The Bible’s “Historical” Writings: Histories or Historical Novels or . . .?

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by Neil Godfrey

Comparing Modern and Biblical “Histories”

The idea of history as a scholarly attempt to explain “what really happened in the past” is a relatively young European invention. The “first modern historian” is said to be Edward Gibbon (his History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire was published 1770’s-1780’s); the acknowledged founder of modern scholarly and “evidence-based” history is nineteenth century’s Leopold von Ranke, although many students of history today are influenced by E. H. Carr‘s revision of von Ranke’s idea of the objectivity of “facts” (1961).

Bible authors did not think of writing history in this modern European way. In The Canaanites and Their Land Niels Peter Lemche writes:

Rather than writing history, the Israelite historians composed a novel, the theme of which was the origin of Israel and its ancient history. (p. 158)

Lemche unpacks this a little:

Modern historians believe that the aim of history writing is to relate events which have happened in the past without political or moralistic aims. However, the Old Testament history writing has very little in common with modern history writing. The act of writing history in the modern world is often nothing more than a scholarly pastime, for the stimulation of other scholars, or for the education of the layperson who wants to know ‘what happened in the past’; and although the borders have sometimes become blurred because of the publication of historical novels, it is easy for most modern people to distinguish between the two literary genres of history writing and historical novels. Ancient Israelite — or rather early Jewish — society was hardly interested in a scholarly presentation of the hard historical facts; they understood history to contain a significant narrative in which their own fate in the past, in the present and also in the future would be exposed. History writers were therefore free to convey their message to their readers in the form they had themselves chosen and were not bound to present a true picture of what had actually happened. A narrative would be considered true and genuine if its message was understood and accepted by the audience, not because it was true to the facts of past history. (pp.159-160)

The Aims of the Historical “Novelists”

Firstly, to hold the audience, to entertain, to “delight” the hearers and readers. But this is not the only intent. Lemche comments in a footnote on another historian’s view:

Van Seters is seemingly of the opinion that history was written in ancient times only to amuse its readers. This at least is the impression which emerges from the introduction to his In Search of History (New Haven, 1983). In reality he should have said that the historical narratives were composed to broaden the horizons of their audience and thus they were likely to create a feeling of identity and social cohesion in a group of people who identified themselves with the fate of the heroes of the narratives. (p.160)

Secondly, to “teach” or explain. But Lemche offers two curriculum possibilities here. Either the “Old Testament” history writer will

write a novel describing the past history of intended readers in such a way as to explain to them their present situation, and, perhaps, their own individuality and identity.

or he will

choose to tell the audience what is going to happen, and adopt a method of describing the past in such a way that the description of the historical development will at the same time promote a programme for the future direction of the society. (p.159)

That is, the Bible history writer may, for example, have been interested in explaining to his Jewish audience why they had been exiled to a foreign land even though their god had promised them the Palestinian homeland. Or alternately, he may have intended to explain to his audience how he believed they ought to reclaim their former land and become a great kingdom — by avoiding past mistakes. (In the latter instance, a modern court might well find such an historian guilty of incitement to genocide.)

Weaving Myth and Fact Into One Work

Thus stories of individual heroes and tribal groups migrating from afar to live in a land occupied by others may have served as models with which an audience could identify and also as templates within which they could further shape their own identity and values. If it “worked” in these ways it could become accepted as a people’s “history”.

A non-biblical illustration of this can be seen in the Roman historian, Livy, who could write of legendary names like Aeneas and Romulus as playing roles just as “historical” as ones lived by his contemporary Julius Caesar. Modern historians of Rome are often left guessing where exactly the dividing lines lie between myths and real events in Livy’s “history” (see Ab Urb Condita). The poet who created the Achilles of The Iliad also created a character who became a very real model for generations of Greeks and lovers of Greek culture.

Lacking the tools and resources and intellectual traditions that have given us modern historical methods, these ancients told, retold and manufactured stories that aspired to plausibility, pleasure and profitability, and that found little point in distinguishing our ideas of “fact from fiction”.

This explains why we can hear bible stories echoing one another.

Some “historical” stories of Jesus, for instance, were inspired by and crafted upon earlier stories of Elisha, Moses and Adam to teach new theological nuances to meet new needs of post-70 c.e. Jews. Indeed, even the character of Jesus himself is largely shaped out of Moses or Elisha or others, depending on the gospel one is reading.

Old Testament “histories” likewise recycle certain motifs throughout — in particular themes of the inadequacy of “being human” as demonstrated through success stories followed by tragic endings — and accordingly create and/or find and shape characters to deliver this theological message to their audiences. Elijah follows Moses into the wilderness; Elisha follows both Moses and Elijah miraculously across a river; the people of Israel follow the Patriarchs in wandering homelessness; a series of kings (40 in all after Solomon, neatly patterned to consist of 20 in the north and 20 in the south, regardless of a century difference between the lifespans of the northern and southern kingdoms) echo the good and bad of one another until the final author’s theologically charged schematic time is fulfilled.

Creativity cannot function ex nihilo.

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Neil Godfrey

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