Tuesday, February 23, 2010

An Introduction to History and Historiography

At the outset of a discussion of the history, historicity, and historiography of the biblical text of the Old Testament, it is necessary to understand exactly what is being discussed. R. K. Harrison, in his Introduction to the Old Testament says, “It the best sense of the term, the objective of history, as a branch of research or inquiry in the field of the humanities, is the investigation of human activities in a given period or periods of the past with a view to discerning the nature and significance of man’s achievements” (Harrison, IOT, p. 291).

This definition contains two key features. First, it is “the investigation of human activities in a given period or periods of time.” It therefore requires research into past people, acts, and events. Second, it is done to “discern the nature and significance of man’s achievements.” It therefore requires interpretation of the research, which will inevitably be done with the presuppositions and biases of the historian dictating both what is included and what is said about what is included.

Historiography, of necessity, must include a perspective. There is, in the simple recording of an act of history, an act of interpretation since the author is interpreting the event as worthy to be remembered by a future generation. The author may, as he sees fits, further enlarge on his view of the significance of the event, informing the reader as to why the author considered this event worthy of record.

In fact, it is impossible to write history without making judgments based something as simple as what should or should not be included (“Is it important for my point?”) or on something as complex as why certain things happened as they did. As a result there is a certain amount of subjectivity in historiography as the author chooses material, arranges that material, and interprets that material to make his point.

History is sometimes viewed under two broad headings known by their German names: historie and geschichte. The former, historie, deals with facts—the events that actually happened. Its concern is for the facticity, or the actuality of the events. Geschichte deals with the contemporary significance of the events. “It goes beyond or ignores (even denies) the element of facticity. In the case of the OT, it deals with what Israel believed happened, not what actually may have happened.”[1] While this division easily lends itself to a critical view of OT history, it need not necessarily do so. It is clear that there are objective facts of history. Yet it is also clear that there are subjective understandings of those events. Furthermore, in the writing of history there is a necessary selectivity (to be addressed later). That is, it would be impossible for a particular author to say everything that there is to say about an event due to many constraints, not the least of which is his personal bias about the meaning of the event combined with his less than complete knowledge of the event. Even if he was there to witness the event from a completely neutral perspective (likely impossible in any event), he has no access to the mind of the participants that would enable him to explain why the participants acted or reacted as they did. In short, he can see the actions, and he can hear what the participants might tell him about their perspective of a situation, but that knowledge is limited, and will inevitably be processed through his own perspective.

There is a third German word, heilgeschichte, that means “salvation history.” While the word in and of itself need not be particularly troubling, it is used by some to discount the historicity or factuality of the Bible in favor of seeing a free reign of the author to tell the story however he wants (without necessary regard to truth or fact) for the purpose of telling a story of salvation. For these, the Bible’s authority is limited to matters of salvation, not to matters of history, science, or the like.

Such a limitation is inherently problematic since it assigns varying levels of authority to the statements of Scripture in an arbitrary fashion. The Bible makes no distinction between different types of facts. Indeed, many of the teachings of “salvation” are based on the historicity of the stories in question.

[1]David M. Howard, Jr. An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody Press, 1993), p. 41.

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