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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