Those within the historical community are more than familiar with the term presentism. Presentism is a danger to historical accuracy because it imposes modern ways of thinking on historical characters. It fails to view history as a foreign landscape, and reduces the complexity of historical events. Presentism also lends itself to moral judgements and condescending attitudes. People in the past are seen as inferior due to their easily-distinguishable and pervasive flaws in light of a modern context. While historians continue to condemn these fallacies, from a Christian perspective, it is interesting to note that Jesus too seems to condemn presentist moral hypocrisy.
In Matthew 23, Jesus speaks to the teachers of religious law and Pharisees, proceeding to list their most devilish features. Among his list of scathing rebukes is a passage that says,
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you build tombs for the prophets your ancestors killed, and you decorate the monuments of the godly people your ancestors destroyed. Then you say, ‘If we had lived in the days of our ancestors, we would never have joined them in killing the prophets.’” – Matthew 23: 29-30
What is noteworthy here is that Jesus specifically denounces a faulty view of the past. He speaks out against the Pharisees for believing that they are morally superior to historical people. Ironically, it is their attitude of supremacy that makes them equally worthy of condemnation.
For modern Christians examining the past, Jesus’ criticism remains true. While it is certainly acceptable to point out moral flaws, and name them as such, these moral judgements must never come from a disposition of superiority. Although simple, this exercise is much harder to do in practice. For example, it is easy to look upon Southern slaveholders in the Antebellum era with hatred and disgust. Like the Pharisees, we say to ourselves, “If we had lived in the days of the Confederacy, we would never have joined them in owning slaves.” Yet, while we must speak out against the evil of slavery, it is a historical fallacy to say that we would have acted differently in the same situation – a moral judgement made from presentist thinking.
Presentist moral judgments, although rightly turning our eyes to the flaws of the past, wrongly turn our eyes away from the flaws of the present. It allows us to point out the splinter in the eye of our historical brother, but makes us blind to the log in our own. However, Jesus’ advocacy of correct historical thinking does just the opposite – it rightly turns our eyes to the flaws of the past and rightly turns our eyes TO the flaws of the present. Historical thinking from Jesus’ perspective causes us to quip: “If people in that context were so disposed to such evil, what evil in this context might people be disposed to?”
Jesus was certainly not a “historian” in any sense of the present-day understanding of the term. His warning against hypocrisy in moral judgements of the past, however, is one that all historians must embrace. Perhaps Christian scholars would be wise to turn to more of Jesus’ views of the past as examples worthy of emulation.