When discussing the meaning of scripture, people often raise the question of historicity. Unfortunately, this is a complicated topic with many distinct yet overlapping issues — issues that are frequently misunderstood or conflated. Historicity essentially means that a person mentioned in an ancient text really lived, that an event really happened, that a place actually existed.
Thus, historicity relates to questions such as, did Moses really exist? Was there really an Israelite exodus from Egypt? Was there a Mount Sinai? Alternatively, one can ask, did a historical Gandalf ever live? Was there really a siege at Helm’s Deep? Was there actually a volcano named Mount Doom where Sauron had his forge and workshop? The issue of historicity is thus an ontological question — a question about the nature of reality as reflected in historical texts.
Broadly speaking, history as a modern academic discipline is the study of the human past. More technically, however, it’s the study of the textual remains of that past, which distinguishes it from archaeology, the study of the material remains left by past humans. In an important sense, therefore, history isn’t an empirical discipline.
Paradoxically, the subject of historians’ inquiry — the “past” — doesn’t really exist. It cannot be directly observed, measured or experimented upon. Rather, history can only be understood indirectly by analyzing textual, artistic, artifactual and monumental remains from the past — that is, documents, art, objects and buildings created by past people that have survived into the present, where the historian can analyze them. Thus, historians don’t actually study the “past.” They study those texts and objects that were made by humans in the past and that still exist in the present. This is a crucial distinction that many people fail to recognize.
When dealing with ancient history, people need to remember that most historical records from the past haven’t survived. The most important and potentially enlightening texts from antiquity, for example, are often irretrievably lost.
Imagine a historian 3,000 years from now attempting to recreate an accurate history of 21st century Utah based on fragmentary Facebook records. Imagine how much nonsense and inaccuracy — how many lies and jokes — she would need to sort through. What was thought to be important on Facebook would seldom be considered important by our future historian.
Further imagine that English is a dead language by then and that our historian must reconstruct the language and create her own dictionary, based solely on those fragmentary surviving Facebook records. What would she make of “lol” or “xoxo”? This is rather like what historians of antiquity have to do when trying to accurately reconstruct the history of the ancient world based on fragmentary surviving inscriptions and texts.
Another serious problem is that sincere people are mistaken or confused much of the time. Moreover, many people lie. And language is often ambiguous, which is especially problematic with poorly understood ancient tongues. Satire and propaganda were as widespread in antiquity as they are now. Furthermore, ancient people sometimes told imagined stories that their audiences knew to be fiction.
Modern historians, however, often cannot be sure if an ancient author intended his writing as fiction or reality, or how an ancient audience would have understood it. All of these variables and many more sometimes make it difficult to clearly evaluate the intent of an ancient author and the accuracy of his claims.
What if the historian 3000 years from now were trying to gain an accurate understanding of 21st century American politics, based solely on a collection of fragments of speeches from President Barack Obama (liberally sprinkled with speeches falsely attributed to him)? Whether you like President Obama or not, our future historian would find it effectively impossible to get an accurate understanding of the contemporary United States if his speeches were his sole source. Yet, royal propaganda is often all we have in our surviving ancient historical records. Those who reject the historicity of the biblical record seldom consider the fact that its depiction of Israelite history — with its flawed and wicked kings — is far more realistic than the contemporary royal annals of Egypt or Mesopotamia.
Thus, the study of history and the question of historicity are fraught with complexities and difficulties. We rarely have an open-and-shut case.
Note: Two weeks from now, we’ll examine questions of authenticity and accuracy in ancient records — and the implications of those issues for the Book of Mormon and the Bible.
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.