‘Secular historians have to see religious texts in human terms’

Tom Holland
Tom Holland
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

As a historian, how much scope is there for treating religious texts as ancient documents, rather than the word of God?
It goes without saying that if you are a historian, you are going to presume that religious texts are of human origin and products of human civilisation, and you are obliged to treat them that way. I think that there is a problem, because the tradition of looking at scripture as an ancient text like any other rather than as imbued with the language of God, is ultimately a Christian one, because there are four versions of Jesus’ life. So, right from the early church fathers, they have looked at the Bible in a textual way, trying to make sense of it as a text that has originated from different people at different times. That goes all the way through into the Enlightenment. Essentially, what happens in the Enlightenment and the 19th century is that in most traditions of scholarly investigation of the text, God is bled away from it. It becomes a purely secular activity. That is then applied to the fabric of the Bible. The image that has been used to describe this process is always that of termites (destroying the house of Christianity), and there was a German scholar in the 19th century who said that if we carry on with it, then essentially all that will be left of the traditions about Moses would be “airy nothings”. Now, obviously, that was and continues to be very upsetting for Jews and Christians, to have their scriptures taken to pieces like that. It is even more upsetting for people of other faiths when Western scholars start applying that methodology to their texts. So, there is an inherent degree of offense there. But I think, ultimately, the secular historian just has to say, “Well, you believe it. As someone who is not a believer, I have no choice but to explain it in human terms.” I think that is perfectly acceptable.
Is there a motivation to free the text from the self-appointed authorities of the scripture?
It is an attempt to place the text in the context of the culture in which it emerged. What all religions do is that they reach a point of canonisation, where the scholars who are controlling what becomes orthodox rewrite the back story. The rabbis recalibrate the Bible as a record of rabbis, so Moses becomes a rabbi, Adam becomes a rabbi, God becomes a rabbi. This is very ahistorical, but that is what they do. When the Christian canon is solidified in the fourth century, the church fathers write out all the gospels that didn’t make it into the canon, and they make it seem as though there has been a seamless progression from the time of St Paul up to the Council of Nicaea (325 AD). Likewise, with Muslims, we have no records of the life of Mohammed, no textual analysis of the Quran for about 200 years after the death of Mohammed. And the reason for that simply is that the explanation for how the Quran came into being is only arrived at that late. So, it constructs a model which basically rewrites how it was created. What’s required of the historian, as opposed to the believer, is to attempt to work out what actually happened. The irony is, of course, that this is exactly what the Salafists are trying to do. It’s just that they arrive at radically different conclusions.
I suppose that it’s also very important to be respectful in reading these texts.
I think that what is disrespectful is to presume that if you look at someone’s religion sceptically, the adherents of that religion are so intolerant that they will come and kill you. I think that that is the really intolerant attitude. You should rely on the good sense and tolerance of the people you are studying. But that doesn’t mean you go around sneering and mocking the religion.
Someone like Richard Dawkins, for example…
I think he overdoes it. I can see why he overdoes it. I suppose as an evolutionary biologist, I can absolutely understand that it must be infuriating to have people tell him that it’s nonsense. He really does have a dog in the fight. But I’m not as confident about my conclusions as Dawkins is about his. I think, by their nature, the origins of religion are puzzling, because, as I said, the back stories have been rewritten. And who knows? Maybe God does exist.
Holland is a novelist and popular historian, whose controversial book In the Shadow of the Sword was made into the documentary Islam: An Untold Story