The Historian’s Job and Christian Apologetics

I am currently writing a work of history. My co-author and I are investigating the nuclear tests conducted in the Marshall Islands by the U.S. from 1946 to 1958. During that period, the United States conducted 67 nuclear tests (including some duds) on or near Bikini and Eniwetok atolls in the Marshall Islands. These tests produced a total combined yield of 108 megatons, the equivalent of one Hiroshima bomb (.015 MT) exploded daily for over nineteen years. Needless to say, unleashing this amount of nuclear force on small coral atolls had a devastating effect, turning them into radiological disaster zones. Bikini had been inhabited by Micronesian people for over 2000 years prior to their evacuation (eviction, really) in 1946. It remains uninhabited to this day. The largest of these tests was Castle Bravo, March 1 (local date), 1954. It was predicted to yield 6 MT, but actually yielded 15 MT, 1000 times the force of the Little Boy bomb that killed 70,000 in Hiroshima on August 6, 1945. Intensely radioactive fallout rained down on inhabited islands and the crew of the ironically-named Japanese tuna boat, the Lucky Dragon.

Whenever I do any historical research, I am always impressed and often frustrated by how difficult it is to get a straight account of the facts. Some sources say one thing and some say another. Accounts are often fragmentary, leaving the historian to try to piece together a connected narrative. Archival sources are often conflicting and confusing. Politics and ideology enter in at every level. If you rely on government reports, they tend to be written, at least in part, to justify the actions of the agencies and individuals involved. If, on the other hand, you read critics of the government, they obviously are grinding their own axes, and are too credulous with testimony that supports their agendas and too hastily dismiss official claims and arguments. Even scientific or medical reports are often unreliable in one way or another. For instance, it may be that instances of miscarriages and stillbirths among Marshallese women exposed to radiation were underreported to American doctors because of communication problems.

Eyewitnesses are always biased, or at least limited by their own perspectives. With big, complex events, no one witness can give you more than a piece of the story. Besides, eyewitnesses notoriously see what they expect to see rather than what really happened. Also, memories fade over time, and, as has been shown again and again, false “memories” are easily implanted. When controversial claims or issues are involved, all sorts of problems crop up. Conspiracy theories sprout like weeds and cast their shadows over everything. All sources have some problem or other. Some are sketchy just where you need them to be precise. Sometimes you are hotly pursuing something that would be an exciting discovery, only to find that the trail runs cold and crucial facts are missing and unrecoverable. Finally, and essentially, as a historian you have to find ways to constrain your own bias and expectations. Sometimes you are gobsmacked by evidence completely contrary to what you want to say, and you have to have the integrity to deal with it honestly. In short, on a variation of the Gilbert and Sullivan song, the historian’s lot is not an ‘appy one.

Obviously, the above jeremiad is leading up to something: Whenever I hear Christian apologists going on confidently about what happened in and around Jerusalem 2000 years ago, I am simply amazed. With respect to any significant set of historical events, finding out exactly what happened is appallingly difficult, even when, as with my topic, you are writing about events that happened in living memory. Actually, I have many advantages over any historian attempting to reconstruct the events in Palestine circa 30 CE. The events I am studying were meticulously and copiously documented. Whole archives exist with the relevant material. These events were recorded on many different kinds of scientific instruments, were filmed from many angles and locations, and were subjected to minute scientific analysis. Many clearly-identified persons left eyewitness accounts from known locales. Extensive reports were written by observers and participants in the events. For instance, Ōishi Matashichi, one of the unfortunate fishermen irradiated by fallout from Castle Bravo, has recently published his memoirs, The Day the Sun Rose in the West (2011, The University of Hawai’i Press). The events I am writing about were conducted by a society not only literate but scientifically sophisticated and committed to the obsessive documentation of everything. Indeed, the main problem with writing about such a topic is the sheer volume of possible evidence. Yet even with all these advantages, it can be devilishly difficult for the historian of recent events to get all the facts straight.

In contrast, a historian writing about the events surrounding the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth has to deal with evidence that is much scantier and less complete. To take just one of many difficulties, even where hints of eyewitness confirmation exist, details often are completely lacking. In the famous passage from I Corinthians, Chapter 15 Paul mentions the “500” who allegedly saw the risen Jesus. This claim is often adduced as central to the apologists’ case. Paul assures us that some of these 500 are still, alive, implying that you can look them up and ask them about it.  However, what for the modern historian would be crucial information is just not available in Paul’s account. Who were these persons? What were their names? Where did they live? What, exactly, did they see? Did each one know Jesus well so that he could not have been mistaken that it was Jesus he saw? When Jesus appeared before them, was he on a stage or standing on a hill where they could see him clearly? Was it daylight? Did Jesus say anything to authenticate his identity? Why were they gathered together? Had they been told to expect to see the risen Jesus, or did it come as a complete surprise? 500 is a pretty big crowd. Did everybody get close enough for a good look? Can we rule out any possibility here of mass delusion or the “madness of crowds?” Where did Paul get this story? Did he, personally, talk to any of the “500,” or did he hear about them second- or third-hand? Did any leave written accounts of what they experienced? How can we rule out that the whole story of the “500” is not a fabrication or hoax?

Many intelligent and highly educated people (e.g. Peter Kreeft and Ronald Tacelli) have accepted and repeated the story about the “500,” without asking the above questions, or at least not taking them seriously enough. This fact is highly indicative of the difference between approaching historical evidence as an apologist and approaching it as a historian. Historians should not be afraid to draw conclusions—but, especially when dealing with obscure events in obscure places long, long ago—they should evince a large degree of humility or (“humble” not being possible for most academics) at least caution. Historians have to follow the evidence—really. If not because they want to, then because they know that other historians will excoriate them if they do not.

Speaking personally (and as close to “humbly” as I can get), I would never presume to think that I knew what events led to the founding of Christianity. Naturally, I could rank some scenarios as more likely than others, but even the most probable of the lot could not be taken as very probable. It was just too long ago, the evidence is too meager, and the imponderables predominate. What happened between the time of Jesus’s crucifixion and the public proclamations that he had risen by the earliest Christians? From my experience of trying to find out exactly what happened a mere 60 years ago, I conclude that nailing down what happened 2000 years ago at the founding of Christianity is not possible. We can guess, we can speculate, we can propose and dispose of scenarios, we can conjecture, we can debate and indulge our imaginations. We cannot know.