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  • Print publication year: 2016
  • Online publication date: July 2016

5 - The Hebrew Bible and history

from Part II - Historical background


In modern parlance, the term “history” is used in two main senses: the past and (written) depictions of the past, often called “historiography.” These two senses live in an uncomfortable tension because the past is a set of events that transpired once and can never be recaptured exactly. Instead, various efforts can be made to capture these events in some form – most often through a writing system that can tell certain aspects of what really happened. Societies desire to recapture the past at particular points in time for particular reasons.

The introductions to the two great Greek histories that are often thought of as the beginning of history in the fifth century BCE, The Histories by Herodotus and The History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, offer explicit reasons for trying to recapture the past. Herodotus opens his work

Herodotus of Halicarnasssus, his Researches [Greek: historiai] are here set down to preserve the memory of the past by putting on record the astonishing achievements both of our own and of other peoples; and more particularly, to show how they came into conflict.

Thucydides opens

Thucydides the Athenian wrote the history of the war fought between Athens and Sparta, beginning the account at the very outbreak of the war, in the belief that it was going to be a great war and more worth writing about than any of those which had taken place in the past…. This was the greatest disturbance in the history of the Hellenes…. For though I have found it impossible, because of its remoteness in time, to acquire a really precise knowledge of the distant past or even of the history preceding our own period, yet, after looking back into it as far as I can, all the evidence leads me to conclude that these periods were not great periods either in warfare or in anything else.

No comparable introduction is found in any text from the ancient Near Eastern world. In contrast to these two works, ancient Near Eastern accounts are typically anonymous, do not have introductions, and do not offer explicit reasons why they have been written.

This may suggest that it is best to avoid the term “history” for the Bible and, perhaps, the pre-Hellenistic ancient world. Many surveys of history writing do in fact exclude the Bible, beginning with the classical world.

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Brettler, Marc Zvi. The Creation of History in Ancient Israel. London: Routledge, 1995.
Davies, Philip R. Memories of Ancient Israel: An Introduction to Biblical History Ancient and Modern. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2008.
Dever, William G. What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know it? What Archaeology Can Tell Us About the Reality of Ancient Israel. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001.
Grabbe, Lester L. Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? London: T & T. Clark, 2007.
Grabbe, Lester Led. Can a “History of Israel” Be Written? (JSOTSup 245). Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.
Liverani, Mario. Israel's History and the History of Israel. London: Equinox, 2005.
Miller, J. Maxwell, and Hayes, John H.. A History of Ancient Israel and Judah, 2nd ed. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2006.