on re-writing the past

‘The winners write the history books’ may be a cliché but it is pretty true, come to think of it.

I’d been reading In the Shadow of the Sword by Tom Holland not too long ago, and his look at the historicity of the Koran was pretty new to me. In Islam, the Koran is supplemented to a large extent by the hadiths, which are sayings attributed to Muhammad and for that reason carry a lot of authority. Hadiths can be taken alone or can be used to interpret the Koran.

Holland argues however that for all the vicarious authority the hadiths carry, very few of them can concretely be traced to Muhammad, which to my mind raises questions about their historicity (and validity) to begin with.

Which got me thinking – most cultures in this world will fudge with history if they think they can get away with it, and/or if it suits them.

Pharaoh Ramses the Great is (in)famous for his pretty shameless propaganda concerning the Battle of Kadesh. The battle was a near-defeat-turned-draw for the Egyptian army, one in which Ramses was nearly killed, but Ramses’ many inscriptions would have the reader believe that it was a glorious victory.

More contemporaneously I was thinking about the film Prince of Egypt. It was interesting that the captions at the start of the film explicitly state that the directors consulted leading rabbinical authorities before release. The film opens with an Israel groaning out unmistakably to Yahweh for deliverance, and him answering that cry. Israel is depicted as pious and longsuffering. I’m no biblical scholar and this is just an observation, but there seem to be solid arguments that this is pretty far from what it actually was:

A) the Israelites had been in Egypt for a very long time (Moses writes 400 years, and take this literally or not, his point was that it was a very long time), during which it is very likely that the Israelites had forgotten Yahweh; B) Moses at the burning bush needed a name for Yahweh to bring back to the Israelites, ie. they didn’t really know who he was (though there were exceptions including Moses and his family, as well as the Hebrew midwives); C) when the Israelites felt abandoned by their God in the desert, and Moses had disappeared up Mt Sinai, who did they turn to? My guess is that the golden calf was none other than Apis, who had probably been Israel’s object of worship back in Egypt, and now that they felt abandoned, their go-to deity; D) it makes sense that Yahweh’s targeting of the Egyptian pantheon was not just to show the Egyptians, but probably also to show Israel, who was about to leave Egypt and enter a renewed covenant with God.

Take this all together, plus the general biblical theme of divine deliverance never being deserved (Israel’s idolatry in Egypt followed by their undeserved deliverance at the Passover and the Exodus itself parallels very much our undeserved deliverance by Jesus), and there are some pretty compelling arguments that Prince’s rabbinically-endorsed version of pre-Exodus Israel is probably a bit fudged. (My issue with this goes beyond nitpicking and heckling though: if you think about it, the rabbinically-endorsed view almost implies that a pious Israel is being wronged by a forgetful or irresponsible God. Of course it is true that God-fearers do suffer despite their trust in God, but it seems to me that the aforementioned rabbinical view isn’t trying to convey that message, rather it smacks a bit of self-righteousness.)

Interestingly enough you also have the fudging of other people’s history, one of the most unfortunate examples being the Achaemenid and Sassanian Persians. Close to none of their narrative history has survived, so what we’re left with is often highly biased or polemical accounts written by Greek and Roman sources. Sifting through those, and balancing them with neutral administrative records as well as favourable accounts (including Xenophon and certain Jewish sources), makes ancient Persian history quite a challenge.

Of course the Persians were not innocent of doing their own fudging: one of the most interesting examples is the fact that King Cyrus the Great, supposedly the grandest Achaemenid of them all, never actually called himself an Achaemenid – he never once in his lifetime claimed descent from the old chieftain Achaemenes, unlike all Achaemenid kings after him. It is only when King Darius (a loudly self-proclaimed Achaemenid) usurps the throne from Cyrus’ son, that King Cyrus all of a sudden (and despite being dead!) starts to trumpet his own Achaemenid ancestry in the form of several suspicious inscriptions. Given Darius’ desperate attempts at building up his credibility — including marrying all of his predecessors’ wives, and the daughter of Cyrus himself — one suspects he wasn’t above waking the ghost of old father Cyrus, kidnapping him and sticking him into a hand-crafted family tree (through the mutual connection to the legendary Achaemenes, whose existence is up to this day still debated).

The Romans are also a great example of re-writing history. The Aeneid is fudging on a grand, imperial scale, while the Romans were not above ethnic stereotypes; Terry Jones’ Barbarians gives an excellent account of this. Early Roman sources loved to slap labels on certain peoples – effete Asiatics, feeble Greeks, shifty Africans and wild trousered men from the north – while whole cultures and their records have been effectively erased thanks to the Roman conquests, for example the Dacians, living in what is now modern Romania, and the Carthaginians. The Romans were also so fond of the emperor Trajan that later medieval romances claim he was resurrected and baptised by Pope Gregory I.

Many of the ancients also practiced what the Romans called damnatio memoriae, defacing the images of disgraced and/or dead leaders. The heretic pharaoh Akhenaten had his statues destroyed in a targeted wave after his death, while Roman emperor Caracalla made a point to erase both written and physical records of his deceased brother-and-one-time competitor, Geta. In the British Museum is the siege of Lacish stele, where the disgraced Sennacherib shows the marks of some very directed and literal defacing.

More modern examples of history fudging include that by the retreating imperial Japanese forces at the end of WW2, doing their damnedest in erasing any evidence of their biological warfare laboratories in China and Manchuria (while the Germans did the same with a number of their concentration camps). Author Iris Chang also argues that Cold War politics made the US complicit in the Japanese cover up of the rape of Nanking. In recent years (though not for the first time) the Japanese authorities have also been accused of whitewashing the nation’s wartime activities in several government-approved school texts.

At the same time you have the Soviets’ notorious fiddling with history. The destruction of books written by disgraced Politburo members during Stalin’s purges is just one example, as is from that point on the Soviets’ love of editing photos, also to erase any legacy of disgraced officials (Stalin used this tactic to ‘plant’ himself in a number of photos of Lenin in order to give the impression he was close to Lenin, when in fact neither of them ever took a picture together).

On the other side of the iron curtain you have American accounts of WW2 (be it films, written accounts, school texts or even videogames), which tend to downplay the contribution of the other Allies. Until the last decade or so (and probably because of the Cold War) American accounts said very little about the overwhelming importance of the Soviet war effort, though at least sixty (and possibly more than eighty) percent of Germany’s military deaths were inflicted by Soviet forces, who in turn suffered more military deaths than those of all other Allied forces put together.

And of course who can forget the common tool of many young men born into the age of the internet, the delete browser history button.

People re-write and fudge history for many different reasons. Mostly to make things as they would like them to have been, when and if possible. Darius and Stalin fiddled with the past to legitimate their shaky authority. The Roman habit of stereotyping other nations smacks a bit of insecurity, and a wish that ancient world politics were a lot less complex than they actually were, which makes sense given the Romans’ meteoric rise from humble origins and the disdain they therefore bore from the more well-established civilisations at the time. The ancients practiced damnatio memoriae usually to declare “I wish you had never been born.” The US toyed with their own version of 20th century history in large part due to Cold War politics, conveniently forgetting certain things now that the Soviets were the enemy, not the Axis. Japan (and Germany to some extent) still struggles to come to terms with a less than savory wartime record; the Japanese authorities’ remedy has been on the whole to pretend the whole thing never happened. Pharaoh Ramses re-wrote history mostly because he was a bad loser. And young men today erase their browser history because they want to retain a mask of ‘goodness.’

Honesty, as it turns out, is and always has been a rare commodity.

2 thoughts on “on re-writing the past

Add yours

  1. “People re-write and fudge history for many different reasons. Mostly to make things as they would like them to have been, when and if possible. Honesty, as it turns out, is and always has been a rare commodity.”
    Yup, absolutely spot on…regarding the Bible, the gospels, and the early church’s account of its origins (i.e. Acts). As you are a historian by training, you should read into history of Israel based on archaeological evidence, examination of the historical Jesus using historical methods, and the early centuries of Christianity. To begin with, try:

    * “The Bible unearthed” by Israel Finkelstein (Touchstone, 2001)
    * “Quest for historical Israel” edited by Brian Schmidt (Brill, 2007)
    * “Origin of biblical monotheism” by Mark Smith (Oxford, 2001)
    * “History of biblical Israel – major problems & minor issues” by Abraham Malamat (Brill, 2001)
    * “Did God have a wife” by William Dever (Eerdmans, 2005)
    * “Jesus – apocalyptic prophet of the new Millenium” by Bart Ehrman (Oxford, 1999)
    * “Jesus interrupted” by Bart Ehrman (Harper, 2008)
    * “Misquoting Jesus” by Bart Ehrman (Harper, 2005)
    * “Jesus of Nazareth – an independent historian’s account” by Maurice Casey (T&T Clark, 2010)
    * “Jesus remembered” by James Dunn (Eerdmans, 2003)
    * “Writing history constructing religion” edited by James Crossley (Ashgate, 2005)
    * “How the Bible Became a book – textualisation of ancient Israel” by William Schniedewind (Cambridge, 2004)
    * “Is God a moral monster” by Paul Copan (Baker, 2011)
    * “Is God a moral compromiser” by Thom Stark (2011)

    Click to access stark_copan-review.pdf

    * “The human faces of God” by Thom Stark (Wipf & Stock, 2010)

    1. Hi Hon Wai, sorry for the late reply. I didn’t realise people actually comment on my posts!

      I think I get the gist of what you’re trying to say here, and while I appreciate the reading list I really don’t have that much time to go through them! Is there one or two you could recommend, or is there a summary of the arguments you could give me?

      I’ll limit myself to talking about Jesus literature since that’s what I think is at stake here: I agree that the early church did a lot of fudging, and that’s not something I’m proud of as a Christian. There are a lot of apocrypha from the second, third and fourth centuries which are simply made up and have nothing to do with the real Jesus. But I still hold New Testament literature to be historical and accurate. The Gospels and Acts (which is a sequel if you will to Luke) are written from a human perspective but they tell what the author saw. I find no reason to doubt Acts anymore than say Ptolemy’s Geography or other classical eyewitness accounts of the ‘this is where i went, this is what i saw’ genre. And while Matthew and Luke are based on Mark, I would say it’s pretty amazing that the Jesuses (Jesi?) portrayed separately in Mark and John are quite similar, and speak a similar message.

      But I’ll say this: unless you try to look at what Jesus is saying and what he did, none of what I say will make any sense. If all you want from looking at Jesus is pure historicity then you might be satisfied for a little bit, but it won’t last. There is no end of literature out there pointing out how shaky the foundations of Jesus are.

      The historicity of Jesus is to me, as a Christian, a given because I’ve engaged with what Jesus is saying and what he did. As an historian I can look at the historical evidence of Jesus and say there’s reasonably solid evidence there – no less solid than most other 1st century people and events – but even then, that’s not what attracts me to Jesus or his word, it’s the content of the word.

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