The Bible: No Sir, That’s Not History

The Bible: No Sir, That’s Not History January 15, 2015

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So why is it wrong to refer to biblical authors as “historians”? After all, they told stories about the past and made use of both oral and written records to make it come alive. So what’s wrong then, with saying that they were writing history?

The matter really comes down to this: What were biblical authors trying to do? Were they trying to present a correct scientific analysis of past events? Or were biblical authors trying to do something else? What were they doing?

We know that later in Judaism, most rabbinic commentators on the Hebrew Bible did not feel a sense of antiquarian interest in the past. That’s not why they produced records. The rabbis were storytellers, theologians, and religious commentators, but they were certainly not “historians.” This is why Moshe David Herr notes that “there was no question more meaningless or boring [to the rabbis] then the purpose and usefulness of an exact description of what actually transpired.” (1)

But what about their ancestors, the scribes who produced the sacred texts that inspired the rabbinic tradition? Were biblical authors historians?

The way we answer this question depends largely upon definitions, definitions such as what exactly is “history”? I love “history” (I even majored in it as an undergraduate student), but I’m not to going to take the time here to explore a philosophical definition in detail. Suffice it to say that I think the word “history” can actually be a useful term for defining a specific literary genre in the Hebrew Bible (as long as we recognize that “history” doesn’t mean “history” like we think of it). As a literary genre, history can distinguish books such as Judges, Kings, and Chronicles from other literary works like Isaiah, Proverbs, or Psalms. From this angle, I connect with Marc Zvi Brettler’s approach to the topic. During my graduate work, I had the privilege to study this topic quite extensively with Dr. Brettler and I freely admit that my own views have been shaped by his important contributions to the field. Dr. Brettler defines a “historical narrative” in the Bible as simply “a narrative that presents a past.” (2) This doesn’t mean that the story gets the past “right,” or even that the event described really occurred, only that a historical narrative tells us about the past.

Now, returning to the question at hand, namely were biblical authors “historians,” this question can be answered by considering a few examples of biblical historical narrative. Let’s begin with the book of Judges. In terms of genre, Judges clearly falls under the category of “history.” But wait! None of the events described in this work can be corroborated by outside evidence (of course that doesn’t mean that they didn’t really happen, but it is what it is). Archeology doesn’t help us, and the stories and characters mentioned throughout the book do not appear in any contemporary inscriptions. So can we define its author as a “historian”?

If chronology, meaning the arrangement of events in a sequence or order, is a significant part of producing “history” then Judges fails miserably in this category. The book does not present a consistent time line. The last five chapters appear to take place at the same time as the events depicted in the beginning, but we really can’t say for sure. Joshua dies twice in the record, once in 1:1 and again in 2:8. And many of the stories (not just Samson) seem implausible as real world events.

Judges contains stories about the past, and therefore qualifies as “historical narrative,” but that doesn’t mean that it was meant to tell us what really happened. We’re talking about a book that tells the story concerning a bad guy named Cushan-rishathaim Aram-naharaim (Judges 3:11). Go ahead, say it out loud. It not only rhymes (how many people in the ancient world had names that rhymed with their place of origin?), but it means “Dark double-wickedness.” (3). So either Cushan had some really, really awful parents, or the account isn’t “history” as we know it.

But not all historical narratives in the Bible are like that. What about a book like Chronicles? It contains boring genealogical lists, lots of references to written sources, and was written much later than Judges. Surely this is “history.”

Well, no, not really.

Chronicles refers to a total of fifteen books that it claims to use as its sources. While some scholars believe that these “records” actually existed, others suggest that they were simply made up by the author as a type of false footnoting system to give readers the impression that the account contains verisimilitude, meaning the appearance of a real “history.”

But the book itself is far from real history as we know it. For example, we know that the Chronicler fabricated genealogies to solve problems in his sources (see, for example, 5:29-33). In his reformulation of the story in Kings, the Chronicler simply omitted portions of David’s “history” that the author didn’t want to convey, such as the infamous Bathsheba episode and Ammon’s rape of David’s daughter. Would a good “historian” have done that? These events were simply omitted because the Chronicler wasn’t a historian trying to depict the past. He left out events that did not accord with his very specific theological agenda (something that good historians don’t do).

It’s important to remember that we actually have the Chronicler’s primary source for his “history” in the book of Kings. We can document that the Chronicler changes the narrative “history” he received and invented stories that explain his new theological views, like, for instance, the presentation of Manasseh as a model penitent (2 Chron 22:11-16). This fabricated account (not depicted in Kings) allowed the Chronicler to explain what he felt was significantly problematic about the earlier biblical record, namely that God destroyed the kingdom of Judah because of Manasseh’s wickedness. The Chronicler’s theology was very, VERY different from that which appears in Kings, so the Chronicler had to produce a “historical narrative” that explained why God didn’t destroy the southern kingdom during Manasseh’s day.

You see, the Babylonian destruction in 586 BCE works in Kings because Kings accepts the concept of transgenerational punishment (remember, God holds the children of the third and fourth generation responsible for the sins of their fathers, see Ex. 20:5), so Judah, from this perspective, could be destroyed for Manasseh’s sins long after he died. But the Chronicler rejected this earlier biblical theology and created a story to explain why God didn’t destroy the kingdom during Manasseh’s reign. Well, it’s because Manasseh repented.

The problem is, however, that this repentance never happened. Not only is it not found in Kings, but Manasseh was a vassal of Assyria, not Babylon. Written long after the Assyrian empire in Manasseh’s day, Chronicles states that like the Jews of the later Babylonian exile (whose story the Chronicler was very familiar with), Manasseh was taken captive into Babylon (1 Chron 33:11), where as a result of his repentance, he (once again, like the later Jewish community) returned from Babylonian captivity.

So, yes, Chronicles cites sources, and yes, Chronicles has some long boring genealogies, but it’s filled with fabricated history. This fact has led Marc Brettler to explain:

“To many, this way of looking at Scripture may be offensive, but we must remember that the recollection of historical traditions in this period was different than it is now. There was little interest in history for its own sake, that is, for what it taught about the real past. History mattered because of what it taught about the present, including the legitimacy of the main priestly clan.” (4)

In terms of history and historiography, I’ve really only scratched the surface with this post. The fact is that the evidence goes on and on. Biblical authors were NOT historians, at least not in the modern sense of the term. They were storytellers. Their accounts were certainly sacred, but they were also entertaining, and sometimes even political and crude.

Biblical stories tell us something about the way their respective authors understood the past, but they don’t always tell us something about “the” past. The original authors who produced the Bible created stories about prophets, kings, and heroic warriors that were carefully crafted to teach valuable ideas concerning divinity and its relationship to humanity, especially the family of Israel.

It’s important for modern readers of the Bible to recognize that biblical authors were not motivated to write their accounts out of antiquarian interest. For these authors, the past was far too important as a political and religious tool to simply recount what really happened. Instead, biblical authors used historical narrative to covey themes concerning the God of Israel and his relationship to his chosen people.

This observation should not trouble religious readers. There’s something else going on in the Bible other than “history.” As Israeli scholar Yosef Havim Yerushalmi has explained, “Israel is told that it must be a kingdom of priests and a holy people; nowhere is it suggested that it become a nation of historians.” (5)

1. Moshe David Herr, “The Conception of History among the Sages,” Proceedings of the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, vol. 3 (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1977), 142 [Hebrew].

2. Marc Zvi Brettler, The Creation of History in Ancient Israel (London: Routledge, 1995), 12.

3. See the commentary in the Jewish Study Bible(Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 514.

4. Marc Zvi Brettler, How to Read the Bible (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Soceity, 2005), 131.

5. Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi, Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1982), 10.

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