ASKING HISTORICAL QUESTIONS ABOUT THE OLD TESTAMENT
1. What is history?
The questions of history impinge on the study of the OT and the faiths that are supported by it. Over the last 500 years, there have been rapid changes not only in technology but in the way people think. Scientific, social, literary and historical studies have all been influenced by the emphasis which has been given to human reason since the Enlightenment (18th cent.). The concept of “history” has been quite radically altered as a result of this emphasis. The tool of Historical Criticism has developed in the study of history generally, and has subsequently been applied to the Bible. I use the term “Historical Criticism” in a narrow sense of asking specific historical questions of the Bible. “Historical Criticism” can also be used in a more general sense speaking of those approaches to biblical studies which have an historical aspect to them, that is they recognise the historical, cultural, and linguistic distance between the Old Testament texts in their earliest forms and those who read them today.
Some definitions of history:
“history is a kind of research or inquiry … (whose object is) res gestae: actions of human beings that have been done in the past … (which) proceeds by the interpretation of evidence … (for the purpose of) human self-knowledge.” (The idea of history [Oxford: OUP, 1956] 9-10)
“History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.” (Quoted in J. van Seters, In search of history: historiography in the ancient world and the origins of biblical history [New Haven: Yale University, 1983) 9.
A quote from a biblical schoilar:
“Modern scientific history is systematic knowledge of the past; its object is man's activities in time, space, and society, expressed in a coherent report (usually written). It deals with real events and real men (not abstractions), and the causes of their activities and their influence. History is not abstract knowledge of men (as is philosophy), but a story that moves, best told by narrative rather than statistical or sociological reporting.” (E. Krentz, The Historical Critical Method, p 34)
This is a fairly classic expression of the discipline of history as exercised for a good part of the 20th century.
- Krentz's definition is somewhat dated but it does raise some basic issues about history and history writing.
- It says history is modern and scientific. By 'scientific' Krentz means that the historian tries to be objective in their work, assessing evidence that is open to others, and drawing rational conclusions about the people of the past. Many historians would not agree with this statement today. There is a recognition that neither the desire for objectivity nor attaining it should be as strong as historians of a past generation urged. There needs to be recognition in historical work, as well as in other fields, that objectivity is something we cannot obtain. We are subjective creatures, in our observations of as well as our assessments of phenomena or evidence. It can also be argued that subjectivity in our task is what in the end provides it with creativity and interest. That does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want individually. In a field like history we do need to work in a way that provides openness to the critique and response of others. So the historian should be open about the evidence they are using and why, as well as about their methodologies and presuppositions etc.
- Krentz says history should be a systematic account of the past. Many modern histories are not as systematic as this might imply. There does need to be some ordered structure in the historian's work, but that does not mean that history is reduced to a 'system'. The point he makes about the reporting of historical investigation being in narrative form qualifies the call for 'systematic' knowledge.
- Its interest is in human activities that can be located in time and space. It is not primarily interested in fairytale or myth. This is why the means of reporting is best done in narrative form. The reporting of an investigation thereby coheres with the subject of investigation. Both work within the bounds of time and space.
- It seeks to deal with real people and activities. The primary question for the historian is “What really happened and why?” The historian tries to get behind the various interpretations of events to ask about the events themselves.
- The historian is interested in the causes of events and their influence.
2. Historical Method
The method used in the study of biblical history is that used elsewhere in historical studies. The only restrictions the historian faces when working with the biblical text are those imposed by the nature of the evidence available. In the case of the Bible there is a scarcity of evidence available for the investigation of biblical events. We have only one account of many events.
The historian relies on the collection of evidence relating to the events they are interested in and the evaluation of that evidence.
In the case of the biblical events, the evidence available can consist of:
a. the actual biblical accounts of an event. These accounts need to be examined critically for the facts relating to the event. How much of the account goes beyond reporting the event and becomes a matter of interpretation? Or have some biblical accounts been created to convey certain points of view without much regard to questions of what actually happened (if anything)?The historian’s task is to gather this evidence, and then evaluate it in historical terms.
b. other biblical evidence peripheral to the account, but which gives important background or further detail.
c. artifactual evidence which can be of two forms: archaeological evidence, or extra-biblical literary evidence. Usually historians give priority to extra-biblical literary evidence over archaeological. The latter can be notoriously difficult to interpret in some cases.
3. Criteria of Evaluation
What are some of the criteria that enter into the historian’s considerations? As the historian gathers data, how does he/she evaluate it?
i. The historian brings a properly critical stance to the task. There is always an aspect of scepticism in the historian’s task. All evidence is treated on an equal footing. This was not a quality generally treasured or possessed by ancient or medieval historians. “Scepticism” may not sound like a quality we would want to bring to biblical studies, or expect to find exercised by biblical interpreters. However, it is extremely important to approach any historical question with an open mind, always asking why a writer has expressed themselves in a particular way. What other interests do they have in saying something the way they do? This is not being unfaithful to the task of interpretation. It is simply realising that the biblical texts are human documents and are subject to all the biases of other human documents.
ii. The historian brings to the task a certain degree of common sense and experience of the world. Again, this is not the ancient or medieval historian’s view where the supernatural or miraculous were thought part of everyday life. Contemporary historical method presupposes that all historical phenomena are subject to “analogous explanation” - i.e. explanation in terms of other similar phenomena. (J.M. Miller, The OT and The Historian, p. 18). All events are explicable through natural phenomena. There is potential conflict here between the contemporary historian’s task and method, and some of the claims in the biblical material.
iii. Another criterion used by the historian is a literary one. The historian needs to be able to assess the type of literature he or she is reading in order to be able to bring an appropriate level of interpretation to the text, i.e. is the account of an event poetry, prose, parable, narrative story, or fable, etc. Each of these genres will affect the value of the story as evidence for the historian in their assessment.
iv. The historian also brings to an assessment of biblical evidence the results of extra-biblical studies in anthropology and sociology. This has especially been the case in recent times. The results of studies in human behaviour, customs, beliefs, in living cultures and societies which bear some similarity to customs etc. in biblical accounts, has been enormously beneficial for historians and interpreters of the Bible.
v. Finally the historian seeks to convey their conclusions in the form of a story of the events or people they have been investigating. The story mode of telling history is important as it participates in the dimensions of time and space that are inherent to history itself. The historian’s version of events will remain that particular person’s interpretation. The story is not the events themselves, and other historians will have different emphases in their stories. The similarities and differences in their stories will be affected by the amount and strength of the evidence examined, the questions asked of the evidence by different historians, the social and cultural contexts of the historians etc.