How History Works

Posted on January 19, 2019


Historians for the most part pride themselves on returning to the original or primary sources in writing history. The second great principle at work in history is changing or updating your interpretations of what happened once you have established with some reasonable certainty that you got the names and dates right. In other words, we need to know that Robert E. Lee fought to the “high tide” of the Confederacy in July 1863 at the Battle of Gettysburg, but we can interpret, reinterpret, revise and otherwise tweak the significance of that event until the cows come home.

You will often hear presidents, autocrats, dictators, leaders of all stripes and political persuasions appeal to history to elevate them to their proper place in history, where they all think they belong: on top and noble and worthwhile and effective and brilliant and effective in every way of course.

Or, as the long-time communist dictator of Cuba in the twentieth century put it when on trial in the 1950s for leading a botched rebellion against the government, “history will absolve me.” Now for my quick history quiz. Was that 1. Oscar Chavez, 2. Raul Castro, 3. Oswaldo Cruz, 4. Or none of the above. We historians like little pop quizzes to keep everyone in step.

I even discovered while listening to a radio broadcast in my car a few weeks ago that Alexander Hamilton may have been one of the creators of the phrase “social justice” back in 1787 or 1788 when he was writing a series of essays to promote the ratification of the new Constitution being debated by Congress. Wow, one of the “fathers” of the federalists and an activist for the theory of natural rights and a strong central government may have been a social activist of sorts, a kind of proto-Progressive of today. Or, maybe not. That’s what makes history so interesting and meaningful. The narrative can always be tweaked.

But that’s not what got me to thinking about how historians work. It was this quote–“This article relies too much on references to primary sources. Please improve this by adding secondary or tertiary sources” in an article in Wikipedia on the Bible and homosexuality.[1] I was looking up some sources on what Scripture had to say on this hot button issue and found a lot, but the reference to too many primary sources was what caught my attention.

Too many primary sources? To an historian, that goes profoundly against the grain of professional research. How can you have too many primary sources? That would be like saying, “well, we have too much of Washington’s, or Jefferson’s, or Franklin’s letters in this study of the Founding Fathers. We need more of what George Will or Kathleen Parker have to say.” Something along those lines.

However, it was easy to figure out why the author of the Wikipedia article was being criticized. He was using the Bible to address the issue of homosexuality, and the Bible is explicit. It is a sin, plain and simple.

What the writer of the “too much primary sources” quote was suggesting was that we needed a more liberal interpretation of what the Bible expressed, or some “secondary” sources. Never mind tertiary. The writer was just showing off.

The Bible is both history and a guide to the spiritual bases of how God has acted in the lives of Hebrews and Christians, collectively and individually, over the centuries.

It is often “interpreted” from the pulpit, as, for example, when the pastor reads a piece of Scripture and then draws out the lesson for his listeners. Or Scripture may be debated as to meaning by everyone from the most devout believer in the Bible’s inerrancy (everything is true) to the most dubious and critical atheist (there is no God) who simply thinks it is filled with moral fairy tales (nothing can be proven).

Our critic of primary sources was located somewhere in the wide spectrum between true believers and atheists.

I am not suggesting that much of what has been written about the Bible in the last three millennia or so should be discarded. Exegesis, or the critical explanation or interpretation of Biblical texts, is immensely valuable as we interpret the Bible through our experience and culture. It is putting your God-given brain to work. Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Reformation with some magnificent insights into what Scripture really meant. Try a little book, Martin Luther: Treatise on Good Works [Northport, Al: Regimen Books, 2017; ISBN 978-1-885219-69-5] to see how Luther did it in one instance.

I think what our critic of primary sources was saying is that the Bible is a complex source of history and religion, and the two are intertwined forever in God’s word. And we need secondary sources and interpretations and commentaries—the exegesis described in many ways—to explain it to our satisfaction.

There was even a group of scholars, the Jesus Seminar, who met periodically in the late 20th and early 21st century to try and discern the “historical Jesus” by voting on what Jesus said, might have said, or, by their agreement, did not say. The Jesus Seminar’s vote would be a “secondary” source.

As an historian, I would say ok, we are “testing” the evidence of what Jesus, for example, said and did.

But, as a believer, I don’t trust man to fool around with the source of my faith. If you open the door to interpreting what Jesus said—and find some of what he said or did uncomfortable or hard to take—where do you stop? Did Moses really part the Red Sea when he led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt? Or is that just a poetic invention by some scribe three thousand or more years ago to describe a miracle that can’t be “proven” scientifically or historically?

If you think restudying the sources of our country’s history—like what the Constitution really means for example—is fascinating history that led to our exceptional trajectory over the last three centuries, stand by if you turn to God’s word for the truth. It will rock—maybe sink–your boat but only if you are not sure of its authenticity. Turn to the Jesus Seminar if you think you have the wisdom and discernment to determine what Jesus said is fact or fiction. I’ll take Matthew, Mark, Luke and John on face value.

Published as “Too many primary sources? Ridiculous! in The Tuscaloosa News, Jan. 6,, 2019

[1] Loved this quote, from Wikipedia ( ) article on the Bible and Homosexuality.

Posted in: History, Scripture