Autopsy of history

Doubting Thomas in a 14th-century Psalter (New York, The Morgan Library & Museum, MS M.302)

In John’s Gospel, Thomas the apostle became the archetype of doubt: “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.” (John 20:24)

Little did doubting Thomas know that his doubt counted him, not only with the ancient skeptics, but, most of all, with the ancient historians. His doubt was a special type of doubt, shall we call it Herodotean doubt, after Herodotus, the renowned ‘father of history’.

For Herodotus, history is not the study of the past, but the study of the past is history. The Greek word historia means inquiry or investigation, and Herodotus, in defining the past as an object of knowledge (his major work was entitled ‘Histories’, i.e. Inquiries), laid down a methodology. History is an investigation best conducted by autopsy.

While the sources for history are numerous, the historian’s methods are few. There are only two in fact, what Herodotus refers to as autopsy (from the Greek autopsia, ‘a seeing with one’s own eyes’) and akoe (‘things heard by report’), which correspond, roughly, not to first- and second-hand sources, but to eyewitness reporting, on the one hand, and everything else, recorded or heard, on the other.

Herodotus prefers seeing to hearing, and autopsy to akoe. Hearing is second-hand, while seeing for oneself is unmediated and more reliable. The eyes can be deceived, but not as much as the ears, especially when there are few tools for assessing the accuracy of a re-port, of something carried back (reportatum), mediated by speech or script. The Sisyphean struggle of history-writing has been to extract the gold nugget of autopsy from the deposits of akoe, since only the eyewitness can practice autopsia. This becomes akoe as soon as someone else tells the story.

Doubting Thomas performed an autopsy on Jesus to assess the truth of what he heard from the other apostles. Akoe was not good enough, he wanted to see it for himself. He would have been a great historian.

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