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Archive for the 'Historiography' Category

The End of Historiography and Prophecy?

23rd September 2009

The End of Historiography?

We had an interesting discussion in my course on ancient historiography the other day. We were discussing Arnaldo Momigliano’s article, “Persian Historiography, Greek Historiography, and Jewish Historiography,” in The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), and how historiographic writing in Judaism died off in the late Second Temple period (i.e., after the writing of 1 Maccabbees). According to Momigliano, the reason for the demise of the specifically Hebrew way of writing historiography is due in part to the disappearance of the Jewish state, although the primary reason why Jews lost interest in historical research was the singular focus on the Torah that developed in this period.  Interestingly, a small Jewish sect that emerged in the first century CE retained an interest in historiography. This sect is, of course, the early Christ followers who preserved a historiographic record in the biographies of Jesus (better known as the gospels) and, more specifically, in the Acts of the Apostles.

The End of Prophecy?

I don’t think many would contest Momigliano’s perspective on the “end” of Jewish historiography at the turn of the common era, though I could be wrong.  One of the students in my class brought up a related question about the end of prophecy during that same period.  The traditional (or do I dare say “canonical”) position is that prophecy ceased with the closure of the Hebrew canon. This perspective appears to be reflected in 1 Maccabees 4:46 where in the process of cleansing and rededicating the temple, Judas Maccabeus stores the defiled stones of the altar of burnt offering, “until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them”; and more explicitly in 1 Macc 14:41 where it says, “The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise….” Both of these texts seem to assume that there was no prophet at the present time and they had to make do until one arises — the hope of which was likely inspired by Deuteronomy 18:15.  This perspective is also held by Jewish authors such as Josephus, who after narrating the biblical history of Israel, notes that, “From Artaxerxes to our own time the complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets” (Against Apion 1.41). This view is also reflected in the much later teaching of the Talmud, where it reads: “When the latter prophets died, that is Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi, then the Holy Spirit came to an end in Israel. But even so, they made them hear [messages] through an echo” (t.Sot 13.3).

What is noteworthy, however, is that while the “official” view may have been that prophecy ceased after the closure of the canon, its seems that no one informed the common person! Even Josephus is inconsistent. He  appears to hold the official party line, yet he notes that John Hyrcanus I (135-104), “was accounted by God worthy of three of the greatest privileges, the rule of the nation, the office of high priest, and the gift of prophecy; for the Deity was with him and enabled him to foresee and foretell the future” (War 1.68-69). Some suggest that Josephus considered himself a “clerical” prophet, though he never uses the actual term “prophet.” Josephus also mentions a number of individuals among the Essenes who “profess to tell the future”, as well as some from among the Pharisees. He further (negatively) identifies a number of “popular prophets”, such as Theudas, Joshua ben Hananiah,  who managed to gain significant followings among the masses.  John the Baptist, according to the Gospels, appears to fit nicely in to this category of popular prophet.

The End of the Matter…

So, did prophecy cease after the “canonical” prophets? Yes and no. While Josephus seems to suggests that the type of prophet and prophecy found in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament ceased, there were many individuals who — wrongly or rightly — were willing to don the prophetic mantle and proclaim God’s message to the people.

I have always imagined that during the time of Christ there would have been many self-proclaimed prophets around, kind of like this great scene from Monty Python’s The Life of Brian:


Posted in Historiography, History of Ancient Israel, Prophecy | 1 Comment »

How Historically Accurate is the Bible?

30th November 2006

The Fort Wayne News-Sentinel offers a couple responses to the question, “How Historically Accurate is the Bible?” The first response is by an orthodox rabbi who believes “completely in the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible” on the basis of the uniqueness of its message:

The Bible internally proves its own accuracy. No people who were simply inventing their history would invent such things as apparent character flaws and mistakes in their heroes and founders. The sheer honesty of the Bible helps prove its accuracy. And the lack of precedent for and the sudden appearance out of nowhere of so many ideas in the Hebrew Bible that are fundamental to Western civilization also prove its historical accuracy.

Another answer is offered by a pastor of a Disciples of Christ church, who approaches the Bible “with prayer and scholarship” and affirms “the Bible is ‘true’ – and some of it even happened!” (italics added). Here’s an excerpt:

But reading the Bible as history misses its gift and grace, which lies not in its historical or scientific accuracy, but in the profoundly creative way it guides the search for meaning and hope. The search is so deeply rooted in the human spirit that the Bible stories predate an age of literacy. Traveling orally, the sacred words were passed from one generation to another attempting to make sense of the root of the human experience: love, suffering, joy, evil, hope.

Maximalism and minimalism in the popular press. So, what do you think?


Posted in Historiography, News | 1 Comment »

Beyond Minimalism & Maximalism: Some Modest Observations on the Historiography Debate (Best of Codex)

20th November 2006

[Originally posted 14th December 2005; Note that some of the original links are now unfortunately dead due to some blogs being defunct]

Why is it interesting debates spring up right when I am swamped with end of term grading and other publishing deadlines? Well, in an effort to avoid some marking, I figured I would offer some observations on the recent debate about historiography among some bloggers (dare I say, “bibliobloggers”?!).

The Debate Thus Far

First, some background. The recent debate was sparked in part by a post by Ken Ristau reflecting his frustration with the apparent inconsistency that some scholars bring to questions of ancient Israelite historiography, especially in regards to their disregard and/or scepticism of parts of the Hebrew Bible as a historiographic source (History in the Bible?). It is important to note that Ken wasn’t claiming that the Deuteronomistic History, for example, is equivalent to modern critical historiography. All he was arguing for is a recognition that the biblical texts — with all of their ideological limitations — can be used productively and critically in reconstructing the history of Israel. It should also be noted that, if I read Ken correctly (e.g., the reference to floating axe heads), his post is directed more, though not exclusively, against some comments made by Jim West at Biblical Theology), than the published views of scholars like Davies, Lemche, Thompson, and Whitelam.

Ken’s initial post was responded to by Jim West here. In addition, Keith Whitelam (on Jim West’s Biblical Theology blog here) understood some of Ken’s criticisms directed at his scholarship and chastised Ken for not interacting with specific views, among other things. James Crossley also made some balanced observations at Earliest Christian History blog. Ken clarified his views in his response to Keith Whitelam’s concerns here, then more fully here.

A parallel series of posts examining specific archaeological discoveries that may correlate with the portrayal of Israel in the Bible has been going on among some blogs. This series was initiated by Joe Cathey’s posts on the Merneptah Stele (initial post here) and Tel Dan Inscription (initial post here) in response to Jim West’s request for “proof” for the existence of Israel. These posts resulted in a flurry of blogging activity that I don’t have the energy to track in detail, but here are some high points.

In regards to the Merneptah stele, Jim responded to Joe’s initial post here (also see here), Kevin Edgecomb responded to Jim in kind here (see Jim’s response here), while Chris Heard produced a superb post here.

In regard to the Tel Dan inscription, Jim responded to Joe’s post here and Joe replied here, here, and once again here! And somewhere in the middle of the fray Jim replied here and here (also see Chris Heard’s reply to Jim here). Kevin Edgecomb has a number of excellent posts on the construction BÄ«t + PN in Assyrian/Aramean accounts (see here, here, and most recently here). I need oxygen… OK, I think this will be the last time I try to track a debate in the blogosphere!

I apologize if I have missed any contributions to this lively debate! In addition, you should make sure to read any comments associated with the blog posts in order to get the full picture!

Beyond “Minimalists” and “Maximalists”?

In my opinion, framing the whole discussion — and here I am not necessarily thinking only of the recent blog interchange — as a dichotomy between “minimalists” and “maximalists” is not helpful. There are not two camps, schools, or positions. If anything, the two terms represent a spectrum of possible views, with “minimalists” being at one end and “maximalists” at the other — and everyone else somewhere in the middle (I personally am a centrist — I, and only I, have a perfectly balanced perspective!). But even this portrayal of the debate is not sufficient as there are significant methodological differences between people all throughout the spectrum. For instance, “minimalist” has been used to describe scholars such as Davies, Lemche, Van Seters, Whitelam, among others. While these scholars have a number of presuppositional and methodological similarities surrounding the value of the biblical texts for modern historical reconstruction, they also have some very significant differences — especially in regards to method. This problem is exacerbated for the “maximalist” label since it seems that anyone who isn’t a “minimalist” is grouped together as a maximalist! And if you thought there were differences among the so-called minimalists, there are huge differences among so-called maximalists. In his recent article in SJOT, Lemche even starts using terms such as “maximalist critical scholars” to distinguish them from conservative/conservative evangelical/evangelical maximalist scholars. (I wonder how many “evangelical minimalist” scholars there are?)

The same observation applies equally to using labels such as “Copenhagen school,” “Sheffield school” (the use of the term “school” is more problematic as it presumes more agreement than actually exists), and “biblical revisionists.” On the other side of the debate, the label “evangelical” is used by some in an uncritical and almost derogatory way — at times equated with fundamentalist — to group scholars who have a high view of scripture, even though there is a wide spectrum of scholars who would consider themselves “evangelicals.”

I am not saying anything revolutionary here; most if not all scholars in the debate do not like the labels and have said as much in various publications — even though they continue to use them! So I think it is time for everyone to put the labels to rest and focus instead on interacting with the views of individual scholars (an especailly important step considering that many times our ad homnium or off-the-cuff comments are against views that no scholars actually hold!)

Avoiding Inflammatory Language

Even more than avoiding labels that are not heuristically useful, we need to avoid the caustic and inflammatory language that often accompanies this debate. I think we would all agree that it doesn’t help further the debate to use such language. This inflammatory language occurs in print discussions, email discussion groups, and blogs. I really wish we could all learn to play better among ourselves!

I know that some of the bantering is done tongue-in-cheek (especially in the blogosphere), though the tone of the debate does not contribute to furthering our understanding of how (or if) it is possible to write a history of Israel. We all have to do better (I include myself in the indictment). And I’m not just talking about labels that are thrown around, but statements that imply (or outright state) that so-and-so obviously hasn’t read this or that, tantamount to saying “If you weren’t such a moron, you would obviously see it my way!” That doesn’t mean we have to all agree with one another (though I believe greater miracles have happened!), but when we disagree we should do so with respect since there are learned scholars on all sides of the debate. Furthermore, when we are at the receiving end of a cheap shot or ad homnium argument, we should try our best to not respond in kind, but instead respond with appropriate restraint.

Focusing on Real Issues and Real Differences

Anyone familiar with the debate surrounding the history of Israel knows that there are a number of real issues dividing scholars. An important question that needs to be asked is at what level are the real differences? Most of the time the real differences are not on the surface, but are at lower levels. These lower levels may be methodological, or may be presuppositional and metaphysical. In any debate, it is essential to be able to identify at what level the disagreement exists. In a recent IBR article, V. Philips Long quotes E. L. Greenstein’s comments which I believe are quite appropriate:

in biblical studies we often argue as though we all shared the same beliefs and principles, as though the field were all built upon a single theoretical foundation. But it is not…. I can get somewhere when I challenge the deductions you make from your fundamental assumptions. But I can get nowhere if I think I am challenging your deductions when in fact I am differing from your assumptions, your presuppositions, your premises, your beliefs.

For example, let’s examine the recent blog debate about the Tel Dan stele. All parties — even Jim — appear willing to concede that the phrase in question is “house of David” (this is not the case in the larger debate where alternative readings are proposed; in which case there would be differences on the level of exegetical judgements). But then at the next step taken by Joe Cathey and Chris Heard, correlating the David of the inscription with the David mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Jim West demurs. I believe this highlights some low-level differences among those engaged in the debate. Reading between the lines, I would suggest that Jim West has both methodological and metaphysical objections to reading the Hebrew Bible as a historical source, Chris Heard is arguing on the level of the historical critical method and bracketing any personal metaphysical commitments (Ken Ristau appears to be operating at this level as well), while Joe Cathey is probably similar to Jim West, though his methodological and metaphysical commitments likely differ considerably from Jim’s. The end result is that the discussion stalls and a stalemate is declared.

Meaningful and Productive Debate

The $60,000 question is how can we avoid such disagreements? Or stated positively, how can we engage meaningfully in a debate with whom we may have significant methodological and metaphysical differences? The first step would be to be up front about our lower-level commitments. We need to be clear about our method and our metaphysics. This sort of full disclosure will not, of course, produce peace and harmony among us (we know from pop culture that only Coca-Cola can do that!); but it will help us understand where we all are coming from. After this, we can then see if we can find a “middle discourse” to engage one another. We need to agree on the rules of the game before the game starts. Here I wonder if the most fruitful approach may be to work on the level of the historical-critical method and bracket any metaphysical commitments — at least initially. Then, for those of us who may share similar metaphysical commitments, we may take the conversation further.

Of course, perhaps I am being hopelessly naive to think that we can ever really “bracket” our metaphysical commitments, or that we can ever agree on method (there really isn’t any such thing as the historical-critical method!), or that we could even agree on what argument is more plausible than another.

What we can agree on, however, is to treat each other with respect, try to understand each other’s views, and stop with the labels, ad homnium arguments, and making grandiose claims of “proof” on insufficient evidence.

Well, I’ve babbled on enough. Back to marking!

Posted in Best of Codex, Historiography, History of Ancient Israel | Comments Off

King David: Fact or Fiction?

5th August 2006

I saw this a couple days ago, but didn’t have time to post: Richard Ostiling of the Associated Press (via PE.com) has a brief report on Israel Finkelstein and Neil Silberman’s (somewhat) new book, David and Solomon: In Search of the Bible’s Sacred Kings and the Roots of the Western Tradition (Free Press, 2006; Buy from Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com). The news article, “Was King David legend or fiction?” raises a number of questions surrounding Finkelstein and Silberman’s views.

Here are some excerpts:

Some scholars are busily debunking the Bible’s account of the great King David, asking: Was he really all that great? Was he largely legendary, Judaism’s version of Britain’s legendary King Arthur, or totally fictional?

These matters are crucial not only for Jews but for Christians, since Jesus’ biblical identity as the messiah stems from David’s family line.

Though some scholars claimed David never existed, in 1993 archaeologists discovered a stone inscription from 835 B.C. that mentions “the house of David.” The authors say that established the existence of a dynastic founder named David and that shortly after his 10th-century era a line of kings “traced their legitimacy back to David.”

However, Finkelstein considers the Bible seriously distorted propaganda. He treats David as a minor bandit chieftain and Jerusalem as a hamlet, not an imperial capital. Supposedly, biblical authors concocted the grander David centuries afterward.

Finkelstein notes that archaeologists haven’t found monumental buildings from David’s era in Jerusalem. He dismisses links of David and Solomon with buildings unearthed at biblical Megiddo and Hazor. Ordinary readers might not grasp that this depends upon a disputed “low chronology” which would shift dates a century, just after these kings.

In the July-August issue of Biblical Archaeology Review, Michael Coogan of Stonehill College, editor of The New Oxford Annotated Bible, contends that Finkelstein and Silberman “move from the hypothetical to the improbable to the absurd.”

Finkelstein’s revised chronology is “not accepted by the majority of archaeologists and biblical scholars,” Coogan asserts, citing four scholarly anthologies from the past three years.

Coogan also thinks “David and Solomon” downplays the significance of the Amarna tablets, which include correspondence to Egypt’s pharaoh from a 14th-century Jerusalem king. Even if archaeological remains at Jerusalem are lacking, he writes, the tablets indicate that long before David, Jerusalem was the region’s chief city-state, with a court and sophisticated scribes.

Discovery of ancient remains in Jerusalem is problematic, due to the repeated reconstruction throughout the centuries and the modern inaccessibility of many sites.

Nonetheless, perhaps David’s palace has been found. So claims Israeli archaeologist Eilat Mazar. Finkelstein denies this, claiming Mazar inaccurately dated pottery from the site.

“Here, for the time being, matters rest,” summarizes Hillel Halkin in the July-August Commentary magazine.

I tend to agree more with Coogan than with Finkelstein and Silberman, though I wouldn’t go as far to say the biblical account has no embellishments since I also think that all historiography has fictive elements. One of the more significant points the article raises, IMHO, is the fact that archaeological excavation of Jerusalem is problematic for so many reasons. That is why digs such as Mazar‘s are so important.


Posted in Archaeology, City of David, Historiography, History of Ancient Israel, News | 4 Comments »

Will the Real King David Stand Up!

29th June 2006

The most recent volume of the Catholic Biblical Quarterly has an interesting article by David Bosworth entitled, “Evaluating King David: Old Problems and Recent Scholarship” (CBQ 68 [2006] 191-210). Bosworth examines a number of recent academic biographies of the biblical figure of David and argues that these recent portrayals say more about the modern authors and their methods than the ancient monarch. The monographs that he engages are:

I think that Bosworth makes a number of valid points. Halpern and McKenzie both present a picture of David as a villain by reading between the lines of the text and favouring a propagandistic interpretation. With this approach David becomes a murderous usurper. Steussy’s approach is a bit more balanced, according to Bosworth. Unlike Halpern and McKenzie, she has no interest in uncovering the “real” David, but instead explores the portraits of David throughout the Scriptures — including the book of Psalms. The edited work by Desrousseaux and Vermeylen includes essays that — like Halpern and McKenzie — take a propagandistic reading, while Dietrich’s sophisticated reading is more akin to that of Steussy.

I personally find elements of a propagandistic reading plausible, but I appreciate Bosworth’s point that leaders are often accused of more crimes than they actually commit! Moreover, Bosworth points out the problems with equating apology with indictment and indictment with history — politics of any age are never so simple!

After evaluating modern critics, Bosworth investigates David among his ancient contemporaries. As it turns out, David’s biblical portrait, while similar to ANE royal account, is more complex. As Bosworth concludes, “the text is not as simple as ‘royal propaganda.’ It shows an awareness of the problems involved in evaluating great figures who succeed in establishing positive institutions at the expense of usurping prior institutions” (p. 209).

All in all, Bosworth’s article is worth taking a gander at — as are the books noted above. Of course, when all is said and done, perhaps the “Biblical David” is the only David we can ever recover.


Posted in 1Samuel, Criticism, Historiography, History of Ancient Israel, King David | Comments Off

Knoppers et al on Kalimi’s An Ancient Israelite Historian: Studies in the Chronicler

17th March 2006

The latest edition of the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures has an article edited by Gary N. Knoppers with contributions by Ehud Ben Zvi, Robert L. Hubbard, Jr., Gary N. Knoppers, Ralph W. Klein, Mark A. Throntveit with a response by Isaac Kalimi, entitled, “Chronicles and the Chronicler: A Response to I. Kalimi, An Ancient Israelite Historian: Studies in the Chronicler, his Time, Place and Writing,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 6/2 (2006).

This article began at a session of the Chronicles-Ezra-Nehemiah section of last year’s SBL devoted to Isaac Kalimi, An Ancient Israelite Historian: Studies in the Chronicler, His Time, Place, and Writing (Studia Semitica Neerlandica, 46; Assen: Royal Van Gorcum, 2005). After an introduction by Knoppers, each author presents an expanded review of Kalimi’s book, and then Kalimi responds.

While I am not going to repeat the contents of the article here, one criticism that a number of the authors noted was Kalimi’s characterization of the Chronicler as an ancient historian and the book of Chronicles as historiography. While most of the authors appear to be fine with classifying Chronicles as ancient historiography, they don’t like some of the implications that Kalimi draws from this assertion. First, when Kalimi calls the Chronicler a “historian” he means by implication that he isn’t a “midrashist” or a “theologian.” While I would agree that the Chronicler is a historian, I would characterize him as a theological historian who at times employs midrashic techniques.

Second, Kalimi appears to imply that because the Chronicler is a historian, this should influence our assessment of the reliability of the information contained within Chronicles and the book’s usefulness as a historical source for the history of monarchic Israel. Again, while I would agree with Kalimi’s characterization that the genre of Chronicles is ancient historiography, that does not mean that the book is necessarily reliable as a modern historical source. Don’t get me wrong; I am not saying that Chronicles can’t be used to reconstruct this history of monarchic Israel or Persian Yehud. What I am saying is that Chronicles is an ancient history book and that the Chronicler has very different standards for writing history and very different literary and historiographic techniques than modern historians — and these differences have to be taken into consideration when evaluating the reliability of his accounts. In this regard, I quite liked Mark Throntveit’s comments:

Three of the designations (Exegete, Theologian, and Historian), at least in Kalimi’s critique of those who have proposed them as characterizing the Chronicler, are rather modern ideological constructs. The Chronicler was neither what we understand a modern exegete, theologian, or historian to be any more than he was a Democrat, Republican, or Green Party member. Proposing modern vocational conceptions as characteristic of the Chronicler’s work or activity seems to me to be akin to asking the question, “What would Jesus drive?� interesting, thought-provoking, edifying, perhaps, but essentially conjectural.

In his very thorough response, Kalimi further nuances his understanding of Chronicles as historiography in a way that I think would satisfy most scholars. At any rate, I encourage you to take a gander at this article — it’ll be well worth your time. In addition, I encourage you to pick up Kalimi’s work. He is one of the major scholars studying the book of Chronicles today.


Posted in Chronicles, Historiography, History of Ancient Israel, Reviews & Notices | 2 Comments »

Beyond Minimalism & Maximalism: Some Modest Observations on the Historiography Debate

14th December 2005

Why is it interesting debates spring up right when I am swamped with end of term grading and other publishing deadlines? Well, in an effort to avoid some marking, I figured I would offer some observations on the recent debate about historiography among some bloggers (dare I say, “bibliobloggers”?!).

The Debate Thus Far

First, some background. The recent debate was sparked in part by a post by Ken Ristau reflecting his frustration with the apparent inconsistency that some scholars bring to questions of ancient Israelite historiography, especially in regards to their disregard and/or scepticism of parts of the Hebrew Bible as a historiographic source (History in the Bible?). It is important to note that Ken wasn’t claiming that the Deuteronomistic History, for example, is equivalent to modern critical historiography. All he was arguing for is a recognition that the biblical texts — with all of their ideological limitations — can be used productively and critically in reconstructing the history of Israel. It should also be noted that, if I read Ken correctly (e.g., the reference to floating axe heads), his post is directed more, though not exclusively, against some comments made by Jim West at Biblical Theology), than the published views of scholars like Davies, Lemche, Thompson, and Whitelam.

Ken’s initial post was responded to by Jim West here. In addition, Keith Whitelam (on Jim West’s Biblical Theology blog here) understood some of Ken’s criticisms directed at his scholarship and chastised Ken for not interacting with specific views, among other things. James Crossley also made some balanced observations at Earliest Christian History blog. Ken clarified his views in his response to Keith Whitelam’s concerns here, then more fully here.

A parallel series of posts examining specific archaeological discoveries that may correlate with the portrayal of Israel in the Bible has been going on among some blogs. This series was initiated by Joe Cathey‘s posts on the Merneptah Stele (initial post here) and Tel Dan Inscription (initial post here) in response to Jim West’s request for “proof” for the existence of Israel. These posts resulted in a flurry of blogging activity that I don’t have the energy to track in detail, but here are some high points.

In regards to the Merneptah stele, Jim responded to Joe’s initial post here (also see here), Kevin Edgecomb responded to Jim in kind here (see Jim’s response here), while Chris Heard produced a superb post here.

In regard to the Tel Dan inscription, Jim responded to Joe’s post here and Joe replied here, here, and once again here! And somewhere in the middle of the fray Jim replied here and here (also see Chris Heard’s reply to Jim here). Kevin Edgecomb has a number of excellent posts on the construction BÄ«t + PN in Assyrian/Aramean accounts (see here, here, and most recently here). I need oxygen… OK, I think this will be the last time I try to track a debate in the blogosphere!

I apologize if I have missed any contributions to this lively debate! In addition, you should make sure to read any comments associated with the blog posts in order to get the full picture!

Beyond “Minimalists” and “Maximalists”?

In my opinion, framing the whole discussion — and here I am not necessarily thinking only of the recent blog interchange — as a dichotomy between “minimalists” and “maximalists” is not helpful. There are not two camps, schools, or positions. If anything, the two terms represent a spectrum of possible views, with “minimalists” being at one end and “maximalists” at the other — and everyone else somewhere in the middle (I personally am a centrist — I, and only I, have a perfectly balanced perspective!). But even this portrayal of the debate is not sufficient as there are significant methodological differences between people all throughout the spectrum. For instance, “minimalist” has been used to describe scholars such as Davies, Lemche, Van Seters, Whitelam, among others. While these scholars have a number of presuppositional and methodological similarities surrounding the value of the biblical texts for modern historical reconstruction, they also have some very significant differences — especially in regards to method. This problem is exacerbated for the “maximalist” label since it seems that anyone who isn’t a “minimalist” is grouped together as a maximalist! And if you thought there were differences among the so-called minimalists, there are huge differences among so-called maximalists. In his recent article in SJOT, Lemche even starts using terms such as “maximalist critical scholars” to distinguish them from conservative/conservative evangelical/evangelical maximalist scholars. (I wonder how many “evangelical minimalist” scholars there are?)

The same observation applies equally to using labels such as “Copenhagen school,” “Sheffield school” (the use of the term “school” is more problematic as it presumes more agreement than actually exists), and “biblical revisionists.” On the other side of the debate, the label “evangelical” is used by some in an uncritical and almost derogatory way — at times equated with fundamentalist — to group scholars who have a high view of scripture, even though there is a wide spectrum of scholars who would consider themselves “evangelicals.”

I am not saying anything revolutionary here; most if not all scholars in the debate do not like the labels and have said as much in various publications — even though they continue to use them! So I think it is time for everyone to put the labels to rest and focus instead on interacting with the views of individual scholars (an especailly important step considering that many times our ad homnium or off-the-cuff comments are against views that no scholars actually hold!)

Avoiding Inflammatory Language

Even more than avoiding labels that are not heuristically useful, we need to avoid the caustic and inflammatory language that often accompanies this debate. I think we would all agree that it doesn’t help further the debate to use such language. This inflammatory language occurs in print discussions, email discussion groups, and blogs. I really wish we could all learn to play better among ourselves!

I know that some of the bantering is done tongue-in-cheek (especially in the blogosphere), though the tone of the debate does not contribute to furthering our understanding of how (or if) it is possible to write a history of Israel. We all have to do better (I include myself in the indictment). And I’m not just talking about labels that are thrown around, but statements that imply (or outright state) that so-and-so obviously hasn’t read this or that, tantamount to saying “If you weren’t such a moron, you would obviously see it my way!” That doesn’t mean we have to all agree with one another (though I believe greater miracles have happened!), but when we disagree we should do so with respect since there are learned scholars on all sides of the debate. Furthermore, when we are at the receiving end of a cheap shot or ad homnium argument, we should try our best to not respond in kind, but instead respond with appropriate restraint.

Focusing on Real Issues and Real Differences

Anyone familiar with the debate surrounding the history of Israel knows that there are a number of real issues dividing scholars. An important question that needs to be asked is at what level are the real differences? Most of the time the real differences are not on the surface, but are at lower levels. These lower levels may be methodological, or may be presuppositional and metaphysical. In any debate, it is essential to be able to identify at what level the disagreement exists. In a recent IBR article, V. Philips Long quotes E. L. Greenstein’s comments which I believe are quite appropriate:

in biblical studies we often argue as though we all shared the same beliefs and principles, as though the field were all built upon a single theoretical foundation. But it is not…. I can get somewhere when I challenge the deductions you make from your fundamental assumptions. But I can get nowhere if I think I am challenging your deductions when in fact I am differing from your assumptions, your presuppositions, your premises, your beliefs.

For example, let’s examine the recent blog debate about the Tel Dan stele. All parties — even Jim — appear willing to concede that the phrase in question is “house of David” (this is not the case in the larger debate where alternative readings are proposed; in which case there would be differences on the level of exegetical judgements). But then at the next step taken by Joe Cathey and Chris Heard, correlating the David of the inscription with the David mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, Jim West demurs. I believe this highlights some low-level differences among those engaged in the debate. Reading between the lines, I would suggest that Jim West has both methodological and metaphysical objections to reading the Hebrew Bible as a historical source, Chris Heard is arguing on the level of the historical critical method and bracketing any personal metaphysical commitments (Ken Ristau appears to be operating at this level as well), while Joe Cathey is probably similar to Jim West, though his methodological and metaphysical commitments likely differ considerably from Jim’s. The end result is that the discussion stalls and a stalemate is declared.

Meaningful and Productive Debate

The $60,000 question is how can we avoid such disagreements? Or stated positively, how can we engage meaningfully in a debate with whom we may have significant methodological and metaphysical differences? The first step would be to be up front about our lower-level commitments. We need to be clear about our method and our metaphysics. This sort of full disclosure will not, of course, produce peace and harmony among us (we know from pop culture that only Coca-Cola can do that!); but it will help us understand where we all are coming from. After this, we can then see if we can find a “middle discourse” to engage one another. We need to agree on the rules of the game before the game starts. Here I wonder if the most fruitful approach may be to work on the level of the historical-critical method and bracket any metaphysical commitments — at least initially. Then, for those of us who may share similar metaphysical commitments, we may take the conversation further.

Of course, perhaps I am being hopelessly naive to think that we can ever really “bracket” our metaphysical commitments, or that we can ever agree on method (there really isn’t any such thing as the historical-critical method!), or that we could even agree on what argument is more plausible than another.

What we can agree on, however, is to treat each other with respect, try to understand each other’s views, and stop with the labels, ad homnium arguments, and making grandiose claims of “proof” on insufficient evidence.

Well, I’ve babbled on enough. Back to marking!

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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 Amazon.ca | Buy from Amazon.com

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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