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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Pseudepigrapha Saturday: Eupolemus

Introduction to Eupolemus:

Eupolemus was a Jewish-hellenistic historian in the 2nd century BCE. and wrote work entitled On the Kings in Judea. The only surviving fragments are from Alexander Polyhistor’s On the Jews, preserved by Clement of Alexandria (c. CE 150-216) and Eusebius of Caesarea (c. CE 260-340). Eupolemus was likely of Palestinian origins and functioned as an ambassador to Rome under the reign of Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 8:17f; 2 Maccabees 4:11). The fragments present the history of Judean prophets and kings more influenced by Chronicles than Kings. I will focus on Fragment 2 (Praeparatio Evangelica 9.30..1-34.18).

Fragment 2 historiographically traces the lineage of prophets and kings in the early Judean monarchy. Eupolemus traces it as follows:

  • Moses: Prophesied for 40 years
  • Joshua son of Nun: Prophesied for 30 years and established a sacred tabernacle at Shiloh.
  • Samuel: Prophetic reign is not given a period of time.
  • Saul: By the will of God, Samuel chooses Saul to be king, and Saul rules for 21 years, then dies.
  • David: According to Polyhistor, David son of Saul becomes king, subdues the region through warfare, and dies.
  • Solomon: Reigns and builds the temple until the end of Fragment 2.

Historiography and Re-appropriation

Anybody who knows their Bible 101 recognizes that this history of the Judean kings is highly idealized. Already the Deuteronomistic Historian [1] and Chronicle each have unique trajectories and historiographical aims. Each re-appropriates the narrative of the emergence of the ancient Israelite monarchy for their own aims. Eupolemus’s Fragment 2 contributes to an alternative approaches to ancient Israel’s history written for a unique audience.

Based on this idea, I wonder what happens if we choose to understand David as Saul’s son not a scribal error [2]. There are three reasons to consider this possibility. First, Eupolemus fails to indicate any of the failures of Saul found in 1 Samuel. What of Chronicles, though? Even 1 Chronicles is critical of Saul: “Saul died because he was unfaithful to the Lord; he did not keep the word of the Lord and even consulted a medium for guidance, 14 and did not inquire of the Lord. So the Lord put him to death and turned the kingdom over to David son of Jesse” (1 Chroniclees 10:13-14, NIV) . So, Eupolemus’ lack of indication regarding Saul’s failures indicates a higher view of him, perhaps due to his apologetic purposes. And as an ambassador to Rome, it seems reasonable that he would hope to present the kingly lineage as unified and strong, rather than admitting inner-Judean strife and conflict.

Second, by referencing David as the son of Saul, greater continuity is brought forth in the early monarchy. Again, assuming Eupolemus was an ambassador, his historiography would be much more attractive than one in which the monarchic rule was unstable and seemingly in constant flux.

Third, after referencing Joshua’s establishment of the sacred tabernacle at Shiloh, the period of the Judges is skipped and he proceeds to Samuel. Samuel’s prophetic calling from Yahweh occurs at Shiloh (1 Samuel 3:21)). Thus, even between Joshua and Samuel, it is evident that Eupolemus hoped to illustrate some sort of continuity between various leaders and kings. Perhaps he did so in order to legitimize Judeans as an independent kingdom with strong historical foundations.

While these ideas are conjectural, they are worth considering. Rather than passing off disagreements with the MT or LXX as scribal errors, we should always consider the possibility that it was a choice of the author. In this situation, perhaps, Eupolemus intentionally referenced David as the Son of Saul.

[1] By “Deuteronomistic Historian”, I am merely reference the broader collection of works; not the idea that Joshua, Judges, Samuel, and Kings were written as one unified work.

[2] “Eupolemus”, tranlsation and commentary by F. Fallon,  ed. James Charlesworth, The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 861-872, Fragment 2, n. g, comments that the “error in identifying David as Saul’s son is probably due to a misunderstanding by Alexander Plyhistory. MS B has corrected the error to son-in-law”.

Bibliography

F. Fallon.”Eupolemus”. Ed. James Charlesworth. The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha vol. 2 (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 1983), 861-872.

J. Freudenthal. Hellenistiche Studien 1-2: Alexander Polyhistory (Breslau: 1875).

B. Z. Wacholder. Eupolemus: A Study of Judaeo-Greek Literature (Cincinatti: Hebrew Union College, 1974).

David A. Creech. “The Lawless Pride. Jewish Identity in the Fragments of Eupolemus”. Annali di storia dell’esegesi 29 no. 2 (December 2012), 29-51.