Keeping an open mind

As an historian I’ve come to realise that I need an open mind especially when using original documents of the time. History is like a big jigsaw puzzle under construction; it can also be thought of in terms of GoogleMaps: you have the overview but can zoom into get the finer detail. In my jigsaw puzzle analogy, the artist has mixed layers of depth in one image. My other way of explaining the multiple versions of an historical event is to use a diamond. There are so many facets individually or severally caught by the light, all making up the whole of what is a diamond. How we look at the diamond, determines which facet(s) we see.

For me, this is an invaluable position to be in – you’re always expecting the story to evolve in ways to accommodate new information, including that which appears to be completely contradictory. Working on World War 1 in Africa, watching the story evolve can be more radical than say the war on the Western Front or other episodes of our lives which have been the focus of lengthy detailed study. How do we fit the Christmas Truce into the ‘lions led by donkey’s’ idea of the war? How does knowing Belgium was so much more active in the Lake Tanganyika diminish or add to Spicer-Simson’s achievements? What does it do for race relations knowing that white South Africa had as much trouble getting military equipment to fight in the war as carriers and soldiers of all ethnic groups had getting food in West and East Africa?

Recently (December 2016), I came across an image on Pinterest which piqued my curiosity and which demanded verification before putting into the public domain (annoyingly, I didn’t keep the Pinterest link). It was to do with the book of Barnabas of which you can read a summary on Wikipedia (most comprehensive and referenced). The latest discovery is a copy of this text in Aramaic suggesting it might be older than the other two known copies of the text. The question I have is if this book is found to be legitimate and the contents verified as far as possible, how does this impact on what many of us were taught as children? Finding a reliable source for this latest discovery has been a challenge (which in itself raises questions) but here’s a sample of reports found: Daily Mail (Feb 2016), LatinTimes, Catholic Answers. In my search for a reliable source, I discovered that this story was ‘big’ in the press in 2014 where we find a slightly more reliable account in The Guardian, but even this is challenged by views in Counter Current (2014).

My questions now are: why this revival in 2016? If the document is false, what was the purpose of putting it into the public domain? Who did so? If it is true? I go back to my earlier question: what does this mean for many brought up believing that religious texts are the absolute truth?

My cross-cultural experiences suggest that whether or not this document is proven to be true, it’s about having an open mind, allowing ourselves to be challenged in understanding why individuals (including countries) acted the way they did. By doing this we are able to shed more light on the diamond and gain a more indepth and holistic picture of the time. Experience also suggests such an approach reduces the temptation to lay blame at specific feet, something we humans tend to relish in.

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