Biblical Texts and Historicity

Biblical Texts and Historicity February 5, 2015

There’s been quite a lot of concern reflected in comments in discussions here and elsewhere about whether the Old Testament contains reliable history, so I thought I would link to a valuable recent treatment of the issue by biblical scholar Marc Brettler in Thinking, Recording, and Writing History in the Ancient World (ed. Raaflaub; 2014), where an up-to-date bibliography can also be found:

“No direct evidence explains why Israelites told and wrote history. No ancient Near Eastern historical text, including the Hebrew Bible, contains introductions similar to those in Herodotus or Thucydides. Such Greek prefaces, though they might not be taken at face value, offer useful starting points. At the minimum, they identify and contextualize the authors as Herodotus of Halicarnassus and Thucydides the Athenian, living at particular times. The biblical historical texts, as ancient Near Eastern literature, are anonymous and do not have an explicit place or time setting. Therefore, biblical scholars ask about each text: What is the best explanation for why particular types of biblical “historical” texts were composed?….

The title of a recent article, “Conjuring History from Texts” (Tomes 2007), aptly captures the difficulty of using biblical texts to recreate the past, as does the important 1997 collection of essays which initiated the European Seminar in Historical Methodology: Can a ‘History of Israel’ Be Written? (Grabbe 1997). As noted earlier, our preserved texts are typically centuries later than the events they depict, and they are very heavily edited. Often we do not know in what circles particular parts of them developed and how, and under whose influence, they were changed and changed again. There are cases where biblical accounts are likely accurate, and may even suggest that we can reconstruct reliable sources within the biblical text (Grabbe 2007: 212–13; Brettler 2007), but in many other cases external sources indicate that the Bible got it wrong (Grabbe 2007: 214–15).

Biblical historical texts look nothing like the small number of “real,” excavated historical documents:

“The rarity of material in the Deuteronomomistic History [= Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings] that is at all close in form or style or narrative technique to the stories preserved in the one virtually intact royal inscription from southern Syria–Palestine or the fragments from Tel Dan argues against the supposition that the Judean historians in general quoted extensively from – or indeed were signifi-cantly influenced by – campaign narratives preserved in Israelite or Judean royal inscriptions” (Parker 1997: 75).

Furthermore, “the retelling of stories involves their reinterpretation” (ibid. 9), as can be seen in a recent close study of the book of Esther (Dalley 2007). To complicate issues further, “[a]longside transcription, invention is a primary source of biblical texts” including historiography (van der Toorn 2007: 118). It is very difficult to know which texts have been invented – they may aim at verisimilitude and thus look the same as those that may have been transcribed. Furthermore, given that many believe that oral traditions transmitted over more than one hundred and fifty years are useless for reconstructing the events that these traditions portray (Kirkpatrick 1988: 101–12), and that long periods of oral transmission must stand behind many biblical stories, it is especially difficult to use most biblical traditions to uncover the history they depict.

This idea, that biblical history was invented or created, does not single out ancient Israel in a detrimental fashion. In the introduction to The Invention of Sacred Tradition, a work whose title mirrors the famous collection edited by Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983), the editors note; “From the early records of Israelite or Zoroastrian religion to the present-day Scientologists and Pagans, the invention of sacred tradition is … a persistent and ubiquitous phenomenon” (Lewis and Hammer 2007: 16). Nor is this tendency unique to religious traditions (Hobsbawm and Ranger 1983; Kohl et al. 2007).”

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