Engaging Extra-Biblical History: Eleven Suggestions for Becoming a Better Student of History So That You Can Become a Better Student of the Bible

When Luke put pen to parchment to tell the story of the first century church, he told a story of conversions, of people who were turning from the way of the world to the Way that is in Christ. If someone were to do the same (minus the parchment no doubt) for the twenty-first century church, it would sadly be a story dominated by deconversions. While some of these deconversion stories would talk about people abandoning the Way, others would talk about people who described themselves as merely turning away from the ways of the twentieth century church.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a popular article in which an author describes some belief he/she held “all of his/her life” but then gave up because:

  • 1) He/she realized it was not what ancient Christians believed, or
  • 2) He/she saw where the ancient sources who taught his/her former belief were wrong about other things, or
  • 3) He/she saw where revered figures of the nineteenth century church taught the opposite of what those of the twentieth century church did

In addition to these all out deconversion stories, I’ve noticed a number of other articles, sermons, social media disputes, etc., saying things like, “Ancient Christians believed…,” or “The rabbis taught…” as a means of proving a point.

The power of these kinds of arguments is both fake and real. Potentially, all of the arguments above are guilty of a logical fallacy known as argumentum ad verecundiam. If that sentence reads like Greek to you (or Latin, ha), logical fallacies are incorrect ways of reasoning, and this Latin phrase describes one of these. It literally means “appeal to authority,” and refers to when someone establishes the truth of a belief not through an inherent truth (i.e. something demanded by the Biblical text) but through an authority outside of the Bible. In these cases, either history serves as the authority, or the author/speaker has placed himself/herself as an authority, having become an enlightened student of history. Nothing has the potential to make one feel more insecure than someone saying, “I used to believe what you believe, but now I know better.”

Putting this aside for a moment, there are other issues that I often see with these appeals to history. Sometimes, people make appeals to history after cherry-picking, or choosing only to recognize evidence from history that agrees with a certain conclusion, even though other evidence might be available. Sometimes people treat early Christians and rabbis as though they are monolithic, all saying the same thing, when this rarely if ever occurs at any given point in history. Sometimes, people ignore the overarching trends that produced or at least contributed to certain historical events and documents. These and other pitfalls grant history a false power over present circumstances.

If you’ll remember though, I said that the power of these arguments is both fake and real. For every five or ten Christians I see saying things like I’ve described above, I find a brother or sister who is doggedly determined to ignore any history or guide outside of the Bible. These Christians don’t want to study non-inspired history and sometimes even object to using Bible school time to study a book written by a Christian author (even though they rarely object to hearing me preach or teach or to reading an article I’ve written). While I admire these Christians for their determination to build their lives solely on the words of Jesus, by ignoring the “multitude of counselors” that history provides, they are frequently guilty of ignoring one of God’s channels for obtaining wisdom and safety (Proverbs 11:14; 13:10; 15:22; 24:6). Sometimes, these Christians are even just as guilty as those above of setting themselves up as an authority when they dogmatically hold to their own interpretations even when shown evidence from history that they have not reasoned properly.

How can we find the middle ground between these extremes and make use of history without being misled or misleading others? Below in no particular order are some suggestions I’d like to offer.   

First, be aware of the limitations of historical studies. Living in an era when everything is not only documented but documented by several sources, it’s easy for us to look back into history and assume that events have always been recorded this way. However, the fact is that for much of history, our knowledge of a given period may come from a handful of sources at best or, at times, just one source. For example, sometimes entire discussions of a Jewish event or teaching are based upon a single reading from the historian Josephus. This is all good and well if Josephus has accurately reported what happened, but there is strong reason to believe that Josephus was not always the most unbiased observer (see below).

Second, recognize that history in the ancient world was not always or even often an academic pursuit. Anyone with a passing knowledge of the events of the first century might wonder why Josephus, a Jew, was able to write such lengthy volumes about Jews and why these volumes enjoyed such high circulation at a time when Jews were recovering from a period of rebellion against and defeat by the Romans. However, when one realizes 1) that Josephus was a client of the Flavian emperors (he’s not called Flavius Josephus for nothing) and 2) that Roman emperors frequently wrote or commissioned histories which lauded enemies they had just defeated in order to make their own conquests seem more significant, one not only understands how Josephus’ works came to be and came to be preserved, but one learns what to expect in these works. Like many ancient historians, Josephus was writing with a point to prove. While this should not be seen a reason to reject his work or the work of other ancient historians outright, it should lead us to exercise caution when studying them.  

Third, know the difference between primary and secondary sources. To put it simply, a primary source is a voice that speaks from a point in history, and a secondary source is a source that speaks about voices at previous points in history. Sometimes a secondary source can be so old that people think it is a part of history when in fact it may reflect bias and/or merely be a collection of tradition. To cite a few examples:

  • There is a difference between quoting Irenaeus (a second century Christian) from one of his surviving works and quoting Irenaeus from the Eusebius (an historian reporting in the fourth century) or any other later historian. Sometimes historians, even ancient ones like Eusebius, misquote or take quotes out of context.
  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs was produced in the 16th century, fourteen to fifteen centuries after the events it reports. It was produced during a time when 1) reporting history was reemerging but rudimentary compared to either ancient or modern standards and 2) the events upon which it reported were steeped in tradition. So, when Foxe says Peter was crucified upside down and there’s no record of the Romans doing that to anyone, let alone Peter, it ought to raise a few eyebrows.
  • The Mishnah is a collection of rabbinic tradition compiled around A.D. 200. It represents the oldest collection of rabbinic tradition that we have. It claims to record earlier tradition, but its earlier sources sometimes contradict themselves. Further, it was certainly compiled with a point to prove. Judaism was emerging from the first century destruction of the temple and the second century expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem, and it needed to justify and define its own existence. It’s therefore quite problematic to read its tradition (or any later tradition from the Tosefta, Talmud, or Midrashim) back into Bible times.

Fourth, be aware of biblical warnings and what they imply about extra-Biblical history. Paul warned Timothy, “In the latter times some will depart from the faith” (1 Timothy 4:1). The question is, how much later? Paul also warned the Ephesian elders that a departure would come from “among yourselves” (Acts 20:30), indicating something not far away, but close. In fact, one need only to turn to Revelation to see Ephesus along with another four of the seven congregations addressed dealing with doctrinal and/or practical departures. I find that Christians are often aware of these and the many other Biblical warnings regarding departure, but I still see them quoting from second, third, and even fourth century Christians as though their words carried as much weight as the Gospel. If departure was both warned about and recorded in the Bible, then one ought to examine Christian authors, even early ones, with scrutiny

Fifth, be aware of how culture may have influenced early authors. Significant portions of the New Testament were written to discuss the very real temptation of the church to accommodate a dominant cultural force. In the case of the New Testament, that force was Judaism. Are we to think that never happened again? In reality, even before the close of the New Testament, the philosophies and culture of the Gentile world were already creeping into the church. As one considers early Christian authors outside of the Bible, one ought to reflect on whether their words are more reflective of Plato than Paul.

Sixth, be aware of how culture may influence our own investigation into history. While God alone is the judge of the hearts of men and women, one of the things that I’ve noticed about many modern deconversion stories that claim to be the product of an historical investigation is that the author has typically moved from a less culturally appropriate belief or behavior to a more culturally appropriate belief or behavior. If cultural accommodation was a temptation for people in the Bible and for early Christians, might it also be a temptation for us? And might we, like they, make convincing arguments, even citing history, to prove our point?

Seventh, give weight where there is weight (and note when there’s none). Lest we throw out the baby with the bathwater as relates to studying history, I should point out once again that there is much to be gained by studying history and much to be lost by ignoring it. So, on the one hand, when we see something being repeated time and time again in history, we should definitely take note. On the other, when we find ourselves taking a position that has never been held in the history of Biblical interpretation by anyone but the most modern students, it is pretty safe to say that we are wrong. History might have preserved a lot of error, but it is the height of hubris to say that it is devoid of truth. 

Eighth, don’t allow an ancient heresy to find new life. One of the things I’ve seen in some deconversion stories corresponds to a trend I’ve seen unfolding on social media lately. People love conspiracy theories, supposed truths that have been suppressed but have now come to light. Christians are not immune to this trend; in fact, in my experience, they’ve been some of the chief participants. So for example, when you find something from the third century that you feel has been suppressed by the church of the twentieth century, it would be better to examine how the twentieth century church dealt with that subject and whether or not that dealing is in keeping with the Bible than it would be to assume that they have willingly suppressed the truth.

Ninth, historical personalities should be viewed as dynamic figures unless proven otherwise. Sometimes people quote historical figures who wrote about a given subject across a lifetime. I’d hate it if someone characterized me only by what I said when I first started preaching and teaching. Historical figures are too often treated as static and still, when the fact is that people are typically dynamic and changing. Finding where an historical figure has said something at some point in his life proves nothing in and of itself about where he/she finally stood on the subject. 

Tenth, avoid cherry-picking and taking quotes out of context. Just as Bible verses ought to be examined in context, the writings and works of historical authors ought to be examined in context. Just because a certain thing might mean something to us today, does not mean it meant that at the time it was written. Further, as we described above, just because someone did or said something once does not mean it was characteristic of his/her life or work. It is intellectually dishonest to lift an author’s statements out of context for the sole purpose of adding a name to a list of those who agree with our conclusions.

Eleventh, avoid saying that individuals or collectives at any given period are monolithic unless you have done the work to prove it. Monolithic in this warning refers to the idea that all of the people from the past or even a given period in the past agree/disagree with a certain belief or practice. People give the impression that history is monolithic when they say things like, “The rabbis said…”, “The Scribes did…”, or “Early Christians taught…”. Outside of the book of Acts (where early Christians were occasionally described as being “with one accord”), you rarely see total agreement amongst any group in history, even amongst people of faith. Sometimes, there is only apparent agreement owing to a lack of evidence. It is safer to avoid sweeping statements and to qualify our claims by specifying a period, identifying when there is a small body of evidence, etc. And again, you should only make a large claim when you have done a large amount of research; even then, you might be wrong.

Having written all that I have, I’ve really only scratched the surface. My hope is that you’ll take this list, expand upon it, and became a dynamic student of history, gleaming truths while avoiding pitfalls. I especially hope that you’ll be more equipped to respond to the plethora of deconversion stories out there. Those who write these stories believe they have found “a better way” in the pages of history. Perhaps they have; it is possible for truths to have been suppressed or forgotten, as Nehemiah 8 and other texts prove. However, it’s also possible that they’ve been guilty of ignoring the principles I’ve mentioned above and in so doing have become guilty of creating a false authority. “Test all things” – what I’ve said, what deconversionists have said, and what historical figures have said – in light of the Word of God, and “hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21). 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s