Saturday, August 21, 2010

The Assumption of Historical Existence

The genealogy of Jesus Christ as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke have as their goal the proof of a claim, that is, that Jesus of Nazareth is the historically anticipated Messiah. Because they are addressing two distinct audiences, the methods they employ differ. While Matthew relies on a lineage which shows Jesus’ connection to the throne of David, Luke uses such historical means to arrive at an ahistorical point of origin.

However, the question remains: in a postmodern age, can we trust sources which claim to be able to tell us where we came from, and who came before us? Can the same historically-based methodology used by the writers of Matthew and Luke to prove historical existence be applied in a paradigmatic sphere of postmodern skepticism?

To illustrate this difficulty with the certainty of historical existence, I propose to contrast the historical accounts of the genealogy of Jesus of Nazareth in Matthew and Luke with a modern day genealogy. To do this I consider my own family origins, but more specifically, the ontological character of my grandfather (my father’s father), who died before I was born. Such an investigation might even be inspired by those who lay claims to great lineages, including one man in Great Britain who claims to have traced his ancestry all the way back to the first parents! While such a genealogy may in fact be verified and affirmed by historical evidence as being possible, the inability to verify the authenticity of such historical accounts makes ontological certitude subject to skepticism; the longer the lineage, the higher the susceptibility to the problem of regress. This individual was most likely not as concerned with securing absolute ontological certitude in his proposition of being a blood relative of Adam and Eve as he was with simply tracing the historical family “lines” back to their source. And so the metaphysical question from the aforementioned scenario remains: How do I prove that my grandfather, who died before I was born, maintained a historical existence on earth between the years 1920-1971?

To begin, we could say that logical inference might support the claim based on genealogy:

I (N) am born from my mother (M) and my father (F).

Then:

My father (F) was born from my grandmother (F^m) and my grandfather (F^f).

Represented schematically, it might look like this (similar to a truncated family tree):

N
/ \
M F
/ \ / \
M^m M^f F^m F^f

Thus, there is a direct lineage between myself and my grandfather. This relationship is bound both historically and genetically.

There also exists an antithesis, which may be stated as follows:

If F^f did not exist in historical past
Then:
I would not exist at present.
Therefore:
Because I exist
Then:
F^f existed.

While this overly-simplified Cartesian method of deductive reasoning appears to “prove” the historical existence of a family member, how would one approach the problem of proving the existence of an un-related historical figure such as, for instance, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.? In such a scenario it becomes clear that the presuppositions of existence rest on an empiricism that is not immediately identifiable by sense-experience. Consider the proposition:

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. existed.

Because there is not a direct lineage from myself to Dr. King, I am unable to appeal to direct experiential logic to verify this proposition; this is something that must take place a posteriori, since it expresses an empirical fact which is unable to be known by reason alone. But I have adequate resources to give clues as to his existence, such as television recordings of his speeches, copies of letters written by him, and possibly access to second or first-hand accounts from people who knew him personally or who had a relative who did. While all these historical “artifacts” give clues into the existence of this man the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and virtually every United States citizen would affirm his existence as a leading civil rights activist and historical figure, there is no way in which I can empirically “prove” his existence without, as Thomas said, “putting my finger in his side.”

Although a complete epistemological investigation into the historical existence of Jesus of Nazareth is beyond the scope of this paper, a general theory of knowledge is necessary. I have used Descartes’ rational-foundationalist approach to illustrate how one could “prove” the existence of a historical ancestor using the coupling of genealogical history and the Cartesian “I” as the foundational starting point for such an investigation. This method corresponds with Matthew’s genealogical account of the ancestral lineage of Jesus to Abraham, sans the Cartesian epistemological component. It relies on third-person accounts and historical evidence to support the proposition that Jesus of Nazareth really is the Christ, the rightful heir to the throne of David and the fulfillment of the messianic promise.

In Matthew’s account, such a proposition can be inferred logically by historical evidence; the same can be said of Luke’s. However, because Luke’s account seeks to prove Jesus’ divine, rather than historical, lineage, he extends his genealogy all the way to the first man, Adam, “son of God.” The question one must ask, then, is itself foundational: was Adam a real person?

[from the paper The Assumption of Historical Existence: Kierkegaard and Newman on Faith and the Traditio non Scripta. by Rob Marco. All rights reserved.]


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