History and the math of “probably not”

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On a day when we can’t get an agreed-upon historical reckoning of the sequence of governmental Coronavirus response in the United States in early 2020 (despite extensive video evidence), I’d like to share my thoughts on “the probability of history” using some classic (and potentially dangerous) examples.

In the mid-1990s, the late religious historian Marcus Borg authored a series of engaging but controversial books, the first being Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. [1] These books were invitations to a way to reinterpret religion, especially Christianity, when you discover that many of the most treasured things that you thought were “historical truth” likely did not happen exactly the way in which you were taught.

Borg liked to say that many people during the 1990s imagined history as a “videotape recording.” In other words, people would naturally interpret, say, the story of Jesus turning water into wine, as if there were a videotape recorder capturing the scene, and then transmitting it through time back to us. But, he would suggest, that is “probably not” what we would see on that videotape if it indeed existed.

I like to think that Marcus Borg himself, if he were alive today, would be the first to point out the irony of his own videotape analogy. Today he might suggest that many people interpret history instead as if an iPhone was digitally recording the scene (likely in shaky “portrait” mode rather than “landscape”), or perhaps as if it were a big-screen film loaded with plenty of computer-generated imagery and booming sound like the latest superhero movie. Because that was Borg’s point. We cannot help but view history through our contemporary eyes, and yet those past days had no videotape, no iPhones, and no IMAX theaters.

My black-and-white 1950s history

It is impossible to accurately transport ourselves back in time to when those long-ago historical events happened. And if we do try, our image is likely distorted. I “remember” a lot of my childhood from the 1950s in black and white, except for Walt Disney movies. I know why. The photographs and films that have reinforced those memories so often over the years are mostly Kodak monochrome images. My brain has indelibly encoded those photographs and intermixed them with my “real” memories. Most of our early family portraits were in black and white, and that is how I remember “me” as a little kid. I literally cannot remember much in color about my childhood life or home.

And that “encoding” is likely quite literal. Neuroscientists are mostly in agreement that every time we recall a memory, the old one is replaced by a new memory, and perhaps made stronger in its recall, but also now infused and interlinked with new information from the present. This even includes our present emotional state, overlaid on events of the past.

In the process, we often get the past objectively wrong. When I was writing a recollection of the first Vietnam-era draft lottery I realized though my research, some forty-nine years later, that my mind had conflated the time, place, and anecdotes of two different lotteries. The very first Vietnam-era lottery occurred right after I had turned a draft-aged eighteen in 1969, which probably reinforced the confusion. However, that first lottery was a “catch-up” that encompassed all men nineteen and older. My own “number came up” during the first lottery for a single-birth-year cohort, one year later, when I was in a different city attending a different college from my long-held recollection. But no, my incorrect memory remains strong in my head, even today when multiple and reliable historical accounts have proven me wrong. Recalling an incorrect memory may just make it stronger in the reprint.

American history and cowboy movies

It took me many years to accept that my understanding of American history had tons of this “contemporary back-fill.” I was an avid reader as a child and have consumed many books about the Revolutionary War era as traditionally told. My adult recollections reaching back to that time have no recall, for instance, of ever reading about the complexities of race, sex and class that were embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

One reason for this may have been the longstanding, still-existent state textbook adoption system that I often confronted during my career in educational publishing. Whatever a small group of politically-active Texans decide shall be taught as “U.S. History” (and also, sadly, even science) has historically strongly impacted, and still impacts, what publishers print in the books nationwide.

“Even with the adoption of the Common Core State Standards elsewhere, Texas has maintained a special sway over the content of textbooks that serve students across the United States. During the Cold War, Texas shaped the work of every major national textbook publisher. Today, one of every 10 public school students in the United States is a Texan, and publishers still don’t want to print books that can’t be used in the state.” [2]

How many books have you read about the 150-year period of U.S. history between “The Pilgrims” of 1620 (itself a story enwrapped in myth) and the Boston Tea Party of 1773? I intentionally tried to fill that gap in my own knowledge a while back and found that this era is much less documented than likely any other era of our national past.  And even then, the stories can’t help but take on one particular human perspective, whether it be Jon Meacham’s telling of Thomas Jefferson’s early years or Ron Chernow’s great tome on Jefferson’s rival Alexander Hamilton that was later adapted into an innovative piece of musical theater.

And there remains over 100 years of often-ugly history before those two guys even show up on the scene. It was in a footnote to Chernow’s biography that I read one of the first documented sources of the phrase “well regulated militia” in this hemisphere. This later-infamous descriptor was used, in this early case, to describe slave-hunting militias being formed to protect the white owners of Caribbean sugar plantations (Alexander Hamilton was born and raised in the Caribbean). Hmmm.

A couple of years ago I wrote about the strange world depicted in the Roy Rogers films and television shows that help to shape my childhood. I even owned a genuine Roy Rogers six-shooter set. This series was set in some unknown place and time that looked like the “Wild West” of the late 1800s, with horse chases and gunfights weekly. But there was this 1946 Willys Jeep driven by Pat Brady that kept showing up. Historical anomalies were not limited to that particular example of the “Western” genre.

Nellybelle

Roy Rogers, Pat Brady, Bullet the wonder dog, and Nellybelle the Jeep.

I have long recommended reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, not because it is “more accurate” than other accounts, but because it unabashedly demonstrates that ALL history has perspective mixed in with documentable facts. In his telling of the national story, Zinn tries to document the point of view of the nation’s indigenous people, women, minorities, immigrants and workers from the bottom end of the socioeconomic spectrum.

Questioning the classic “Story of the Nation” as Zinn did can provoke visceral anger from white male conservative quarters. To tell the country’s story in less than glowing terms is often considered profane and treasonous by these folks. And to suggest that slavery issues just may have had something to do with the language selected for the Second Amendment to the Constitution constitutes “fightin’ words” in some circles.

Perhaps I am cursed here by a professional past as a book editor, working with authors of varying talent. Some of them have “written” long sections that were mostly my suggested words in substitution. Most people don’t want to hear it, but Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird almost certainly demonstrates the “heavy hand” of its editor, Tay Hohoff. Every time an historical story is retold, more modern words and usages creep into the modifications made by authors and editors. For one thing, each new day we use different words and words with different meanings from even the fairly recent past.

Human writing has unavoidable perspective, biases and re-shapings of the story. My own brain takes a more probabilistic approach to this dilemma. Did the “full and accurate picture” of American history come through 500+ years since Columbus (including the story of Columbus himself) without significant distortion from the special interests of authors and editors through the centuries? “Probably not.”

And then there is the Bible

One of my favorites among the limited “programme” offerings on television while I lived in England around the turn of the century was called Time Team. In this program, a team of archeologists would show up in someone’s “garden” (backyard) where they knew humans had lived for many centuries. In the “olden days” people just built on top of whatever was there before. And so, the researchers would start peeling off literal layers of dirt. As they would remove the layers, they would first find evidence of 1800s Victorian England in perhaps a building foundation. Another foot or more down they would run into “Georgian” (1700s) artifacts.  And if they hit the jackpot, down multiple feet, they might find first-century Roman mosaics or other evidence of Caesar’s rule over Britannia around the time of Jesus.

Marcus Borg was a member of the controversial Jesus Seminar, a regular gathering of historians, theologians, and other related professionals who viewed the Jewish and Christian scriptures as consisting of “layers” of writing, editing and translation through time. In their meetings they would debate and present scholarly papers discussing which parts of the Bible were likely from “earlier layers” and which were from “later layers.”

This group initially focused on the four Gospels from the New Testament, as well as the more recently translated “fifth gospel of Thomas.” I took a couple of graduate university classes from a religious historian who had been involved in the Jesus Seminar’s Thomas translation. Their overall viewpoint was that some “bottom layer” quotations attributed to Jesus were “more likely” in probability terms to be historically accurate than those from some later “layers,” which may have been written down seventy years or more after the crucifixion, and in another language entirely.

After reviewing the available evidence, the group would use four colors of beads to “vote” on each saying attributed to Jesus as to its probability of authenticity. Red or pink beads meant that Jesus likely said something close to the saying being discussed. Gray or black were two degrees of “probably not.” The Gospel of Mark is viewed as from a “deeper layer” than the Gospel of John, for instance, and so there are more “red and pink” passages in the former. The results were published in a color-coded translation in modern English called The Five Gospels. [3]

Needless to say, Christians of a more literalist bent universally detested the work of the Jesus Seminar. Apart from all other books of history, many of them would say, the Bible has come to us “inerrant,” or without error. Indeed, a belief in scriptural inerrancy is literally a test of faith for many religious fundamentalists. And as Karen Armstrong demonstrated in her great book The Battle for God, this is true for Jewish and Muslim fundamentalists as well, just with different scriptures. [4]

Another “layer” of theologians argues that the Bible is “inerrant in doctrine” but not necessarily in science or history, in order to get around the more blatant “historicity” problems and yet still rescue passages central to their religious faith. They have found their own solution to the “probably not” problem. Others, such as the best-selling author and early-Christian scholar Bart Ehrman, wind up leaving their fundamentalist roots behind completely.

Wrapping your brain around conflicting “histories” can certainly cause an existential crisis if your “self” is defined by a particular “videotape” of an historical event playing in your head. Trying to balance “probablies” and “probably nots” in personal religious faith is a disconcerting state for many, especially when their religious leaders insist on staking “Yes-No” positions on religious questions. [5]

On the other hand, to abandon all history and religion as useless because the accounts and the people are flawed is also a dangerous path. Human history, and your own particular life story in particular, was often created in their best moments by “errant” human beings who came before you, “doing the best that they could” in a difficult, uncertain, and dangerous world. And, yes, there were some nasty excuses for human beings along the way to mess things up. Your job, should you choose to accept it, is to tell, and live, the difference between the good stuff and the “probably not.”


The great songwriter Steve Goodman, author of “The City of New Orleans,” also wrote a song called “If Your Life Was on Videotape,” appropriately here from a 1977 videotape of an Austin City Limits performance:

If your life was on videotape,
then wouldn’t everything be all right?
When your head hurts the morning after
you could roll it back to late last night.”


Notes:

  1. Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: the Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith. Thorndike, 2006.
  2. Perrillo, Jonna. “Once Again, Texas’s Board of Education Exposed How Poorly We Teach History.” The Washington Post, 21 Sept. 2018.
  3. Funk, Robert W. The Five Gospels: the Search for Authentic Words of Jesus. Macmillan, 1993. Of course, the earliest Gospels were written in Greek while Jesus more likely spoke Aramaic, and so even that “first layer” was a translation of a remembered story. The preface of this text has an excellent introduction to their method of determining “layers” of writing.
  4. Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. Harper Perennial, 2004.
  5. A theologian friend liked to joke about how he gave true-false exams in his Introduction to Religion class

 

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