It has always puzzled me that many people who identify as historians have a deeply inconsistent standard when it comes to their understanding of ancient and classical history. While I recently commented on my thoughts about the deliberate exclusion of the complex biblical thoughts on the idea of a civil war that help to frame the topic in a way that is different from what happens when one only thinks of the Greco-Roman, Muslim, and Chinese conceptions–and then tends to focus almost exclusively on those resulting from Western sources, this is a widespread problem. If one reads works that purport to be sober works of ancient history, it is common to see them praise the historicity of obviously biased Assyrian works that reference fierce forgotten deities while finding fault with the religious worldview of the Bible.
There are, of course, obvious reasons for this. It is easy for people to consider themselves to be fair-minded when looking at the religious claims of a document which obviously has no contemporary religious authority. What is most notable and contentious about the Bible is that it still does have cultural authority, and those who wish to deny that authority often find it easiest to do so by impugning the supposed biases of the Bible’s religious perspective in an effort to delegitimize this authority. To accept the Bible as a factual source–albeit one that is very open and honest about having a particular point of view that is not at all in accordance with contemporary ways of thinking and behavior–is to grant legitimacy to what it says in areas outside of history and other obviously factual fields. The result then is to deny any sort of factual status to something that makes irksome and severe demands on one’s conduct that one does not want to accept and consider.
That this cannot be done without double standards and hypocrisy is obvious enough. One can scarcely avoid in the ancient world–or even in the modern one–works that fail to ascribe historical events to some sort of teleological ends. Whether one is submitted to the supposed inevitable march of progress or listens to people write and talk about divine providence is not substantially different as far as religious appeals go. We obviously have our own preferences depending on our belief systems, but as far as a belief in the organization and structure (and eventual victory of one’s own worldview), there is not much difference to choose between them. One of the foremost issues of our intellectual lives is that our efforts at textual criticism and indeed criticism in general say a lot more about us than they do about the texts that we are critiquing. What we are fond of and what we find distasteful and unworthy of appreciation speak to our own belief systems, our own commitments, our own perspective, and to criticize something else is all too often something that reveals far more about ourselves than it does others–and I say this as someone who has written literally thousands of book reviews and lesser amounts of other reviews over the course of the years.
It flatters us to give the devil his due. We feel as if we are being magnanimous when we can point out something that allows us to feel as if we are being particularly broad and open-minded, and thus able to condemn other people for being narrow-minded and bigoted in one way or another. There is no such internal benefit to thinking of how we might give the Creator His due, because the Creator has high demands on us that are not satisfied in ways that make us feel proud about ourselves. Rather, the desire to render unto God what belongs to God brings us the uncomfortable realization that God demands to be recognized as the Creator of all, Lord of all, Father of all, and this presents us with a multitude of uncomfortable and demanding requirements. It is little wonder that those who do not want to give the Creator his due would rather suppress all knowledge and understanding about Him and His ways as they can do so, to cover their tracks and live in deliberate ignorance of what is expected and required of them. What is more to be lamented is that those who profess to be on God’s side all too often engage in the same sorts of behaviors and bring the reputation of God into disrepute. But that is a subject for another day.