Review of George J. Brooke and Thomas Römer, eds., Ancient and Modern Scriptural Historiography - L'historiographie biblique, ancienne et moderne

Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 9 (2009) - Review

George J. Brooke and Thomas Römer, eds., Ancient and Modern Scriptural Historiography - L'historiographie biblique, ancienne et moderne (Bibliotheca Ephemeridum Theologicarum Lovaniensium 207; Leuven: Peeters, 2007). Pp. XXXVIII+372. Hardback. €75.00. ISBN 978-90-429-1969-3.

The present volume is a collection of papers presented at the Universities of Manchester and Sheffield concerning the topic of ancient and modern approaches to biblical historiography. Rather than concentrating on a distinct part of the biblical corpus or on a comparison of the historiography of ancient and modern authors regarding the events, culture, or ideas of a specific time period, the volume, representing essays from nineteen different scholars, focuses on the “specialist strength” (xiii) of these individual contributors. The book is divided into three sections representing this wide array of interests, including the more theoretically orientated “General Studies” (1-95), and the more text determined sections of the “Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism” (97-254) and “New Testament, Early Christianity and Their Contexts” (255-342). The book is then concluded with helpful indices of modern authors, scriptural references, and ancient sources.

The first section of contributions focuses on the theoretical underpinnings involved in writing history, exploring both ancient and modern assumptions that guide the way historians depict the past. A recurring leitmotiv within all of the essays of this section is that the historian, whether of antiquity or of present day, is conditioned by his or her ideological framework - and that the contemporary historian benefits from being aware of both their own presuppositions and those of the author being read. In this vein, the opening essay by Stuart D. Beeson, “Historiography: Fact and Fiction,” attempts to underscore the ideology imbedded within all historiography, arguing that any historical narrative necessarily begins from the observation of historical facts and is then conditioned by the imagination of the historian. Such a move from facts to imagination, Beeson asserts, entails that all historiography, in the end, is an express form of fiction dependent upon the ideological viewpoint of the historian.

The second essay, “'Another Country'? Biblical Texts and the Past” by P.R. Davies, examines the complexities involved in distilling “historicity” from the stories located in the Bible. Davies argues against what he perceives as two common mistakes in biblical scholarship regarding arguments for the historicity of specific narratives: that of a “piecemeal approach” in which disparate pieces of data that may corroborate a biblical narrative are gathered together in order to confirm the historicity of a text; and that of an “intentional fallacy” methodology - which Davies links most notably to the work of Baruch Halpern-in which the historical quality of a biblical text is connected to the intention of its author. In contrast to these approaches toward historicity, Davies appeals for historical research to be devoted to the “ways in which the past is understood and presented in the Bible” (20). As examples of this type of investigation, Davies offers the themes of “The Past as Explanation of the Way the World Is,” “The Past as the Way 'Israel' Is,” “The Past as the Way Israel Ought to Be,” and, lastly, “The Past as the Way the World Ought to Be.”

Keith W. Whitelam continues the focus of ideology within his contribution “The Poetics of the History of Israel: Shaping Palestinian History.” Within this essay Whitelam traces the ideological motivations at play within a number of 20th century histories of Israel, including that of Theodore Robinson, John Bright, and the Oxford History of the Biblical World edited by Michael Coogan. Each of these works, Whitelam contends, exhibits implicit presuppositions and agendas that, if ancient Israelite historiography is to mature and grow in the 21st century, should be made explicit.

The final three essays within the opening section of the volume are more pragmatic in nature: a review of the methodology of the early 20th century historian Eduard Meyer is found in Roger Tomes' “Conjuring History from Texts: Eduard Meyer's Contribution to Biblical Studies.” This is followed by a survey of the practice of writing history near the 1st century CE in F. Gerald Downing's “Historical Explanation in Jewish and Christian Writers and Their Contemporaries, around the First Century.” Finally a reflection by a church historian, Jeremy Gregory, on the nature of doing history from a history of religion perspective appears in “The Historian and the History of Religion.”

The eight essays that comprise the second section, the “Hebrew Bible and Early Judaism,” range from studies devoted to such disparate topics as history within the Deuteronomistic writings, sacerdotal biblical historiography, history and apocalyptic, and the historiographic tendencies of the rabbinic period. What unites these contributions, in the end, is simply curiosity about the historical methodology and practices of different authors with widely different concerns, spanning from the Iron II period until Qumran.

The first essay in this section by Adrian Curtis, “Joshua: Historical Mapping,” deals with the nature of geographic material included within the book of Joshua, arguing that such geographic data was a type of source material used by writers when composing their historical narratives.

The second contribution of the section comes from Thomas Römer, entitled “La construction d'une 'Vie de Moïse' dans la Bible Hébraïque et chez quelques auteurs hellénistiques.” Römer offers a well-argued and thoughtful treatment of the composition of the Moses narratives, maintaining that the first stories about Moses were penned in the Assyrian period as a response to Assyrian hegemony in the region (113). Römer then traces the development of redactions to these original narratives, positing a “second Moses” created during the Persian period in which the more militaristic Moses of Assyrian times was placed in tension with the law-giving Moses of the Persian era. Römer then concludes with a survey of the influence of these two different “Moseses” continuing into Hellenistic times.

Following Römer, Diana Edelman's “The 'Empty Land' as a Motif in City Laments” considers the relationship between the ideology of the “empty land” found within both ancient Near Eastern writings and biblical texts concerning the fall of Jerusalem. Contra R.P. Carroll's conclusion that the theme of the empty land was connected to Israel's covenant theology, Edelman contends that the use of this motif was dependent rather on the familiarity of Judean scribes with the Mesopotamian city-lament genre surrounding the destruction and restoration of a specific city. The hyperbole of the empty land present in the biblical laments therefore stemmed from the ideological heritage of Mesopotamia in which a specific locale was to be barren before restoration activity could begin.

Continuing with comparative research between biblical and Mesopotamian sources, Christophe Nihan explores the relationship between myth and history within the writings of P in his study “L'écrit sacerdotal entre mythe et histoire.” Locating P within a Mesopotamian context, Nihan argues for an understanding of the genre of P's narratives as dependent upon Mesopotamian sources, a genre he terms “historicizing myth” (189).

Following Nihan, Jean-Daniel Kaestli also focuses on a specific sub-genre of historiography, that of apocalyptic historiography in the Book of Daniel, in his essay “Les rapports entre apocalyptique et historiographie: réflexions à partir du livre de Daniel.” Kaestli concludes that the historiography in Daniel is written with an awareness of a number of historiographical practices, including that of the Hellenistic powers against which the book is composed and the tradition of the author's own community.

The final three essays within the section are devoted to texts outside of the biblical corpus. The first, “L'histoire d'Israël dans les fragments d'Eupolème” by Thomas Naef, explores the historiography of Eupolemus present in the fragments of Eupolemus' writings preserved by other sources. George Brooke, in his “Types of Historiography in the Dead Sea Scrolls,” raises the interesting question as to why “historical” books like the Deuteronomistic History or Ezra-Nehemiah are so poorly represented among the wealth of Qumran documents. Rather than drawing on the dominant historical tradition, Brooke maintains that the sectarian community employed historiography for theological and eschatological purposes, “assisting in identifying more precisely God's plans…” (230). Lastly, Philip Alexander writes on the Targum's assessment of the Hasmoneans in Jewish history, focusing specifically on Targum Canticles 6,7-12 in his “From Poetry to Historiography: The Image of the Hasmoneans in Targum Canticles and the Question of the Targum's Provenance and Date.”

The final section of the volume offers five essays on the historiography of the early Christian period. A common theme in these studies is the relationship between early Christian writers and their Greco-Roman contemporaries, particularly the differences and similarities between the historiographical practices of the two traditions. Peter Oakes begins this portion of the volume with his observations of social-political pressures that influenced Greco-Roman historiography, and possibly ancient history in general, in his “Honour, Dishonour and Legitimation: Some Factors Shaping Ancient Historical Writing.” A comparison between Christian and Greek Historiography (namely, Herodotus and Thucydides) continues in Loveday Alexander's “Marathon or Jericho? Reading Acts in Dialogue with Biblical and Greek Historiography. Alexander asserts that Luke decidedly follows the biblical historiographic tradition over against that of the Greek historians. A third comparative essay comes from Daniel Marguerat in “Jewish and Christian Understandings of the Fall of Jerusalem: Conflicting Interpretations of a Historical Event.” Marguerat explores the event of the fall of Jerusalem from three different lenses, that of Roman, Jewish, and Christian sources, noting that, where the Rabbinic sources viewed themselves as an intricate component involved with the reasons behind the destruction, Christian writers, such as the author of Matthew, viewed themselves as outsiders to the event.

The final two contributions in the section consider more pointedly the historical methodology of New Testament authors. Valérie Nicolet Anderson, in her “Une relecture paulinienne de l'histoire d'Israël,” embarks on an analysis of Paul's use of history in Romans 9-11, noting that Paul does not attempt to rewrite history in these chapters but rather highlights certain episodes in order to offer a new understanding of Israel's past. Lastly, Emmanuelle Steffek explores the tendency to move from historiography to hagiography regarding the figure of Peter within the Acts of the Apostles to the Acts of Peter in his “Comment on refait l'histoire: La figure de Pierre entre histoire et hagiographie (Actes de apôtres et Actes de Pierre).”

The broad and diverse perspectives that serve as the volume's strength also, in the end, contribute to its weakness: namely, the absence of a unifying historical topic or critical issue among the many potential concerns regarding ancient historiography. Without such a focus, and a corresponding dialogue between the contributors over a specific theme, the reader is left without a definitive sense of where the volume is moving the scholarly conversation. Nevertheless, the volume is marked by a number of rich essays that, along with the recent volumes edited by Patricia Fitzpatrick and Timothy Goltz (The Function of Ancient Historiography in Biblical and Cognate Studies, 2008), H.G.M. Williamson (Understanding the History of Ancient Israel, 2007), and Erhard Blum et al. (Das Alte Testament: Ein Geschichtsbuch?, 2005), attest to the vibrancy of contemporary studies devoted to ancient history and historiography within international scholarship.

Dan Pioske, Princeton Theological Seminary