Friday, October 07, 2005

The Historians Reliance upon Testimony

I will be doing a series of short posts on testimony and history. The first of these concerns the nature of testimony, and the historians reliance upon it.

Testimony is report of past happening, whether written, pictorial, or oral. There is testimony from people of the past about their own past, testimony from people of the past about the past of others, and likewise, testimony from people in the present about their own past, or about the past of others.

Now inasmuch as the historian wishes to say something about past happenings of which he/she was not involved, they have to rely upon the testimony others. Besides this, all that remains for the historian is unbridled creativity, or what some refer to as wild speculation. Thus, Provan writes that “history is fundamentally openness to acceptance of accounts from the past that enshrine other people’s memories.”[1] Without these ‘accounts from the past’, we have no means of finding out about the happenings of the past. [2] Because of his, Iain Provan suggests that the language of "knowledge" can be somewhat misleading:
“What is commonly referred to as knowledge of the past is more accurately described as faith in the testimony, in the interpretations of the past, offered by others. We consider the gathered testimonies at our disposal; we reflect on the various interpretations offered; and we decide in various ways and to various extents to invest faith in these – to make these testimonies and interpretations our own.” [3]

The second point, that testimony is interpretation, is of great significance. Because of the nature of its referent (the temporal flow of past happenings), testimony always takes the form of a narrative. It can thus be considered ‘story telling’. This highlights an important point about testimony, it always involves interpretation. The selection of what is told, the way it is told, and the explanations given regarding the relationships between events and their meaning, are all aspects of interpretation and are inevitable features of testimony. All testimony proceeds from people and is therefore told from a certain perspective or point of view, that is, given an interpretation.

But the task of the historian is more than deciding between interpretations. He/she may wish to offer an alternative interpretation to all those offered. Further, many historians see their task as that of establishing what actually happened with some sort of proof. Thus they take to the tasks of 'validation' (when a text is judged to represent historical events accurately) and 'reconstruction' (when it is not). This is what I will explore in my next post.

[1] Provan, "Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past", 249, in Bartholomew (ed.) 'Behind the Text: History and Biblical Interpretation (Cumbria: Paternoster, 2003), 229-266
[2] Archaelogy may be seen as an exception. But archaelogy can tell us very little about events unless it is brought into correspondence with testimony. see ibid., 247-49
[3] ibid., 246

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