On History and Historians

For the last few years I have been looking on occasion in used bookstores for volumes to complete my set of Will and Ariel Durant’s History of Civilization. I’m sure I could buy the whole set inexpensively these days, especially with search engines like abebooks.com and amazon.com, but I enjoy finding the volumes when I can and paying very little for them. Will Durant became very well respected in the latter part of the 20th century due largely to his massive 11-volume History as well as his work called The Story of Philosophy. The sheer volume of his history and its high degree of scholarship leaves readers with the feeling that he has written an authoritative history. After all, when you have 11 volumes on your shelf with the history of the world, how can it be other than authoritative? From some standpoints Durant’s work may be authoritative, but not when it comes to the history of Christ and Christianity. While respectful of Christianity, Will Durant was not a Christian, and his treatment of Christianity is distorted. His treatment of Christ and Paul in particular, while somewhat sympathetic, demonstrates anti-supernaturalism and unbelief in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture.

The following quotes from Durant demonstrate his position on some key events in biblical history:

Durant denied the literal creation account in Genesis and called it symbolism.

“As to harmonizing the theory of evolution with the Biblical account of creation, I do not believe it can be done, and I do not see why it should be. The story of Genesis is beautiful, and profoundly significant as symbolism: there is no good reason to torture it into conformity with modern theory.” Quoted by Bruce Barton, “The Conflict Between Science and Religion,” Popular Science, October, 1927.

Durant asserted in his History that there are contradictions and errors in the four Gospels.

“In summary, it is clear that there are many contradictions between one gospel and another, many dubious statements of history, many suspicious resemblances to the legends told of pagan gods, many incidents apparently designed to prove the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, many passages possibly aiming to establish a historical basis for some later doctrine or ritual of the Church. The evangelists shared with Cicero, Sallust, and Tacitus the conception of history as a vehicle for moral ideas. And presumably the conversations and speeches reported in the Gospels were subject to the frailties of illiterate memories, and the errors or emendations of copyists.” (The Story of Civilization, Part 3: Caesar and Christ, Chapter XXVI, p. 557)

Durant explained the miracles of Christ as psychological in nature and not supernatural. Mary Magdalene, for instance, was not possessed by demons but rather suffering from “nervous diseases and seizures.”

“Probably these were in most cases the result of suggestion—the influence of a strong and confident spirit upon impressionable souls. His presence was itself a tonic; at his optimistic touch the weak grew strong and the sick were made well. The fact that like stories have been told of other characters in legend and history does not prove that the miracles of Christ were myths. With a few exceptions they are not beyond belief; similar phenomena may be observed almost any day at Lourdes, and doubtless occurred in Jesus’ time at Epidaurus and other centers of psychic healing in the ancient world; the apostles too would work such cures. The psychological nature of the miracles is indicated by two features: Christ himself attributed his cures to the “faith” of those whom he healed; and he could not perform miracles in Nazareth, apparently because the people there looked upon him as “the carpenter’s son,” and refused to believe in his unusual powers; hence his remark that “a prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.” We are told of Mary Magdalene that “seven demons had been driven out of her;” i.e., she suffered from nervous diseases and seizures (the word recalls the theory of “possession”); these seemed to abate in the presence of Jesus; therefore she loved him as one who had restored her to life, and whose nearness was indispensable to her sanity. In the case of Jairus’ daughter Christ said frankly that the girl was not dead but asleep—perhaps in a cataleptic state; in calling upon her to awake he used not his wonted gentleness but the sharp command, ‘Little girl, get up!’ This is not to say that Jesus considered his miracles to be purely natural phenomena; he felt that he could work them only through the help of a divine spirit within him. We do not know that he was wrong, nor can we yet set limits to the powers that lie potential in the thought and will of man. Jesus himself seems to have experienced a psychical exhaustion after his miracles. He was reluctant to attempt them, forbade his followers to advertise them, reproved men for requiring a ‘sign,’ and regretted that even his apostles accepted him chiefly because of the ‘wonders’ he performed.'” (The Story of Civilization, Part 3: Caesar and Christ, Chapter XXVI, p. 557)

Durant presented Paul on the road to Damascus as suffering from psychological issues, bodily weakness and perhaps some kind of unusual natural phenomena in the desert (“perhaps a stroke of heat lightning”).

“No one can say what natural processes underlay this pivotal experience The fatigue of a long journey, the strength of the desert sun, perhaps a stroke of heat lightning in the sky, acting by accumulation upon a frail and possibly epileptic body, and a mind tortured by doubt and guilt, may have brought to culmination the half-conscious process by which the passionate denier became the ablest preacher of Stephen s Christ.” (The Story of Civilization, Part 3: Caesar and Christ, Chapter XXVII, p. 581)

Durant’s denial of the supernatural is no secret. He wrote in his Dual Biography with his wife Ariel:

“I am still an agnostic, with pantheistic overtones. The sight of plants and children growing inclines me to define divinity as creative power, and to reverence this in all its manifestations, even when they injure me. I cannot reconcile the existence of consciousness with a deterministic and mechanistic philososphy. I am skeptical not only of theology but also of philosophy, science, history, and myself. I recognize supersensory possibilities but not supernatural powers.” Quoted on http://will-durant.com/faq.htm; Accessed January, 2015.

Readers should be aware that historians too have beliefs and biases. Furthermore, when a historian fails to believe in the inspiration and authority of the Scriptures and denies the supernatural, he or she is denying a foundational truth of the universe: the existence of the Triune God who has acted and spoken in history and who cannot lie (Hebrews 1:1-2; Titus 1:2). To speak or write as if He does not exist or act in history is a testimony to man’s pride and arrogance and a denial of God’s word. It is complete foolishness and unbelief.

How much better is the philosophy of Merle D’Aubigne, who wrote in the preface to his history of the Reformation (which I bought for a dollar at a used bookstore–just this quotation is worth the price of the book!):

“History should live by that life which belongs to it, and that life is God. In history, God should be acknowledged and proclaimed. The history of the world should be set forth as the annals of the government of the Sovereign King. . . . God is ever present on that vast theatre where successive generations of men meet and struggle. It is true he is unseen; but if the heedless multitude pass by without caring for him because he is ‘a God that dwelleth in thick darkness,’ thoughtful men, who yearn for the very principle of their existence, seek for him the more ardently, and are not satisfied until they lie prostrate at his feet. And their inquiries meet with a rich reward. For from the height to which they have been compelled to soar to meet their God, the history of the world, instead of presenting to their eyes a confused chaos, as it does to the ignorant crowd, appears as a majestic temple, on which the invisible hand of God himself is at work, and which rises to his glory above the rock of humanity.” J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, 3.

Even better is the opening of Hebrews:

“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” (Heb 1:1-2 NAU)

God has spoken. He has acted in history. He sent His own Son and spoke through Him, testifying to His identity through the supernatural miracles that He performed. The Father Himself said to the apostles:  “This is my Son, My Chosen One, Listen to Him!” (Luke 9:35, NASB).

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