Two Common Mistakes That Lead to Oversimplified History

“There is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history, which is invariably history oversimplified.”

This quote is from Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (three thousands years because he starts with the ancient Greeks and Israelites).

I think I can see the logic behind MacCulloch’s statement. A fanatic can’t be reasoned with because he thinks he already has the world figured out. And nothing feeds this sense of confidence like oversimplified history.

I can also appreciate the appeal of bad history. It’s neat, easy to remember, and it usually confirms biases.

When we read MacCulloch’s quote in more context, we see that he is stating his goal as a historian, and how he thinks his work can help the church:

“My aim is to tell as clearly as possible an immensely complicated and varied tale, in ways which others will enjoy and find plausible. Furthermore, I am not ashamed to affirm that although modern historians have no special capacity to be arbiters of the truth or otherwise of religion, they still have a moral task. They should seek to promote sanity and to curb the rhetoric which breeds fanaticism. There is no surer basis for fanaticism than bad history, which is invariably history oversimplified.

[MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (p. 12). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]

In this post, I’d like to share two of the mistakes that lead to oversimplified history. The first is seeing a cause-and-effect relationship where there is none. The second is assuming to know people’s motives, or ascribing motives to them that may not be accurate.

Seeing Cause-and-Effect Where There Is None

Jeremiah 44 contains an exchange between the prophet and some Israelites who were living in Egypt after the fall of Jerusalem. He rebukes them for turning away from God and worshiping idols. He warns them that they will not escape punishment. Just as God punished Jerusalem for idolatry, he would punish them.

In their response, the people turned Jeremiah’s warning on its head:

“As for the word that you have spoken to us in the name of the Lord, we will not listen to you. But we will do everything that we have vowed, make offerings to the queen of heaven and pour out drink offerings to her, as we did, both we and our fathers, our kings and our officials, in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem. For then we had plenty of food, and prospered, and saw no disaster. But since we left off making offerings to the queen of heaven and pouring out drink offerings to her, we have lacked everything and have been consumed by the sword and by famine.”

Jeremiah 44:16-18 ESV

Their version of history was different than Jeremiah’s. Jeremiah said Jerusalem was destroyed because they worshiped idols. They said it was destroyed because they stopped worshiping idols.

Notice that Jeremiah’s response does not directly contradict their account of history:

Then Jeremiah said to all the people, men and women, all the people who had given him this answer: “As for the offerings that you offered in the cities of Judah and in the streets of Jerusalem, you and your fathers, your kings and your officials, and the people of the land, did not the Lord remember them? Did it not come into his mind?”

Jeremiah 44:20-21 ESV

Jeremiah didn’t deny that the people stopped making sacrifices to idols. He just said that God remembered when they used to do it.

Jeremiah didn’t refute their version of history. This is probably because it was accurate. They got the order of events right: first they stopped worshiping idols, then disaster struck.

Jeremiah and his fellow Israelites could still remember the great reform movement under King Josiah. Josiah was passionate about restoring true worship in Judah. And he was effective. The people may have been telling the truth when they said they had stopped worshiping idols.

In the passage below, from the book of 2 Kings, the writer confirms that historically, the people may have been right. But then he says, “Nevertheless…” And then he confirms that prophetically, Jeremiah was right:

Furthermore, Josiah got rid of the mediums and spiritists, the household gods, the idols and all the other detestable things seen in Judah and Jerusalem. This he did to fulfill the requirements of the law written in the book that Hilkiah the priest had discovered in the temple of the LordNeither before nor after Josiah was there a king like him who turned to the Lord as he did—with all his heart and with all his soul and with all his strength, in accordance with all the Law of Moses.

Nevertheless, the Lord did not turn away from the heat of his fierce anger, which burned against Judah because of all that Manasseh had done to arouse his anger. So the Lord said, “I will remove Judah also from my presence as I removed Israel, and I will reject Jerusalem, the city I chose, and this temple, about which I said, ‘My Name shall be there.’”

2 Kings 23:24-27 ESV

Jerusalem fell just twenty-two years after Josiah died. You could look at this timeline and conclude that Josiah’s reforms led to the fall of Jerusalem. In fact, the Israelites who had fled to Egypt came to that very conclusion.

But they were wrong. This was a gross oversimplification. They put the events in the right order, but they saw cause-and-effect where there was none. It was bad history.

Assuming We Know People’s Motives

Consider a couple of questions from the New Testament.

First, why was John the Baptist arrested?

The Gospel of Mark was written maybe twenty or thirty years after the event. It gives us the following answer:

For it was Herod who had sent and seized John and bound him in prison for the sake of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, because he had married her. For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.” And Herodias had a grudge against him and wanted to put him to death. But she could not, for Herod feared John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and he kept him safe. When he heard him, he was greatly perplexed, and yet he heard him gladly.

Mark 6:17-20 ESV

The Jewish historian Josephus, writing only about sixty years after the event, gives a different reason. He feared that John might instigate a rebellion:

Herod, who feared that such strong influence over the people might carry to a revolt—for they seemed ready to do any thing he should advise—believed it much better to move now than later have it raise a rebellion and engage him in actions he would regret.

I think Josephus got this wrong. He assumed the motive.

However, another possibility is that Herod had multiple motives. People often do have multiple motives, and this make history complicated.

Let us consider one more question: Look at the apostle Paul on his second apostolic journey, when he planted churches in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea, and Corinth. During that trip, he worked to support himself, presumably as a tent-maker.

Why did he do this?

Here, we don’t have to rely on the judgment of historians. We have letters from the man himself. But when we read them, we find at least four different reasons. Here they are in the order in which Paul gave them:

1. To teach the church by example:

For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us, because we were not idle when we were with you, nor did we eat anyone’s bread without paying for it, but with toil and labor we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you. It was not because we do not have that right, but to give you in ourselves an example to imitate.

2 Thessalonians 3:7-9 ESV

2. To avoid possible cultural offense when preaching the gospel:

If we have sown spiritual things among you, is it too much if we reap material things from you? If others share this rightful claim on you, do not we even more?

Nevertheless, we have not made use of this right, but we endure anything rather than put an obstacle in the way of the gospel of Christ.

1 Corinthians 9:11-12 ESV

3. For his own personal, spiritual reward:

In the same way, the Lord commanded that those who proclaim the gospel should get their living by the gospel.

But I have made no use of any of these rights, nor am I writing these things to secure any such provision. For I would rather die than have anyone deprive me of my ground for boasting. For if I preach the gospel, that gives me no ground for boasting. For necessity is laid upon me. Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel! For if I do this of my own will, I have a reward, but if not of my own will, I am still entrusted with a stewardship. What then is my reward? That in my preaching I may present the gospel free of charge, so as not to make full use of my right in the gospel.

1 Corinthians 9:14-18 ESV

4. Because no church supported him financially:

And you Philippians yourselves know that in the beginning of the gospel, when I left Macedonia, no church entered into partnership with me in giving and receiving, except you only.

Philippians 4:15 ESV

Now, all four of those reasons are legitimate. Any one of them is sufficient in and of itself. He didn’t really need four. It seems complicated.

In this case, Paul’s motives were good. What makes history even more complicated is that people often have both good and bad motives at the same time.

Good History is Worth the Effort

What makes history complicated is also what makes it fascinating. People are fascinating. They deserve careful study. Events do have causes, and it is worth the time and patience required to chase them down. It’s even worth following a few paths that look promising at first, but don’t lead to much.

Christians should know their own history, and know it as objectively as possible.

A church that avoids bad history will likely avoid fanaticism. That’s a good thing.

A church that does good history will be able to speak prophetically to the surrounding world. That’s a great thing.

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