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Histor(iograph)y and the Hebrew Bible – The Nature and Function of Histor(iograph)y

24th September 2005

This is the second in a series on “Histor(iograph)y and the Hebrew Bible” that I will be doing (at least until I get distracted by a shiny object). My first post, in which I traced some developments in the theoretical understandings of historiography, may be found here.

Jim West and History

In this post I was to expand a bit on the nature and function of historiography, but before I do that I want to respond to some comments from Jim West’s response to my first entry. Jim concludes his entry with the following:

There is, in other words, a significant difference between the work of the historian and the work of the theologian. The attempt to make the tradents of the Hebrew Bible into modern sounding historians is a mishearing of the highest order.

First, if my first post gave the impression that I was making the tradents of the Hebrew Bible into “modern sounding historians” that was not my intent. I would in fact agree with Jim that the biblical historians should not be equated with “modern” historians. That being said, I would insist that the writers of select books of the Hebrew Bible (e.g., Samuel, Kings, and even Chronicles) were bona fide ancient historians. They wrote their histories according to ancient historiographic conventions. So I wasn’t trying to make them into “modern” historians, but I was trying to affirm that they were “ancient” historians. And my conclusion is one shared by a wide range of scholars of the Hebrew Bible.

Second, I was surprised by Jim’s identification with the “history as factual representation” model of historiography. Recent historiographic and hermeneutical theory has (in my mind at least) deconstructed the notion of the “objective” historian who only “presents the facts.” The ideology of the modern historian is evident at every turn: in the presuppositions brought to the task, in the questions asked, in the evaluation of sources, in the emplotment and identification of cause and effect, in the rhetoric employed when writing, etc. In a later post Jim characterizes the work of Joe Cathay and Ken Ristau as “pre-modern historiography.” While I know that does not accurately describe Ken’s work and I am doubtful that it represents Joe (though I am not as sure since I do not know Joe as well), Jim comes across sounding very “modern” (i.e., 19th century “modern”). I would characterize my own approach as (for lack of a better term) “postmodern.”

The Nature and Function of Histor(iograph)y

In terms of understanding “historiography as interpretation” I personally find Meir Sternberg’s The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: University of Indiana press, 1987) extremely helpful. Sternberg argues that biblical narrative should be seen as a literary “complex,” for the reason that it has a multifaceted nature: “functionally speaking, it is regulated by a set of three principles: ideological, aesthetic, and historiographic” (41).

These sum of these three “principles,” therefore, defines the sum nature of biblical narratives:

  • Ideological. The ideology (or theology) of the historian guides the selection and evaluation of the material and provides the overall perspective. For this reason I would maintain that there is no such thing as unbiased, scientific history writing. All historians have an ideology, whether it is formed by their politics or theology. (I should note that I tend to favour Geertz’s definition of ideology as “a schematic image of social order.”)
  • Aesthetic. All history writing is culturally encoded by an appropriate rhetoric and literary devices and strategies taken from their culture (e.g., literary forms, traits, and strategies such as characterization, emplotment, organization, and use of dialogue).
  • Historiographic or antiquarian. This is the historian’s concern to represent the past. This is exemplified in the biblical text by frequent aetiologies, genealogies, and “metahistorical references” (directives to remember the past, so as to pass on knowledge for future generations), among other things.

Sternberg, in attempting to describe the relationship between these three separate “principles”, argues that they fit together in a symbiotic relationship: historiography “mediates between ideology and aesthetics,” while ideology and aesthetics “meet to shape history, and with it the narrative as a whole.” His conclusion is that “the three principles merge into a single poetics, where their interests and formations so coalesce that they can hardly be told apart in the finished message.” In other words, Sternberg clearly sees the combination of these three elements as constituting a greater whole than the separate parts — thus providing a model for understanding literature (e.g., biblical narrative) as historiography, while also acknowledging its artistic and ideological qualities.

So, what is histor(iograph)y? I would argue that historiography is a narrative that combines these three principles — ideological, aesthetic, and antiquarian — in order to present a coherent representation of the past according to accepted conventions.

These three principles — ideological, aesthetic, and antiquarian factors — must be considered when reading any history writing. These three principles can be discerned in all historiography, whether premodern, modern, or post-modern. In premodern times the first two elements were given prominence, in modern times the third element was often priviledged, while today I would hope that historians would recognize all three elements. It is a false antithesis to suggest that because a text is ideological, theological, literary, or artistic, that it therefore does not qualify as historiographic. (In fact, I wish that modern historians took the asthetic nature of history writing more seriously since then we would not have such boring books to read! :-)

Note carefully what I am not saying: I am not saying that all historians are created equal, or that all works of historiography are equally useful. There are bad historians and bad historiographies. The work of the contemporary historian of the ancient world is to sift through the works of the ancient historians and, while taking into consideration their ideology and asthetics, come to some conclusions in regard to their historiographic value. More on this later.

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