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“All history is present history in the sense that the concerns of the present are bound somehow to affect the way history is studied and written.”
~ Paul Anthony Cartledge
Historiography may be one of the most effective, and arguably even the best, means of truly knowing the past. As the quote from Paul Anthony Cartledge points out, it is inevitable that people (both historians and the layman alike) are likely to put their own spin on history, matching it to a specific narrative, philosophy, faith, personal opinion, or even emotion. Historiography offers the opportunity for those who wish to understand history as it actually happened to take a critical approach, examining not only the events of history but how these events have been treated by history. This is not necessarily an easy process; particularly for ancient history, there are a great many challenges in distinguishing between history and historiography. However, the main benefit is clear: taking an approach that considers historiography is likely to result in a more robust, and even more relevant and accurate, picture of the past. With this in mind, this research paper examines the Ancient Israelites in the context of the Ancient Near East; however, rather than merely presenting an historical picture of the Israelites in this ancient historical context, the paper considers the historiography of the Ancient Israelites in this context. Doing so arguably provides more insight than any other historical approach.
There are great many academic papers, books, and other forms of research on Ancient Israelite historiography in the Ancient Near East and this research paper cannot come close to examining them all, let alone accurately and concisely depicting all that they have to say. While this paper is certainly not exhaustive, the range of sources (in the sense of substance, style, and timing) provides a relatively holistic picture of this specific set of historiography, and presents some of the most authoritative texts on the topic. In order to address the topic of Ancient Israelite historiography in the context of the Ancient Near East, the paper first turns to a discussion of the relevant knowledge and sources; this includes both a description of the sources used and a definition of terms. The paper then turns to the historiography at hand, examining ten unique academic sources to form a picture of the topic. Overall, the paper shows that an accurate understanding of this historiography is perhaps the best way to understand Ancient Israelites. As one academic source states, “Not to know the way forward is to be lost. To have forgotten how one has come is to be doubly lost…the double lostness that results when insufficient effort is expended to retrace the path that has led to the current situation. The place to begin the present volume then, is with a look backward.” In other words, in order to avoid getting lost in the vast topic that is Ancient Israel, it is crucial to approach the history regarding the topic that has already been completed – this is historiography at its best. As the author notes, understanding how the topic has been treated in the past will help us to understand how to move forward in the future. The thought also calls to mind a particularly set of lyrics from The Clash that rings true for history and archeology:
Wait a minute, my friend
Don’t pass me up for dead
As Babylon crumbles to sand
A sweet flower blossoms in my hand
Another day is ending for you
For this historiography paper, two things are clear: Ancient Israelite history is far from dead, and historiography offers the sweet flower. One only has to pursue historiography for history to bloom in the hand.
As noted above, this paper utilizes a variety of sources in order to accurately and concisely complete a historiography of Ancient Israelites within the context of the Ancient Near East. More specifically, the paper discusses five journal articles and five academic history books, each of which treat the historiography of Ancient Israelites to a full discourse, and each of which have their own slightly different approach. Each of the resources will discussed in turn, and in detail, below; however, for now it is worthwhile to note the general makeup of the historiography. The sources used in this paper range from over seven decades ago (from 1940) to just a few years ago, so there is certainly a balanced view presented here since each has a slightly different slant. Moreover, most of the sources deal specifically with the historiography o Ancient Israelites within the Ancient Near East, rather than historical accounts, so this paper serves as a sort of secondary analysis of the findings found within these primary sources. Because of the limited scope and timeframe for this paper, this is the best way to reach a balanced and holistic view of the historiography at hand. Before moving on, it is also important to define the topic more specifically. Israelite historiography, for the purposes of this paper, can be defined as “all the writing about the people’s past from their origins to their development as a people and nation in Palestine and its ultimate fate at the hands of the Near East imperial powers.” In other words, historiography in this case is any and all record of this specific people group within this specific geographical context. It is the experience of the Israelites, not only within themselves, but within both the familiar (i.e. Canaan) and foreign (i.e. Mesopotamia and Egypt) context that they found themselves. Another conception of historiography in relation to the Old Testament is as “a form of narrative that makes reference to past events in the history of the nation in a chronological sequence from the time of human and national origins to the historical period of the author.” This is what makes this subset of historiography so fascinating: it has to do with the formation, solidification, and emergence of the Israelites as a people group. This is an identity that, at least in some form, remains to this day.
Now that the identification of the sources and definition of the main concept in this paper has been established, the discussion can now turn to an overview of how the academic literature treats the historiography of the Ancient Israelites in the context of the Ancient Near East. The most complex aspect of historiography and the Bible is the question of whether to treat it as history or simply text: “It is both the burden and opportunity of a new generation of historians to think through once again the foundational presuppositions guiding the interpretation of ancient texts and the way in which the historian reconstructs a past from them.” In this way, one of the major questions of historiography in this context is how to treat the very texts that make up the history of the Ancient Israelites. However, if anything this makes the historiography that much more interesting: “This should…be regarded as a necessary development, which demands of historians to take, at least a practical, interest also in epistemological and ontological questions.” In other words, historians should be just as concerned with the theoretical implications of this history as the narrative ones; however, this does not necessarily require a positivistic approach to the history of the Bible. With this in mind, the historiography of the Ancient Israelites can be complicated, to say the least.
However, this complication in the historiography need not interfere with the insight that historians are able to glean from the approach. As one academic notes, “For the early part of this spectrum there is no ancient distinction between myth, legend, and history so that in the present tradition the story of Israel’s past begins with creation,” with the intended expression of how the foundation of Ancient Israelites’ “corporate identity, their social and moral values, their political and religious institutions, their relationship to the land, and their place in the wide family of peoples of the Near East.” Under this conception, there is little need to distinguishing between history and myth, since the narrative remains the same.
This becomes even more important when one considers the fact that the biblical passages from Genesis to the end of 2 Kings were not written by a single author, but by many different writers across a wide and far reaching period of time. This makes the non-positivistic, narrative-focused approach to historiography and the history of Ancient Israelites even more compelling. It is also the approach that is likely to result in the most historical insight, since it does not limit these passages, but instead expands upon them with outside sources. This ideation of historiography is confirmed by another work by John Van Seters, who states “Israelite historiography is not critical of its sources of information about the past, which may include myths and legends about origins, however much it reshapes them for its own presentation.” In yet another work, the same author concludes that “History writing is a specific form of tradition in its own right…Any explanation of the genre as merely the accidental accumulation of traditional material is inadequate.” In other words, approaching the history of the bible need not be humanistic nor purely religious, as long as the historian (taking an approach of historiography) recognizes the influence that the subjective development of the history of the Ancient Israelites has had on modern knowledge.
But what kind of development did Ancient Israelites have in the context of the Ancient Near East? What does historiography have to say on this development? There are several interesting insights when responding to these questions. First of all, the overarching theological theme of the history of the Ancient Israelites is clear: “The theological overtones appear in a narrative pattern that is strongly schematized.” From the blame of kings for going away from God in the eyes of the Deuteronomists to the exile of the people, the narrative is presented as “a long, coherent account about the elected people who entirely and at all times broke the contract with…their god.” In other words, the main theme from a historiography viewpoint of Ancient Israelites within the Ancient Near East is not only the formation of a people, but a formation and reformation of that people group’s relationship with their deity.
This contention is confirmed by another academic source, who states that the historiography of the Ancient Israelites does not pretend to be a communication from god, but instead “serve as communication to the deity… Consequently, the audience is neither future kings nor the gods – it is the people of the covenant.” More than that, the historiography is not always positive, but for individuals and the Israelites as a whole, which puts to rest some concerns of political or even theological bias: “As a result this material would be very ineffective political polemic…The Bible also makes clear throughout that its purpose is not to offer revelation of any particular person or group, but to serve as Yahweh’s revelation of himself.” This is confirmed by another scholar, who contrasts the theology of the Ancient Israelites with that of their Mosopotamian neighbors: “The nature of the gods could give no feeling of certainty and security in the cosmos… Man always found himself confronted by the tremendous forces of nature, and nature, especially in Mesopotamia, showed itself to be cruel, indiscriminate [and] unpredictable.” In this way, it is clear that the historiography of the Ancient Israelites is intimately tied up with their theology, as it directly informed how they interacted with other groups and became a people group themselves.
But how is all of this known? How is historiography actually formed, particularly in our modern day? In answer to these questions, there are two major sources that give insight for the historian: W.F. Albright from 1940, who can be considered one of the cornerstones of biblical historiography, and Mark W. Chavalas, writing more than half a century later and who responds to the positivism of Albright with a more social and historiographic approach. First, Albright states that there are four main groups of “religious literature from the ancient Near East” that shed light on the Ancient Israelites: “Egyptian, Mesopotamian (Sumero-Accadian), Horito-Hittite, and West Semitic (Canaanite, Aramaean, South Arabian).” From these sources, historian scan conduct “decipherment and rough translation, the development of grammatical and lexicographical study,” and “detailed dialectic and syntactic research, accompanied by monographic studies of selected classes of documents.” This is how historians are able to form the knowledge that they have about Ancient Israelites, and the Ancient Near East as a whole. However, the more issue is how these sources are treated. As Albright goes on to state, “In dealing with the ancient Near East we must carefully estimate the degree of assurance with which we can translate our documents and interpret our archaeological materials.” This is the whole idea of historiography.
In this regard, Chavalas contrasts the modern approach of ancient history with that of the past: “Previous generations have tended toward the study of theology and literary criticism, usually by theologians who were often not trained as historians;” in contrast, historians who discuss the same history in more recent years instead “concentrate on socio-economic, anthropological and historiographic issues.” In other words, even the same sources as described above can vary depending on the method of interpretation – whether theological, literary, anthropological, or sociological. This applies not only to the modern historian, but the historians that wrote the texts in question as well. As Chavalas goes on to ask, “What was the relationship between the antiquarian writer and the concerns of his own time period? …Synchronic interests guided his interpretations but did not determine them.” In this way, any reading of biblical texts must be contextualized within its social context, both of the subject and of the original writer – not to mention the author of the secondary text. Therefore, biblical history is formed as much by interpretation as by original texts.
While far from exhaustive, this research-based discussion paper has examined the historiography of the Ancient Israelites in the Ancient Near East by turning to some of the most relevant and pertinent sources on the topic. In this examination, the paper has revealed (or, at the very least, reconfirmed) three essential truths to history as seen through the lens of historiography. First, there is a complicated relationship between historical text and interpretation, particularly when original texts are concerned with theology and other mythological issues. Second, the paper has shown how the historiography of the Ancient Israelites reveals the way in which Israelite identity formed around the people group’s ideas surrounding their deity, and became central to the continuation of their identity. True or not, the mythology of the Ancient Israelites is nearly interchangeable with their historiography. Finally, in light of the previous two insights, the paper has shown that narrative takes precedence over the debate between fact and myth when it comes to historiography and religion. In other words, it is not the main concern of historiography to sort out fact from fiction, but to gain an understanding of how an ancient people group formed and understood itself. A historiography of Ancient Israelites fits within this paradigm.
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