As a person trained in the sciences, I have always had a problem with my friends who are trained in history.  It is not that I do not believe history is important, because I know there are valuable lessons to be learned from history.  I fully understand that we need to profit from the mistakes of the past and not make the same mistakes again.  The problem is the human bias inherently involved in history.  By its very nature, history is at the mercy of human passion, ego, and vested interest.  In physics we can drop a rock off a bridge and measure the way in which it falls, and whether I as a physicist like the result of what happens or not, it still happens.  There is nothing I can do short of lying or refusing to gather data that will alter the outcome and behavior of the falling rock.

I am now old enough to have observed some history that is fairly ancient by modern standards.  I graduated from high school in 1955 and spent four years attending Indiana University--the "party school" of the Midwest.  We had the flower children, the marches, the civil rights battles, and all of the social convulsions seen in everything from Grease to the glorification of Elvis Presley.  When I read what historians have written about what went on during those years,  I have found myself wondering where in the world they got their information, because for the most part what they report is not even remotely close to what the real situation was.

In recent years the atheist community has mounted a major offensive against the Bible.  One of the mantras of modern atheism is that the Bible is full of errors and that no intelligent person can believe that it is anything but pure fiction.  Major biblical accounts are said to have no historical support and are claimed to have been the product of fertile imaginations of people who had no idea what they were talking about.  On the other side of the ledger we see creationists making claims suggesting that reliable historical sources document dinosaurs living with humans in a virtual paradise, and that people like Job and Jonah left historical trails that can be used to prove that the biblical account of their activities are historically unquestionable.  How does the person who is not an expert historian sort all of this out?  We hope to address some of these issues and concepts in this article.

The cover of our journal for this month makes a point that is most important in this discussion.  What we have portrayed is a dragon which is shown in ancient Chinese art.  The fact is that most ancient cultures have stories and art work showing dragons and monsters of all sorts.  Almost all of us have had classes where we have learned about creatures like Medusa or knights fighting dragons.  Think about our own culture.  When I was a kid there was a song about a "Purple People Eater."  Folk singers sang about "Puff the Magic Dragon" and there were wonderful paintings of what the creature was about.  Today thanks to electronic imaging we have Finding Nemo, The Lion King, Cars--the list is endless.  Suppose some alien came to a destroyed Earth 25,000 years from now and dug up some of our art work, heard some of our music, and watched some of our video games and movies.  What would they conclude if they accepted on face value what they see in the artifacts?

Finding an ancient picture of a dragon, minotaur, or alien-looking creature and assuming it is in reality what people of the day saw is an incredibly ignorant thing to do.  This applies to creationists who try to maintain people of 4,000 years ago cavorted with dinosaurs, but also to atheists who attempt to explain the origin of life by claiming aliens seeded the planet with DNA packets.  There is no evidence for either of these proposals, and neither of them has any historical support.

Another error made by both atheists and creationists is to assume that silence on a historical issue means the event did not happen.  A favorite atheist argument against the Bible is to point out that little if any historical documentation exists for the Israelites ever having been in Egypt, much less pilfering the Egyptians and causing their elite military cavalry to be drowned in the Red Sea.  The question is, "What would you expect an Egyptian historian to record?"  Many experts on Egypt point out that the Egyptians did not record their failures.  In reality no country dwells on their historical failures, and in places where the press is not free very little is reported at all.  Before "The Wall" was built as a continual reminder of the Viet Nam war, Viet Nam vets felt the war had been forgotten.  The Wall has helped to remind people of that terrible war, but very little was in the history books, and until recently very little was in the media.  That does not mean the war did not happen.

Religious people have frequently made similar assumptions.  The fact that the Bible does not tell us about children born in the Garden of Eden does not mean it did not happen--and in fact in all probability it probably did.  Many of the conflicts people see with science and faith are rooted in people forcing things into the Bible which are simply not there.  The Bible uses an economy of language, and forcing assumptions on the Bible which creates a conflict is a negative contribution to resolving issues between science and faith no matter what side of the issue you might be on.

A third point that needs to be understood when reading history is that the recorder of the history is nearly 100 percent sure to be biased culturally and ethnically.  This is not a slur upon historians, but a statement of fact.  Cultures tend to report things in different ways, with no attempt to bias the report. In addition to that, one's viewpoint may alter how one reports a historical event.  A member of the Ku Klux Klan and the NAACP would be unlikely to record a historical event in the civil rights movement in the same way.  I pick an absurd example, but one that is unmistakable.

One of the favorite conflict points for atheists is variations in numbers that occur between different authors in the Bible about the same event.  How can two census reports give different numbers?  The answer is very simple: by recording different cultural approaches to the event being described.  If a war is being waged, one might give an estimate of numbers that would involve only combat troops.  Another culture might include logistical support for the combat troops.  A third approach might be to record the troops and their dependents, especially if the dependents are going to have to be fed from the troops' rations.  We have had massive differences in reporting the number of fatalities in Iraq during the last four years, with the United Nations estimates being far different than the U.S. military or the Iraqi press.  This is an old trick with all kinds of political overtones.  You do not want to let the enemy think he is being too successful so you tend to minimize the damage.

In addition to this problem you have the problems with census reports.  If I do a count of an army and I report 125,266 and later I refer to the count as 125,000 am I in error?  Many times counts are done by estimates or by counting a unit and multiplying by the number of units present.  If there are 125 in a unit and I have 1000 units, I might report the count at 125,000 without actually doing a head count.  This is hard enough for us living in the twenty-first century.  Imagine what it must have been in ancient cultures.

The other obvious problem with historical reports comes with translation problems.  Many times words in one language are slightly different in understanding than in a different language.  Whether you are reading the Bible, the Koran, the writings of Pliny the Younger, or Josephus, you have to be aware of these difficulties.  You also have to be careful to look at whether there have been later alterations of the original document.  Many Christians are fond of blindly quoting Flavius Josephus in his comments about Jesus Christ.  Josephus was a great Jewish historian, and was actually saved by the Romans from being killed in their assaults on the Jews because of his academic prowess.  It seems highly likely that in some of the translations of the work of Josephus a person favorable to Christianity altered and embellished his writings.  It is not hard to spot these, and Josephus is a quality source for historical data--but it is a problem that atheists and believers alike have to be aware of when reading historical data.

In addition to the altering problems, there are honest misunderstandings of words as they are brought from one language into another.  A wonderful example of this is the word nephilim in Genesis 6.  That Hebrew word was translated gigantus in the Vulgate translation of the Bible, and when the English translations were produced, the King James translated the word as a "giant."  We have seen atheists and believers alike make up all kinds of imaginary stories about what these giants were, but the fact is that they were not giants at all.  This is a translation problem that could be answered easily by looking at the context of the passage, or by a careful word study of what nephilim means.  The word would have been understood by the ancient Hebrews to refer to one who is opposed to or not in accord with God.  Since Genesis 6 is the Flood chapter, that translation is pretty easy.  Our purpose here is just to call attention to the fact that many claimed conflicts by both atheists and creationists are rooted in a failure to carefully look at the correct translation of key words.

History has many friends who can help it correct its errors.  Perhaps the best friend is archaeology.  As new discoveries are made, claimed historical errors tend to be corrected, but it is a long and arduous process sometimes taking decades.  Just as the Bible and science are friends, the Bible and history are friends too.  It just takes time, honesty, and openness to work through the apparent conflicts.  New books and data are appearing every day to help us do that, and we hope to continue to bring these wonderful tools to your attention as we become aware of them.

--John N. Clayton

Back to Contents Does God Exist?, JulAug07.