What is history? It may come as a surprise that historians do not have unanimous answer to the question. The historical survey of the concept by philosopher of history R. G. Collingwood in his seminal The Idea of History, for instance, examines how the notion of history evolved from the time of Herodotus to the twentieth century, to then offer Collingwood's own view of what history is. The Oxford Dictionary defines history as, ‘The past events connected with the development of a particular place, subject, etc.’ and ‘The study of past events, especially as a subject at school or university’. One may concede that history, or at least one dimension of it, is about “the past”, but students of this “past” will inevitably ask, or at least they should, ‘how do we know what we know about the past?’
That is a historiographical question. The question is undoubtedly relevant for theology students studying “the past” of Israel or “the past” of Jesus of Nazareth, and it is particularly relevant for evangelical students considering their veracity and reliability. So, what is history? A constructive and comprehensive answer to this question is testimony. In short, if we are to appreciate the biblical testimony as genuine history, we need to be able to understand all historical reconstructions as someone’s testimony about the past.
The historical critical method employed by many Theology and Religious Studies departments, whether in historical Jesus research or studies in history of ancient Israel, is that of modern history. In order to reconstruct the past, any historian must rely on sources—“I wasn’t there; who can tell me about it?”—but the modern discipline of history, popularly considered to be pioneered in nineteenth century German universities, formalised specific rules (i.e., a methodology) to decide which sources could be trusted in order to reconstruct the “real” past (wie es eigentlich gewesen). Here are two rules of thumb:
Firstly, non-ideological accounts of the past are to be preferred to ideological ones.
Secondly, one should prioritise the accounts that fit the historian’s perception of normality.
To be sure, modern historians were not the first to discriminate sources for reconstructing the past. Ancient writers regularly distrusted sources on the basis of gender, class, and race. However, modern historians were the first, as these rules clearly indicate, to claim their methodology to operate on a principle of impartiality, requiring no degree of trust or bias. This, postcolonial historiographers note, is the myth of the neutral observer.
The criticism of the modern historical critical method by postcolonial scholars not only stresses that any historical reconstruction is someone’s testimony about the past, but it also urges us, not least evangelical theology students, to ask: whose testimony about the past do modern historical critics trust?
For instance, considering the rules above, what does a non-ideological account of the past even mean? Are ideologies somehow optional? Is not the very discriminatory choice between sources ideological in nature? Are modern historians, perhaps, referring to specific ideologies, and they speak of preferred ideologies instead?
Furthermore, and at this point the veil is lifted, what is so special about the historian’s perception of normality? Does the perception of modern historical critics define what reality is for everyone else? For an academic discipline claiming to foster inclusive and diverse research, the privileging of the reality perception of a bourgeoise Caucasian minority in the West seems out of touch. The real experience of “normality” by scholars across genders, classes, races, and religions is far more diverse and complex than the secular naturalism of the historical critical method. So, whose testimony about the past do modern historical critics trust? The answer is, their own.
History is a testimony given either by a person concerning their past or by a person concerning someone’s else past. Modern historians merely belong to the second category. For instance, a modern historical critic may distrust the testimonies of the early church (recorded in the four Gospels) concerning the life of Jesus of Nazareth on the ground that these are “ideological” in nature. Hence, he or she proceeds to reconstruct from their testimonies their own testimony: the historical (“real”) Jesus is thus fabricated.
Similarly, from the testimonies of the Israelite communities concerning their past, practices, and beliefs (recorded in the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament), modern historians reconstruct their own testimony in the form of (yet another) history of ancient Israel.
The question theology students need to bear in mind is, whose testimony does a biblical scholar or historian prioritise and trust?
If people’s testimonies are inevitably ideological, historians must either wield empathy, recognising the relative value of the diversity of human experiences, or rely on “non-human” sources. As per the second option, the Annales school, pioneered by twentieth century French historians, developed a style of scientific and social history: the histoire totale. This historiographical method relied, firstly, on (a) climatic or geographical conditions (e.g., a natural disaster) as a basic “structure” of certainty, to then (b) discern their concomitant economic and social trends (e.g., migrations), and only lastly (c) to test the historicity of a documentary source (e.g., Israel’s testimony of their exodus from Egypt).
That is, as a people’s testimony is not reliable, the historian can only trust natural and sociological phenomena and, preferably, “mute” archaeological artefacts. The historian’s sources are now to be the natural and social sciences and archaeology: someone’s literary testimony concerning their past is not a legitimate source but a suspicious confession in need of corroboration.
The heir of the Annales school in the field of biblical studies is the Copenhagen school of Niels P. Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson at the University of Copenhagen and Philip R. Davies at the University of Sheffield. The school is also styled as “biblical minimalism”, and unsurprisingly so. For the Copenhageners, non-ideological natural phenomena, socioeconomic tendencies, and mute archaeological artefacts assure us of “what happened”. Literary testimonies, on the other hand, are ideological interpretations imposed on “pure facts” by their authors. That is, reliable data must be beyond human consciousness: if testimonies speak, they lie. Yet, the radical suspicion of this methodology begs us to return the same question: how does mute and non-ideological data find their interpretative and creative voice to reconstruct the past? Whose voice is recounting these tales of old?
An archaeological artefact from an ancient civilization either carries the civilization’s testimony concerning their past or it is up to the historian to reconstruct it. In the latter case, it is the historian’s testimony to narrate the past of a nation or society, because until a testimony concerning the past is construed, until a story of a nation is narrated, the historical reconstruction is incomplete. The historiographer of classical antiquity Arnaldo Momigliano stressed the distinction of history and antiquarianism. Historians, Momigliano noted, evaluate, and interpret their sources to then reconstruct (narrate) a possible coherent course of events.
Furthermore, the past is often reconstructed in order for a society to learn from it: learning from the past for the sake of the future (e.g., the many histories of Nazi Germany). Antiquarians, on the other hand, are “librarians”. They classify and catalogue cultural heritages. They compile realia but cannot narrate the history of a nation or a society. The study of history is only made possible by testimonies, either ancient or modern. Ian Provan aptly comments on the ineluctable reality of testimonies and their ideologies:
[E]very time that one offers an explanation of a piece of pottery in the ground; every time that one correlates an ancient inscription with other information from an archaeological site; every time that one makes a connection between population movements and climatic conditions—on every such occasion, one is theorizing and hypothesizing, assessing probability, and using analogy and guesswork. And in the process of doing all these things, one is inevitably bringing one’s own worldview to bear, in terms of fundamental beliefs and prejudices, in terms of ideology. One is inevitably engaged not only in Wissenschaft but also, quite clearly, in metaphysics.
Historical reconstructions rely on testimonies and all testimonies are inherently ideological. History is an ideological discipline, even more so the social history of the Annales school. In fact, the very radical distrust of such a method displays a distinct ideology in operation. Is not the view that human affairs are governed entirely by natural phenomena but the fruit of an ideology—albeit a nihilistic one? Is not the notion that human consciousness and volition do not contribute to the life of civilizations but are simply victims of socioeconomic struggles itself an ideology of philosophical determinism? Should one mention the metaphysical naturalism that underpins one’s reluctance to conceive of a divine involvement in history? The list could continue.
The French philosopher and theologian Paul Ricoeur probed the boundary of fiction and factuality in modern history through the category of story: any testimony of the past is but someone’s story, and any story—if so purposed—is someone’s testimony about the past. Stories are testimonies, ideological in nature, and so are historical reconstructions. Hence, the theology student should return the historical critical question to the questioner: whose testimony are you trusting in and whose ideology are you privileging? That is, whose story are you believing in? Yet, this question can only serve the theology student to uncover the false myths of secular modernity. Disciples of Jesus, however, must go further. They must be intentional in forming and transforming their own perception of reality by continuously asking themselves, whose testimony am I trusting and whose story am I living in? Because it is only by daily trusting in the biblical testimony, by daily inhabiting the biblical narration of reality, that one can find an evangelical ideological stance from which to discern and test all other testimonies to reality.
 Frederick C. Beiser, The German Historicist Tradition (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 254ff.
 See Anna Runesson, “Deconstructing Western Biblical Studies”, in Exegesis in the Making (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 52–58.
 Note the (boldly) suggestive title of Francesca Stavrakopoulou’s doctoral dissertation, King Manasseh and Child Sacrifice: Biblical Distortions of Historical Realities (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2004).
 For an exposition of history as a combination of natural and social sciences, see Jonathan H. Turner, “Explaining the Social World: Historicism versus Positivism” The Sociological Quarterly, 47:3, 451–463.
 The same historical method in the field of New Testament studies is employed by Gerd Thiessen of Heidelberg University; see, e.g., Thiessen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1978).
 Arnaldo Momigliano, “Storia antica e antiquaria”, in Sui fondamenti della storia antica (Torino: G. Einaudi, 1984), 5–6.
 Ian Provan, “Ideologies, Literary and Critical: Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel”, Journal of Biblical Literature, 114:4, 591.
Dever, William G. (2001). What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
While Dever’s analysis operates, in part, from within the categories of modernity which do not allow an appreciation of the entirety of the Hebrew Bible as genuine history, this study is a sophisticated criticism of historical approaches that ignore documentary sources as well as a sensible recognition of the limits of archaeology in historical reconstructions. Dever, an archaeologist himself, concludes that the Bible was written from genuine historical sources, and that archaeology is one of the disciplines that can identify this historical core.
Long, V. Philips, David Baker, & Gordon J. Wenham (Eds.), Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel”. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.
This is an invaluable volume whereby the authors rebuild a case for a positive appraisal of biblical Israel and for the historical value of Scripture in response to the recent trend in revisionist scholarship that has portrayed the Bible’s picture of ancient Israel as a fiction. The scope of the volume is broad, and the essays span from a consideration of the models and methods of historical research; the value of the verbal testimony of biblical texts; extrabiblical evidence offered by archaeological and comparative literary studies; two case studies of the book of Chronicles; and lastly, an essay by Ian Provan on the philosophical assumptions and ideologies of history writing. (For another essay on the considering the same issues of ideology and philosophical assumptions in history writing, see Provan, Ian W. (1995). Ideologies, Literary and Critical: Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel. Journal of Biblical Literature, 114 (4), 585–606.)
Kofoed, Jens Bruun (2005). Text and History. Ann Arbor: Eisenbrauns.
Kofoed’s book addresses the methodological issues that lie behind the use of biblical texts and their validity as sources for historical information. By evaluating specific test cases, Kofoed discusses the presuppositions underlying various methodologies and shows that later extant texts are not less valuable as sources of historical information.
Miller, J. Maxwell (2009). Is it Possible to Write a History of Israel Without Relying on the Hebrew Bible? In Diana V. Edelman (Ed.), Fabric of History: Text, Artifact and Israel’s Past. Sheffield Academic Press.
Williamson, H.G.M. (2009). The Origins of Israel: Can We Safely Ignore the Bible? In Shmuel Ahituv & Eliezer D. Oren (Eds.), The Origin of Early Israel-Current Debate: Biblical, Historical and Archaeological Perspectives. New York: Routledge.
These two essays set out to precisely answer the question they ask, and their answer is an emphatic no. While these authors understanding of the Bible as a source of historical information differs—and helpfully so—they unanimously argue that any attempts at historical reconstruction of ancient Israel that ignore the Bible as an important source are inevitably misguided.
Provan, Ian, V. Philips Long & Tremper Longman III (2015). A Biblical History of Israel (2nd ed.). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.
In this textbook, Provan, Long and Longman III reconstruct a history of ancient Israel that considers the biblical testimony seriously as an historical document. The Old Testament canon is the governing historical paradigm and the primary document for reconstructing Israel’s history while not ignoring the disciplines of archaeology, sociology, and anthropology as well as nonbiblical sources. The authors also consider and offer criticisms of other primers in the field of ancient Israel research.
Hahn, Ferdinand (1972). Historical Investigation and New Testament Faith: Two Essays. Robert Maddox (Transl.). Philadelphia: Fortress Press.
Hahn’s essays are valuable in that they provide an account of the limitations of the historical critical method in New Testament studies from the perspective of a historical critic. Hahn identifies epistemological assumptions as the underlying element of tension in the modern search for an uninterpreted historical Jesus. Hahn concludes that modern historians can only produce a scholarly narration of a plausible past that is not distinct, in form, from the early Christians narration of the life of Jesus.
Johnson, Luke Timothy (1997). The Real Jesus: The Misguided Quest for the Historical Jesus and the Truth of the Traditional Gospel. San Francisco: HarperOne.
In this book Johnson offers a thorough criticism of the assumptions and presumptions of the Jesus Seminar. Johnson’s offers an insightful differentiation of the historical Jesus from the “real” Jesus and argues that, although the historical Jesus is often considered as unearthing of the real Jesus of the past, it is but a testimony that must be trusted in faith, as much as the “Jesus of faith” of the church. In fact, the latter, Johnson argues, has a deeper relevance and a higher value than the former.
Wright, N. T. (1992). The New Testament and the People of God. London: SPCK
This first volume in the series Christian Origins and the Question of God is a historical, theological, and literary study of first-century Judaism and Christianity. In Part II of the book, Wright expounds the methodology of his study. It is a helpful discussion on the issues of epistemology and worldviews in the field historical research. Wright outlines a version of critical realism as a viable historical method in biblical studies that sees theology and history as complementary dimensions for a holistic study of early Christianity and the person of Jesus.
Collingwood, R. G. (1967). The Idea of History. London: Oxford University Press.
This seminal work surveys how the concept of history has evolved from the time of Herodotus to the twentieth century. Collingwood’s study is insightful not only in showing how the assumptions in history writing are heterogeneous (Part I–IV), but it is also a classical exposition of the distinctiveness of modern history and its posture of suspicion (Part V).
Iggers, G.G. (1984). The German Conception of History. Scranton: Wesleyan University Press.
Iggers’s study is an exhaustive critical examination of the modern German tradition of historiography. It analyses the theoretical assumptions of nineteenth and twentieth centuries German historians and relates these assumptions to their political ideology—from the cosmopolitan culture-oriented nationalism to an exclusive state-cantered nationalism. This is a sophisticated historical critical analysis of the socio-political discourses that produced the ideology of the historical critical method: a superb genealogy of deconstructionism.
Hart, Trevor A. (2004). Faith Thinking: The Dynamics of Christian Theology (2nd ed.). Eugene: Wipf & Stock.
Hart’s book is an introduction to the vital questions of methodology in Christian theology. It argues that “faith commitments” are necessary not only in theology but in any serious acts of human knowledge. The realities of theology and history are considered as integral to one another. For Hart, any attempt to knowledge, whether historical, scientific or theological is bound to a process of “faith seeking understanding”.
Davies, Philip R. (1995). Method and Madness: Some Remarks on Doing History with the Bible. Journal of Biblical Literature, 114(4), 699–705.
In this short essay Davies expounds and defends the assumption behind a methodology for historical research representative of the Copenhagen school.
White, Hayden (1990). The Content of the Form: Narrative Discourse and Historical Representation. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press).
White’s ground-breaking book is a philosophical study that probes the notion of authority in history writing and examines the problems of the relation of meaning and truth in historical reconstructions. White’s insightful study suggests that any history writing is inevitably bound to the narrative imagination of the author and argues that this does not undermine the truthfulness of a historical work, on the contrary: it is the inevitable form of any representation of reality.
Daniel Bocchetti studied Theology and Religious Studies at the University of Aberdeen. After living in Germany and the Pacific Northwest of the United States for two years, he returned to England and …
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