I have just been reading a book about the Oral Torah, the sacred books of Judaism. What struck me there is how the rabbis turned the historically focused books of the Bible into a-historic, ever-present accounts of reality. Let me quote Jacob Neusner at length here on the book of Leviticus Rabbah:
Since biblical events exemplify recurrent happenings – sin and redemption, forgiveness and atonement – they lost their one-time character. At the same time and in the same way, current events find a place within the ancient, but eternally present, paradigmatic scheme. So no new historical events, other than exemplary episodes in lives of heroes, demand narration because, through what is said about the past, what was happening in the times of the framers of the Leviticus Rabbah would also come under consideration. This mode of dealing with biblical history and contemporary events produces two reciprocal effects. The first is the mythicization of biblical stories, their removal from the framework of ongoing, unique patterns of history and sequences of one-time events, and their transformation into accounts of things that happen all the time. The second is that contemporary events – what happens in the present – also lose their specificity and enter the paradigmatic framework of established mythic existence. (Jacob Neusner. The Oral Torah: The sacred books of Judaism, An Introduction. Atlanta, 1991. pp 123-124).
He argues that such a worldview was necessary at the time for Jews to remain hopeful and faithful. That may be the case. But I am nevertheless amazed at the change from the worldview of the biblical writers and Ancient Israel. For the Bible presents an emphatically historical worldview overall. In this it departed from many other worldviews in the Ancient Near East, which tended to see the world and time in it in more cyclical way. But I have to disagree with Thomas Cahill’s book The Gift of the Jews a bit. I don’t think that Ancient Israel was necessarily the only society in which a historic worldview was so important. The Romans also tended to regard history highly and the best historians of antiquity arguably wrote in Latin. In my humble estimation, even in Ancient Greece history was not as important as it was in Rome and Israel.
That’s why the change from a historic worldview among the Jews from the 2nd century CE (AD), but even more so in the fifth century, is so striking. Now, of course the Christian, Western worldview also became very much less historical during the Middle Ages.
History made its way back into common conscience. I’m not a modern historian, so I don’t know much about how it happened, but one reason must have been the importance of nation states and a search for their (ideological) roots. So now we can lean back because the Renaissance has rediscovered the old sense of history and modernity has improved and cemented it? I don’t think so. The Middle Ages were not just a time of ignorance that is better forgotten. During that time history was also created and our understanding of the world was influenced. And we are not now in a time of blissful progress and everlasting truth. In fact, I think that history is just as neglected today as it was many times in the past.
I see three main challenges to a historic worldview:
1. Scientism. This is the view that science and “the scientific method”, and by implication the scientific worldview, explain everything in the world, and what cannot be explained scientifically is wrong. Since history is not a science, and our knowledge of the past and the connection of events cannot be evaluated scientifically, much of the past is disregarded, and past events and processes are displaced by theories. But history is always unique, is unpredictable, full of strange events, personal decisions and people that step outside the norm.
2. Post-modern uncertainty, especially in its more extreme form. I think that we have to recognize limits to the extent we can recover and understand the past. But if the skepticism runs so deep that we regard it as impossible, the past gets shut out. This limits our thinking to the present. We lose an interest in the very different world of the past, but also the continuities with it and the lessons learned in history.
3. Presentism. By this I mainly mean the popular, modern, consumer-orientated concern for the present and the near future. In the popular media the past is not interesting, but is part of the nasty and brutish dark ages, and only the concern of some aging gentlemen and nostalgic grandmas. In a world where commercial interests and the pursuit of pleasures take prime place, history is just a distraction. With such a worldview we run the risk of burying the past in trendy, simplistic half-truths.
I think a far more thorough history of history would be warranted and a better understanding of its current role and challenges would be helpful. I’ve just put down some thoughts, which are certainly not fully formed and should be evaluated critically. We also have to ask to what extent an emphatically historical worldview is truthful.