More on the History of the Old Testament

Historiography is the narrative of what happened in history. Like any narrative, story, or account, it takes place from one particular tradition. The narrative is told from a particular perspective. One major example of this is in the Hebrew Bible itself.  The authors, editors, and compilers of the Hebrew Bible each had a particular tradition which informed their perspective. Thus, their writings and edits evident in the Hebrew Bible were historiography.

But is historiography history? In other words, in the Hebrew Bible history? The answer is simple: yes and no, and a little bit in-between. Okay, maybe that’s not a simple answer. Though, I ask that you bear with me. All will become clear soon (hopefully).

In a recently published volume about the reception of the Hebrew Bible between the 1st century CE and the 21st century, Walter Dietrich comments on the current status of how scholars understand the reliability of the Hebrew Bible.  He makes his comment in light of historiography, the notion that the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible were telling a story from their own perspective and tradition.

“Contemporary research discussion moves between the poles of a sceptical hyper-criticism and an unbroken trust in the reliability of biblical history writing. On the one hand one thinks that it is only possible to write the history of Israel without or against the Bible and on the other hand one follows to a large degree the biblical view of history. The truth lies between these two poles. An avoidance of the use of biblical historical records is no less appropriate than their extensive and uncritical use. Many details provided by the Old Testament are plausible or have already been verified by extra-biblical sources [i.e. outside of the Bible], but many are fictional and have already been proven to be false through external evidence. There is therefore a need to find the appropriate balance of critical evaluation of biblical sources and a reasonable reconstruction of history” (HBOT, vol. III/2, pp. 468-69).

This is a somewhat complicated and dense idea. So, I shall clarify. Many people either disregard 100% or maintain 100% confidence in the Hebrew. Neither of these stances is true. Rather, the truth of the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible is between complete skepticism and complete belief. Already, non-biblical evidence has proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are historically accurate. Yet, non-biblical evidence has also proved that many things in the Hebrew Bible are not historically accurate. Therefore, we need have a balance between complete dependence and complete skepticism of the Hebrew Bible for reconstructing history.

This is because much of what is written in the Hebrew Bible “is characterised by a combination of historical, aesthetic, and theological objectives” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 469). So, the Hebrew Bible, the historical books in particular, is not just a person writing a historical document, though it does have history within it. At the same time, the Hebrew Bible is not just a person writing a theological document, though it does have theology within it. For this reason, Dietrich comments that in the Hebrew Bible “the boundaries between historical facts and literary fiction are fluid” (HBOT, vol. III/2, p. 468).

Think about, for example, how different news stations present the same story. Fox News does not present stories the same way as CNN. Likewise, CNN does not present stories the same way as MSNBC. MSNBC does not present stories the same way as Al Jazeera. Rather, each of these television stations constructs and shares a narrative based in history. Because each station approaches the issues and events differently, they each present the story in a different way.

 

Broadly speaking, this is how scholars attempt to understand the historical reliability of the Hebrew Bible. It is a perspective on history; yet, just as some facts presented in the news are absolutely false or skewed, the same thing happens with the Hebrew Bible.

What are your thoughts? How skeptical of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? Or how trusting of the Hebrew Bible do you think we should be? I’d love you hear your perspectives.

 

Bibliography:

Dietrich Walter, “Historiography in the Old Testament”, in Hebrew Bible / Old Testament: The History of Its Interpretation, vol. III/2. Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2015.

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3 thoughts on “More on the History of the Old Testament

  1. I tend to give the benefit of the doubt to the Bible for two reasons:
    1. To a large extent, I share the exact same biases as the authors of the Bible had. E.g. I believe the God of Israel to be the living God, the One true God. I believe that what He considers as evil, is indeed evil, and what He considers as good, is indeed good. What He considers as important, is indeed important and what He considers as unimportant is indeed unimportant. And I assume that the biblical authors largely wrote with an awareness of God’s presence and perspective.
    2. For non-biblical evidence to prove that many things in the Hebrew Bible are not historically accurate, I tend to give the extra-biblical sources less credence than the bible for a number of reasons: 2.1 In contrast to the Bible I do not know what their biases and hidden assumptions are… there is no reason to suppose that they were any less biased than the Bible authors or more concerned for the truth. And even if I know their biases, I likely do not share most of them. 2.2. Absence of evidence does not equal prove that something did not happen, 2.3. In other words, unless at least two other independent historical sources agree with each other against the Bible, I see no reason to give them more credence than the Bible. And a single external source is not sufficient to “prove that many things in the Hebrew Bible are not historically accurate”. 2.4. I do not think that for most of the ANE history our sources (whether archaeological or historical) are good enough to “prove that some thing in the Bible are not historically accurate”, at least not in a way that really matters.

    That said, I keep in mind the presuppositions that both the Bible authors and myself share, and realise that the Bible is biased to emphasize those things that were important to the authors. From my perspective, dismissing a mighty and important king of Israel, like Omri in a few sentences as not doing “what is right in the eyes of the Lord”, without mentioning how powerful he was or the extent of his influence and kingdom, does not mean that the Bible is inaccurate, although for somebody writing a modern style history, it would indeed be unforgivable. Hyperbole and poetic language would not fit as part of most (all?) modern historical writing; the Biblical authors (and their colleagues in other ANE countries) knew no such restrictions.

    • Thanks for the thoughtful response. I should start off by saying that I really appreciate that you recognize your own bias. I think it is wonderfully refreshing. And I offer you much respect for it.

      Though I didn’t note it in the post, I recognize that I have my own biases which I wrestle with. Based on my upbringing, where I am, and how I think, I recognize that I see the data in the Hebrew Bible differently than many.

      You said, “there is no reason to suppose that they were any less biased than the Bible authors or more concerned for the truth.” I should clarify that I am in complete agreement with this point. Though I may not have emphasized it strongly enough, I am not under the impression that other ANE records are inherently more reliable. When you compare accounts of Sennacherib’s invasion, for example, the non-biblical account tells a similar story; yet, just as the Hebrew Bible, it offers a different perspective with unique elements.

      Regarding Omri, I agree. In my experiences, though, many people don’t necessarily approach the HB as critically as you seem to do. That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading what you read. I’ll take it into account as I continue writing.

      With regard,

      Will

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