Dr. Brian Huffling
Dr. Brian Huffling’s research interests include: Philosophy of Religion, Philosophical Theology, Philosophical Hermeneutics, and general issues in Apologetics and Biblical studies. See his personal blog here.
“Historians are biased and choose what they report. As such, history can’t be known.” That’s a typical objection to the ability to know history. If such objections prove that we can’t know history, then we can’t know that Christianity is true since it is known through history and historical claims. In his prologue, Luke says,
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4; emphasis added).
The above passage demonstrates that Luke was writing as an historian. Words such as the ones underlined show his desire to write the truth of the events he wanted to convey. So, if history can’t be known, then we can’t know that Christianity is true. Let’s look at a typical objection.
Bias is probably the most popular objection to knowing history. It is claimed by some that historians are biased. It is not always clear what the objection is really getting at, but usually it is something like the historian holds certain views that in some way make his reporting subjective or unfair. For example, an historian may be writing about a religious issue and if he is part of that religion he is likely going to be accused of being biased. The disciples are often said to be biased regarding the events of the life of Jesus, particularly his resurrection. Since they knew him and had a vested interest they must have made up the claims of the resurrection.
Ironically, there are many assumptions (i.e. biases) about the nature of bias. It is more often than not used in a negative way and is equated with subjectivity and falsity. But why should this be the case? Why should the notion of either bias or subjectivity be equated with something being false? People could be biased because of evidence. If the disciples really did see Jesus alive after he was dead, then the reason they were biased was because of evidence and proof. But this bias would not be based on any subjectivity since their knowledge was based on objective and empirical evidence. Further, someone could have a subjective view of something and still be correct. There is nothing about being biased or subjective that guarantees that the belief is false. Such is an assumption in itself.
Consider this popular argument against objectivity:
1. To be objective one must be free from bias.
2. No one is free from bias.
3. Therefore, no one is objective.
This is a valid argument, meaning that the conclusion follows from the premises. But is it sound (i.e. is the argument valid and the premises and conclusion true)? Well, if no one is free from bias that means the one making this argument is not free from bias. But statements like “No one is . . .” is a universal statement that applies to everyone everywhere. But aren’t universal statements objective? What else would ‘objective’ mean other than something that is universal and not simply limited to the subjective beliefs of an individual? This whole line of argument is self-defeating. In other words, when using the argument’s criteria, the very argument itself fails. The objector in this case is objective in trying to argue that no one is free from bias and that no one is objective. However, the only way to make such universal statements is for the objector to make objective statements. If they were subjective, then they wouldn’t necessarily be universal. If they weren’t universal, then maybe some people aren’t biased. But this contradicts the argument. Assuming the argument holds water, because no one really denies that people are biased, it shows that one can be biased and objective. (Note, it is not guaranteed that one is going to be objective and biased, just that it’s logically possible. The objection is thus deflated.)
This raises another question that is rarely asked and usually assumed: What does it mean for something to be ‘objective’? By now it should be clear that it can’t mean free from bias since we’ve just seen that a person can be both biased and objective. So being free from bias is not necessary to be objective (in fact I would agree that everyone is biased in a general sense). So what does it mean? Most people think that it means being detached from a given circumstance so that one can see it as an objective outsider. In his fascinating work Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony, drawing on other work on this topic (such as Samuel Byrskog’s Story as History—History as Story: The Gospel Tradition in the Context of Ancient Oral History), Richard Bauckham makes the surprising and unfashionable statement:
“A very important point that . . . for Greek and Roman historians, the ideal eyewitness was not the dispassionate observer but one who, as a participant, had been closest to the events and whose direct experience enabled him to understand and interpret the significance of what he had seen” (page 9).
He further notes that many historians wanted someone who was involved in the events in question because that person would have a vested interest. They wanted someone who was involved and really there.
This counters the usual desire or assumed need for detatchment, but it does not say what objectivity is. Objectivity is arriving at conclusions that are based on evidence and principles that have their foundation in external reality. Everyone can use and measure truth claims based on external (objective) reality. Put negatively, it is the opposite of one making conclusions that arise simply out of one’s subjective mind. Such evidence based on reality and the principles that follow is mind-independent. Since reality is objective, that is, everyone can know it (as long as their faculties are working properly), the conclusions based on reality can also be objective. When one uses universal (objective) principles to ascertain the truth of a conclusion, one can be objective. Such principles are the laws of logic (or being). One such law is the law of non-contradiction. It declares that if two statements are mutually exclusive one must be true and the other must be false. For example, Christianity teaches that Jesus died. Islam counters that Jesus did not die. These statements are mutually exclusive—one must be true and the other false since there is no third option. Thus, they are contradictory. (This is contrasted with statements that can both logically be false, such as “Buddhism is true” and “Atheism is true.” Such statements that can both be false are called ‘contrary’.) Regarding this principle and its application to historical objectivity, Maurice Mandelbaum says,
“Our knowledge is objective if, and only if, it is the case that when two persons make contradictory statements concerning the same subject matter, at least one of them must be mistaken” (The Anatomy of Historical Knowledge, 150).
The law of non-contradiction is based in the nature of reality. It is not just a principle of thought, but of being. A tree cannot exist and not exist at the same time in the same sense. That would be a contradiction. Such first principles of thought and being arise out of the nature of reality since something can’t simultaneously be and not be. It is not simply a made up principle. In fact it is undeniable since to deny it would require using it.
Thus, if one’s conclusions are based on external and objective reality and evidence, and the principles from such reality, those conclusions can be objective. There is, in a sense, an objective apparatus giving us the possibility of being objective. Again, this is contrasted with something arising only from one’s (subjective) mind rather than from external (objective )reality. There is, therefore, nothing about biases that preclude one from making objective historical statements. Biases do not guarantee subjectivity or falsity.
Back to Bauckham’s point regarding bias, it is often the case that people are indeed biased, but biased because of the evidence. They have seen so much evidence, that they are convinced that what they are saying is true. This however, is not subjective bias or assumption, but rather the careful examination of objective reality and the evidence that all can investigate.
When looking at historical questions, such as the resurrection, one should not base his conclusions on notions such as the alleged bias of the ones making claims. Rather, one should examine the evidence for the claims to discover their veracity. We can recognize bias in every area and by all people. However, that alone is not enough to show that a person’s claim is false. To be good and responsible historians and investigators, we must follow the evidence.
(I would like to thank Norman L. Geisler for his direction regarding my MA thesis topic which was on this issue, as well as Thomas A. Howe to whom my thoughts and work are indebted greatly.)