On History, Historicity, and Biblical Minimalism

I recently attended a set of lectures on the origin of the Old Testament. It was stressed time and again that the OT is not to be subjected to a historicist treatment. The stories are not what “really happened” but what the authors are telling you really happened. The emphasis is on the story and meaning, not “historical facts” as we conceive of them today. In other words, the authors were using the place names and historical data to tell a story that they believed to be true. But the “truth” of the story lay in the realm of meaning, not disinterested (read: unbiased) historical reporting.

This can be difficult to express without implying all kinds of other things about the Biblical text.

Is this a denial of the truth of the Bible?

Is this an admission that none of it is factual and all of it is made up?

Does this mean that the Bible is not only untrue, but full of intentional lies?

To even begin to address these questions we first need to clarify our terms. We need to address what is meant by history, historicity, and Biblical minimalism.

History

“History” here denotes historiography. The practice of writing histories is ancient, and we evidence of standards for Greek history writing from at least the time of Thucydides (5th c. BCE). The rules for writing Greek histories were formalized in some handbooks, and there were certain expected standards.

The same can be said for ancient history writing in other places (e.g. Mesopotamia), although the canons may have differed considerably. We know, for instance, from various inscriptions that the memories of battles as written on monuments do not correspond to an “actual” historical reality, but rather they reflect an interpretation of the events that serve to function as a teaching tool.

The most common teaching found in historical documents is “our society is the best.” Accomplishments and victories are recorded, and portrayed in the most flattering way by the victors. The entire enterprise of history writing is the remembrance of the past, and these remembrances almost always are recorded for the purpose of aggrandizing the accomplishments of a given society or group for posterity. The message was “you come from good stock ,a valiant and virtuous culture, which has accomplished x, y, and z, and will continue to prosper.” Alternately, the message was “things are bad now because you (or your parents) sinned and a return to the golden age will save society.”

These themes are the same ones employed today, but historiographers simply use them without admitting that these are their goals.

This makes clear that “history” in our discussion refers to the written interpretation of events. This is in distinction to the written record of events, in that the former definition makes clear that any “record” is already an interpretation rather than a fact. This applies to modern history writing as well, yet the emphasis has shifted considerably in modern times to stress the factual aspect of the accounts. Modern histories are no less interpretative, yet they do so secretly while the ancient reader was aware of the large role that interpretation played in the writing of histories. There was less of an expectation in the ancient reader for an unbiased account of the events. Instead, the entire enterprise of writing history was to give a biased and therefore correct version of the events.

Historicity

Historicity can be a difficult concept to pin down. What I mean by the term is this: an approach to a text or quality attributed to a text that demands that the text is factually correct and accurately conveys “what really happened.”

This means that if archeologists demonstrate convincingly that Jericho was uninhabited and without walls in the time that Joshua says it was destroyed, the account in Joshua is false. Furthermore, if archeologists find that the city was inhabited, walled, and destroyed in the exact time that Joshua records, the account is still false if the walls were not destroyed by God.

The bottom line is that in a myriad of ways the OT text can be shown to be false beyond reasonable doubt according to historicist standards. Even if the exodus could be shown to have occurred, one would have to deal with the numbers seeming to be impossible for the time period. Even then, one would have to deal with the claim that the wind that split the Red Sea was caused by God. This cannot be maintained while  employing an historicist criterion.

Biblical Minimalism

Biblical minimalism is the approach advocated by 4 main scholars and it is also sometimes referred to as the Copenhagen School. Although I do not count myself as one of their students or followers, I do find much of what they say to make sense. They claim that the OT has little to do with events that can be verified through archeology and textual studies. The proof of their position is that archeology is fundamentally at odds with the Biblical stories, and at best the evidence leads to the conclusion that the OT is based on a very, very tiny core of historical truth that has hundreds of false layers added to it. This is the situation at best.

I encourage the reader to look through Neils Peter Lemche’s “The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey” (Westminster John Knox Press, 2008). In it you will find a number of important points explained:

  1. the history of critical study of the OT, up to the present time
  2. the archeological evidence and the motivations behind the archeological digs
  3. a comparison of the OT evidence and the archeological evidence
  4. a tracing of the paradigm shifts in OT studies over the centuries, ending in post-modernism

I dare any reader to challenge Lemche’s positions as described in the book. He is very careful, and I would say that he makes only a few bold unsupported statements in the entire book. He acknowledges that some of the stories in the OT could be historically verified to a small extent, and that the stories which have not or cannot be verified could also have “really happened.” But it is implausible to the extreme that they all happened, and this means that the OT at best has a one in a million shot of being “true.”

Lemche also is careful and informed enough to discern what “true” means today and what it meant in the past, particularly as it applies to the OT. This is of the essence when we talk about what is true and real. What do these terms denote? In almost every case, these terms denote historicity for the modern reader, a concept that was almost entire hypothetical for the ancient reader. This is not because the  ancients weren’t concerned with historicity, but it is due to the fact that historicity was not available to them as a viable criterion for testing truth claims. As such they didn’t develop a dependence on it.

For example, we can take the story of creation. I think that ancient readers and writers did think that the Genesis account was literally true. Yet the way the used the story showed that they found the story to be about things other than the creation of the physical universe. Paul saw the relation between Adam and Eve as the relation between Christ and the Church. He says nothing about whether Adam had a bellybutton or whether the days were 24 hour periods, because such information was irrelevant. It was unnecessary to do so, and a literalist and historicist reading was meaningless to them. The events happened not because they were plausible or there was archeological evidence to verify it, but because the text told you that it happened. They did not have access to ways of testing the historicity of the stories, but today we do have such ways of testing. And the OT fails these tests at almost every turn.

What would the reaction of ancient readers be to this situation? I think that they would stick to their meaningful readings of the text and abandon the idea that the stories have an historicist element. Time and time again we see that this flexibility is a quality of the Biblical author and interpreter. Matthew has no problem contradicting Mark, and Luke has no problem contradicting Mark and Matthew. There is never any sense that only one of them can be correct, which is in direct opposition to an historicist position. The NT and OT are fundamentally pluralist, and have many instances of copying with variations.

The role of the Bible, imo, is to teach life, not to teach history and science. It is a book of wisdom, not engineering. When the earth was taught to be flat, a verse in Isaiah was interpreted as validating this idea. When the earth was known to be round, the verse no longer was interpreted that way. It was not that Isaiah changed his mind, nor that the text changed, but that the interpretation changed. In this case the change reflected the language and intent of the original text much better.

The Way Forward

So, the reader is in a dilemma: either continue to read the Bible with historicist eyes and reject it as false, or change one’s hermeneutic to a more ancient and historically sound one which focuses on the meaning of the story rather than the historicity of the elements of the story.

This does not mean that the Bible is detached completely from history. Remember, the accounts can be historically true in some or even most cases, even though their value is in the story rather than in the assertion of facts (e.g. God tore down the walls of Jericho vs. the walls of historical Jericho were destroyed by a combination of marching, shouting, and blowing the shofar). The entire point of the Bible is to teach truths that change the way we live. It is not concerned with truths that are irrelevant (e.g. whether the mustard seed is literally the smallest seed as Jesus claimed).

The irony of Biblical minimalism is that it alone can free the text of the Bible from the constraints of modern interpreters. While the minimalist in some ways is directly opposed to the ancient reader on the issue of what “really happened,” only the minimalist can agree with the ancient reader that what really happened for them is whatever the text tells them happened. The ancient reader and the minimalist both do not defer their interpretations to the test of historicity. The ancient reader did not have that option, and the minimalist rightly rejects that option as undermining the text of the Bible.

Whether one agrees with minimalism or maximalism, at some point one has to defer to faith. The minimalist, ironically, can reject the historical truth of the Bible while affirming the real truth of the Bible. The historicist must reject the Bible if it fails the historicist criterion. Historicism is a trojan horse that was accepted relatively recently, and the authority and veracity of the Bible has never recovered. Nor is it possible to salvage the Bible as a truthful document by historicist criteria. The historicist can only accept the Bible as true in a way similar to the Young Earth Creationist: selective evidence and tortured interpretation. “Faith” in this case amounts to “trust in spite of the evidence” rather than the minimalist’s faith which is “trust in the meaning of the story.”

Lucky for us, the Bible at almost every turn tells its readers that it is entirely unconcerned with historicism. The texts are pregnant with metaphor, allegory, typology, wordplay, and rhetorical devices. These point to the aim of the text as being a teaching tool, and not one that is a dry rendition of what “actually happened.” Instead it is an imaginative and creative retelling of stories to convey wisdom.

Ancient and Modern “Abuses” of History

It is often stated that ancient history writers were unconcerned with the facts of the matter and freely invented details and even large narratives from whole cloth. It is stated almost as often than ancient writers did have an historicist outlook and they sought to provide the most factual accounts possible. Which viewpoint is correct?

Both views have considerable evidence to support them, but both fail to incorporate the data that contradicts their their theories.

For example, we know that the canons of ancient history writing placed a higher value on entertainment than modern history writing. The emphasis on rhetorical devices was also stronger than what is found in the modern period. The aim was also “verisimilitude” (the appearance of being real) rather than an exact and accurate rendering of the events.

It was also commonplace to employ the venerable literary technique of composing speeches that correspond to what was historically said while not actually being those exact words (see the classic example from Thucydides). Such a technique is regarded today as nothing less than well intentioned deceit, but was seen as totally legitimate for ancient authors and their readers.

From the modern point of view, ancient histories are untrustworthy precisely because the rules that governed the composition of ancient histories have fallen out of favor. Ancient histories “don’t play by the rules,” meaning the modern rules of historiography.

We need to read these ancient texts in context, bearing in mind both the rules for ancient historiography and the expectations of the readers. Imposing modern standards on the texts is a form of abuse, in that it judges the text in ways that the authors never intended them to be judged. They fail miserably, but the test is inappropriate.

On the other hand, it is not the case that ancient writers felt free to totally invent their narratives when writing histories. Factual errors were a blot on the text, but this was because they ruined the element of verisimilitude, not because they were incorrect from an historicist criterion.

We can add to this that the ancient writers by and large were writing about events that could neither be confirmed or disconfirmed by themselves or their audience. In writing the history of a war, for example, the ancient author may have had access to written and oral testimony, but this was of questionable value from an historicist point of view. The sources might corrupt. But this was functionally irrelevant in antiquity since any factual errors were largely a matter of opinion. The case could be made either way, and there was no “fact of the matter.” This approximates some ideas found in post-modern approaches to literary theory, although there are also some salient differences.

Given that there was no “fact of the matter” for events that occurred centuries in the past, not to mention relatively current events, history writing was at that time an endeavor to interpret the past for the present. This is exactly what we have today, except today we do have ways of verifying or falsifying historical claims. We also have rules about historiography that drastically change the status the genre of history writing. History writing today is still largely a matter of interpretation, but with the literary deceit that the history is factually correct and as unbiased as possible. It attempts to trick the reader into thinking that the author writes with only the intention to educate and disseminate “real” information. Ancient writers and readers were more realistic than this, and they expected the author to be presenting them with a highly interpreted and stylized rendition of tradition. This was a few steps removed from “what really happened,” but it was the best they could do. Today it is still the best we can do, yet the modern reader is under the impression that they are getting information that is interpreted and biased as little as possible. Which is rather naive. Historians write with the aim to convince, not to simply report.

Historical texts used to be the interpretation of events offered by the author to the reader. While the presentation could be critiqued, it could never be disproven. The subject matter was often mixed with allegory and allusion for the edification and entertainment of the reader, as well as for art’s sake.

Historical texts today are not regarded as the author’s interpretation of events, but rather an accurate (historicist) accounting of events compiled by an author who is seeking to report “just the facts.” The modern historical writer seeks to exclude his own biases rather than employ them. Entertaining elements and metaphors are seen as foreign intrusions to modern historical writing. We expect to read about history today, as it “really happened,” rather than a story about history. This is a fundamental difference in approaches to historical writing, meaning that we need to employ a different set of criteria when reading.

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