History can tell us about an event, but only an eyewitness can describe what it was like to be there. For example, there’s no doubt that the Titanic sank, it remains even now on the ocean floor. But only eyewitnesses could tell us how the passengers were placed in lifeboats and what the musicians were playing. We’re quite fortunate that we have so much documented history, written accounts, spoken stories, recorded videos, ancient artifacts and other items.
But what about older history? We rely on the accounts of ancient historians to describe for us historical events that have lost much of the physical proof of the events that took place; Herodotus (the first historian), Strabo, Livy, Flavius Josephus, Plutarch and Eusebius of Caesarea (among others) describe for us people, places, and events that are of note. The things that ought not be forgotten, as well as give us a glimpse into what life was like for them.
Today we have lots of words to describe ancient stories –
Myths are traditional stories concerning the early history of a people or explaining some natural or social phenomenon, and typically involving supernatural beings or events. A second definition for myth is a widely held but false belief or idea.
Legends are traditional stories sometimes popularly regarded as historian, but unauthenticated.
Ancient history can sometimes seem like a little bit of both, depending on what you are reading, it’s difficult to know what to believe or how to tell fact from fiction regarding ancient events.
Awhile ago, while discussing the books of Acts, the teacher pointed out the use of the word ‘witnesses’. The four gospels are witnesses to the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Acts is the witness to the foundation of the early church, the epistles are a witness that the testimony was accepted and spread further and further into the world. And so that book is witness of the history of the church.
We don’t have a lot of physical proof that these events took place. We don’t really know where most of them happened; we cannot say “on this spot, so-and-so did this or said that.” What we have is a series of eyewitness accounts.
Accounts of what Jesus did, of what Jesus said, of who Jesus was, and what people did in Jesus’ name. There’s a point where there is almost no historical proof that certain events happened, you just have to believe that the historian got it mostly right. The Bible is a work written by many historians, but it’s more like the history of a spiritual kingdom that doesn’t play by earthly rules.
But then again, it’s useful for something: it can tell you where something has been, what someone has done, what arguments were made, that is, if you’re willing to learn from them. If you’re willing to own the past so that you are not doomed to repeat it for the foreseeable future.
Perhaps this is why Church History has so often intrigued me; after all, there is much more to the story after the book of Revelation. How did Christianity get from there to here? But that’s the danger, too. Imagine what you can interpret from the Scriptures if you weren’t bound by annoying things like historical or cultural context … questions like “What did this teaching mean to the original hearers?” might not even need be asked. After all, why limit possible interpretations to whatever the apostles actually meant? I see this with modesty teachings, there are a lot of rules about modest clothing for ladies that really aren’t in Scripture. (For the record, the Bible just asked ladies not to wear expensive fashions; it had no particular rules about what specifically they should wear or how they should wear it. Our modern understanding has been read into Scripture and from that the interpretation is made that women should not dress in a way that causes men to stumble; in the process taking two verses out of context and putting them together to form the theological concept of modesty.) Of course, this means that if a favorite interpretation could not have possibly been what the original hearers were taught, then it could not mean people say it does now. Which is why much of church history is not taught or referred to in general.
Church history is inconvenient. It’s full of dissension, division, and denominational drama. It’s full of people who murder others in Jesus’ name. It’s full of people who used Christianity as an excuse to get away with stealing from others. Church history is repetitive. It’s proof that Christians don’t usually learn from their mistakes the first time around. It’s easy to lose track of the schisms and -isms: various heresies and theological issues that crept up over the decades time and time again. Church history is lengthy. A lot of history can happen in two thousand years. Most of the Christians historians wrote volumes and volumes to describe for us various important events and about important people. But it can also tell you how far you’ve come and how far you have yet to go.