primary document is one that is from the time and place in which the events took place. Some primary documents, like birth certificates, court records and tax details, are as close to certain as we can ever get. Others, like records of the First Crusade, have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Very often the originals are lost and our knowledge that these documents existed at the time they describe has to be deduced from other period documents that mention or quote from them. Worse still, these non-original primary sources are very often altered in copying: by mistake, through the inclusion of marginalia and other notes or for political and religious reasons.

It is also important to understand what writing was in the period that we are reading. To take the medieval as an example: for most of the medieval, historical writing based its truth not only on real events, but on how they could be fitted with how people thought the world should be. This was, of course, how the ancients, and particularly the bible, said it should be. There are examples of people describing their home town not as they knew it but as Plutarch described it over a thousand years earlier in order to fit with convention. Add to this that there was always some message, some element of propaganda to the writing, and add to this that originality was not only rare but actively frowned upon and you can see that even with primary documents, things can get tricky. Hence the historian’s pedantry; we don’t just take documents with a pinch of salt, we order a truckload of salt capable of defrosting a good section of the Antarctic surface and pour it over the texts until we understand every social and cultural nuance contained therein. The problem with religious texts is that, without exception, they aren’t even primary sources.

Religious texts are always secondary sources. They were written after the fact by people who were not there and are writing most commonly through hearsay. These secondary sources are not only contaminated by Chinese whispers, they can also be contaminated by cultural exchange, the need to write in order to fit the times and a million other factors we have no way of knowing about. People pick on the bible all the time (because, frankly, it’s easy) so I’m going to go somewhere else.

The Rig Veda was purportedly created sometime between 1700 and 1100 BCE, some scholars pushing some of the hymns as far back as 2000 BCE. The problem here is that we don’t have any documents that go back that far. Writing didn’t really get going in India until the 3rd Century BCE and written records of the Vedas that have survived do not appear until much later. As a result, we have no idea how much cultural cross-pollination took place during that time. To assume that none took place and that the hymns remained the same is foolish. Even the most conservative scholar agrees that some revisions to the hymns took place around the 6th Century BCE, and this ties curiously with the growth of Persia as a major power and the emergence of the Greece city states. There is no certainty that there was any influence by these cultures on the Vedas (apart from the echoing of the Persian Zoroastrian Zend Avestra in parts of the Vedas), but it would be poor practice for any historian to assume that no such pollution took place. So why do some people accept these secondary documents without question? Perhaps it’s a subjective thing?

Any postmodernist will tell you, if you should care to risk turning a rock or going in the darkest corners of certain universities to find one, that history is subjective. They will side with Nietzsche and claim that if we cannot pin something down objectively, empirically and positively, then it is fair game. Sources, secondary or primary, are ripe for interpretation pretty much any way you wish. It seems to me that when it comes to religious documents, even the most rigorous of empirical historians can, if they have faith, become a part-time postmodernist and claim that they are free to interpret their religious book their way how they want. But some things in history cannot be interpreted subjectively.

When we look at documents, even the most committed postmodern historian will reject the impossible all the time. Cyrus was not suckled by dogs as claimed by Herodotus. St. Patrick did not lead the snakes from Ireland. There was not a dragon on the Isle of Lango as claimed by John Mandeville. Jesus did not rise from the dead. These are, or should be, all in the same category of ‘fantastical and impossible, so probably myth or allegory’. You cannot say ‘well, subjectively, I think there actually was a dragon and Cyrus actually was suckled by dogs’ without being laughed out of academia. The claim that someone rose from the dead cannot be exempt from that. In all these cases, a good historian would think, ‘that can’t be true, so what is going on’. Subjectivity cannot rescue religious scripture.

All that remains is a third path: the intersubjective. Religious texts are accepted because there are enough people who believe them without question. There are enough people out there who point to them as an object and say ‘I think they mean this’ and others who agree. This intersubjective stance is what philosopher Donald Davidson called ‘triangulation’. It is when two people agree what a third object is. Without such triangulation, Davidson maintained, we would have no language. Without language, we would not have thought and without thought we could not have propositional attitudes: wants and desires, needs and, most importantly, beliefs. Belief is the most important of the propositional attitudes because the others are, in themselves, based upon beliefs. Religious texts are, to those who believe in them, a powerful object to focus this triangulation of thought upon. When combined with rituals, upbringing and circumstance, they satiate our propositional attitudes, our needs, our desires, our wants, in a way few things outside addiction can (some might argue such beliefs are an addiction).

So, perhaps, in much the same way a medical doctor will happily go out for a pint knowing it isn’t medically good for them; a believing historian will partake in their religious texts with the full knowledge of what they are, while ignoring what they are for the sake of their beliefs. To do otherwise would be to break the triangle, move you out of your in-group and change your propositional attitudes entirely. This is not an easy thing to do. The problem with the intersubjective explanation for why historians accept religious texts, however, is that it answers nothing regarding our acceptance of them as good historical sources. No matter how much your in-group shares your beliefs, it does not make them reality. As we have seen, subjecting religious texts to the same kind of rigor as other historical texts weakens them, and saying ‘me and my friends all believe’ is not enough to make them true.

So are religious documents good historical sources? Not really. They fail on an objective level in that they are at best unreliable secondary sources. They fail even when examined by the subjectivity of postmodernism, as they contain things we would otherwise consider impossible and so require special pleading to be accepted. Even at an intersubjective level, religious texts may work as social glue but they fail as historical documents. I, as someone interested in the mentalité of the peoples of the past, might find this ‘alternative view of truth’ fascinating, but it doesn’t make it reality. All it does is tells us that there is, and was, a group prepared to accept them and the narratives contained within whatever the results of the scrutiny. It tells us that there are people prepared to accept them no matter what, even if, like historians, they should know better. From a historian’s perspective, all they can really do is tell us something about the societies that created, edited, spread and preserved them and even then, especially then, you need to that truckload of salt to be parked nearby.


Richard Firth-Godbehere is an Historian of culture, ideas and emotions. He begain his PhD into Conceptions of Disgust in Early Modern Europe at Cambridge University in Autumn 2012.