CHAPTER 9: Aren’t historians biased?

[Excerpt from Chapter 9: Truth “Can We Know History?”]

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Many historical skeptics argue that historians are biased in their retelling of history. Therefore, since all historians are biased, they conclude that all history is poisoned by subjectivity.

However, when you think about it, this objection wouldn’t merely impact history; instead, it would affect all intellectual disciplines. If bias blocks our ability to know truth, then we wouldn’t be able to trust anyone, because everyone is biased in some way. Historian Gary Habermas writes, “To hold that bias nullifies all historical knowledge is fallacious, just as it would be to declare that a physician’s feelings about her patient’s sickness prevents her from making a proper diagnosis.”[1] Regarding the New Testament documents, even critic Bart Ehrman writes,

We take their biases into consideration and sometimes take their descriptions of events with a pound of salt. But we do not refuse to use them as historical sources…. To refuse to use them as sources is to sacrifice the most important avenues to the past we have, and on purely ideological, not historical, grounds.[2]

We can sift through the biases of an author to find the truth-claims within their work. We can trust their writing as reliable, even as we recognize that they had an obvious motivation in writing it. For example, consider Josephus when he writes, “In my reflections on the events I cannot conceal my private sentiments… my country… owed its ruin to civil strife.”[3] Obviously, in his own words, Josephus had a bias when he wrote The Jewish War, but this doesn’t mean that we should throw out his history of ancient Jerusalem—simply because he had a reason for writing it.

In addition, sometimes a bias can help someone preserve history, rather than pervert it. Consider a hate crime victim who dedicates his life to telling his story to large groups of people. Imagine if someone stood up during one of his speeches and said, “Hey! Aren’t you biased in denouncing racism and hate crimes? Don’t you have an agenda to stop racism? Doesn’t that mean that you’re not exactly objective in recounting these events?” Of course, while the hate crime victim is biased (he hates racism), this bias will actually help him to explain the facts with accuracy to promote equality.

In a similar way, imagine talking to Michael Jordan’s mother about her son’s basketball abilities. Of course, Michael Jordan’s mother would probably say that her son was the best basketball player in N.B.A. history. A polite listener might smile and tell her, “That’s very nice, Mrs. Jordan, but aren’t you a little biased in your opinion of your son? You are his mother after all.” Of course, Michael Jordan’s mother is biased, but her statement is also true! In the same way, we shouldn’t discredit someone’s views based purely on their bias, but rather, based on their truth and evidence.

The real problem with historical skepticism is the fear of taking someone’s word for what happened. And yet most of the things we know are taken on the authority of trusted people. In fact, we trust proven authorities all the time. Every time you pay for a prescription and take the pills, you do it on the authority of the pharmacist. Every time you ride 30,000 feet in the air in a jumbo jet, you trust the safety of your trip on the authority of the airline. In the same way, history is taken on the credibility and authority of the witnesses to the events. If their credibility is bad, then we shouldn’t believe it. However, we should be open-minded until we have reason to think otherwise. History is innocent until proven guilty—not the other way around.

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[1] Habermas, Gary R. The Historical Jesus: Ancient Evidence for the Life of Christ. Joplin, MO: College Pub., 1996. 267.

[2] Ehrman, Bart D. Did Jesus Exist?: The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth. New York: HarperOne, 2012. 74.

[3] Josephus Jewish War 1:10.