That is to ask: is the Past etched in stone? Or as Omar Khayyam wrote: “The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on: nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back to cancel half a line, nor all thy tears wash out a word of it.” The dictionary defines the Past as “Time gone by” or as “[something] having existed or taken place in a period before the present.” In other words what we refer to as “the Past” is no longer available to experience. So how could it be changed? From our current linear perspective the past is “water under the bridge”—that is, the Past has passed beyond our ability to influence or affect what happened; in short the Past is transpired “history.”
There is, however, a curious passage in Ecclesiastes that supports the idea that the Past is constantly recurring. In an opening poem (Ecclesiastes 1:4-11) the author (called Qohelet) “characterizes nature as an endless round of pointless movement, a rhythm that engulfs human generations as well.”1 From the author’s perspective the Past is so clearly delineated, however, that it can repeat itself: “What has been is what will be and what has been done is what will be done and there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl 1:9 RSV; compare 3:15). James Crenshaw, however, insists that “a myth of eternal return does not lurk beneath” these words. “Rather, the emphasis falls on the burdensome monotony of everything in nature and among human beings.”2 Nevertheless, Qohelet’s words do seem to affirm that the Past is a “thing in itself,” and that what has been done will happen again.
Today we also think of the Past as a discrete “something” with clearly defined parameters except that it lies in a bygone era. We seem to consider the Past as a substantial “thing”—just like the Present and the Future. The truth is, however, we know the Past imperfectly and then only partially in artifact and narrative, and not at all in its aggregate totality. We know only its artifactual vestiges and partial narrative reconstructions, which do not always agree. One’s personal lived past is also available in one’s faulty memory. The collective memory of our shared human past is recited in idealized public ritual and narrative reconstructions and it is partially available in museum artifacts and personal mementos. The Past is hardly etched in stone, however, but rather it still remains accessible in the present.
The Past can be changed! That is to say: not in whatever actually transpired in that bygone era but rather in how we have come to think of those events—in short, by changing our understanding of those past events we can essentially change the Past’s influence on the present. Here are two examples from the Gospel of John in which the Past has been changed.
Jesus passes through Bethany on his way to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem (John 12:1) and stops at the home of Mary and Martha (12:2-3). The next day he proceeds to Jerusalem riding on a young donkey (2:14)—the situation is not unusual; the donkey is a common mode of transportation in the ancient Near East (e.g., 2 Sam 17:23; 19:26; 1 Kgs 13:13-14). The disciples who were present at the time thought nothing of Jesus riding on the ass to Jerusalem. It was a common sight to see travelers on donkeys. The crowd had gathered (12:12) because of the popularity of Jesus (12:11, 13, 19). But later, after the resurrection (12:16) when the disciples were reading Scripture and reflecting on what had transpired they chanced upon Zechariah (9:9), and suddenly the earlier incident became charged with Messianic significance as the disciples came to a new understanding of the incident through the Scripture. No longer was it a simple visit to Jerusalem before an admiring crowd at Passover; rather in the disciples’ new understanding the donkey-event had become a prophetic act announcing Jesus as the Messianic king, and the former enthusiastic shouts of the crowd became a confession of his Messianic status stated in the words of Zechariah’s “prophecy”:
Rejoice Greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Lo your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a colt the foal of an ass. (RSV)
John’s account of the “Cleansing of the temple” is described in strongly violent language depicting vicious acts (2:15) more so than what appears in the Synoptic Gospels (Mark 11:15-19; Matt 21:12-13; Luke 19:45-48). The depiction features a sequence of vicious attacks by Jesus; he specifically uses a whip of cords to drive men and animals out of the temple and pours out the coins of the money changers overturning their tables. This visual image initially created problems for the disciples. But then they happened to remember that it had been foretold in Scripture that the Christ would be “consumed by zeal” for the Lord’s house (2:17; Ps 69:9). In other words Jesus is overcome by religious fervor at what he takes to be a desecration of the temple. From the disciples’ perspective this new understanding of Jesus’ violence and cruelty provides Jesus the excuse of “righteous indignation,” essentially pardoning his behavior and changing their earlier view of his cruelty—the “incident” had become an instance of divine justice at work.
Since the Past is remembered and reconstructed from differing perspectives, who is to say that it should not be changed from yet another perspective? For example, was Benedict Arnold a traitor or a patriot? How do you see it?
Charles W. Hedrick
Missouri State University
1James Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes. A Commentary (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1987), 60.
2Crenshaw, Ecclesiastes, 67.