Review of H. M. Barstad, History and the Hebrew Bible

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

Barstad, Hans M., History and the Hebrew Bible: Studies in Ancient Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Historiography (FAT, 61; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008). Pp. xiv + 223. Cloth. € 64.00. ISBN 978-3-16-149809-1.

The extent to which the stories of Israel's past contained in the Hebrew Bible reflect the history of ancient Syria-Palestine continues to be one of the most discussed topics within the field of biblical studies, with a myriad of books and essays on this topic recently emerging from both North American and European scholarship.[1] The number, and vibrancy, of these works attest not only to the importance of the question but also to its unresolved character: in the wake of theoretical and philosophical debates in the last three decades surrounding the aims of historical research in adjacent historical disciplines, and the (salutary) rise of synchronic literary methods of textual analysis in biblical studies,[2] the question of how historians interpret the biblical text so as to reconstruct the past of the Levant has become increasingly more complex. No longer able to work with the guiding assumptions concerning the historical character of the biblical text that propelled Alt, Albright, Noth, and Bright toward their magisterial historical works, it is both the burden and opportunity of a new generation of historians to think through once again the foundational presuppositions guiding the interpretation of ancient texts and the way in which the historian reconstructs a past from them.

In response to these questions and concerns, Hans Barstad's publication is a welcome contribution to the field by an accomplished ancient historian who is able to command a wide range of literature within theoretical and philosophical disciplines. The depth and breadth of Barstad's historical scholarship is fully on display in this collection of revised essays published originally from 1996 to 2003. The scope of these essays exhibits Barstad's commitment to both methodological and constructive considerations within the domain of ancient history, ranging from hermeneutical discussions concerning how the historian reads and represents the past of ancient texts to more concrete treatments of specific historical questions—a selection of essays that attempt “to show how theory and practice can be mutually beneficial” (Barstad, vii). Since the volume is a collection of distinct essays rather than a monograph focusing on a single topic, the following review will offer a short synopsis of the key arguments from each chapter, after which I will conclude with more general observations regarding the value of this work and the lingering questions that remain.

Barstad's first essay is perhaps the most programmatic of the volume, sharing its title with that of the book and addressing what Barstad terms the “crisis” of history in biblical studies. After a sustained reflection on the problems occasioned by debates surrounding hermeneutics, linguistics, and generic categories for historians, Barstad offers what is, in many respects, the cri de coeur of the entire volume:

What is at stake here is that history, on the whole, has become much more problematic. This should, however, be regarded as a necessary development, which demands of historians to take, at least a practical, interest also in epistemological and ontological questions. The post-modernist challenge cannot simply be ignored. In the long run this will lead to stale antiquarianism. (Barstad, 7)

Most alarming for Barstad, with these observations in mind, is the way in which biblical scholars have by and large disregarded or neglected the theoretical challenges occupying historians in other fields of historical research.[3] Enmeshed in the methodological nettings of 19th and early 20th century historicism (and here Barstad sees little difference between “minimalist” and “maximalist” historians), the future of historical studies devoted to ancient Israel must, it is argued, shift its epistemological foundation from the realm of the sciences into that of art and culture, drawing upon multiple methods that depict the past creatively from many different angles. For Barstad, the way to avoid positivistic approaches to history is a return to the methods of narrative historiography.

Barstad's second essay, “Issues in the Narrative Truth Debate,” explores more deeply the type of truth available to historians in their reconstructions of the past. Thinking through the task of the ancient historian, the chapter surveys significant controversies within historical studies regarding the “New History,” the linguistic turn in philosophy, and the relationship between fact and fiction in representing the past. In this section the author draws upon the writings of such thinkers as J. Derrida, H. White, and P. Ricoeur in order to illustrate the difficulties in accessing and reconstructing ancient cultures and civilizations. With an eye directed toward the historian and the biblical sources, Barstad argues that future Syria-Palestinian historiography must become more sensitive to the way in which the past is depicted in premodern, ancient Near Eastern texts whose perception of what is true does not abide by the standards of modern, critical historicism. Toward this end Barstad concludes, in a manner that illustrates his dependence particularly on White and Ricoeur, that the most methodologically sound approach to writing about the ancient past is to reflect the narrativity of the ancient stories the historian reads, thus offering “a kind of narrative history whose positivistic truth is lying somewhere on the scale between what happened and the scholarly reconstructions of what happened, but much closer to the latter end of the scale” (Barstad, 38). Rather than a naive belief that the historian can access unadulterated facts and depict the past, Barstad cautions that all historical representation necessarily blends the creative, imaginative faculties of the historian with the evidence available through the historian's sources.

The third essay of the volume, “‘Bibliophobia’ in Ancient Israelite Historiography,” takes up the problem of utilizing the biblical text for depictions of Israel's past. Acknowledging the many difficulties in employing biblical writings for historical purposes, Barstad highlights that all ancient literature, from the Sumerian King List to Herodotus, contain similar interpretive problems to those of the Hebrew Bible. Because no sustained arguments have been put forward to conclude that the biblical record is more problematic than other ancient writings for historical reconstructions, Barstad's straightforward conclusion, directed particularly against those scholars unwilling to use any of the Hebrew Bible in their reconstructions of ancient Syria-Palestine, is that the biblical text must be utilized and interpreted in ways similar to any other ancient document. This is a hermeneutical stance that does not attempt to isolate verifiable facts, but rather endeavours to discern the “likelihood” of narrated events, persons, and ideas indeed taking place in the past. (Barstad, 44)

Barstad's fourth and fifth chapters entitled “The Dating of the Israelite Tradition” and “Is the Hebrew Bible a Hellenistic Book?“ together address the tendency in recent biblical scholarship to date significant portions of the Hebrew Bible to the Hellenistic period, including that of the Deuteronomistic History. In the first of these two essays Barstad discusses at length certain themes of Deuteronomy and the Deuteronomistic History (i.e., law, war, treaty, king) and connects these motifs to a “common theology” or Einheitskultur that was present in the ancient Near East. Having established links between these writings of ancient Israel and a wider ancient Near Eastern milieu, Barstad concludes that there is a “strong possibility” that Israel's written traditions in the Deuteronomistic History “may be rather ancient” and “were most certainly not created overnight in Persian or Hellenistic scribal centres, but represent centuries of development” (Barstad, 63). In voicing his protest against a late authorship of the Deuteronomistic History, Barstad next turns his attention in chapter five toward an influential 1993 article by Niels Peter Lemche, “The Old Testament—a Hellenistic Book?”[4] Offering an extended response to four key arguments proposed by Lemche for placing most of the Old Testament in a Hellenistic context, Barstad concludes forcefully that “not one single argument” in Lemche's article “can be said to support a dating to Hellenistic times” (Barstad, 89).

The final two essays of the volume provide more concrete analysis of a specific historical question pertaining to ancient Israel, namely, the history of Judah during the Babylonian exile. In the first of these essays Barstad contests two presentations of life within Judah during the Neo-Babylonian period: the first, presented by the biblical text and those 19th century Romantics who followed it uncritically, is the depiction of Judah as a devastated, depopulated region whose small remnant consisted only of the poor and marginalized of the land; and second, the more recent scholarly portrayal of this period as one in which the spiritual and cultural center of Judah moved to Babylon, leaving exilic Judah as a land with many inhabitants but few leaders capable of carrying on the religious and political life of the people. Drawing upon a wealth of evidence from the biblical text, archaeology, and comparative data from the Transjordan and Babylon, Barstad maintains that there are “clear indications of cultural and material continuity before and after 586 BCE” (Barstad, 132). This notion of continuity is then taken up again in the final essay of the volume, “Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period.” In this essay Barstad brings his earlier discussion up-to-date, drawing principally on archaeological and textual data related to the political and economic life of Judah during Neo-Babylonian rule. Noting Babylon's expansionist policies and economic dependence on its newly conquered regions, Barstad contends once again that the complete destruction of Judah during this time would have made little political or economic sense and, in lieu of the more recent data from Israel and Mesopotamia, that the biblical presentation of Judah in the exilic period as an “empty land” must be contested with the evidence that shows that “life [in Judah] went on after 586 BCE pretty much in the same way as it did before the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar's armies, possibly, but not necessarily, on a reduced scale” (Barstad, 159).

Barstad's volume provides a rich and much-needed discussion of recent philosophical and theoretical debates emanating out of the field of history that helpfully caters its insights toward relevant issues within the discipline of ancient Syro-Palestinian historiography. By focusing the reader's attention toward these theoretical and philosophical matters, Barstad makes a significant contribution: namely, the illustration of why future investigations into ancient Israelite history cannot isolate themselves from developments within the philosophy of history and neighbouring historical disciplines. [5] With a command of biblical and cognate languages, the historian of ancient Israel must also be conversant with Hellenistic, Islamic, and Medieval historians (to name but a few) who are currently experiencing similar debates concerning the relationship between premodern texts devoted to the past and the historian's use of this literature for historical reconstructions. Furthermore, as Barstad demonstrates throughout his volume, the ancient historian must remain cognizant of such philosophers as Nietzsche, Vico, Collingwood, and Ricoeur, whose perspectives on the aims and methods of historiography provide trenchant critiques of the historicism still dominant within biblical studies. Barstad helpfully illustrates, even if he himself does not make the explicit claim, that the historian of ancient Israel must be deeply read within the fields that comprise the humanities in order to reflect currents within literary theory, history and philosophy. In an era of ever-increasing specialization such an appeal is certainly a demanding one, but reflects the complexity involved in and sophistication needed for the ancient historian's task.

Along with the many laudatory aspects of Barstad's volume, a few questions remain. The first concerns Barstad's own general conclusions that proceed out of his theoretical and philosophical remarks. While Barstad provides important criticisms of current historical approaches to the biblical text, particularly those he labels as “minimalists,” Barstad's own constructive proposals are often weighted down with ambiguity. To take an example from the first essay, Barstad remarks, one the one hand, that “there is no reason to deny the historicity of David or Solomon” and follows this observation by stating nevertheless that “we do not get access to the ‘real’ history of David and Solomon through the very late and schematic Deuteronomistic History.” This remark is then followed by the claim that “it is possible to know something” concerning these figures since the Deuteronomistic history “must be based on older traditions,” but, again, this does not mean “we can really reconstruct ‘what really happened.’” (Barstad, 19). Such a view is surely more nuanced than older scholarship on ancient Israelite history, but precisely how the historian is able to “know something” of the United Monarchy and is confident that information in the Deuteronomistic History is “based on older traditions” is never discussed—glaring omissions that could have, considering the current debates in the field, been treated with more precision and care. Related to this point, Barstad often qualifies important notions by placing quotations around concepts such as what is “true,” (Barstad, 5, 8, 14, 23), “historical” (Barstad, 9, 14, 21, 23), “fiction” (Barstad, 15, 20), and a “fact” (Barstad, 20) in regard to historical texts throughout his initial essay, but the claim is then made that “there are many more ‘historical facts’ to be found in the Hebrew Bible than what most scholars tend to believe today” (Barstad, 22). Such a conclusion begs the question of how, precisely, the historian goes about distinguishing these “historical facts” that have been argued to be so problematic previously throughout the chapter. Such ambiguity proceeds into the following essay as well where a narrative historical approach is advocated, but whose description of this methodology lacks the precision needed for such a complex theoretical position on historiography. For example: “Even if there are a lot of historical facts in our stories they cannot as often as we like easily be converted into truth statements” (Barstad, 38). Perhaps this is why Barstad's final two essays on Judah during the Neo-Babylonian period lacks some of the methodological rigor and theoretical self-awareness appealed to in the first essays: while certainly well-read in the current debates afflicting historians, the manner in which Barstad utilizes these philosophical insights for his more concrete historical treatments is somewhat nebulous. Barstad's fine historical investigation of Judah during the Babylonian exile is certainly dissimilar from that of the more extreme wings of maximalist and minimalist historians, but overall his methodology of critically reading the biblical text, focusing upon material culture, and appealing to comparative ancient Near Eastern evidence places him soundly within the mainstream of current ancient Israelite historians. While advocating (and at times berating) historians of Syria-Palestine for their lack of creative responses to the post-modern challenges facing the discipline of history, Barstad's own approach to Israel's past and the Hebrew Bible is fairly conventional. This is not necessarily a critique, but it does place into question precisely how Barstad sees his own theoretical work affecting his historiography or, to return to the statement at the beginning of his volume, how theory and praxis are “mutually beneficial” for his own reconstructive efforts.

Despite these few misgivings I heartily recommend Barstad's volume, particularly to those biblical scholars interested in wider debates concerning how the historian reconstructs and represents an ancient past through the use of textual sources and material culture. Barstad's essays pose crucial questions to the way in which ancient historians interpret and utilize the Hebrew Bible for historical reconstructions, and his critical insights move the discussion forward into encounters with a broader community of historians engaging similar questions. In doing so, Barstad reminds the historian of ancient Israel that the task of representing the past faithfully is shared by others, and that participating in these discussions can only assist in repaying the debt to which every historian is beholden: “…the historian is subject to that which, one day, was. He owes a debt to the past, a debt of recognition to the dead, that makes him an insolvent debtor.”[6]

Dan Pioske, Princeton Theological Seminary

[1] For a sampling of works devoted to this topic in the last decade, see V. Philips Long, ed., Israel's Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999); Erhard Blum et al., Das Alte Testament - ein Geschichtsbuch?: Beiträge des Symposiums "Das Alte Testament und die Kultur der Moderne" anlässlich des 100. Geburtstags Gerhard von Rads (1901-1971), Heidelberg, 18.-21. Oktober 2001 (Münster: Lit, 2005); George J. Brooke and Thomas Römer, eds., Ancient and Modern Scriptural Historiography - L'historiographie biblique, ancienne et moderne (BETL 207; Leuven: Peeters, 2007); H.G.M. Williamson, ed., Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (Proceedings of the British Academy; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Patricia Fitzpatrick and Timothy Goltz, eds., The Function of Ancient Historiography in Biblical and Cognate Studies (New York: T&T Clark, 2008); Hans Barstad and Pierre Briant, eds., The Past in the Past: Concepts of Past Reality in Ancient Near Eastern and Early Greek Thought (Oslo: Novus, 2009). reference

[2] For an introduction to these critiques and valuable responses to them, see Leo G. Perdue, Reconstructing Old Testament Theology: After the Collapse of History (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2005); and John J. Collins, The Bible after Babel: Historical Criticism in a Postmodern Age (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2005). reference

[3] Barstad is particularly critical of this situation: “To say that historians of ancient Israel are theory weak is, in my view, a gross understatement. As a genre, most of the so-called ‘histories of ancient Israel’ represent nothing more than various forms of a retelling of the biblical stories, desultory analytical remarks, not seldom with disparate references to ‘archaeology’” (Barstad, 9). reference

[4] Niels Peter Lemche, “The Old Testament—A Hellenistic Book?” SJOT 7 (1993): 163-93. reference

[5] Also within this trajectory is Marc Brettler's The Creation of History in Ancient Israel (New York: Routledge, 1995) and Jens Bruun Kofoed, Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text (Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 2005). reference

[6] Paul Ricoeur, Temps et Récit, tome III (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1985), 204. reference