Naivety and laziness in biblical historiography (Nehemiah case study 5)

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by Neil Godfrey

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events , they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation. — Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28.

There has been a very strong tendency to take the Biblical writing at its face value and a disinclination to entertain a hermeneutic of suspicion such as is a prerequisite for serious historical investigation. It is shocking to see how the narrative of the Nehemiah Memoir has in fact been lazily adopted as a historiographical structure in the writing of modern scholars, and how rarely the question of the probability of the statements of the Nehemiah Memoir have been raised. (Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help, p. 164)

This post concludes the series addressing the necessity of literary criticism preceding historical inquiry — and how literary criticism itself can answer questions before the historical investigation even begins. See the Nehemiah or Clines archive for the rest of the series.)

Literary criticism: to be set aside or used as a primary tool?

Rebuilding the Wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassey Hole (1846-1917) – Public Domain

One finds this confusion between the functions of literary and historical criticisms epitomized by NT biblical historian, James McGrath, when he writes:

The historian is interested in getting back behind the text as a means of gaining access to events that supposedly happened earlier. A literary approach . . . reads the text at face value, and may tell us what a particular author appears to have been concerned to emphasize. . . . A literary approach enables one to grasp the meaning of the story on the level of the text itself. A historical approach digs through and seeks to get behind the text to see what if anything can be determined about the actual historical events. (McGrath, The Burial of Jesus: History & Faith, pp. 56-57)

David Clines, on the contrary, does not accept that any such neat divide can be made between a literary and historical approach to documents. He argues that historical questions can sometimes be answered by literary criticism itself:

It is indeed usual for practitioners of biblical literary criticism to insist that the literary must precede the historical, that we must understand the nature of our texts as literary works before we attempt to use them for historical reconstruction. . . . But [in the case study of Nehemiah] the literary and historical have been so closely bound up, historical questions being raised — and sometimes answered — in the very process of asking the literary questions. (From David J. A. Clines, What Does Eve Do to Help? 1990. p. 163)

The Romantic Imagination

Nehemiah knows how to tell a story and report a conversation so well that “he has often managed to convince even the most acute of his critics that he is telling the unvarnished truth.” (p. 160)

The arming of the wall builders

Nehemiah 4:16-18

‭16‬. From that day on, half of my servants carried on the work while half of them held the spears, the shields, the bows and the breastplates; and the captains were behind the whole house of Judah.

‭17‬. Those who were rebuilding the wall and those who carried burdens took their load with one hand doing the work and the other holding a weapon.

‭18‬. As for the builders, each wore his sword girded at his side as he built, while the trumpeter stood near me.

So Nehemiah’s personal servants, who seem to have been till this moment entirely employed in the wall construction, are divided into two groups: those who continue with the wall, and those who take up guard duty, and armed comprehensively with the weaponry of the Persian soldier.

Next, those who were the “basket carriers”, or who carried their loads on their heads or shoulders, had one hand free to hold a weapon (a missile of some kind?).

The third and final group were those who needed both hands for work, but who could gird a sword to be held out of the way nonetheless.

The historical question is simply whether it is possible to imagine workmen in the heat of the Jerusalem summer, who have obviously been urged to complete their task with all speed, encumbering themselves all day long with a weapon when there is no enemy in sight and when lookouts have been posted. This does not appear to have been a question that has occurred to the commentators, who have accepted Nehemiah’s account at face value, adding only their own justifications for it. (pp. 161-2)

Williamson sees nothing unnatural in workmen picking up heavy loads, presumably with both hands, yet still having a hand free for their weapon. Fensham is quoted as saying it was “quite natural” for men who work among the rubble to pick up a stone to carry it as a weapon for defence, but Clines asks just how “natural” such a response would be given that there was no enemy in sight on the horizon.

The same historian suggests that Nehemiah is in fact attempting to convey how his builders were hindered in their work by having to carry weapons at the same time. Quite probably so, but this, as Clines notes, “does not begin to address the question of whether such was truly what happened.”

Once again we may surmise that the vigour of Nehemiah’s narrative has unnerved commentators and prevented them from applying any yardstick of historical credibility to the account.

The image of trowel and sword has indeed been a powerful one, and even appears as a line in T.S. Eliot’s work: The trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster.

Having sniffed implausibility in one part of the text, should our confidence also be less secure when we read elsewhere that Nehemiah

  • had just one trumpeter to sound the alarm
  • kept the wall builders in Jerusalem overnight for 7 weeks without allowing them once to return home
  • assigned to each worker his own servant
  • did not take off his clothes for 7 weeks except for washing
  • built the wall in 52 days

Should not the historian be alert to the distinction between what can be known and what is merely reported?

Literary criticism as a tool of historical inquiry

So Clines’ argument has been that even the most eminent historians and commentators have failed to adequately consider the literary facts of their source material.

He concludes:

[T]he task of the historian is not to accept the word of our written sources except where they can be proved erroneous, but to weigh everything in the same scale of probabilities, and pass judgments against implausibilities even if a more coherent reconstruction of events cannot be proffered. (p. 164 – my emphasis)

Historians can only profit from a strict regard to the literariness of their material. This comment certainly applies to much of what we read in NT historical studies, too. I think it runs against the grain of McGrath’s attempt to separate the literary from the historical studies when investigating the gospels.

Other historians would go even further, and seek external controls in order to assess the historicity of a narrative. But let’s address just one point at a time.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Naivety and laziness in biblical historiography (Nehemiah case study 5)”

  1. Another excellent essay. Keep up the good work.

    It seems to me that PHILO is the key to understanding the beginning of Christianity. Once we realize that Philo make Jewish texts “hot” in the hellenized world. We no longer have to look to Jerusalem as the geographic source of Christianity. Christianity began in a thousand places at the same time as implementations of Philos new technique of interpreting Jewish scriptures in a allegorical and Platonic way.

    Once more people realize this, the problem they have thinking that Christianity began in Jerusalem can be overcome, and they can understand the beginnings of Christianity better.


  2. Heres the thing. In a Variety of fields, i have often heard modern critics who share none of the material culture nor outdoor life, sit in their armchairs and say ‘never couldhavehappened’. Meanwhile those of us who have lived with neolithic peoples and warrior tribes have witnessed astounding acts of prowess and tenacity, the critics assume could never have occurred. When you have lived among some of these people, you find they are toughened to a degree the suburbanite historian assumes is not realistic.

  3. The ancients had a different concept if “history” than we do. They didn’t write history; they wrote stories which should not be confused with history as we think it existed.

    1. They at least understood history as narratives about the past and the ideal was that it had to be “true” narratives. They did appeal to sources to justify claims about the past. Where many of them principally differed from us was in their resort to the merely plausible to fill in the gaps in their information. Come to think of it — is that not so very different from the method of too many “biblical historians” … :-/ ??

      (Recall that Lucian mocked the lesser historians of his day with his spoof, “A True History”.)

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