Thursday, July 22, 2010

Who do you think you are?

The BBC has a program that investigates famous people's heritage. I've only seen the show once, but it seems that there are some fascinating twists and turns in these people's backgrounds.

I've been doing some genealogy work too, just for fun. I signed up for the free 14-day trial of so I could have access to what is normal reserved for subscribers. Two weeks is not near long enough, but it gave me a basic overview of my family's heritage.

I've learned that great grandma Pecheur may have been a full blooded Chickasaw Native American. I've learned the names of other great (etc.) grandparents. I've learned some of the movements of the forefathers, and for some even when and where they came to, what would be, the United States.

But a couple of things have struck me. The oral story is often complimentary to the written story and at the same time contradictory to the written story. People's memory of past events often change and morph. Here are some examples.

A person may have been asked on a certain census where their father was born. They may have answered in Virginia. Then, ten years later, when asked the same question, they may have said in South Carolina. And possible ten years later, the father has been reported to have been born in Georgia. Now, the person is not lying. But I imagine as people get older they forget. The father may have actually been born in Virginia, but moved to South Carolina before the descendant was born. He grew up in South Carolina and inadvertently would state his father was born in South Carolina. Or, it could be that he was told his father was born in Virginia, but ten years he had found it, it was his father's father that was born there and in fact his father had been born in South Carolina.

The same is true with birth dates and death dates. These can be off my as much as five years (maybe even more). And it's hard to find out what the true day of birth or death or marriage.

This is not to mention the family stories that can be integrated or separated or whatever. People are not lying. They are stating the truth as they know it and as it has been passed down to them. And to me, it is not that disturbing to find out a birth date is off from one census report to another. Even myself, when verbalizing what I've learned will often mix a story from the paternal side with the maternal side or something similar.

With technology and sometimes the expertise of the experts, we can find out a good deal about our ancestors. We can find out a story, one certain angle, of a relative. This is what the BBC show is trying to do; tell a story from researching historical documents. Sometimes the oral story needs altering to make it more precise after reviewing the research.

This all got me thinking about the oral vs written transmission of Scripture. I would imagine most of the Bible was simply written oral tradition. And somehow writing down oral history solidifies it, makes it true. Then, somebody in some discipline comes along and sees a problem with their research and what is written. Next, the conclusion is that the Bible is wrong, made-up of a bunch of fanciful and moral stories and thereby holds no authority or relevance for today. Check. On to the next undermine of truth structures.

Hold on. This type of conclusion and how one gets to this conclusion may have more problems than at first appears. As I said when I was doing genealogical work, I had a certain tolerance for differences in the oral story and the" documented" story. Birth dates were off, death dates were off. There is a bit of imprecision. And it really does not bother me. I don't conclude from imprecision that my forefather was possibly a historical reality, but I'm not really sure because I don't have a month/date/year for his/her birth. And even the documented (the "written version") version may not be as reliable as I like to think.

So, why should I worry and fret when someone thinks they have displaced the entire Bible because they believe their evidence proves one thing and the Bible may state another? There is a certain tolerance for imprecision when it comes to transmitting history down through the ages. It doesn't indicate fraud or deception or even untruth. It just means we need to look deeper at the story, and also it means we may just have to deal with not knowing every precise detail about the event. We know one angle or two of the event. But until we gain all knowledge, we don't know everything. And that's OK by me.


Jarröt G. said...

I'm glad I found your blog again. Just saying that one more time!

pecheur said...

Thanks, you're very kind and always spurs me on to keep writing.