Unit 1: Ancient Near East / Hebrews
A Historical Method for Using Biblical Sources
From Halpern, Baruch. The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History. (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 3-7, 12-13, 30-32.
For believers, the history in the Bible is constitutive of a religious community. Here, as with the American myth of the Mayflower, common history is a surrogate, or emblematic, identity. Such a confessional history must be uncritical history: to question the canonized reports is to threaten the cohesion of the community. The straitjacket of doctrinal conservatism therefore prohibits critical historical analysis of the Bible.

The confessional use of the Bible is fundamentally antihistorical. It makes of Scripture a sort of map, a single, synchronic system in which the part illuminates the whole, in which it does not matter that different parts of the map come from divergent perspectives and different periods. The devotee uses it to search for treasure: under the X lies a trove of secret knowledge; a pot of truths sits across the exegetical rainbow, and with them one can conjure knowledge, power, eternity. Worshipers do not read the Bible with an intrinsic interest in human events. Like the prophet, or psalmist, or, in Acts, the saint, they seek behind the events a single, unifying cause that lends them meaning, and makes the historical differences among them irrelevant. In history, the faithful seek the permanent, the ahistorical; in time, they quest for timelessness; in reality, in the concrete, they seek Spirit, the insubstantial. Confessional reading levels historical differences--among the authors in the Bible and between those authors and church tradition--because its interests are life present (in the identity of a community of believers) and eternal.

In reaction against confessional reading, critical scholars bring the principle of scientific skepticism to bear on biblical events. . . . [T]his principle, once set loose, assumed a momentum of its own. At the extremes it became a juggernaut, generating what amounted to a negative fundamentalism, a denial of any historical value in the text—first in Chronicles and the Pentateuch,1 and then in such historical books as Judges, Samuel, and Kings, concerning which skepticism has reawakened today.


These critiques [leveled by scholars] . . . have caught the study of Israelite antiquity in a cross fire. This has evoked a cacophony of historical approaches, a scramble to make an end run around the problem of interpreting text. Most of the methods are social scientific, and call on models extrinsic not just to the text, but to the culture as a whole. They apply universal, unhistorical schematics, like those of the natural sciences, yet deal, like the human sciences, in variables (e.g., forms of society) whose components, whose atoms, are never isolated. Such tools cannot usher in a revolution in historical certainty. Their promise, like that of the positivist program of the nineteenth century, is an eschatological one.

All these responses, including the recourse to social science, betray not just an unease with history, but a naïveté toward it, a naïveté which exceeds the narrow confines of biblical studies. No treatment of Israelite historiography has yet engaged the philosophical problems involved in the study. One recent survey, in fact, sets out with the disclaimer that such contemplation is out of place, and develops a view that history is detailed, unbiased, and antithetical to religion and to religious language, but that history is not necessarily an attempt accurately to depict the past. This is like saying that a lamp has well-insulated wires and a reliable switch, and runs on alternating current, but need not provide illumination. So revolutionary a proposal invites circumspection.


Historical knowledge is based upon evidence in just the way the deliberations of a jury are. We do not violate, thus, the etiquette of investigation if we expect even ancient historians to minimize fictions unjustified by evidence, unconditioned by causal axioms, uncalled for by the exigencies of narrative presentation. The reader will detect theoretical flaws in these criteria; practically deployed, they suffice to flush Homer, or Shakespeare, or Graves from the flock whose muse is Klio, whose archpriest is Herodotus, whose myrmidons are the positivists and philologians.

Literary questions dominate this discussion, because studies of Israelite historiography focus on its literary integrity, as an argument, in some cases, to concoction and insincerity. But a competent presentation of history will exhibit literary integrity, however little it concocts. The questions we must address to such a work concern its reconstructive logic, its relationship to the evidence or sources. These are stringent questions, and demand extensive treatment. . . . [I]t is my hope to illustrate what sorts of questions it is appropriate to ask of the historiographic literature, what sorts of authors and editors it is appropriate to hypothesize, what sorts of expectations it is appropriate to entertain about the texts’ accuracy. Much of the literature in question is antiquarian in its intent, as the treatment will show. We must approach it not as fiction, and not as romance, but as historiography.


The historiographic questions approximate an endeavor called tradition history, which explains ideas as progressive, layered developments around some minimal original "kernel." They depart from it in limiting themselves to the historian’s own time: what sources then existed, and how did the historian interpret them? The only scholar to raise the issue in a meaningful fashion has been Martin Noth. Noth concluded that Deuteronomy and the Former Prophets together composed a single historical work, the Deuteronomistic history. Its author, the Deuteronomist (Noth’s Dtr), “was not just a ‘redactor,’ but the author of a historical work,” who took his sources seriously, if selectively, and rarely departed from them.

Noth has, for forty-five years, had his share of detractors and defenders. The detractors, for the most part, accept the integrity of the Deuteronomistic corpus, and hypothesize one or more redactions after it was first assembled. But Noth’s central argument-about historiography-has been transposed, characteristically, into a discussion about compositional history. Ironically, two recent defenses of Noth’s theory of Dtr’s unitary authorship (they call it a “single redaction”) contest incidentally Dtr’s historical character, in a sort of double-defense: Dtr rarely, if ever, had real sources, and felt free to ignore or contradict them when he had.

Noth had the courage to reach beyond the grasp of compositional study, of study directed at texts, and to ask about the redactor as a person. This question alone brings us to grips with R as a historian. It translates him from a historical and social void, from the status of a character in a romance, into a concrete cultural continuum. In a void, any or all of the historian’s reports could be arbitrary and unbiased – and his convictions conjure up suspicions that the evidence for them is concocted. In his social setting, however, the historian is answerable to the expectations of his contemporaries. . . .

Noth’s work proceeded from the premise that the Deuteronomist was a historian. The premise was self-validating. If Dtr was a historian, it followed that there were sources for the history’s otherwise unsupported assertions. It should be added, however, that the opposite premise, that the Deuteronomist gave free rein to fancy, is also self-validating. It bases itself on the unity of the presentation, which rightly has few implications for the operations of observation and reconstruction, and hypothesizes an absence of sources. . . .

From Noth’s premise one gets a plausible perspective on what it is Dtr was doing. He did not write pseudepigraphic memoir, or direct revelation; he chose instead to find meaning in Israel’s antiquities, in the conviction that the course of events vindicated his views. From the opposite premise one derives a Dtr who was indifferent to his sources, indifferent to the past, and indifferent to the criticism of his contemporaries, but who was galvanized by his whimsy to construct in the face of all three a long national history. This portrait seems devised, in accord with the Commandment, to resemble nothing in the heavens above, in the Earth below, or in the waters underneath the Earth. Noth’s historian fits the mold of a thinker emboldened by honest conviction to impose a meaningful order on his nation’s past. . . .

It would be an exaggeration to say that those who preserve Noth’s unitary author have it in mind morally to disembowel him. This is a mere by-product of their method, an unconsidered corollary. But for just that reason, it is apposite to inquire how Israel’s historians look, when our literary analysis is done, as human beings. What led them to write what they wrote, what genre of literature were they writing, what did they think were its limits, why did they choose to write it? Did they mean to write history or romance? What sorts of particular truths, what sorts of fictions, were they ready to supply?

[This work does] not assume the literary homogeneity of the Former Prophets. Because it is disputed what sources of that work were incorporated substantially intact, and because the issue is more compositional than historiographic, the question of what Dtr and subsequent redactors contributed is taken up, though extensively, only in passing. Instead, the focus moves from limited specimens of Israelite historiography whose authorship is uncertain . . . to larger blocks of text shaped by Dtr and integrated into the ongoing narrative . . . , and, finally, to characteristics of the corpus as a whole. . . . The upshot is that the historian’s thematic concerns most strongly affect the proportion and cast he gives to eras, and that in the presentation of individual episodes, the relationship to sources is closest. The focus, thus, is not on compositional analysis, but on how the historians interacted with their sources.

It is not my claim that this procedure enables us to get with philological certainty at the human events the texts describe. The Deuteronomist’s use of sources and the Deuteronomist’s conception of what it meant to write history are accessible to our inquiries; the views of those who wrote the several sources are buffered by an additional stage of remove. But asking after the historian as a person offers unwonted advantages: some control on compositional speculation, by virtue of its implications for the mentality of the authors involved; some control on assertions about the historian’s own times; and some control on characterizations of those earlier times about which the historian and his contemporaries had material or literary evidence.

Such a meager harvest will not satisfy an appetite for early history. It will, I hope, make an adequate hors d’oeuvre for synchronic investigation of the historian’s day, which in turn could furnish the basis for sophisticated political history. Indeed, even if it does not issue in so ambitious an accomplishment, it will at least have addressed the enigma of the Israelite historian. So long as that personality remains unsolved, so long as we form only unrealized, adventitious notions of it, all our compositional hypotheses remain only half-considered, unworked out. We confine ourselves, thus, to the purely literary questions that bedeviled nineteenth-century scholarship, and to the historical paradigms that produced them. We condemn ourselves to a Sisyphean cycle in which the historical intentionality of biblical historiography is called perpetually, and needlessly, into question.

1The first five books of the Old Testament are called the Pentateuch.

Pages 3-7, 12-13, 30-32 from THE FIRST HISTORIANS: THE HEBREW BIBLE AND HISTORY by BRUCE HALPERN. Copyright © 1988 by Bruce Halpern. Used by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

This website was produced by
Octagon Multimedia