I suspect most of us remember the quote by George Santayana (1863 – 1952) the Spanish-American philosopher and writer: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Thinking about Santayana’s observation, if someone asked me WHY history is important, I wound add: “Those who cannot UNDERSTAND the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Understanding history is far more important than just knowing history. It is not enough, for example, to know about the rise of Nazism in Germany in the 1930s and 1940s but to understand how and why Nazism had so much popular support.
And unfortunately, as with Nazism, popular fanaticism is often more important than truth. Presumed or fabricated historical facts can be misleading, deceptive, and destructive.
As an historian, who has been observing for more than a couple years, I have a few observations about history and reality:
Genuine history should be based on factual information. That can be problematic when one is not using factual information, but interpretations presumed to be historical.
No one knows, for example, what the historical Jesus looked like. He most probably had the brown eyes, brown skin, and black hair common to first-century Hebrews from Galilee. Nevertheless, some of the best-known depictions of Jesus, from Leonardo da Vinci’s “Last Supper” to Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, have depicted Jesus as a white European male. And many popular images of Jesus have portrayed him with brown or blond hair, blue eyes, and often looking rather androgynous.
Another historical problem arises when historical interpretation is done from the perspective of just one gender. Problems arise when, for example, only male historians are looking at and interpreting historic events.
Throughout most of its history, the institutional church has been highly patriarchal. Its anthropology defined the male as superior and the female as inferior and subordinate. For too long male historical theologians interpreted reality that way, stating incorrectly for example that only men presided at Eucharist in the early church, because only men were heads of households.
Today, we know that the “only men” perspective is not true. In early Christianity women took leadership roles in house churches. Paul tells of women who were the leaders of such house churches: Apphia in Philemon 2 and Prisca in I Corinthians 16:19, for example. This practice is confirmed by other texts that also mention women who headed churches in their homes, such as Lydia of Thyatira in Acts 16:15 and Nympha of Laodicea in Colossians 4:15. As heads of households, these women were also presiders at Eucharist.
Paul also mentions Junia as a woman apostle in Romans 16:7. Unfortunately, male theologians, starting in the fourth century and into the Middle Ages changed the woman “Junia” into the man “Junias” in their biblical commentaries. Misogyny has a long history.
Fortunately, modern feminist history and theology emerged in the 1960s, rooted primarily in Christian women’s experiences of living under the pressure of patriarchal ideology and structures. Today we have better and more accurate historical perspectives thanks to women theologians and women historians. Since 1969 at the Catholic University of Leuven (KU Leuven), for example, a growing number of women have received their doctorates in the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies; and the current dean is a woman.
For a good perspective on women in early Christian history, I strongly recommend Christine Schenk’s book: Crispina and Her Sisters: Women and Authority in Early Christianity.
History becomes narrow and deceptive when certain books or authors are banned. We see that happening a lot today, especially in schools. In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year in the United States, almost 1,500 books were banned.
Book bans continue to target books featuring LGBTQ+ themes or characters, characters of color, as well as books on race and racism. Book banning, of course, began centuries ago when, for example, certain books were put on the Roman Catholic Index Librorum Prohibitorum (“List of Prohibited Books”) which started in 1560. The writings of Nicolaus Copernicus in 1616 and of Galileo Galilei in 1634 were not removed from the Index until 1822. The very final edition of the Index appeared in 1948. But the Index was not formally abolished until 1966 by Pope Paul VI. History of course is filled with abundant and frightening examples that banning and burning books has often led to banning and burning people.
Historical ignorance can also lead to faulty interpretations of historic events. Contrary to what one still hears, for example, Jesus did not ordain anyone at the Last Supper with his disciples.
Jesus certainly did not ordain “male apostles” as the first bishops. Ordination did not exist in Jesus’ lifetime. Ordination began much later and not as a way to pass on “sacred power to consecrate the Eucharist” but as a form of quality control – a way to assure communities that their leaders were competent and trustworthy.
The first complete description of the Christian ceremony of ordination appears at the beginning of the third century and is found in the Apostolic Tradition, a work attributed to Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170 ‒ ca. 235 CE). By the end of the third century, however, Christianity had a clear organizational structure headed by presbyters, supervisor-overseers (bishops), and deacons.
History becomes deceptive as well when myths, legends, and folklore are reported as actual historic events. Adam and Eve in the Hebrew Scriptures belong to biblical mythology, along with Noah and his Ark.
A few years ago, my sister – always somewhat fearful that I was becoming a heretic — emailed me a photo and an article about the discovery of an ancient chunk of wood in the Judean Hills. That old piece of wood, the article said, had been a piece of Noah’s Ark. My sister said: “Isn’t this wonderful!” Well, I replied that obviously someone had discovered an old chunk of wood, but that Noah and his famous boat were mythological, just like the old chopped-down cherry tree myth about young George Washington, or the myth about Paul Bunyan, the giant lumberjack who shaped the landscape with his axe and Babe his blue ox.
Historical understandings can and do change. For example, did Jesus of Nazareth have brothers and sisters?
Most contemporary scripture scholars would agree that the historical Jesus of Nazareth (Yeshua) had brothers and sisters and that they were the sons and daughters of Mary and Joseph. The brothers of Jesus (the adelphoi in Greek, meaning “from the same womb”) are named in the New Testament, in Mark and Matthew, as James, Joses (a form of Joseph), Simon, Jude, and unnamed sisters’ are mentioned in Mark and Matthew.
By the 3rd century, however, the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary had become well established. That of course raised problems with what one reads in Mark and Matthew. Other explanations were found. The traditional Roman Catholic explanation for the reference to Jesus’ brothers and sisters became that they were really cousins or children of Joseph before he married Mary.
Better historical information often requires changed institutional and personal understandings and behavior as well. Today we know, for instance, that profits from slavery helped fund some of the most prestigious universities in the United States, including Harvard, Columbia, Princeton, and Yale.
Reparations and acknowledgements are being made. Ongoing efforts and calls to address historical connections to slavery and enduring racism at American universities have been renewed, especially in the wake of demonstrations protesting the murder of the African American man George Floyd Jr. by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020.
U.S Catholics need to review their history as well. By the time the Jesuit priests of Maryland founded Georgetown College in 1789, the Jesuits were among the biggest slave owners in the colony. They had several tobacco plantations scattered across Maryland and used the income from their slaves’ labor to create Georgetown. Then in 1838 the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus sold 272 slaves. Proceeds from that sale were used to satisfy Georgetown’s debts.
Following broad publicity regarding the 1838 transaction, the university moved in 2017 to rename two buildings that bore the names of Jesuits at Georgetown who had played significant roles in the 1838 sale of slaves. The two buildings were rededicated in the names of Isaac, the first slave listed in the 1838 sale document, and Anne Marie Becraft, who established a school in Georgetown for black girls.
The slave issue has touched me personally as well. For many years I have been doing historical genealogical research into my paternal family history. I discovered, when reviewing the wills and other documents of some of my ancestral grandparents in Virginia that they were slave owners. That was a humbling shock. Then, corresponding with a researcher in Virginia I made another discovery. She told me that she and I have the same distant grandfather and sent a photo of her and her family. They are very dark African Americans. I immediately emailed my favorite cousin in Virginia and asked him about this. He replied: “Yes, we don’t talk about this but some of our slave-owning grandfathers back then had black ‘girlfriends’.”
Not everything on the Internet is historical, truthful, and honest. I wonder what will happen to the online information environment in the coming decade.
Certainly, as we see for example in the dishonest political rhetoric of DJT and his supporters, the Internet today makes the production and dissemination of untruths much easier and faster. We used to say: “Pictures don’t lie” but on Internet photoshopped images are not truthful and make people believe their falsehood is reality. An example: President Joseph Biden made a surprise trip to Ukraine on February 20th this year. He was photographed walking with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy outside of a monastery in Kyiv. Multiple news outlets have published the picture. But an altered version of the photo is spreading on social media, showing Biden and Zelenskyy holding hands, their fingers entwined.
As we move into the next U.S. presidential campaign, I fear we will see a lot of Internet dishonesty.
Concluding observations: History is not about imaginative conjectures but about reality. We grow – or we can grow — in our discoveries about reality. And we can always be learners.
A good friend reminded me recently: “Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young. The greatest thing in life is to keep your mind young.”