Reasons to Study History

A list I made earlier, before descending into the morass I am currently inhabiting known as "doing the background reading for a new project".

In no particular order of importance, the kinds of questions we study history in order to answer, some currently more (academically) fashionable than others:

1. Political: origins of nation-states; origins of structures of authority and oppression

2. Religious: out of a conviction that God speaks in history; community seen as one in time ("pray for us"); tradition as authoritative; wisdom in antiquity of decisions and teachings

3. Artistic: as a source of models for images and stories; images of human character and beauty; style

4. Exemplary: morals; heroes and villains; how to behave in different situations, especially crises

5. Nostalgic: sense of loss of old world; longing for the present to be other than it is

6. Historiographical: how we came to believe what we do about the past; changes in the way history has been perceived; problem of periodization

7. Anthropological: past as a foreign country with different customs; examples of human behavior considered culturally (temporally, geographically) specific; past as Other or reflective

8. Watershed: looking for modernity; how we came to be who we are now / when others began to think as we do now; validation of present; implicitly progressive but may also participate in nostalgia, sense of loss

9. Holistic: evolutionary; one great story; problem of what it means to be human involves everything that human beings have done

10. Liberating: past shown to be a construction not binding on the present but a series of choices made by people at the time; obverse of tradition

11. Memorial: "respect" for the past; understanding as monument to lives of those who came before, often in great suffering but also in creativity; sense of responsibility for remembering what they suffered and/or maintaining what they created

12. Predictive: looking for patterns so as to predict future events; sociological a la Asimov--examples of mass behavior; "so as not to repeat it"

13. Polemical: to blame the present for its failings or congratulate it for casting off the mistakes of the past

14. Detective: how one thing connected to another; where x came from and when; explanation for x allied with curiosity and wonder; sense of mystery to be solved

15. Pedantic: being able to say, "It wasn't really like that" and to spot the anachronisms; cf. connoisseurship

16. Genealogical: as matter of identity, either of self or of community; defined by who we have been

17. Entertaining/Romantic: good stories, adventure, fun; costumes and sets; "real-life" characters

To be continued...


  1. As a New Testament scholar, I really wrestle with matters of history and how they relate to faith. Historical study seems essential if we are to say anything about the past at all, and yet incapable of confirming those details in ancient sources that are often felt to be most significant to religious believers.

    By the way, I suppose I should mention my new book, The Burial of Jesus: History and Faith, which addresses the relationship of history and religious experience to Christian theology today. If you read it, I'd love to know what you think!


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