Iain Provan on Historiography and Old Testament Interpretation

Iain Provan on Historiography and Old Testament Interpretation September 6, 2012

I highly recommend Iain Provan’s essay in the new book Hearing the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2012). Normally I engage in conversations that talk about historical perspective and method of the gospel writers, but Provan deals with this same matter when it comes to the OT Historical Books. He is known for offering a defense of a maximalist approach, but he does make the important argument that what we have in the OT is not “pure historical reportage” (my language), but driven by theological concerns, i.e, “listening for God’s address.”

In his essay, he has a very insightful section on the changes that historiography has gone through throughout the years. The pursuit of a kind of “objective” history writing (for “history’s sake”) is a rather new invention. In the ancient world, it was not so. Historical writing was self-evidently ideological. He gives the choice quote by Dionysus of Halicarnassus: “History is philosophy teaching by example.” He goes on further to argue that it may be well and good to try and corroborate historical events and people to bolster the authority of the OT, but that is not primarily what these texts were written for and it is unbearingly unfortunate that the main reason (formation) has fallen by the wayside for too many readers of Scripture.
Here is a powerful selection from Provan’s essay:

  “We have no access to brute historical facts. To the extent that we know about the past at all, we know about it primarily through the testimony of other people. There is no way of writing historiography that does not involve such testimony or “story-telling.”…All testimony about the past is also interpretation of the past. It has its ideology or theology; it has its presuppositions and its point of view; it has its narrative structure; and (if at all interesting to read or listen to) it has its narrative art, its rhetoric. It is intrinsically embroiled in advocacy, even if it may go out of its way to try to disguise this fact and appear neutral. There is no true neutrality, however; no dispassionate, unbiased, and presuppositionless presentation of the facts is possible. People always write about the past because they wish to communicate some kind of truth to their readers or to advocate some kind of virtue. It has always been so; it will always remain so.” (257)
This statement is as true for the NT Gospels and Acts as it is for the Historical Books and we would do well to train our students and parishioners to appreciate this concept lest the Bible become merely an arid book of facts that we only need for reminder of dates and places.

Browse Our Archives