Here’s a video version of this post.
… Scientific history … is that the method that we use is something akin to the scientific method. It is based on at least three characteristics …. The first is to establish that the evidence is reliable. The second is making certain that the analysis being made is logical. And third, the analysis must lead to a generalisation that is based on rational argument.
(Professor Romila Thapar, Frontline magazine Volume 18 – Issue 19, Sep. 15 – 28, 2001 India’s National Magazine from the publishers of THE HINDU.)
George Washington’s inauguration took place on April 30, 1789. No one alive today was there, but there is no question this event took place. It is documented and verified. We learned about George Washington’s inauguration through education.
Education means that you do not have to personally experience something for it to be true. You can rely on the observation and experiences of others to learn things. You cannot personally experience everything that has ever been done or taken place.
Every year millions of scientific papers are written. we have to trust that these papers are honest, follow scientific methods, and prove what they intend to prove. We are not present at the experiments. We must trust the honesty of these papers for science to be true.
It is critically important that scientific history know the quality of the sources relied on. Yes there are oral sources, but historically, oral sources have been respected as reliable eyewitnesses.
The Exodus of the children of Israel from Egypt is told in the Bible as a straightforward, factual, historic event. Charlton Heston, in his narration of the picturesque Bible video series, presents the Bible as part of the “oral tradition in storytelling” as if teachings passed on orally were understood to be less accurate or reliable and therefore merely legends and myths. Socrates, in Plato’s Dialogue “Phaedrus,” addresses the subject of oral versus written history.
“Theuth [Thoth] … was the inventor of many arts, … but his great discovery was the use of letters. … Thammus [the god Ammon] was the king of … Egypt; …To him came Theuth … desiring that the other Egyptians might be allowed to have the benefit of [his inventions]; … when they came to letters, This, said Theuth, will make the Egyptians wiser and give them better memories; … Thamus replied: … you … attribute to them a quality which they cannot have; for this … will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, … they will trust to the external written characters … This is an aid not to memory, but to reminiscence, … not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient and will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.”
Plutarch, in his discourse on the life of Lycurgus and his rule in ancient Greece, expresses the belief that oral tradition is a way of making the law more firmly fixed in the mind.
“None of his laws were put into writing by Lycurgus, indeed, one of the so-called “rhetras” forbids it. For he thought that if the most important and binding principles which conduce to the prosperity and virtue of a city were implanted in the habits and training of its citizens, they would remain unchanged and secure, having a stronger bond than compulsion in the fixed purposes imparted to the young by education, which performs the office of a law-giver for every one of them.”
There is considerable disagreement about whether the Scriptures were in some part orally communicated before being written down. The point is that even if they were it does not make them less authoritative or reliable. Socrates may not be entirely justified in discounting the value of written records but he reinforces the point that oral communication of history does not make it unreliable or inaccurate. Memorizing and passing on history demands great discipline and does not result in a form of the child’s game “gossip.”