Is History Knowable?

A historian asked his students one time what the difference is between math and history. Because of the precise nature of math, the students either get it or they don’t; there’s no bluffing one’s way through. But in history, he says, even with a spastic understanding of the past, a student is not likely to be all wrong.  Such is the imprecision of history. As such, according to Morton Smith, “… history is more complicated than physics; the lines connecting the original figure to the developed legends cannot be traced with mathematical accuracy”. Is mathematical precision necessary to know the past?

The past is difficult to know simply because it’s not the present. And even the present can have it’s processing difficulties. But the folds of time seem to obscure events of the past the further back one goes. The older an event, the more difficult it can be to know what happened. Historians say you can’t “prove” what you had for lunch 3 days ago much less what happened 2,000 years ago. Even 90 years, a short time by historical standards, can obscure the details of an event in the age of photography! This recent story illustrates the problem:

“A wrecked schooner long buried on Fire Island – a barrier island off of Long Island, N.Y. – now lays fully exposed following Hurricane Sandy’s attack on the beach. The weathered hull of the shipwreck lies about 4 miles east of Davis Park, between Skunk Hollow and Whalehouse Point, in the Fire Island National Seashore, as first reported by Newsday.

The remains are thought to be the Bessie White, more than 90 years old, said Paula Valentine, public affairs specialist for the park. Historic photographs and news accounts don’t agree on the year of ship’s grounding, but here is an outline of it’s story: The ship, a four-mast Canadian schooner, went aground in heavy fog about a mile west of Smith’s Point, Long Island, in either 1919 or 1922. The men escaped in two boats. One capsized in the surf, injuring one crew member, but everyone (including the ship’s cat) made it to shore safely. But the crew couldn’t save the three-year-old ship or its tons of coal. The ship was salvaged in the following weeks.”

So how much of this story can we believe? How much is necessary to know? Though a tangible artifact, how can we be sure it is the “Bessie White”? Even if we do know it is that schooner, we don’t have certainty as to when it went down. And this was only 90 years ago! If we can’t know these, how do we have any confidence of an event from the middle ages or antiquity? Maybe mathematical precision is the wrong pre-supposition for the historian. These are the questions we will explore. We will answer the question as to whether history is knowable, present the complicating factors and objections, and examine whether history should be revised.

Is History Necessary?

When Pontius Pilate belched out “what is truth?”, he didn’t even wait for an answer. But such indifference is not just an ancient phenomena. Some people today ask “Is history really necessary?” They just want to have a good time, accumulate things, or challenge themselves with an “extreme sport.“ What they don’t realize is that without history, all of life would be chaos. Life is built and sequenced around history. Banking, commodities, industry, law, government, corporations, universities, and politics, are all based on history. Our personal lives are constructed according to the ability to record history, whether it’s balancing a checkbook, forging memories, having relationships, maintaining a work schedule, making transactions, contracts, or deeds, paying bills, filing receipts etc. Life only works when people, places, and events are recorded as the past happened. As one historian wrote, “the world has truth in it or the world could not exist.”

Define the Relationship

History occurs in a variety of literature such as narrative, biography, poetry, prose, myth, novel etc. And history could be considered the confluence of all branches of learning. Before proceeding, it’s important to define history. Ranke says that “history is the cognitive expression of the deep rooted desire to know the past”. Carlyle says “all knowledge is recorded experience.” Historical Jesus scholar John Dominic Crossan says, “history is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse”. Philosopher Hayden White offers the definition that history “refers to both an object of study and to an account of this object…two parts… one of which is historical and the other unhistorical”. Regardless of the wording, philosophers, historians and scholars all agree that history is the study of the past or past events.

If history is more about method, historiography is about philosophy. Macaulay’s definition combines these: “history is philosophy teaching by example.” Ranke adds “there are really only two ways of acquiring knowledge about human affairs: through perception of the particular or through abstraction. The later is the method of philosophy, the former history.” The “two parts” Ranke refers to are the “facts” of an event, as well as the matrix in which they’re imbedded. The facts are like the gold in the ore. Thus historiography can “be defined as the history of the philosophy of history and as writings about the past.” Historiography takes into account the historians own inimitable style and cultural influences in shaping the facts for a particular purpose. Both history and historiography concern the questions, “can we know the past and how can we know”?

Just The Facts Please

Facts are the backbone of history. But historians differ in opinion as to the qualitative nature of “facts”. Some believe facts themselves to emanate meaning from within. In this case, it becomes the duty of the historian in each era to reinterpret the facts and update them, ignoring the original context and worldview in which they were deposited. Others add that facts should be treated like new facets in a gem not previously seen; the fact stays stable and anchored, but what is seen may differ depending on the culture that draws it out.

Others say that facts are rather pedestrian and bare, such as “Lincoln was shot on April 14, 1865 ”. Without an interpretive framework or worldview, they don’t mean much. A correct interpretation of the facts and the correct worldview are inseparable. This is Geisler’s view: “A worldview is not generated from the facts. Facts do not speak for themselves. The facts gain their meaning only within the overall context of the worldview.” In other words, if facts had meaning from within, then subjectivity could result which leads to negative revisionism. If facts exist subjectively in the mind of the historian, or we read into them what we want to see, there results something of a Kantian confusion and no such thing as objective data.

At best, the objectivity of bare facts can tell us the “what” of history. But meaning and a worldview tells us the “why” of history. Geisler adds, “…objectivity of the meaning of…events is not possible apart from a meaningful structure such as that provided by an overall hypothesis or worldview…Once that system is known, it is possible to…reconstruct an objective picture of the past.”

Some scholars amend this by saying that some facts are so paradigm changing, they change us; we adjust to them, they don’t adjust to us. Some facts are self-interpreting in that they align each generation back to reality. As Groothuis writes, “The historical fact is what makes my belief true; it is the truth maker. The effects of this belief are irrelevant to it’s truth value.”

We can take something from each of these insights. Though facts shouldn’t be revised, depositing them into a new matrix and how they’re presented for another generation seems appropriate. And though some facts seem to be self interpreting, or single handedly challenge preexisting mental constructs, they may not be interpreted correctly without a proper worldview. Either way, it is the position of most realist historians that there exists a hard core of objective, external facts that can be known. Most historians believe the facts of history are objective and anterior to the mind, not something a new generation determines but discovers.

If, as one historian says, writing history is in some sense a religious act,”and facts are worldview dependent, the question becomes which worldview? Because of the dangers of relativism, revisionism, and subjectivity, historians with a theistic framework are in the best position to interpret history objectively. Within in a theistic framework, each fact becomes a “theistic” fact and life becomes the canvass on which a grand artist paints his complete picture. Only here can a historian have consistency and meaning as to how life is interpreted. Only here can life be organic and dynamic, proceeding with a definitive purpose.

Doing history is as much of a philosophy of history issue as history itself. Every historian has a philosophical pre-commitment, whether it’s naturalistic or theistic. So it is important for the historian to not just study the facts, but to think about what he’s thinking about. That is, what is the historian‘s praxis? Licona calls this the “horizon” of the scholar, a powerful presence in his philosophy of history. Horizon’s are the lenses through which a historian sees. They are “pre-understandings” that are the result of “knowledge, experience, beliefs, education, cultural conditioning, preferences, presuppositions and worldview.” It is not possible for historians to look at “the data devoid of biases, hopes, or inclinations.” Essentially, there are only two choices historians have as to the origination of history today: causes by natural law/random chance or superintendence by God. If God does not exist, history might be cyclical and a squirrel cage that just keeps going round and around. If God does exist, then history is linear and proceeding toward a meaningful end, two different interpretations. The historian’s worldview in which he couches his facts of history is subject to other tests, such as the plausibility of that worldview, which is beyond the scope of this paper.


One factor that complicates the knowability of history is the complexity of our times. We may be at the apex of knowledge that the world has ever known with more tools to uncover the past than ever before. But with an endless paper trail of resources, an exhaustive and integrated study on anything is almost impossible. Another factor is that we are characterized by an extreme skepticism that anything other than empirical knowledge is possible. A brief trip through the corridors time is necessary to understand why the knowability of history is more difficult today than ever before.

Aquinas and the Modern World

Aquinas philosophically corrected the Platonic dualism that characterized the Middle Ages and ratified the physical world as not evil. The unbeknownst folds of the natural world became a legitimate realm of study and launched the world on a spree of progress that hasn’t slowed since. This realm opened up new occupations and avenues of pursuit. But this emphasis on materialism also lead eventually to an unhealthy preoccupation with it as the ultimate reality. Life itself was strained to produce answers to the questions of it’s own meaning. Whereas science originally began as God’s gift to understand the material world and another avenue to affirm the varied mysteries of a Creator, it soon grew to compete with theology as the highest pursuit of meaning. Skeptic David Hume of the 18th century, one of the better known adherents to empiricism, felt that reality other than material objects may exist, but they cannot be proven and was skeptical to rational claims of knowledge.

In reaction to empiricism, the age of reason spawned new philosophies about reality that are still in effect today. Rationalists rightly claimed that there are ways in which knowledge is gained independently of sensory experience and that we can know things apart from what the senses can provide. But an emphasis on empiricism and the failure of rationalism to prove God from logic resulted in a philosophy of agnosticism put forth by Immanuel Kant. He planted a landmine in the study of knowledge by emphasizing the mind as the starting point of reality. He said that what counts is the way our minds understand and interpret things, not the way things really are. This put a damper on our ability to know objective reality, history, and history as it pertains to God. If Hume said we should doubt, Kant said we cannot know. Much of Western thought today is shaped by the skepticism of Hume and the agnosticism and relativism left over by Kant.

Both of these philosophies have had a tremendous effect, positive and negative, on our confidence to do history. For example, historical criticism began in Christian circles to detect the original, literal context and authorship of the Biblical text. But it soon attracted skeptical scholars who were poisoned by a worldview that favored naturalism and a bias against the supernatural. They found in historical criticism a choice instrument in which to discredit the Biblical text. Though skepticism had a devastating effect on the sacred text, the effect has ultimately been positive as it has been shown to be more reliable than ever before.

Though rooted in Christianity, historical criticism applies to other fields of history including classical studies. Historians use the same rules, and lean towards realism and not relativism, that the past is knowable and contains universals and fixed points of understanding that transcend the ages. Soulen and Soulen write:

The approach of Historical-critical methods [today] typifies the following: (1) that reality is uniform and universal, (2) that reality is accessible to human reason and investigation (3) that all events historical and natural are interconnected and comparable to analogy, (4) that humanity’s contemporary experience of reality can provide objective criteria to what could or could not have happened in past events.

History Before The Age of Science

Before the ages of empiricism and rationalism, history was a little more straight forward. The historical method and the process of trying to understand what happened in the past was originally set down by Aristotle: “the benefit of the doubt is to be given to the document itself, not abrogated by the critic to himself. Therefore, one must listen to the claims of the document under analysis and not assume fraud or error unless the author disqualified himself by contradictions of known factual inaccuracies”. In other words, though we want to be discerning, it might be arrogant for us to doubt an event just because we don’t like the proposition. Aristotle’s premise is similar to our system of jurisprudence in criminal law. That is, the assertion under question is innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt.

A basic Aristilean approach still holds true today as the majority of historians are realists, not agnostics. C.B. McCullagh asserts, “I don’t know of any practicing historians who admit that they cannot discover anything true about the past. They may admit to being fallible, but they do not deny that a lot of the basic facts they present are probably true.”

Because of Kant and Hume, many historians today incorporate a little more suspicion than a pure Aristilean approach. Licona writes that there are three different ways an historian can approach a text, not just two: methodical credulity, methodical skepticism, and methodical neutrality. In methodical credulity, the historian assumes texts are reliable unless research indicates otherwise (innocent until proven guilty). In methodical skepticism, the historian assumes the texts are unreliable unless evidence indicates that they should be reliable (guilty until proven innocent).

But there is a third option that balances the original assertion of history with the fact that historians can lie and embellish; that is, the past can be known but must be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. In methodical neutrality, the burden of proof is put on the hypothesis, which includes the original assertion of history. Though this sounds like raw skepticism, when alternative hypotheses are considered and discredited, the original assertion is often affirmed. So the report about an event maintains historicity when it wins out over all comers. Retaining a moderate Aristilean stance, and not extreme skepticism is the modus operandi among the consensus of historians. “Realism…is by far how the overwhelming majority of historians view their practice.”

The Two Edged Sword of Revisionism

Biblical and classical history have survived the doubts caused by skepticism and agnosticism. And the majority of secular historians are realists who believe reality is universal, accessible, and objective. But there is another extreme that has been borne out of the agnosticism called relativism that exacerbates the problem of history.

In a comic strip titled, “History Is A Fiction To Persuade Ourselves,” Calvin begins by asking his stuffed tiger friend Hobbes, “We don’t understand what really causes events to happen.” Reflecting for a moment, Calvin continues “History is the fiction we persuade ourselves that events are knowable and that life has order and direction.” Thinking that he’s on to something, he says: “That’s why events are always reinterpreted when values change. We need new versions of history to allow for our current prejudices”. After a long pause, Hobbes asks Calvin, “So what are you writing?” Calvin gives the punch line, “A revisionist autobiography”.

This comic strip highlights the problem of revisionism and the different perspectives on the purpose of history. Calvin concludes that since values are relative and fluid, the facts and not just the matrix of history should be rewritable and updatable for any generation.

Problematic revisionism occurs when an individual or scholar lacks integrity and discovers the conclusions of history are in tension with her desired outcomes. So a self imposed liberalism results in propaganda. We see this today by some who rewrite American history, as Kirby Anderson points out:

“Many historians have wanted to secularize our founders. Take this quote from W.E. Woodward. He wrote that ‘The name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned even once in the vast collection of Washington’s published letters.’ [Anderson replies] Anyone who has read some of Washington’s writing knows he mentions God and divine providence. But it isn’t too difficult to also find times in which he mentions Jesus Christ. For example, when George Washington wrote to the Delaware Indian Chiefs (June 12, 1779) he said: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ…”

This negative revisionism is usually in the minority of scholars. But the problem occurs when it is done by the few who have power, whether academically or politically. This is what Stalin did when he revised history because he abhorred the fact that Trotksy had a more prominent role in the Russian Revolution. Groothuis observes, “while we cannot reduce the concept of truth to power relationships and nothing more, the way in which cultures view truth and falsity is partially determined by who controls the discourse- who ‘owns the microphone.’” So degrees of accuracy in history can be determined by power, political forces or cultural emphases as to what is in style.

It becomes very ironic when a relativist decides to rewrite not just the matrix of history but the facts. In the process, he himself becomes partial that his way is correct. But how does he know his way is correct if history is unknowable? If we don’t trust the original assertion of history, how do we know his revision is correct? He cannot assert that he cannot know something without affirming that he knows something. He’s using a standard of measure by which to measure specific instances of variation. A relativist’s constant rewriting of history is based on the assumption that objectivity is possible. But “if the position of historical relativism is itself relative, then it cannot be taken as absolutely true.” Who would want it? The relativism behind the negative revisionism of history is self-defeating. The relativist might be wise to heed Kierkegaard’s warning: “Of all deceivers fear most yourself!”

Where revisionism is appropriate is in the matrix of an account. A historian can write in his own inimitable style using the modern vernacular of the day and still preserve the major facts of that account. This is one reason Christianity has lasted so long, with it’s core assertions preserved in mint condition today as though stamped in the first century. The applications and language of Christian authors varied throughout the centuries depending on the context and culture, but all without historical compromise. It is said we can piece together the whole New Testament from the writings of the church fathers alone.

It is appropriate to use new discoveries to reinterpret some things about the past, usually in the areas of application. An example is a book by Joshua Wolf Shenk entitled Lincoln’s Melancholy, How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. Taking what we know today about depression, the book reexamines how Lincoln’s mental illness shaped his decisions, all without distorting the key historical components of his life. This type of revisionism is appropriate and helpful. Writes Geisler, “reconstruction does not necessitate revision; selecting material may occur without neglecting significant matters. Every historian must arrange his material.” Or as Macauley states, “a historian can use imagination without invention.”

The Problem of Bias

The issue of bias is frequently raised regarding history and some words of clarification are in order. Inaccuracy, bias, fraud, deception and lies have existed since the dawn of mankind and historians should have a healthy skepticism towards such. We often hear of the twisted lies spun by Hitler or Stalin and conclude propaganda is always bad. But propaganda doesn’t always have to be negative or wrong. Sometimes bias is a good thing that gives motivation for an author to insure the integrity of an account. When historians write, they write with a purpose to persuade towards their viewpoint, which doesn’t mean necessarily a lack of integrity.

Tacitus is considered by many to be the greatest Roman historian and writes with a severe Roman bias, but his works are of immense value in understanding Rome. Caesar’s Gallic Wars is a work of propaganda, but his facts are accurate. Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian War consisted of literary reconstructions of what he believed ought to have been said rather than actual quotations of what was said. Yet we are optimistic of his basic assertions of history and that there is something we need to accommodate space for. The same is true with the New Testament. One scholar writes, “There can be no question that the Evangelists have the agenda of presenting a particular portrait of Jesus to their readers and teaching a message they wish for them to believe and act on. However, this does not warrant that their conclusion is mistaken.”

Deception and lies are realities. The historian should always have a healthy skepticism towards such. But lies are not the highest force in the assertions of history and somehow the truth seems to come out. Observes J.P. Moreland , “If the presumption of lying is universalized, where one always assumes someone is lying, lying becomes pointless because lying is impossible without the general presumption of truth telling.” Thus, a basic Aristilean philosophy still wins out in our approach to history.

Objections to the Knowability of History

The residual skepticism of Hume and the agnosticism of Kant have found their way in a series of objections by Charles Beard who embraced a postmodern view of history. In an essay entitled Historical Relativism, Beard lists 11 principles of which only several will be addressed:

1.) The problem of direct access. History is not objective because it is not directly observable. The historian is at least one layer away in the documentation process. As he writes, “the historian…cannot see as the chemist sees his test tubes and compounds.”

2.) The fragmentary nature of accounts. “The documentation with which the historian must work covers only a part of the events,” therefore one cannot make final conclusions.

3.) The problem of selection of documentation. Not only is the documentation partial, the historian cannot be sure he has all the documents of a given occasion. At best, he makes a partial selection of material and there are gaping holes in events. What the historian can offer is “pure hypothesis” and nothing more.

4.) Language is real reality. This is a classic postmodern argument, where we create our own reality with words since absolute truth doesn’t exist. History is written by man and all men have self interests and craft arguments to their advantage, so history is not objective.

5.) Essentially, we can’t prove the past. The argument that we can’t “prove what we had for lunch three days ago much less what happened 2,000 years ago” seems to render history sideways movement at best..


Refuting Objections to the Knowability of History

1.) If Beard wants to use science as his premise for objectivity, we would say that many hard sciences don’t have direct access to the past either. Paleontology and geology, two of the sciences that have shaped our modern paradigm of the past, are known by fossils. The events surrounding their occurrence are no more accessible to the scientist than events are to historians. Furthermore, quarks, neutrons, black holes, and the Big Bang are all conclusions made by scientists based on evidence without direct access to their occurrences.

2.) As to the fragmentary nature of the past, science again supports the historian’s task. “The fossil remains represent only a tiny percentage of the living beings of the past. This does not hinder scientists from attempting to reconstruct an objective picture of what really happened in geological history.”

3.) Regarding the problem of selection of material, the fact that historians select material does not necessarily translate to subjectivity. “Condensation does not imply distortion…one need not know everything in order to know something.” Criminal cases are decided not by all of the evidence but by the most important evidence. As for history being “pure hypothesis”, scientists rarely know all the facts before widespread acceptance on many theories, yet objectivity is claimed in these disciplines. In the same vein, all the historian needs are relevant and sufficient facts to obtain objectivity. Probability and not certainty of an event is what is acceptable in historical studies. Licona clarifies that:

“historians…speak of the probable truth of a theory rather than absolute certainty…[they] do not seek absolute confidence, instead they seek adequate descriptions of the past for which they may have reasonable certainty. Moreover, as with the challenges affiliated with perceptions, the inability of historians to verify their hypothesis most of the time only affects their ability to know truth. It does not affect the nature of truth itself.”

4.) As for the argument that history is merely language attempts to say that history is a study of the study of the past- not the past itself. In other words, history is out of past events, not about past events. “Nothing was real so we study the transmission process”. But the past exists independent of ourselves. We don’t create truth, we discover it. That’s the basis for the scientific method, which Beard calls on for support where science discovers objective reality. We don’t determine history, we discover and apply it. A thick Kantian membrane, and a dose of relativism envelope Beard’s criticisms of history.

Also, the primary sense of language is the literal nature of words. The whole world operates around the literal nature of what words mean, otherwise it goes into chaos. There is metaphor, but metaphor is subordinate to the tangible referents of literality. Words are rooted in tangible realities, and events give metaphor meaning. It goes against the natural grain of order to not interpret history from a general literal foundation.

5.) What about the question that we can’t prove what we had for lunch 3 days ago? We can’t ‘prove’ the laws of logic either, but we know they exist and we live according to them. “We have to assume our senses provide an accurate perception of the external world, and we have to assume logic facilitates our quest for truth”. All of these objections don’t thwart our task.

The Methods and Tests of History

Science has methods for testing facts and hypotheses, but what about history? Are there any tests to determine authenticity? We don’t often hear about methods for the rather imprecise discipline of history, but surprisingly there are some tests. Gottschalk lays the groundwork with a preliminary set of questions: Was the author an eyewitness of the event? If not, what were his sources of information? When did he write the document? How much time elapsed between the event and the record? What was his purpose in writing and speaking? Who were his audience? Was the author able to tell the truth? And was he willing to do so? What was his worldview of philosophy of life?

While these questions are a general guide, they are not enough. When evaluating the authenticity of ancient texts, the gold standard to this day are the criterion established by Westcott and Hort over a century ago. All things considered, 1.) Older reading are to be preferred. 2.) The more difficult readings are to be preferred. 3.) Shorter readings are to be preferred. 4.) The readings that best explain variant readings are to be preferred. 5.) Readings with the widest geographical support are to be preferred. 6.) Readings that best conform to the original author’s style are to be preferred. 7.) Readings that reflect no doctrinal bias are to be preferred.

The more of these criteria that can be employed, the more accurate and knowable the events that a text reports. A good case study is in the historicity of the New Testament, perhaps the most scrutinized body of literature in the history of the world, ancient or modern. The events of the New Testament are solid and all major issues are resolved. Major contours of world events hang on much thinner wires than what we have in the New Testament. John Warwick Montgomery summarizes, “to be skeptical of the resultant text of the New Testament books is to allow all of classical antiquity to slip into obscurity, for no documents of the ancient period are as well attested…as the New Testament.”

In addition to textual evidence, when scholars want to consider hard data from other disciplines such as archaeology, they graft in the following five principles to determine whether an historical account is credible. These principles, when employed, give greater confidence to an account. They are: 1.) Multiple, independent sources support historical claims. 2.) Attestation by an enemy supports historical claims. 3.) Embarrassing admissions support historical claims. 4.) Eyewitness testimony supports historical claims. 5.) Early testimony supports historical claims. These principles are common sense guides historians use to determine if and what happened in the past.

But there is another test. If the facts are gathered, but different hypotheses are assembled to explain the data, historians weigh the credibility between hypotheses through “Arguments to the Best Explanation“. Originally laid forth by McCullagh, the following criterion capture the thought patterns that most historians use in some degree or another in determining the best hypothesis about a past occurrence. The first criterion is that a hypothesis that includes the greatest quantity and variety of observable data has a greater explanatory scope. The second criterion is when the hypothesis explains the data with the least amount of effort or ambiguity, it is said to have greater explanatory power. The object here is to provide a framework where the observable datum are less vague or forced, and therefore more probable.

Third, the hypothesis that incorporates a greater variety of already accepted truths is said to be more plausible. Here cross fertilization can occur with the literature of other disciplines to negate contradictions within a hypothesis, which can be helpful when historians get myopic about their theories. Scholars in one discipline may be good at assembling facts for a project, but are not always the best to draw the conclusions. Fourth, the preferred hypothesis that absorbs fewer suppositions that are not evidenced is considered less ad hoc. This can be important when, all things being equal between rival hypotheses, the one requiring the least amount of imagination with the data is preferred. And fifth, when a hypothesis sheds light on research in other disciplines or provides a possible solution to problems in other areas, it is said to give illumination. Conclusions in one area may have far reaching effects on other areas, and in these cases, the less ad hoc hypothesis is favored.

Licona used these criteria in a lengthy treatment on the resurrection of Christ. He compared the top six competing theories for the data of the resurrection and concluded that:

“the resurrection hypothesis is quite good on strictly historical grounds. This seems to be a more…respectable position than to run wild with the highly imaginative reconstruction and call it history…I am contending that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead is the best historical explanation of the relevant historical bedrock…it fulfills all five of the criteria for the best explanation;…the historian is warranted in regarding Jesus’ resurrection as an event that occurred in the past.”

If the resurrection can be vindicated by this test which happened 2,000 years ago, we can feel secure in other foundations of knowledge of the past that have been scrutinized with these methods. The historian is not without an array of tools to handle a variety of challenges in determining the credibility of an account in the past.


Do we know everything about history? No. But maybe we don‘t need to either. Too much history might be a needless diversion. Though we always want to keep the books open to reevaluate something in light of new questions or research, we can rest that we have essential knowledge of the past just like a person doesn’t need all the money in the world to be content. We don’t need to know everything about an event to know it happened. And perhaps what we do know is all we need to know to live sufficiently. This doesn’t thwart our continued desire to improve our research methods and seek new discoveries to update our “files”.

We might be tempted to say, “if only we could discover just one more manuscript…” Or, “if I could have been a fly on the wall in that scenario…”. But at some point after due diligence, we have to trust that what we have is what we’re meant to know at this point. Though interesting to think about and inspiring for historical fiction, a complete knowledge might be an indulgence that could ruin us. An obsession to know everything about the enigma’s of history could drive us crazy.

Macauley put it this way, “No picture and no history can present us with the whole truth. But those are the best histories and best pictures which exhibit such parts of the truth as most nearly produce the effect of the whole…it perpetually happens that one writer tells less truth than another because he tells more truths.” It’s like being in an art museum and walking too close to a Rembrandt so that you can see the pore spaces in the canvas. Too much detail takes away from the truth.

History cooperates with other disciplines of science where we leave some things to the trust of a disciplined imagination. Trust seems to be a law of reality that governs how this world works, and we can rest ourselves in certainty on a basis other than empirical validity. The irony is that a desire for complete certainty so as to mitigate trust (whether in history, relationships or money etc.), leads to more insecurity. But if we can trust that the known facts are adequate, certainty can be procured by other means. Faith in the facts we know, even without video like evidence, is a legitimate way of knowing. Unfortunately, with some people, even complete video evidence is not enough. We even see this with some denying the Holocaust of all things, through a hermeneutic of suspicion. This is where history becomes as much of a worldview issue as pure facts.

Those with a theistic worldview have the capacity for trusting the evidence wherever it leads and interpreting history most accurately. That doesn’t mean an “unbeliever” can’t be a realist or objective. But seeing life as unfolding under the sovereign hand of a Creator insures integrity, since the purveyor of historical accounts has a moral responsibility. A theistic historian gets past first principles and doesn’t get bogged down in the underbrush of relativism where events are the product of mere naturalistic causes.

A predisposition towards naturalism is just as much of a philosophical construct as one towards theism or the supernatural. Writes Geisler, “unless one can settle the question as to whether this is a theistic or non-theistic world on grounds independent of the mere facts themselves, there is no way to determine the objective meaning of history.” Few facts change the world in themselves, but facts with the correct context and worldview change lives for the better. History is the bridge between the past and the future, the abstract and the practical, the actual and the possible. As Ranke put it, “Of all the intellectual concerns of man…history remains closest to a sense of life.”


Anderson, Kirby. “What Are Some Examples of Historical Revisionism? Probe Ministries. Are_Some_Examples_of_Historical_Revisionism.htm.

Beard, Charles. “From Historical Relativism.” In The Varieties of History, ed. Fritz Stern, 323-325. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Best of Calvin and Hobbes. “History Is A Fiction To Persuade Ourselves.“ Posted May 18, 2012. persuade-ourselves/

Carlyle, Thomas. “From History as Biography.” In The Varieties of History, ed. Fritz Stern, 107. New York: Vintage Books, 1973.

Crossan, John Dominic. The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1998.

Geisler, Norman L. Christian Apologetics. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1976.

Gottschalk, Louis. Understanding History, A Primer of Historical Method. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc, 1969.

Groothuis, Douglass. Christian Apologetics, A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

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Copyright 2013 by Scott Chandler. All Rights Reserved.

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About Scott Chandler

As a trained academician, Scott speaks to the issues of our culture with an emphasis on apologetics.
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One Response to Is History Knowable?

  1. Neil Rees says:

    Loved your article. I was teaching on the “historical” books of the Old Testament and many of the students found the concepts you are presenting here hard to grasp without feeling that they were destroying the value of Scripture. I have enjoyed reading someone with a grasp of historiography and the post-modern deconstruction of the historical method that does not lead to hopelessness in the task, nor loss of faith in the God who works in and through history. Well done.

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