How historical do text-historians’ texts need to be?

During discussions about my response to the BASR/EASR conference, David Robertson (PhD student here in Edinburgh and co-founder of the Religious Studies Project) rightly pointed out to me that there is a difference between historical methods and historical manifestations of religion. My concern is primarily with the latter – the lack of focus on the past, and particularly the distant past. I have always been happy with the idea that Religious Studies can be done using a variety of methods – historical, sociological, anthropological and so on – though I would like to see the balance between them maintained. It is the apparent lack of interest in what I see as important formative periods in religious history that worries me.

As David pointed out, historical methods can be used to study new religious movements too. This raises the question: does a text-historian need to be studying old texts in order to be a text-historian?!

Though I do not intend to answer this question, simply posing it reveals a little more about my concerns. When I describe myself as a text-historian I mean someone who studies the past largely through the texts that form our primary evidence for that time and region. In other words there are not many other sources – though (text-)historians such as myself do also make use of epigraphy, archaeology and art, for example. Seen like this, two related issues come to the fore:

Firstly, lack of interest in the distant past is related to lack of interest in – or competence in – ancient languages. In my own context of course that means Sanskrit and Pali, which are both falling from their already fragile position in the Academy. Accessing the texts requires minimally a working knowledge of the language(s) and preferably an ability to also read a variety of scripts. There are few places in the UK now where such skills are taught. Secondly, even without the language barrier, trying to access a culture that is far removed in time and for which we have only fragmentary evidence is in itself a massive challenge, and a very different challenge from studying the recent past, for which there is more documentary evidence in a variety of forms.

So while I will continue to enjoy reading and hearing about people’s research on the recent past and present, I do hope enough members of the next generation of scholars will have access not only to a general training in historical methods, but also to the specific skills required to study the religious lives of people long dead.

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About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
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2 Responses to How historical do text-historians’ texts need to be?

  1. jayarava says:

    These days one must also be thinking in terms of competency in Chinese in addition to Indic languages! I find the study of the history of Buddhism has advantages and disadvantages. On one hand it is possible to bring history to life by filling in the small human details. On the other the details often contradict traditional narratives and thus create a tension with present belief systems.

    It is ironic that as Buddhism continues to gain followers in the UK we are gradually losing the competency to study the ancient texts. Perhaps we need to be looking to the growing Buddhist community to provide funding for Buddhist studies?

    • Thanks for your comments – of course you are right that Chinese (and Japanese, and Tibetan, and Sinhalese and Thai and …) also needs consideration.

      You make an interesting point about historical study having the potential to create tension with present beliefs. I suppose I would see that as beneficial as it allows for an appreciation of the multiple viewpoints of a community across different times and places. In any case I would argue that understanding religious communities of the past is important in its own right, not just as a way of shedding light on the present state of the religious group. And that of course is the danger of asking a current religious community to fund the study of its past.

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