Forty years on … (The recording of history within living memory.)
At Easter, perhaps one billion people around the world commemorate the execution of Jesus of Nazareth twenty centuries ago. They celebrate his supernatural return to life, and honour him as God who became man, and the Saviour of the World. These amazing beliefs, central to the Christian faith, rest squarely on the first Century records written by four of his contemporaries. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John published their historical accounts thirty to sixty years after the events. Does this time gap affect the validity of their stories? Can we rely on history written after 40 years?
I remember exactly where I was standing 46 years ago; the day I found out I would not be conscripted into the Australian Army during the Vietnam War! My birthday was not chosen in the ballot.
Christopher Roost was born a few weeks after me. His birthday was selected in the conscription lottery! He was called up for compulsory military service, and served in Vietnam with 4th Battalion, RAR, Charlie Company. On patrol two days before Christmas 1968, he was killed by the remote detonation of an explosive device. He died on his first wedding anniversary! He was 22 years of age.
In 2007, 39 years after his death, Cheryl Roost, published the story of his life and death; “Mary in the Morning”, (Brolga Publishing 2007.) Cheryl never knew her brother-in-law. She married his brother, Dave, 18 years after his death. Eventually, Cheryl and her husband attended a reunion of 4RAR Charlie Company, and met the soldiers who had fought in Vietnam with Chris. As she got to know these men, and they got to trust her, they shared many details of the events surrounding Chris’s death, and their reactions to it. Cheryl determined to research and collect these stories, and to tell the story of his short military career, and the love story between Chris and his wife, Mary, to honour the memory of her brother-in-law. As she followed up one lead after another, the soldiers relived the deep emotions of the tragedy of war. Repeatedly they told her, “It seems like only yesterday.”
She had time to consider from a suitable distance the impact of the Vietnam War on Australian society, and the shameful treatment of the Vietnam Veterans who did return. Her book was published independently of the Australian Army or Government, and its credibility rests on the widespread positive response from Vietnam veterans, and their families. The true and independent account of one soldier’s death, and its impact on so many lives, remains important today, as our government and our allies continue to become involved in new wars overseas.
As I have followed this exercise in present-day history writing, I am struck by parallels with the writing of the story of Jesus. Dr Luke, one of the First Century historians, never met Jesus in person. He investigated for himself the earliest stories of Jesus, including the accounts of the original eyewitnesses. He wanted to confirm the reliability of the things that were being taught among the first generation of believers. He documented in two volumes the life of Jesus (“Luke’s Gospel”) and the rapid spread of his message, (“The Acts of the Apostles”). Luke’s histories and the other three Gospels were eventually recognised as part of the Holy Writings we now call The Bible. The credibility of their writings is not dependent on the authority of any Church Council, or the votes of any modern committee of scholars. For each generation over the last two thousand years, the stories have proved to have an internal consistency, and a life-changing impact.
Other memories are of more personal significance! It must be 50 years ago, but I still remember as a teenager stepping up to the starting line beside my older brother, at our annual church Picnic. The race was long enough to give me half a chance to over-come his sprinter’s advantage. Without a word spoken, both of us knew we were determined to win this race! My brother remembers his blisters. I remember my narrow but definite victory!
I think of that race when I read John’s account of resurrection morning and the first reports of the empty tomb. (Jn 20:1-8.) John tells how he and Peter raced to investigate. “So Peter and the other disciple started for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first.” Peter arrived second, but it was Peter rather than John who had the courage to step first into the cave where a corpse had been lying. These personal details add nothing to the essential narrative of the resurrection and are hardly things that would be invented. But they are just the sort of details that creep into a story told by people who were eyewitnesses. The story has the flavour of reporting, not the crafted neatness of “cleverly invented stories.”
Jesus remains the stand out figure in human history. The records of his life and teaching, written within the lifetime of “those who were there,” are still being studied in every city and town in the land. Men and women of every age and background continue to take the words of Jesus seriously, finding peace, forgiveness and purpose in his message, and contributing to their communities as the salt of the earth that he calls his followers to be.
Forty years is not a bad interval for writing history. The true story of our soldiers must not be forgotten. And the story of Jesus still calls for our honest consideration today.
Geoff Francis (Easter 2011)
Further reading; Australian historian, John Dickson, provides a helpful, well referenced update on the Quest for the Historical Jesus in his book, “Investigating Jesus – an Historian’s Quest.” (Lion Hudson 2010)