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.

The Essential Story

Recently, I started a group at my school called “One Read”. The goal of the group is quite different from others. Many people will put together bible study groups aimed at studying Bible passages. “One Read”, rather than looking to pull things out of individual pericopes, reads the entire text in one sitting. Today we read through the book of Mark in an hour and twenty minutes. While it did take much time, it was more beneficial than I expected. In it, there were two major benefits that the Church, often unable to focus on one thing for more than five minutes, misses out on: humbleness and understanding.

In hearing the Gospel of Mark read for an hour and twenty minutes, there was a certain amount of patience and humbleness required in order to let it speak the way it was meant to. Mark was originally written to be read out loud, not studied with individual life verses. That is not to say pericope focused studies are bad. Rather, in order to fully understand a pericope, it is necessary to read the text in its fullness. Too often people have little or no willingness to hear the fullness of the story. And that is the problem. Mark is written as a story with the expectation that the hearer will partake in the emotion, feeling, and flow of it. Human beings are creatures that live and thrive in the world and cultures through stories that express humanity. That is just what the Gospel of Mark works with. It is a story that a person should submit themselves to in order to feel the full intention and aim of the text, a challenge for many. To do otherwise is to read it in a “non-human” way of thinking.

The second major lesson was that of understanding. Scholars often write long and complicated papers expressing some idea in the Bible. The average person considers them smart because the scholar saw something nobody else did. What if every person actually has the potential to see what the scholar can see? When a person invests their heart and soul into feeling a story, into experiencing the story with the characters, they open themselves up to feeling the emotions and thoughts of the character. In that, they realize the motifs and themes within the story that try to shed light on and define humanity, the same things scholars often write about. Once the hearer of the story is humbled to the text, they can understand the story in ways that they never believed possible. A willingness to humble the self allows an understanding of what the author is actually trying to express, thus allowing people to consider whether or not the message is something the hearer is willing to take up and live by.

So what? The Gospel can be understood as the essential story, a story that gives definition to humanity and purpose. To read it merely as an academic piece of work is to dishonor the original goal of it, to ignore the purpose of it. It is a story meant to challenge the reader. And we should read it as one. It is essential to always remember that the Gospels are written as stories, essential stories to human character and life.