Writing history — then and now

Is the Bible “history”? Did the ancient biblical authors write “history” as we moderns understand it? These questions are essential elements of the debate about the trustworthiness and authority of the Bible.

In recent years, the usefulness of the Bible for writing the history of the ancient Near East has come under attack, as it has not been since the 19th century. And this attack is rooted in the intellectual winds of our time. Since the 1970s, people have been questioning whether science or history can tell us anything more than the ideology, politics, and biases of the scientist or historian, either individually or collectively. It is part of the so-called “postmodern” debate about the nature of “knowledge.” Many postmodernists assert that the meaning of any particular biblical text (or any other literary text, for that matter) cannot be separated from the worldview and ideology of the reader. They deny the original intention of the author can be recovered.

In order to evaluate the usefulness of the Bible for history and its trustworthiness as a source of both information and judgment on people and events, we must remember that there are two separate points of view — the ancient and the modern. Are we talking about modern ideas of history or ancient ones? Were the biblical writers attempting to write history, as we understand it? If they were not attempting to write a modern history, just what were they trying to do?

The word ‘history’ is normally understood in two senses: (1) what actually happened in the past, or (2) the telling (or writing) about what happened in the past. The first sense is objective (although some deny even this); the second necessarily filters those events through the personality of the historian. While the modern historian begins with a chronology and facts, the historian’s evaluation hardly stops there. He reconstructs facts and events, fitting them together into a tapestry of telling a story. He evaluates his sources for their value and validity, much as a lawyer probes the credibility of a witness.

Indeed, in his method of work, the historian is more like a prosecutor than a scientist. After examination, he makes conclusions about people and events, much like a judge or jury. The basic concern is that the Bible asserts certain facts or that certain events happened. Did they happen and in the way the Bible presents them? The Bible also makes judgments on people’s actions, attitudes, and deeds. Can we trust its judgment on events we cannot access?

Where did all this radical skepticism come from? There has always been skepticism about the Bible. Marcion (ca AD 85–160), for example, rejected just about all the New Testament except for Paul’s writings and a highly edited Gospel of Luke. But modern (and post-modern) views of the Bible are rooted in the period in the 17th century known as the Enlightenment. This was a time when thoughtful persons began using empirical methods to distinguish between knowledge and superstition. They struggled against state church authorities in their pursuit of truth. They pursued the original texts of not only the Bible but of the classics of Greek and Roman philosophy and literature. Their struggle polarized them from not just the contemporary church authorities, but galvanized them to regard any religious text as suspect.

The 17th century was a time dedicated to discovering what was true and of what was superstition or chicanery. In that respect, the skepticism was healthy. Because many deceivers chose the cloak of religious authority to pander their intellectual wares, skepticism was a very powerful defense against this abuse. And a healthy skepticism is still useful, for superstition (in pursuit of money or adherents) is still used today against the unwary — that is, against those who uncritically trust whatever they are told.

And it is important to remember that not everyone at that time embraced the “scientific” method accompanied by radical unbelief. Many of these early “scientists” were trained clergy, most notably Isaac Newton.

The modernist approach to writing history includes establishing events and a chronology, distinguishing between primary (original witness to the events) and secondary (dependent upon another) sources, and arranging those facts in some sort of a narrative. The modernist historian believes there is an objective reality in the past that can be accessed and known today. Critical scholars of the 19th century focused upon supposed “contradictions” and “errors” of fact to be found in the Bible. During the first half of the 20th century, evidence recovered in archaeological discoveries supported many presentations of fact in the Bible, which previously had been challenged. At the end of World War II, scholars held the Bible to be much more trustworthy than they had believed at the beginning of the century.

In the past 50 years, the focus has changed. Once preoccupied with “contradictions” in the Bible, and “errors” of fact, now the emphasis moved to how the reader responds to the message of the text. One’s understanding of the text inevitably is filtered through the reader’s biases. Supposedly, the original meaning of the text intended by the author is not accessible to the modern reader; indeed, “Truth” is said to not be knowable. This brings us to the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a new movement of historians arose to challenge the conclusions of their older colleagues; they have come to be known as the “Minimalists.”

The controversy is all about historiography, the art of writing history. It is an art, not a science. One cannot repeat the “facts” of history in the same way a scientist can reproduce the same events in a laboratory experiment. But writing history is not simply telling a story. It is about the trustworthiness of the sources one uses for telling that story. Are the sources the historian uses to “prove” his point credible? The historians is much like the lawyer, who constructs a tale about a crime (or lack of a crime) and uses witnesses and evidence to support his point of view and conclusion. And then it is the framework (often a story, but it could be a table of demographic facts) that relates all the events to one another. This involves selecting which facts will be included and which will be set aside as not relevant to the point being made.

The Minimalists assert that the Israel as depicted in the Hebrew Bible never existed, except in the minds of the Persian and Hellenistic writers who created the patriarchal narratives and the stories of the monarchy out of whole cloth. They were novelists in the modern sense who wrote fiction. Unless there is independent verification by “extra-biblical sources,” they reject the Hebrew Bible’s usefulness as a witness to the events written about. The biblical text is held to a higher standard of verification than are “extra-biblical” sources.

They believe that “unwritten” archaeological remains are more reliable than written documents, because they are “real,” whereas the message contained in documents is created by humans with ideologies, misperceptions, incomplete information, etc. Immanuel Kant (1724–1804), an Enlightenment philosopher, said that reality — the thing in itself — cannot be truly known. The Minimalists explicitly cite Kant as one reason they rate the biblical text so low for knowledge of the past. However, while archaeological remains tell us what the material world was like, and the context and constraints under which the people of the past lived, they cannot tell us what decisions people made or explain why people made the choices they did.

They insist that any assertion by an ancient text must be verified by an independent source. But insistence on a strict verification principle would leave us in the dark about almost everything. In point of fact, no one lives this way. We constantly make decisions based upon insufficient verification and make the “likely” choice. Better is the principle of “innocent until proven guilty,” that a text is given the benefit of the doubt until and unless grounds for suspecting it are discovered.

How does one answer the Minimalist? Let’s take the problem of Canaan’s conquest. Archaeological evidence is lacking for the Israelite conquest and occupation in the Iron Age. The Minimalists conclude it never happened, and certainly not as presented in the book of Joshua. Kenneth Kitchen, well-known and respected Egyptologist, is famous for his dictum: “The absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence.” Also, the biblical text helps explain it: Joshua 24:13 says, “I gave you a land you did not labor for, and cities you did not build, though you live in them; you are eating from vineyards and olive groves you did not plant.” In other words, the Canaanite material culture — cities, farms, vineyards, and orchards — was not universally destroyed by the Israelites. Apparently, total destruction was the exception, rather than the rule.

How should we evaluate these ancient texts? We should allow the ancient writers to speak in the manner they wish. We should try to understand the ancient writers before posing questions of them that is outside both their intention and their worldview. We should “translate” the message of the ancients from the ancient context to the modern. Finally, we must embrace humility: We do not have all the data; we do not have complete or even certain understanding to answer all our questions. Let us make a virtue of necessity and take what the ancient writers give and be content with that.

So what were the biblical writers doing, what did they expect to accomplish, and how ought the modern reader attempt to understand their literary output? The books of Kings and Chronicles, along with the other “historical” books of the Hebrew Bible, are not books written by modern historians for modern readers. Their literary nature is much different. For one thing, their purpose is didactic or polemic; that is, the authors are attempting to convince their readers about moral and spiritual principles. Their stories are intended to support this purpose and their various propositions. Second, their commitment to truth does not aspire to modern standards of reporting. What they valued as important and unimportant does not translate easily to third millennium A.D. values. For example, the recording of genealogies strikes many modern readers as irrelevant to the story. But it was critical to how these ancient peoples conceived of their identity. Genealogies may have had the function of establishing chronology or the framework for the story being told. It establishes precedence, relationship, and identity.

Allowance must be made for paraphrase, abbreviation, explanation, omission, rearrangement, and other techniques used by the ancient author that might offend modern principles of historiography. This is not to say the ancients did not write history. To the contrary, they often show sensitivity to the events and corroborating witnesses to those events. But they also did not make a distinction between the writer’s judgment or evaluation of events and the events themselves. They did not have precision — or, at least, modern notions of precision — in mind when they wrote.

That does not mean, however, the authors were not trying to tell a story that corresponds to real events! In order to understand the ancient texts, one must mentally and emotionally become an ancient and enter into their world. The process is very similar to watching a film where one must grant the filmmaker the premise of the film and even suspend belief in how the world should work before the message of the filmmaker can be perceived. The difference with the ancient writers is that we have much more work to do before we can enter into their world. Only then have we earned the right to form an opinion.

The ancient writer made choices: subject matter (which events need telling), point of view (theological purpose), and aesthetics (creative choices). These writers selected their material, glossed over less relevant events, simplified the story to meet space constraints, and only included detail that illuminated the significance of the events as the writer understood them. This is as true of modern professional historians, as of ancient storytellers.

How, then, should we understand the intentions of the biblical writers?

The first historians (that we have evidence of) were the Sumerians, for whom history was a matter of personal experience, not the analysis of sources or principles of interpretation. Later, Mesopotamian rulers desired to interpret the present or future in light of the past. Events on earth are controlled by the gods; hence, their decrees have a prominent place in their myths and legends. Indeed, that may have been the cultural function of the myths and legends. The earliest historiographers in the modern sense of the word were Manetho (third century B.C., Egypt) and Herodotus (Histories, ca 440 B.C.) and later, Aristotle (384–322 B.C., Natural History of Animals).

The biblical writers were something in between: The view of these ancient Hebrew writers is that history has a planned goal. History is not the result of forces or great men, but moves forward to an end planned by God. Their purpose in writing history was didactic: to teach the reader about how God acts in human affairs, what his purposes are, and the consequences of obedience and disobedience to that purpose.


Published April 2, 2018