In class a couple weeks ago I said something about being "loving" historians. We were talking about the Pharisees, whose rather one-sided portrayal in the Gospels leads many Christians to view them as uniformly bad: They are the hypocrites who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel. They are the legalists. Preoccupied with the letter of the law, they lost touch with its spirit. Committed to piety and establishing their own righteousness they went home condemned by God. And so on.
If we want to approach the Pharisees historically, as real people, we have to acknowledge that they would not have regarded themselves as hypocrites. "Loving" history will seek to recover a view of the Pharisees that made sense to them. I suggested that the Pharisees, like most Second Temple Jews, would have regarded the Torah as God's gift, and their obedience as a response to God's gracious covenant with them. Along with most other Jews, they would have agreed that “the yoke of the commandments, and the yoke of the kingdom of heaven were not burdens but opportunities for the service of God” (Shaye Cohen, From The Maccabees To The Mishnah [Louisville: WJK, 2005], 70).
But then, spurred on by this post, I got to thinking: Since love covers over a multitude of sins, what about the distortions that "love" brings? According to Albert Schweitzer, the greatest studies of the historical Jesus "are written with hate." While love believes all things, hate suspects all things, and it is suspicion that is the historian's stock-in-trade. Is it possible or good to write a "loving" history of Stalin or Hitler? Does a hermeneutics of love preclude value judgements? Must we affirm with E.P. Sanders that, at the end of the day, first century Jews--high priests and Pharisees included--were really nice liberal protestants in disguise? (I exaggerate for effect.)
No, for at its best the practice of history is a game of the imagination in which scholars try to construct models that make the best sense of all the available data. Whether motivated by love or hate, our hypotheses can be brought up short by the evidence. One might object that neither "love" nor "hate" is relevant to the study of history since it doesn't matter how we feel, it matters only that we are fair. I agree.
But I am defining love as the golden rule: Especially in the case of religious traditions other than our own, we should depict the object of our study in terms with which its adherents would agree, just as we would like others to present our own views as we would defend them ourselves.