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History is Always Reconstruction

October 20, 2009

The science known as history was once thought of as providing concrete, accurate accounts of the past. If one engaged a group of materials, one could provide a fair reconstruction of the past. History was believed to have universal value; other ways of engaging the past, because they did not meet the qualifications of scientific investigation, were dismissed. The problem with this is that history is reconstruction. It is like the attempt to put back together, and bring back to life, a vivisected animal. What we get is something similar in form to the original, but with much that is missing, including life.

While modern historians often recognize this, and therefore do not claim that their presentation of the past is actually what happened in the past, the majority of people still follow with a positivistic understanding of history. Thus, if someone says “x is not historical,” people automatically assume “x did not happen.” This is not what history says. Rather, what it says is that such an account cannot be verified by the means of critical analysis. One could still come to believe it happened, if it does not contradict what is possible from historical reconstruction, but it cannot be established by scientific means. Historians, to be sure, do more than give what such critical, scientific analysis, allows: they provide an interpretation of those facts, creating a plausible story from it. Once this is done, however, what is produced is more than mere history, though it is based upon history.

How one engages the facts of history and what is or is not plausible, beyond those facts, is what creates multiple representations of history. A different hermeneutic will have different expectations and different ways of interpreting facts. Different historians will bring with them different hermeneutics, explaining why they produce different results. The search for the historical Jesus, for example, is a prime example of this. What comes out of this quest in part is determined by a priori presuppositions: those who come in with a faith in Jesus will produce different histories than those who lack that faith. This should not surprise a Christian: revelation includes what transcends what human reason can prove, and if one accept revelation, it will lead to different conclusions than one who thinks it is all made up (thereby requiring an explanation for why such a made up account was produced).

To really understand the difficulty of historical reconstruction, especially when dealing with religious figures, Christians might want to look outside of one’s faith tradition and to that of another, and ponder how one would go back establishing a historical Buddha or a historical Muhammad. This will help them understand what exactly goes on in the process of historical reconstruction. It is exactly this kind of thing which I myself have to deal with when working with Yogācārin texts – the historical reconstruction of the figures of Maitreya, Asanga and Vasubandhu is difficult and Buddhist scholars differ with one another in how to do this. Let me explain why.

In Buddhism, the Bodhisattva who is believed to be the next Buddha for us on earth is named Maitreya, and he is said to be currently residing in Tuṣita heaven, preparing for his eventual Buddhahood. In the 4th (or early 5th century), Asanga flourished; originally a convert to Hīnayāna, probably of the Mahīśāsaka school, it is said that he eventually got discouraged from his practice, finding it leading to nowhere, and took a ten year retreat, looking for help from Maitreya. In the end, he was to get what he wanted – and was taught by Maitreya in Tuṣita heaven, leading not only to Asanga’s conversion to Mahāyāna, but also giving him a group of texts attributed to Maitrya which he propagated as he returned back to earth. He then was to go on and produce commentaries and treatises of his own, some encyclopedic in scope. He was also to convert his half-brother Vasubandhu, who had previously been a major producer of Abhidharma texts from different backgrounds (he was constantly moving from one Buddhist tradition to another, taking up the position of one group, before going against it and writing against his former beliefs as he changed his loyalties). Vasubandhu, then, wrote a series of Mahāyāna texts as well.

Now, scholars want to know who exactly were Maitreya, Asanga and Vasubandhu.  Do we accept there was a Maitreya or was he a creation of Asanga? Was this Maitreya really “in Tuṣita heaven” or was he some guru who taught Asanga? What texts can really be attributed to him (there are different lists)? What about Asanga? When did he live (entirely in the 4th century? In the 5th century)? Do we take his Yogācārabhūmi, his most important text, constructed as an encyclopedia in many stages, to be all his, or do we find it an edited text taken from many sources? What about Vasubandhu? Do we accept that all the texts attributed to him are really his, or, do we take it that there were several people with the same name (two? four?) and that it was only later that the Abhidharma master was seen as the same person was the Yogācārin?

Many questions underlie any reconstruction of Asanga and Vasubandhu; perhaps one of the most important, in trying to determine what they wrote, is the question of internal contradictions. Does that indicate multiple sources? Or does it indicate something else is going on? What about the fact that a text appears to have been interpolated many times? Does that mean it cannot be written by one person? If one is willing to accept that people can radically change their views, while bringing with them aspects of their former beliefs, it is easier to believe the normative texts attributed to Asanga and Vasubandhu really were theirs. Later interpolations and contradictions might just represent their own development.  But, even if that is the case, does it mean there was no tampering with their texts in their transmission?

Personally, I find that the same general tendency to accept tradition in Christianity leads me to accept tradition within other religious traditions. Nonetheless, even if one is willing to let tradition help in determining the basic contours of the past, there are still issues of internal inconsistencies of those traditions to deal with, and that must always be accounted for in any reconstruction. For example, one of the texts attributed to Asanga through Maitreya, the Ratnagotravibhāga, suggests everyone has a Buddha nature, and so everyone could be enlightened; but this goes against what is found in normative texts attributed to Asanga, which suggests there are those who can never be enlightened, for they do not have the seed for enlightenment. Now, tradition is not of one accord in attributing this work to Maitreya-Asanga, and for this reason, it is easy to say that those traditions which suggest it was put down by Sthiramati (i.e., Chinese traditions) is more likely correct. But then how did it get attribution to Maitreya by the Tibetans? Clearly, this is exactly the kind of reconstruction and guesswork which historical research tries to accomplish; we can provide a plausible explanation for what happened in the past, explaining how divergent views came about. But once we do this, we begin to understand what happens when non-Christians try to reconstruct the Christian past.

History, therefore, is a reconstruction; but this does not mean that the process of reconstruction and the end product as without value. Indeed, the more of the process which is exposed, the more one can engage the material and consider other options as well. It is for this reason why reading history from a variety of sources and explanation is valuable. It also reminds us, in the end, that historicism must never be treated as the final truth, but just as one means by which we try to engage it.

  1. David Raber permalink
    October 20, 2009 8:48 pm

    Scoffers and skeptics and even people formerly convinced Christians who have lost their faith and then written books about it, these types of people are fond of pouncing on inconsistencies in the four gospels, as evidence, I suppose, that it is all made up and totally unreliable as a guide to faith.

    Perhaps, Henry, you or others can comment on this question: What was the conception of truth or historical accuracy of the church leaders who put together in the canonical New Testament these four gospels? For surely they were not stupid people, and knew full well about all those inconsistencies that non-believers love to cite–and yet they put these differing accounts together, recognizing them all nonetheless as holy writ inspired by God.

    • October 21, 2009 3:08 am


      I’m not sure what you are looking for: do you want to know how to do history using the Gospels? Gospels, while they point to true events, transcend history.

  2. David Raber permalink
    October 21, 2009 8:48 am


    I apologize for the opacity of my writing. I’ll have another go.

    We look at the four canonical gospels today, and some of us question their authority because they say some different things about what Jesus said and did; the accounts vary–they can’t all be true!

    Now the people who centuries ago chose to honor these same gospels as holy writ, including them together side by side in the New Testament, must have seen the same differences we see today, and yet they apparently did not see the differences as in any way putting into question the truth conveyed in these books. So how do we describe the canon-makers’ conception of truth as distinct from ours?

    • October 22, 2009 8:19 am


      Ok. Well, that is sort of out of the scope of what I was writing in here. However, the early Christians looked at things differently from us. One of the things is that they were not needing a positivistic historicism without contradiction; this is not to say they didn’t see contradictions as being significant, they did. But what they saw them as was areas where something is being said which is hard to express via human reason, leading to a paradox — and in that case, instead of being a concern that everything is wrong, they saw it as a point of where God was trying to show us something important, if we can figure it out. Of course, they would also argue against some apparent contradictions as not being contradictions (often equivocation is used to make apparent contradictions). But when it is something serious within a narrative, where it is clear the author of the narrative couldn’t be as foolish as to expect a literalism from their text, they said “ok, we must really explore what is meant here.”

      I hope that helps?

  3. David Nickol permalink
    October 22, 2009 10:20 am

    One of the problems, it seems to me, is that in the course of my Catholic education (1950s and early 1960s), each Gospel — and in fact each Gospel story, or even each Gospel verse — was accepted as “true” in isolation. (The extreme example of this was using a line from the Gospels as a “proof text.”) I assume this is still the case among the vast majority of non-scholars.

    When you start reading modern Biblical criticism, some of it is downright shocking, and you wonder how you could have viewed the Gospels so naively before.

    It seems to me very troubling that the synoptics have Jesus instituting the Eucharist at the Last Supper, and John instead has a timeline for the Last Supper and the events following that cannot be reconciled with the synoptics and has no Eucharist.

    • October 22, 2009 10:34 am

      David N

      Though I could possibly do more on this later, I would say that some of this confusion you mention about the Last Supper goes back centuries and to the debates between the East and the West as to when the Last Supper occurred. There are elements of the synoptics which seem, on first glace, to put it during the Passover; the East (following John) says it preceded the Passover (and why leavened bread was used). The little I’ve studied shows that if one follows the East’s interpretation, and look closely at the synoptics, this is not denied; at times it seems as if in the passover, but then if you look closely after verses used to indicate this, it is shown to be before.

  4. David Nickol permalink
    October 22, 2009 10:52 am


    If I am not mistaken, Raymond Brown states flatly in either The Death of the Messiah or his volumes on John in the Anchor Bible that the chronology in John cannot be reconciled with the synoptics. My memory may be faulty, however. I’ll check when I get home tonight.

  5. David Nickol permalink
    October 22, 2009 11:39 am

    Is there going to be no discussion on Vox Nova of the Pope and the Anglicans? I know this isn’t the place to ask the question, but I don’t know how else to ask it.

  6. brettsalkeld permalink*
    October 22, 2009 2:32 pm

    I have something in the tube, but needed to talk to a few people to make sure. Better a good piece than a quick piece was my thought (see George Weigel, encyclicals) But yes, this is an extremely important issue and I hope to have something up in the next day or two. I’m having supper tonight with some Anglicans. If we’re lucky Ephraim Radner, perhaps the best placed Anglican not named Rowan Williams to talk about this, will be there. Hopefully I can do justice to the conversation in my post.

  7. David Nickol permalink
    October 22, 2009 3:42 pm


    Great. There has been much discussion on dotCommonweal about this, and one of the most astute commenters over there has remarked that she is eager to know what Ephraim Radner will have to say.

    I am looking forward to your post.

  8. David Raber permalink
    October 23, 2009 7:10 am


    Sorry to put you off your stride, but I thought my comment was at least in the ballpark–the issue of historicism and all that.

    Now let’s move on to the Jesus Seminar . . .

    Just kidding.

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