Monday, March 24, 2008

Jesus and the Battle of Gettysburg

Over the weekend, I read How the South Could Have Won the Civil War: The Fatal Errors that Led to Confederate Defeat by Bevin Alexander. His thesis was that the South could have won the war if it had followed the leadership of Stonewall Jackson rather than that of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. According to Alexander, Jackson wanted to take the war to the civilian population of the North in the way that Tecumseh Sherman did on his march through Georgia while Davis preferred a purely defensive war and Lee tried to win the war by defeating the Union armies in battle. The book argues that Jackson’s strategy might have undermined the northern people’s support for the war while the other strategies never had a chance to overcome the North’s superiority in population and resources. It was an entertaining read and included some things that I had not known before.

I don’t think I really qualify as a Civil War "buff," but I have watched the Ken Burns’ series several times and I have read Shelby Foote and James McPherson as well as biographies of Grant, Lee, Longstreet, Sherman, Lincoln, and Jackson. I have tried a couple of books on individual battles but I find the detail in them a little mind-numbing. Still, I consider myself a reasonably well informed amateur when it comes to the field of Civil War history.

I think my knowledge of the Civil War contributes to my lack of respect for Christians who claim that the gospels constitute reliable sources of historical facts. When it comes to the Civil War, the wealth of material available to the historian is staggering. If he wants to research the Battle of Gettysburg, he can find letters, diaries, and reports written within days and weeks of the battle by soldiers of every rank in both armies as well as their memoirs written in the years following. He can find contemporaneous articles in newspapers and magazines of every political persuasion. He can examine artifacts and walk the battlefield.

Despite the volume of source material, there are plenty of unresolved questions about the Battle of Gettysburg. Historians aren’t sure how many Confederate soldiers advanced on Cemetery Ridge in Pickett’s Charge. They aren’t sure how General Jeb Stuart and General George Custer happened to wind up in a cavalry fight behind Union lines while the charge was taking place. There are disputes about whether General James Longstreet was purposely slow in carrying out Lee’s orders. There are conflicting reports on what General Lee said at various points during the battle. Even the things historians think they know are subject to revision upon the discovery of new evidence.

Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, think that can know the exact details of Jesus’ life with absolute certainty based on anonymous documents written thirty to sixty years after his death. They think they can take the statements attributed to Jesus in the Gospel of John as irrefutable proof of what Jesus thought sixty years earlier. Not only this, they think that these four anonymous accounts contain absolutely everything anyone could ever want or hope to know about Jesus. They believe that no other document or piece of evidence could conceivably alter or modify the understanding of Jesus’ life and teachings that can be derived from the documents we already have.

Not only that, evangelical Christians think that the gospels are unaffected by any biases. In the years following the Civil War, southerners vilified Longstreet because he became a Republican and criticized Lee’s conduct of the war. In his memoirs, Confederate General Jubal Early deified Lee while blaming Longstreet for the loss at Gettysburg and historians accepted this verdict for almost a century. Only in the last few decades has Longstreet’s reputation as one of the best corps commanders in either army been rehabilitated. If our only knowledge of the battle came from officers on Lee’s staff, we would plainly know little with certainty. But Christians are not the slightest bit concerned that men who thought Jesus was God might have fudged some of the details in their stories to support their thesis.

Evangelical Christians like to claim that the historical evidence for what Jesus did is as good as the historical evidence for any events in the ancient world. What they are really claiming though is that they have historical evidence that is overwhelmingly superior to the historical evidence for almost every event that ever occurred anywhere in history.

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