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Friday, 19 April 2024

The use and abuse of “History”; religion as an example

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In the last fifteen or so years, I have read extensively on the subject of religion, especially the way religion came to be so important to human beings. I have particularly focused on what has been described by historians as “the quest for the Historical Jesus”, and on the origins and evolution of Christianity up to its current state.


What motivated me to go into this subject? It started as an attempt to reconcile what I was learning as a scientist and what religion had taught me as a child. Like many children from Christian families, I had grown up being taught certain things about a transcendent being called “God” and the demands that “he” makes on us- how we are to behave etc. 

I remember in Primary School how we were taught about the various stories of the Old Testament, about creation, about the Israelites as the chosen people of God etc.  and moving on to the New Testament and learning about Jesus, and about how his crucifixion brought salvation to mankind etc. And all this, like the other children, I absorbed with the naivety of childhood, and believed everything that I was taught on the subject to be the only truth.


When I was in secondary school in the early 1960s, I was exposed to two Christian denominations. At home I was Lutheran, as my parents were, and I went through Luther’s catechism and the rites of confirmation. At St. Joseph’s College, I was exposed extensively to Catholic doctrine, because every student there had to go through some religious teaching of the Catholic Church.

All students had to go daily to Mass, irrespective of their denomination, and in the classroom we went through religious studies  based on catholic teaching, including the Catholic catechism, and a book I vaguely remember called “Student’s Catholic Doctrine”. All this I absorbed without critical appraisal.


When I got to University, I studied Natural Sciences and then Medicine. I started to learn that there were other perspectives about what life is and the position of the human being in the whole spectrum of organisms (living things) and in the universe as a whole.

For example, how could one reconcile Genesis and Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species? How could I as a scientist reconcile what I knew or had learnt with the supernatural?  As an example, supernatural stories like the story of creation, the many things that are said to have happened in the Bible such as the sun standing still, the Virgin birth, the ascension and the miracles generally did not make sense to me as a scientist. 

These could not be explained empirically, through our regular senses or through rational thought; they could only be explained as mysteries or supernatural things done by God. It is not only religion that I had a problem with,  I had a problem with all things attributed to the supernatural. I stopped believing in witchcraft- I could not for example see how somebody could send lightening to strike another person, or get him to get ill and die by remote action without poisoning him or touching him. I could not see how divining with bones (ditaola) could diagnose somebody’s illness or identify that somebody is getting bewitched and by whom.


It was in view of all these things that some years ago I decided to read extensively on the subject of religion, especially on Christianity since that is the religion I grew up under. My initial enquiry was into the figure of Jesus, because I realized that for Christians that was the fulcrum of all belief.  After going through quite a number of books I realized that the subject automatically moved into the beginnings of the Christian religion or the Church.

And then I realized one could not really understand Christianity without going into its forebear, namely the Judaism as laid out in the Hebrew Scriptures or the Old Testament. Of course when we talk of the Christian Bible, or Scripture,  the most widely read book in the world, we are talking of the Hebrew scripture, now called the Old Testament,  and the Christian Canon, or the New Testament. The New Testament is made up of 27 books that were selected by Christian fathers from hundreds of books to form what is now the official Canon. They are made up of different genres such as letters, like the letters of Paul, Gospels, and the Apocalypse (Revelation).

There were many other writings which for different reasons were not included in the Canon. There were for example many other Gospels which the Christian fathers decided not to include in the official Canon.


During this literary journey, I came to realize that it all boiled down to one thing; history. I came to learn that from the 18th century, the Bible has been subjected to what is usually called the historical critical study method, as opposed to devotional study. Up to that time, it was just taken for granted that the Bible was written by authors who were divinely inspired, and therefore it was the word of God. In their historical critical analysis  of the Bible, historians used methods such as source criticism, text criticism, form criticism and redaction criticism, and they generally came to the conclusion that the Bible, both Old and New Testament, is not really history in the modern sense of the word.

For example, the Torah or the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Old Testament), also known as the Law, could not have been written by Moses as it was claimed. At least four different authors or groups of authors could be traced for the Torah, writing over several centuries, and it was evident that it was extensively edited during the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BCE, about eight centuries after the period Moses is purported to have lived. It also turned out that extensive archaeological excavations have shown no evidence of human movement in the Levant of the scale described in Exodus; there is virtually no historical evidence of even the existence of a figure fitting the description of Moses.

A similar analysis of Psalms shows that contrary to belief, they could not have been all authored by King David. Some of the Psalms refer to a time several centuries after David, like Psalm 137 that refers to the Babylonian exile, almost 500 years after David. As for the New Testament, except for the seven genuine letters of Paul, all the other writings are of unknown authorship, including the four Gospels and all the other letters, as well as Revelation.


So it is all a matter of history.  Some historians doubt the very existence of Jesus, although those are a small minority; there are even non-Christian sources that attest to his existence. What is in great dispute is what he was and what he did, or even what he claimed to be. That he was baptized by John the Baptist and that he was executed by the Romans during the prefecture of Pontius Pilate pass the tests of multiple attestation and dissimilarity very well, as well as the fact that he lived and operated most of his life in the Galilee. That he was executed by Romans in the manner reserved for those guilty of subversion (crucifixion), and that his followers were not also executed still interests historians up to now. The titulus on the cross  (INRI), “Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews” supports the theory that he was executed for subversion.


This brings me therefore to the matter of “HISTORY”, what it is and what can be achieved by it. I have always been interested in history because I believe one can learn a lot about the past and plan for the future using history. We all know what great men have said about the importance of history in knowing who we are; our first President is quoted often on what he said of a people without a history etc.  My fascination with history goes back to my Secondary School days, where I did South African history in Primary School and Junior Certificate and then European history (1815-1945) and African history for my COSC (Cambridge Overseas School Certificate). I happened to be the first student in Botswana who got a 1 in History in 1966 after the adoption of the COSC a few years before, and this was because of my absolute fascination with the subject, and an inspiring teacher in the name of Themba Vanqa.


“History” is not as straightforward as people believe. My interest in the “Historical Jesus” and in the history of Christianity generally has rekindled my interest in history in general. What actually is history? What can we learn from history? What role does personal interpretation play? How much is it subject to abuse by those who want to use it for their own purposes etc., for example politicians? To answer some of these questions, below are extracts from some very reputable academics and historians on their views about history, particularly as it applies to religion or the “Jesus of history”.


James D.G. Dunn believes that there are two wrong assumptions about history;


“That there is an objectivity in history (the past) which allows history (the discipline) to be treated on the analogy of the natural sciences; that is, historical facts are objects in history which could be uncovered or recovered by scientific method like so many archaeological artefacts (Positivism);


That the historian could be entirely impartial, strictly objective in his/her treatment of the historical facts, and could therefore avoid prejudicial value judgements (Historicism).
Behind these lay the Enlightenment assumption that human reason is sufficient measure of true and false fact. Reason was once understood as God-given, but the increasing secularism of modernity more and more reflected the triumph of autonomous human reason as axiomatic.


Behind this in turn was the assumption, drawn from Isaac Newton’s discovery of the universal laws of motion and gravity, that the cosmos is a single harmonious structure of forces and masses (itself an ancient conviction), and that the world is like an intricate machine following immutable laws, a closed system of cause and effect.

Probability not certainty: The historical ‘event’ belongs to the irretrievable past. All the historian has available are the ‘data’ which have come down through history- personal diaries, reminiscences of eyewitnesses, reports constructed from people who were present, perhaps some archaeological artefacts, as well as circumstantial data about climate, commercial practice, the laws of the time and so forth. From these the historian attempts to reconstruct the ‘facts’.

The facts are not to be identified as data; they are always an interpretation of the data. Nor should the fact be identified with the event itself, though it will always be in some degree of approximation to the event. Where the data are abundant and consistent, the responsible historian may be confident of achieving a reasonably close approximation. Where they are much more fragmentary and often inconsistent, confidence of achieving a close approximation is bound to be much less. In historical scholarship the judgement “probable” is a very positive verdict.


None of this is to deny the importance of the past, or that historical data have a recognizable objectivity. It is, however, to recognize that the movement from data to fact is a good deal more complex than is usually appreciated.”

John Dominic Crossan takes this further.  According to him

“History is the past reconstructed interactively by the present through argued evidence in public discourse. There are times when we can get only alternative perspectives on the same event. (There are always alternative perspectives, even when we do not hear them). But history as argued public reconstruction is necessary to reconstruct our past in order to project our future.
History is not the same as story. Even if all history is story, not all story is history.”

Paula Fredriksen, another prominent Christian historian gives the following view:

“The ‘backward’ thrust of history also poses intellectual dangers. Again like the reader of the twice-read novel or the viewer of the twice-seen film, we cannot help knowing more than we should. Beyond the moral discipline of allowing for otherness, then, we need to cultivate as well the intellectual discipline of viewing the past as if we knew less than we know.

This is difficult precisely because history in its very nature is retrospective. We start from our vantage point in the present and work ourselves back into an imagined past. But although history is always done backward, life is only lived forward. We all move from our present into the radical unknowability of the future. If in our historical work we wish to reconstruct the lived experience of the ancient people we study, then we must forswear our retrospective knowledge, because it gives us a perspective on their lives that they themselves could not possibly have had. We, looking back now, know how their stories ended; they, living their lives, did not.  

To understand our ancient people from the evidence they left behind, we must affect a willed naiveté. We must pretend to an innocence of the future that echoes their own. Only then can we hope to realistically re-create them in their own historical circumstances. Only by accepting- indeed, respecting and protecting- the otherness of the past, can we hope to glimpse the human faces of those we seek.”

Lastly but not least, these are views from Karen Armstrong, a very reputable author on the history of religion:

“Despite my years as a nun, I do not believe my experience of God is unusual. My ideas about God were formed in childhood and did not keep abreast of my growing knowledge in other disciplines. I had revised simplistic childhood views of Father Christmas; I had come to a more mature understanding of complexities of the human predicament than had been possible in the kindergarten. Yet my early, confused ideas about God had not been modified or developed. People without my peculiarly religious background may also find that their notion of God was formed in infancy. Since those days, we have put away childish things and have discarded the God of our first years.


Yet my study of history of religion has revealed that human beings are spiritual animals. Indeed, there is a case for arguing that Homo sapiens is also Homo religious. Men and women started to worship gods as soon as they became recognizably human; they created religions at the same time as they created works of art…………Like art, religion has been an attempt to find meaning and value in life, despite the suffering that flesh is heir to. Like any other human activity, religion can be abused but it seems to have been something that we have always done….. Indeed, our current secularism is an entirely new experiment, unprecedented in human history. We have to see how it will work……Our ethical secular ideal has its own disciplines of mind and heart and gives people the means of finding faith in the ultimate meaning of human life that were once provided by the more conventional religions.”

I wanted to share these views because I have seen a lot of writers and columnists in our newspapers venturing into history. The writings of Jeff Ramsey impress me because they are obviously very professional.  About many others, I don’t know; one can’t help but feel that they are obviously pushing particular agendas. There are of course two columnists who write on the history of Judeo-Christian religion from a very unconventional view point (Leteane and Saili). I take it they are deliberately provoking controversial views.

Early in my readings into the Historical Jesus, I read a book from a Barbara Thiering, a respected academic from Australia, who presented a very unconventional view of Jesus: that he actually did not die on the cross, that he lived to old age, was married and had children. This is a very good illustration of how inexact history can be, as quoted from the above authors, especially James D.G. Dunn, who has become one of my favourite authors on Christian beginnings.

James D.G. Dunn(2003) Christianity in the Making Vol. 1; Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans Publishing Co.)

 John Dominic Crossan (1998) The Birth of Christianity: Discovering What Happened in the Years Immediately After the Execution of Jesus (HarperCollins Publishers).

 Paula Fredriksen (1999) Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews, A Jewish Life and the Emergence of Christianity (Macmillan)

 Karen Armstrong (1993) A History of God (Vintage)

 Barbara Thiering (1992) Jesus the Man (Corgi Books)

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Nigerians, Zimbabweans apply for Chema Chema Fund

16th April 2024

Fronting activities, where locals are used as a front for foreign-owned businesses, have been a long-standing issue in Botswana. These activities not only undermine the government’s efforts to promote local businesses but also deprive Batswana of opportunities for economic empowerment, officials say. The Ministry of Trade and Industry has warned of heavy penalties for those involved in fronting activities especially in relation to the latest popular government initiative dubbed Chema Chema.

According to the Ministry, the Industrial Development Act of 2019 clearly outlines the consequences of engaging in fronting activities. The fines of up to P50,000 for first-time offenders and P20,000 plus a two-year jail term for repeat offenders send a strong message that the government is serious about cracking down on this illegal practice. These penalties are meant to deter individuals from participating in fronting activities and to protect the integrity of local industries.

“It is disheartening to hear reports of collaboration between foreigners and locals to exploit government initiatives such as the Chema Chema Fund. This fund, administered by CEDA and LEA, is meant to support informal traders and low-income earners in Botswana. However, when fronting activities come into play, the intended beneficiaries are sidelined, and the funds are misused for personal gain.” It has been discovered that foreign nationals predominantly of Zimbabwean and Nigerian origin use unsuspecting Batswana to attempt to access the Chema Chema Fund. It is understood that they approach these Batswana under the guise of drafting business plans for them or simply coming up with ‘bankable business ideas that qualify for Chema Chema.’

Observers say the Chema Chema Fund has the potential to uplift the lives of many Batswana who are struggling to make ends meet. They argue that it is crucial that these funds are used for their intended purpose and not siphoned off through illegal activities such as fronting. The Ministry says the warning it issued serves as a reminder to all stakeholders involved in the administration of these funds to ensure transparency and accountability in their disbursement.

One local commentator said it is important to highlight the impact of fronting activities on the local economy and the livelihoods of Batswana. He said by using locals as a front for foreign-owned businesses, opportunities for local entrepreneurs are stifled, and the economic empowerment of Batswana is hindered. The Ministry’s warning of heavy penalties is a call to action for all stakeholders to work together to eliminate fronting activities and promote a level playing field for local businesses.

Meanwhile, the Ministry of Trade and Industry’s warning of heavy penalties for fronting activities is a necessary step to protect the integrity of local industries and promote economic empowerment for Batswana. “It is imperative that all stakeholders comply with regulations and work towards a transparent and accountable business environment. By upholding the law and cracking down on illegal activities, we can ensure a fair and prosperous future for all Batswana.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Merck Foundation and African First Ladies mark World Health Day 2024

15th April 2024

Merck Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany marks “World Health Day” 2024 together with Africa’s First Ladies who are also Ambassadors of MerckFoundation “More Than a Mother” Campaign through their Scholarship and Capacity Building Program. Senator, Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation emphasized, “At Merck Foundation, we mark World Health Day every single day of the year over the past 12 years, by building healthcare capacity and transforming patient care across Africa, Asia and beyond.

I am proud to share that Merck Foundation has provided over 1740 scholarships to aspiring young doctors from 52 countries, in 44 critical and underserved medical specialties such as Oncology, Diabetes, Preventative Cardiovascular Medicine, Endocrinology, Sexual and Reproductive Medicine, Acute Medicine, Respiratory Medicine, Embryology & Fertility specialty, Gastroenterology, Dermatology, Psychiatry, Emergency and Resuscitation Medicine, Critical Care, Pediatric Emergency Medicine, Neonatal Medicine, Advanced Surgical Practice, Pain Management, General Surgery, Clinical Microbiology and infectious diseases, Internal Medicine, Trauma & Orthopedics, Neurosurgery, Neurology, Cardiology, Stroke Medicine, Care of the Older Person, Family Medicine, Pediatrics and Child Health, Obesity & Weight Management, Women’s Health, Biotechnology in ART and many more”.

As per the available data, Africa has only 34.6% of the required doctors, nurses, and midwives. It is projected that by 2030, Africa would need additional 6.1 million doctors, nurses, and midwives*. “For Example, before the start of the Merck Foundation programs in 2012; there was not a single Oncologist, Fertility or Reproductive care specialists, Diabetologist, Respiratory or ICU specialist in many countries such as The Gambia, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Central African Republic, Guinea, Burundi, Niger, Chad, Ethiopia, Namibia among others. We are certainly creating historic legacy in Africa, and also beyond. Together with our partners like Africa’s First Ladies, Ministries of Health, Gender, Education and Communication, we are impacting the lives of people in the most disadvantaged communities in Africa and beyond.”, added Senator Dr. Kelej. Merck Foundation works closely with their Ambassadors, the African First Ladies and local partners such as; Ministries of Health, Education, Information & Communication, Gender, Academia, Research Institutions, Media and Art in building healthcare capacity and addressing health, social & economic challenges in developing countries and under-served communities. “I strongly believe that training healthcare providers and building professional healthcare capacity is the right strategy to improve access to equitable and quality at health care in Africa.

Therefore, I am happy to announce the Call for Applications for 2024 Scholarships for young doctors with special focus on female doctors for our online one-year diploma and two year master degree in 44 critical and underserved medical specialties, which includes both Online Diploma programs and On-Site Fellowship and clinical training programs. The applications are invited through the Office of our Ambassadors and long-term partners, The First Ladies of Africa and Ministry of Health of each country.” shared Dr . Kelej. “Our aim is to improve the overall health and wellbeing of people by building healthcare capacity across Africa, Asia and other developing countries. We are strongly committed to transforming patientcare landscape through our scholarships program”, concluded Senator Kelej.

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Interpol fugitive escapes from Botswana

15th April 2024

John Isaak Ndovi, a Tanzanian national embroiled in controversy and pursued under a red notice by the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol), has mysteriously vanished, bypassing a scheduled bail hearing at the Extension 2 Magistrate Court in Gaborone. Previously apprehended by Botswana law enforcement at the Tlokweng border post several months earlier, his escape has ignited serious concerns.

Accused of pilfering assets worth in excess of P1 million, an amount translating to roughly 30,000 Omani Riyals, Ndovi has become a figure of paramount interest, especially to the authorities in the Sultanate of Oman, nestled in the far reaches of Asia.

The unsettling news of his disappearance surfaced following his failure to present himself at the Extension 2 Magistrate Court the preceding week. Speculation abounds that Ndovi may have sought refuge in South Africa in a bid to elude capture, prompting a widespread mobilization of law enforcement agencies to ascertain his current location.

In an official communiqué, Detective Senior Assistant Police Commissioner Selebatso Mokgosi of Interpol Gaborone disclosed Ndovi’s apprehension last September at the Tlokweng border, a capture made possible through the vigilant issuance of the Interpol red notice.

At 36, Ndovi is implicated in a case of alleged home invasion in Oman. Despite the non-existence of an extradition treaty between Botswana and Oman, Nomsa Moatswi, the Director of the Directorate of Public Prosecution (DPP), emphasized that the lack of formal extradition agreements does not hinder her office’s ability to entertain extradition requests. She highlighted the adoption of international cooperation norms, advocating for collaboration through the lenses of international comity and reciprocity.

Moatswi disclosed the intensified effort by law enforcement to locate Ndovi following his no-show in court, and pointed to Botswana’s track record of extraditing two international fugitives from France and Zimbabwe in the previous year as evidence of the country’s relentless pursuit of legal integrity.

When probed about the potential implications of Ndovi’s case on Botswana’s forthcoming evaluation by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), Moatswi reserved her speculations. She acknowledged the criticality of steering clear of blacklisting, suggesting that this singular case is unlikely to feature prominently in the FATF’s assessment criteria.

 

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