In George Orwell’s dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four the main character works in the Ministry of Truth, which is responsible for propaganda and historical revisionism. He revises old newspaper reports so that the historical record always supports the party line. Because of the revision, nobody is certain what actually happened in the past. They do not know how events developed, apart from the falsified and ever-changing narrative supplied by the party. There is one passage that sums it up nicely, when the main character explains the situation to his girl friend:
Do you realize that the past, starting from yesterday, has been actually abolished? If it survives anywhere, it’s in a few solid objects with no words attached to them, like that lump of glass there. Already we know almost literally nothing about the Revolution and the years before the Revolution. Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book has been rewritten, every picture has been re-painted, every statue and street and building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And that process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right. I know, of course, that the past is falsified, but it would never be possible for me to prove it, even when I did the falsification myself. (p. 169)
We do know that many regimes have fed their subjects with highly skewed versions of history. But I don’t think it has ever gotten to the stage described in the novel. This is not just revision of history, but as the character says, the establishment of an endless present. While we are far from the institutional presentism portrayed in 1984, this is the danger I also see in current Western society. There is no party machine rewriting newspaper articles, no glorified narrative of the past, but there is an ideology that overemphasizes the present and decouples it from history. And there is a narrative that relegates everything old to the Middle Ages or beyond, certainly some time when life was short, nasty and brute, and from which we have now progressed.
Maybe it is when we see the past destroyed that we realize how important the past is. It situates us in life, in some sense is part of us. And it has actually happened, unlike the theories we spin about principles and the predictions we make about the future.
When reading the novel I also had to think that maybe some modern Biblical scholars had been reading similar genres too closely, so that they developed a suspicion of fraud at every corner. It seems that some scholars assume that the Bible was such a revision of old documents, heavily altered and edited to support the line of the religious hierarchy. And so they reconstruct the history of Israel based on their own models, trying to circumvent and possibly purposefully contradict the Bible.
While it may be healthy to approach ancient writings with a certain hermeneutic of suspicion, some of the theories are similar to conspiracy theories based on a deep aversion of current Biblical thinking. It is clear that the Bible was edited and that later scribes preferred some readings over others, but even a preliminary reading of the Bible shows the variety of voices represented, the variety of time periods and the attempt to record a history that was at times embarassing and confusing to the writers. They tried to explain history, to find reasons, but that does not equate with falsification. Rather, it is an engagement with history we need to make to attempt to understand it. Today we come from other worldviews than the writers, editors and scribes of the Biblical books. We see different connections. But their interpretation of historical events needs to be taken into account, if we want to understand the past about which the Bible tells.