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Mazar’s City of David Discovery and “Biblical” Archaeology

12th December 2005

As has been noted by a few blogs already, Eliat Mazar has published a short article on her city of David excavations — provocatively entitled “Did I Find King David’s Palace?” — in the most recent volume of Biblical Archaeology Review (available for free download here).

The article is definitely worth a read. Mazar based her decision of where to dig on the known topography of the city of David in conjunction with a close reading of the Samuel texts (e.g., David leaving his palace residence and “going down” to the fortress noted in 1 Samuel 5:17).

Here is a modified version of an image from the article that shows the location of the “large stone” structure (labeled as “David’s Palace?”):

In the article, Mazar describes her understanding of the relationship of archaeology to the biblical text as follows:

One of the many things I learned from my grandfather [Benjamin Mazar] was how to relate to the Biblical text: Pore over it again and again, for it contains within it descriptions of genuine historical reality. It is not a simple matter to differentiate the layers of textual sources that have been piled one atop the other over generations; we don’t always have the tools to do it. But it is clear that concealed within the Biblical text are grains of detailed historical truth (p. 20).

Her tentative conclusions are equally as provocative:

The Biblical narrative, I submit, better explains the archaeology we have uncovered than any other hypothesis that has been put forward. Indeed, the archaeological remains square perfectly with the Biblical description that tells us David went down from there to the citadel. So you decide whether or not we have found King David’s palace (p. 70).

While I know this sort of “biblical archaeology” is passé, I find it quite intriguing how the geography reflected in the biblical account helped her locate a significant 10th century large-stone structure — whether or not it is best identified with David’s palace.

Mazar’s method seems to be a throw-back to the Albright-Bright-Wright era where “Biblical archaeology” was concerned primarily to support the picture of history presented by the Bible. As such, biblical sites such as Jerusalem, Jericho, Ai, etc. were typically excavated, and the focus of the investigations tended to be on things like walls, religious centers, etc., rather than the broader material culture of the sites.

While I am by no means an archaeologist, I do know that most modern archaeologists take a broader and more interdisciplinary approach and attempt to retrieve more than simply architectural and ceramic phases or look for correlations between the biblical text and archaeological discoveries. While I think the separation of Biblical/Syro-Palestinian (or whatever we want to call it) archaeology from under auspices of biblical studies is ultimately a good and necessary thing, perhaps Mazar’s work illustrates that the “new” archaeology does not have to preclude considering the descriptions of geography found in the biblical narratives.

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Jim West on P. R. Davies on the Origins of “Biblical” Israel: Parts 2 & 3

3rd November 2005

Jim West has taken up the mantel from Christopher Heard and blogged on the second and third part of Philip R. Davies’s recent article “The Origin of Biblical Israel” in the in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures vol. 5, article 17 (2005). My comments on the first section may be found here; what follows are some of my thoughts on the second and third sections of Davies’s essay and Jim’s comments.

Jerusalem vs. the World

In the second section of his essay, Davies puts forward the argument that prior to the neo-Babylonian period, Jerusalem was not the only religious centre of ancient Israel. Other sites included Mizpah, Bethel, and Gibeon. Here I think Davies is bang-on; of course the issue is whether or not Jerusalem should have been the only cult centre. From the perspective of the canonical prophets and the pro-Judah writers of the DtrH, Jerusalem should have been the only cult centre.

Jim’s comments on this section are intriguing. Extrapolating from Davies’s observation he comments:

So then, do we have in the DtrH the attempt to secure Jerusalem as the “navel of the world” against rival claimants Bethel and Samaria? And if so, is the picture of a “United Kingdom” under “David” even possible? Solomon? Is it not more likely that the picture of a united kingdom was retrojected into the past in order to glorify what never really existed?

In my mind, it is a pretty big leap that Jim wants us to take. It is undisputed that one of the concerns of the DtrH is to secure Jerusalem as the chosen cultic centre of Israel. That, however, doesn’t mean that Jerusalem never was. It would seem more likely, IMHO, that each of these cultic centres have a long and varied history.

Search for the Historical Saul

For example, I wonder whether the strong anti-Benjamin and anti-Saulide polemic that you find throughout the DtrH (e.g., Judges 19-21, 1Samuel, etc.) is an indication that there was a historical “Saul.” If anything, the legitimacy of David is predicated on asserting the illegitimacy of Saul. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not here arguing that the biblical account of Saul’s reign is entirely historical; all I’m saying is that the strong polemic supports the notion that there was a “Saul” who was king of something called “Israel” and his dynasty was cut short by a usurper called “David.” If there never was a Saul or any Saulide in power in Israel, then what would be the point of the polemic and why would the interest in Saul’s line persist all the way to the time of the Chronicler and the author of Esther? I guess it all could be a retrojection in order to establish the priority of Benjamin and its cultic centres; but if there was no Saul, then what makes the connection between Benjamin and Saul in the first place? The same argument could be made for David and Solomon. Again, I am not here arguing that all aspects of the court narratives about David and Solomon are historical. All I am arguing for is that there was a monarch named “David” who began a dynasty (see, for example, Chris Heard’s blog entry on finding the historical David here), and that there were others who felt David was a pretender to the throne and that a Saulide should be in power. This in my mind would be a plausible “concrete setting” that underlies a “specific rivalry” that Davies is looking for.

Remnants of Pro-Benjamin Elements

In the third section Davies addresses some of the implications of his first point. In particular, he argues that “the literati of Benjamin originated the skeleton of an account of the rise of the kingdom of Israel, beginning with a conquest of the territory by Benjamin, a sequence of ‘judges’ initiated by a Benjaminite, and how Benjamin finally provided the first king of Israel.” I can agree with Davies, even though only remnants of this Benjaminite skeleton remain visible. But I would probably differ from Davies on the aspects of the historicity of this skeleton.

In response to this third section, Jim rightly raises a fairly big omission by Davies: the role of Judges 19-21 in the discussion. While Brettler (“The Book of Judges: Literature as Politics” JBL 108 [1989] 395-418) and Amit (“Literature in the Service of Politics: Studies in Judges 19-21″ in Politics and Theoolitics in the Bible [Sheffield 1994] 28-40) have clearly (and convincingly) highlighted the propagandistic character of this passage (Pro-David/Judah, Anti-Saul/Benjamin), I think that there may be more to the passage — especially in terms of Saul’s genealogy. Either way, this passage must be given a concrete setting of when there was a strong rivalry between Saulides and Davidides, IMHO. It just seems more plausible to see an earlier origin to this rivalry, rather than see it as a later reality that then had to “make up” a history.

Finally, another problem I see with Jim’s notion that “the picture of a united kingdom was retrojected into the past in order to glorify what never really existed” is that the DtrH does not glorify the past. While the DtrH is on the whole pro-David and pro-Judah, it clearly is not unabashed political propaganda. The negative elements about David (e.g., 2 Sam 9-20, esp. 11-12) and Solomon (1 Kings 9-11) in my mind demonstrate that the DtrH is not the product of the royal court or a late propaganda piece. If you are looking for a history of Israel that is the product of the Persian period and presents a far stronger legitimization of the Davidic line, you need to look no further than Chronicles.

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Christopher Heard on P. R. Davies on the Origins of “Biblical” Israel: Part I, Post 1

1st November 2005

Christopher Heard over at Higgaion had the good — nay, excellent idea of initiating a “roundblog” discussion of P. R. Davies, “The Origin of Biblical Israel,” in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, vol. 5, article 17 (2005).

I have read Davies’s article and Chris’s first post ( P.R. Davies on the origins of biblical Israel: Part I, Post 1). The main question that Chris raises concentrates on Davies’s contention that Mizpah functioned (for well over a century) as the capital of Judah/Israel after the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians. Thus Chris asks, “Do the available data about Mizpah allow us to place upon it the freight Davies seems to want to place upon it?”

As far as I am aware, the only evidence for Mizpah becoming the capital under Gedaliah is based on 2 Kings 25:22-25 and (as Chris notes) Jeremiah 40:1-–41:16. In addition, according to Nehemiah 3 craftsmen from Mizpah helped do some architectural repairs on Jerusalem (vv. 7, 15, 19).

Even if the evidence from Jeremiah and 2 Kings can be trusted as reliable, Chris rightly notes that those passages say nothing about how long Mizpah continued as the capital after Gedaliah’s death. That being said, most scholars who have an opinion maintain that Mizpah continued as an administrative centre even after Gedaliah’s murder (see recently, Jeffrey R. Zorn, “Tell en-Nasbeh and the Problem of the Material Culture of the Sixth Century” in Oded Lipschits and Joseph Blenkinsopp, ed., Judah and the Judeans in the Neo-Babylonian Period [Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2003], pp. 413-47).

While I personally don’t see any reason to question the evidence from Jeremiah or Kings (and if Tell en-Nasbeh is to be identified with Mizpah, it fits the chronology), I would be interested in why Davies would privilege these passages, but not others such as the claim in 1 Kings 12 that Benjamin sided with Judah when the united kingdom broke up (which is “hardly to be taken as reliable,” p. 2). Of course, I know Davies’s response would be that there was no united kingdom — a position that Davies’s entire article is predicated upon — and one that I am not quite prepared to accept.

At any rate, Chris has raised some good questions about Davies’s article and I too am curious to see what others think — especially considering that I, much like Chris, am more interested in literary and ideological questions rather than historical reconstruction of the biblical text.

UPDATE: Ken Ristau has posted an excellent comment on this entry surrounding the significance of Nehemiah 3:7 for the debate surrounding Mizpah. Ken noted that “Nehemiah 3:7 may provide more information than just that men contributed to the building of the city. Depending on how you translate the difficult grammatical construction in that passage, it may report that Mispah was the seat of the governor of the Trans-Euphrates (not simply Yehud or Samaria).” This is a good observation. The lamed in Neh 3:7 may indeed be taken as specifying what Mizpah is meant: “Mizpah, i.e., the official seat of the governor of the province beyond the river.” This would suggest that Mizpah continued as the administrative centre for the Trans-Euphrates quite for a while. It is interesting that no English translations take the phrase in this way.

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Resources for the Study of Histor(iograph)y and the Hebrew Bible, No. 1

29th October 2005

This post is the first of an on-going series of posts on resources for the study of ancient histor(iograph)y. Some of the posts will focus on one particular book, while others will survey a general topic relating to the study of ancient history writing. While most will focus on biblical histor(iograph)y, some will be broader.

In this initial post I am highlighting a collection that brings together a number of seminal essays on the topic of ancient Israelite histor(iograph)y.

  • V. Philips Long (ed.), Israel’s Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography. (Sources for Biblical and Theological Study 7; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1999). Pp. Xx + 612. Buy from | Buy from

This volume brings together a total of thirty-three essays dealing with different aspects of the study of ancient Israel’s past. All but the editor’s introduction and final reflection have been previously published (most within the last twenty-five years), although seven essays appear for the first time in English: five translated from German (Herrmann, Klement, Maier, Neef, and Soggin), and one each from French (Cazelles) and Spanish (Alonso Schökel).

The first section, “Israel’s Past in Present Research,” contains three essays that provide context for the contemporary debate: John H. Hayes, “The History of the Study of Israelite and Judaean History: From the Renaissance to the Present” (pp. 7-42); Mark Zvi Brettler, “The New Biblical Historiography” (pp. 43-50); and Rolf Rendtorff, “The Paradigm Is Changing: Hopes and Fears” (pp. 51-68). Part two, “The Historical Impulse among Israel’s Neighbors,” contains three essays that supply an ancient Near Eastern background: William W. Hallo, “Biblical History in Its Near Eastern Setting: The Contextual Approach” (pp. 77-97); H. Cazelles, “Biblical and Prebiblical Historiography” (pp. 98-128); and A. R. Millard, “Israelite and Aramean History in the Light of Inscriptions” (pp. 129-40).

The essays in the third section, “Israel’s History Writing: Its Multiplex Character,” are grouped according to whether their focus is on the antiquarian, aspectual, or artistic character of Israel’s historiography. Under the category antiquarian are five essays: John J. Collins, “The ‘Historical Character’ of the Old Testament in Recent Biblical Theology (pp. 150-69); John Van Seters, “Joshua’s Campaign of Canaan and Near Eastern Historiography” (pp. 170-80); R. N. Whybray, “What Do We Know about Ancient Israel?” (pp. 181-87); Philip R. Davies, “‘Ancient Israel’ and History: A Response to Norman Whybray” (pp. 188-91); and Gerhard Maier, “Truth and Reality in the Historical Understanding of the Old Testament” (pp. 192-206). There are two aspectual studies: J. Alberto Soggin, “History as Confession of Faith — History as Object of Scholarly Research: On One of the Basic Problems of the History of Israel” (pp. 207-19); and Claus Westermann, “The Old Testament’s Understanding of History in Relation to That of the Enlightenment” (pp. 220-31); and two artistic: V. Philips Long, “History and Fiction: What Is History?” (pp. 232-54); and L. Alonso Schökel, “Narrative Art in Joshua-Judges-Samuel-Kings” (pp. 255-78).

Part four, “Writing Israel’s History: The Methodological Challenge,” includes nine essays. The first five focus on method: Diana Edelman, “Doing History in Biblical Studies” (pp. 292-303); K. Lawson Younger, Jr., “The Underpinnings” (pp. 304-345); Siegfried Herrmann, “The Devaluation of the Old Testament as a Historical Source: Notes on a Problem in the History of Ideas” (pp. 346-55); J. Maxwell Miller, “Reading the Bible Historically: The Historian’s Approach” (pp. 356-72); and Ferdinand Deist, “Contingency, Continuity and Integrity in Historical Understanding: An Old Testament Perspective” (pp. 373-90). Then there are two that explore the impact of the social sciences on doing Israelite history: Niels Peter Lemche, “Is It Still Possible to Write a History of Ancient Israel?” (pp. 391-414); and Baruch Halpern, “Erasing History: The Minimalist Assault on Ancient Israel” (pp. 415-26). This section closes with two essays that explore the interplay between literary study and historical reconstruction: John Barton, “Historical Criticism and Literary Interpretation: Is There Any Common Ground?” (pp. 427-38); and Herbert H. Klement, “Modern Literary-Critical Methods and the Historicity of the Old Testament” (pp. 439-59).

The fifth section, “The Historical Impulse in the Hebrew Canon: A Sampling,” includes eight essays that illustrate how books from the Torah, the (latter and former) Prophets, and the Writings have been variously utilized by scholars in understanding Israel’s history. The first three essays contain different assessments of the value of the Torah for understanding the Patriarchs: Roland de Vaux, “The Hebrew Patriarchs and History” (pp. 470-79); Thomas L. Thompson, “Historical and Christian Faith” (pp. 480-484); and John Goldingay, “The Patriarchs in Scripture and History” (pp. 485-91). Essays on the former and latter Prophets include Richard S. Hess, “Early Israel in Canaan: A Survey of Recent Evidence and Interpretations” (pp. 492-518); J. G. McConville, “Faces of Exile in Old Testament Historiography” (pp. 519-34); Hans Walter Wolff, “The Understanding of History in the Old Testament Prophets” (pp. 535-51); and Heinz-Dieter Neef, “The Early Traditions of Israel in the Prophecy of Hosea — A Review” (pp. 552-56). There is but one sample from the Writings: Gary N. Knoppers, “History and Historiography: The Royal Reforms” (pp. 557-78).

The book closes with an essay by the editor of the volume, V. Philips Long, entitled “The Future of Israel’s Past: Personal Reflections” (pp. 580-92), in which he presents his vision for future historical study of ancient Israel. First, Long hopes that there will be an increased openness among scholars about their own core beliefs (recognizing that presuppositions and basic beliefs affect everyone’s research), and that scholars will distinguish between the truth claims of the biblical text and their own evaluation of the truth value of said claims. Then, in connection with method, Long suggests that the canons of the historical-critical method (criticism, analogy, and correlation) be redefined so as not to preclude serious inquiry by scholars of faith; the claims of the social sciences be limited to their proper role of providing background information on societies and cultures; and the consequences of modern literary criticism on doing historiography be explored.

Needless to say, many scholars will not agree with Long’s evaluation of past historical work or his vision for future research on Israel’s past. The articles included in this volume do represent a wide spectrum of scholarly perspectives and methods — from more conservative scholars to so-called “minimalists,” as well as the majority who sit somewhere in between. Nevertheless, as Long himself acknowledges (e.g., pp. xii-xiv), the contents, structure, and the sectional introductions reflect his own more conservative approach. Also, while this is not the place to quibble over the selection or exclusion of specific essays, two burgeoning areas of research that are underrepresented are ideological and narratival studies of Israel’s history writing, and work on 1 and 2 Chronicles.

On the whole, Long has brought together an excellent collection of essays that is eminently suitable as a reader for courses on biblical historiography, as well as for students and scholars desiring a guide through the maze of present approaches to Israel’s past.

The book closes with an index of authorities and Scripture index.

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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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“History,” “Historiography,” and “Historical” – Some Parameters to the Debate

23rd September 2005

I’ve been wanting to weigh-in with some of my own thoughts in the debate on historiography and historical method that Joe Cathay, Jim West, Ken Ristau, and Christopher Heard have been having of late, but haven’t had the time. Now it’s Friday night, my wife and kids are in bed, and while there are other things I should be doing, I thought that I would contribute to the discussion.

From reading the posts, I think that it would be good to back up the debate a bit and set some parameters and definitions. As I see it, there are some interrelated — yet significantly different — questions being bantered about:

  1. Is the Bible (better: some books of the Bible) historiographic, i.e., would some books of the Bible be classified as historiography in the ancient Near East?
  2. What does ancient historiography look like? How does it function?
  3. How would modern scholars employ ancient historiographic texts if writing a modern historiography of an ancient nation like Israel.

I will discuss all (or at least some!) of these questions in future posts. What I would like to do in this post is explore the simple question, “What is Histor(iograph)y?”

What is Histor(iograph)y?

In order to answer the first question, “what is history?” (or better framed as “what is historiography?”), we have to do a bit of history!

Generally speaking, contemporary thoughts on historiography are shaped by the change of views regarding the subject that occurred at the end of the Enlightenment. By the 19th century, the professionalization of historical studies led to a break with the rhetorical tradition, which saw the role of historical writing was to instruct the present by looking at the past. In contrast to this, a new view of historiography emerged which stressed the reliance upon — and “objective” investigation of — principle sources only. The goal of this new historical method was “merely to show how it actually happened” (G. Iggers, “The Professionalization of Historical Studies and the Guiding Assumptions of Modern Historical Thought,” A Companion to Western Historical Thought [Blackwell, 2002] 226).

This view, by definition, negated the validity of any theological, ideological or literary aspect in historical presentation. For example, Leopold von Ranke (1795-1886), the founder of “scientific” history, defined historiography as factual representation: a “strict presentation of facts, no matter how conditional and unattractive they might be, is undoubtedly the supreme law” of the “new” historiography. Under this definition, the goal of history writing is the “objective and scientific” presentation of what happened in the past and why it happened.

It was this definition of historiography (which I will call the factual representation model) that led other 19th century biblical scholars to question whether anything in the Bible could truly be considered “history.” For example, Wilhelm Vatke (1806-82) claimed:

The Hebrews did not at all raise themselves to the standpoint of proper historical contemplation, and there is no book of the Old Testament, however much it may contain material that is otherwise objectively historical, that deserves the name of true historiography.

Indeed, under the factual representation model of historiography, it would be hard to argue any different since the historical writings contained in the Bible are by no means “objective” or “scientific.”

Histor(iograph)y as Interpretation

I would contend that the definition of historiography as factual representation is inadequate not only for ancient history writings such as we find in the Bible, but also for modern history writings.

While all historiography is a recording of facts — factual representation — it is much more than that. A historian never just presents the facts; they always interpret the evidence according to their ideology, and then when they reproduce it they encode it according to the norms and customs of their times. Hayden White notes

Those historical propositions which are offered as mere descriptions of events, personalities, structures, and processes in the past are always interpretations of those events, personalities, and so forth? (“Rhetoric and History,” Theories of History [University of California, 1978] 7)

White argues that the 19th and 20th century historians who claimed objectivity and wrote “scientifically” were just as ideologically driven as any other historian. The difference is that under the history as factual representation model, historians employed a different rhetoric, a mode of discourse which was dispassionate and seemingly “scientific.” According to White, such historians exemplify “the mastery of the rhetoric of anti-rhetoric” (10).

White dismisses the presupposition that historical and artistic cannot coexist in literature. The presence of literary or ideological traits does not, in and of itself, preclude the identification of such a work as “historiography.” In fact, he would argue that all historiography must contain an “irreducible ideological component,” since by definition, the creation of a work of history — a coherent presentation of the past — must be culturally encoded. All historiography is culturally encoded, that is, it uses the cultural (religious or secular) images, symbols, and literary forms of the period or group. The fact that all historiography is culturally encoded does not disqualify it as historiography.

The perceived problem that many scholars from the 18th century to the present have with the historiography in the Bible is primarily with its ideology and cultural encoding. John Goldingay hits the nail on the head with this assessment:

I think part of the problem is that we are not really reconciled to the fact that the Israelite historians, like their ancient colleagues elsewhere, practice their art in a way so different from that of our post-enlightenment age; although of course the nature of the differences is well understood, at least at a scholarly level, we are so wedded to our modern way of writing history that the ancient way cannot appear to us as perhaps an alternative way and not just a primitive and inferior one (“That You May Know,” 81).

The Bible is a foreign and ancient book. When approaching the historiographic books in the Hebrew Bible we have to take into consideration how ancient historiography “works” as well as the different ancient literary conventions and codes it employs. It is to this task that I will return in my next post.

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