Historical Criticism

"History is the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself about its past."

Jan Huizinga, "A Definition of the Concept of History," in Philosophy and History: Essays Presented to Ernst Cassirer (New York: Harper, 1963): 9.

Whoa, Herodotus, the Father of History dude, is that you? What is up?

Yes, it's me BibleDudes. Great to be here, and at my age, it's great to be anywhere. Anway, here is my story. It was like 440 BCE in Athens, and I was thinking about how the world would benefit from knowing more about those awful Persians who invaded Greece some 40 years earlier. So I collected stories and a fair bit of gossip from all over the world and invented a new literary genre that recorded past events so that people in the future might learn from these stories. I named this genre and my book historia, a Greek word that means "knowledge from inquiry." So you see, BibleDudes, that's why I am called The Father of History, which reminds me of a story I once heard about Scythian girls and their magical pitch covered feathers used to collect gold from...

Oh Baloney! The Father of Lies is a more apt title for that blabber mouth. Herodotus recorded EVERYTHING that he heard, no matter how ridiculous. I, on the other hand, wrote only about events that I personally verified as being factual. Either I witnessed them personally or I checked out the validity of my sources. Therefore, my book The History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) was the first real history ever written.

Actually, my darlings, while both of your contributions to the discipline of history are undeniable, you're both mistaken. Many scholars believe that the first historians were some of the earliest authors of the Hebrew Bible who wrote centuries before you. In fact, some biblical poems, which contain some historical information, date to ca. 1200 BCE! And the first histories of Israel, using Jan's definition above, appeared around the 7th century BCE.

That's right Cleopatra, but before we look at some of these biblical records of history, let me briefly explain the methodology at hand. Historical criticism involves detective work. Scholars try to make sense of the past using incomplete pieces of evidence that they collect from written texts and the material record. They examine both the historical conditions of the time in which the story was set, as well as the historical conditions at the time in which the story was written.

So it's a dual-date double whammy! If we applied historical criticism to Solomon's building the Temple (1 Kings 6), we would research what history tells us about temples and monarchic dudes in the time that the story was set (ca. 960 BCE) as well as the later time in which the story was incorporated into Israel's history (ca. 625 BCE). We would collect all the information we could about temples and similar buildings from both written sources and archaeological remains from both time periods, keeping in mind that the person writing the story might have used written and oral historical sources. Then we would try to understand what was going on in the word that somebody felt motivated to write down this awesome stuff.

Darlings, some words of warning: Historical criticism, while fascinating, is quite a challenge. Often times the conclusions reached are tentative, and the process never ends, because new finds and shifts in methodology often change conclusions. Moreover, the level of difficulty increases when the methodology is applied to the Bible. Whereas battles and building projects are historically verifiable in both written and archaeological sources, much of the Bible is about God, miracles, and other events difficult (if not impossible) to place in a historical context. Plus, biblical authors are not trying to remain objective--they have theological, political, and social agendas that effect the way that they record history. So historical criticism also attempts to reduce the author's subjectivity in order to try to determine what really happened, an enterprise that often proves cumbersome.

So one might say that sociological and other biases hindered purely objective accounts of past events and the modern historical critic of the Bible must take this and other factors into account when reconstructing biblical events? I have absolutely no idea what that means! BibleDudes, do you remember that terribly tragic Bible story about when all those Egyptian donkeys drowned in the Red Sea? How might historical criticism help us to better understand that event?

Dude! You're like totally thinking of Exodus 14-15, and it was Egyptian soldiers and their horses that drowned, not donkeys. But anyway, that's an excellent story to examine. To help us out I asked my old buddy Moses to say a few words about the event.

Shalom BibeDudes. I love talking about that famous day, the one on which we crossed the aquatic eastern border of Egypt and said farewell to that hard-hearted pharaoh. Making mudbricks was no picnic, let me tell you. Well, the earliest written account of that event can be found in Exodus 15, an epic poem that dates to ca. 1175 BCE, not too much after the actual event. Here are some passages from Exodus 15 that provide clues as to what happened:

The horse and his rider he has thrown into the sea (verse 1).

Pharaoh's chariots and his army he cast into the sea; and his officers are sunk in the Sea of Reeds. The floods cover them; they went down into the depths like a stone (4-5).

At the blast of Your nostrils the waters piled up, the floods stood up in a heap; the deeps congealed in the heart of the sea (8).

You did blow with Your wind, the sea covered them; they sank as lead in the mighty waters (10).

So, from this early written account, we can summise that ancient Israel dramatically defeated a contingent of Egyptian calvary in a battle that involved wind and water at or near a body of water called the Sea of Reeds. Historical criticism would then explore chariots, calvary, and warfare from that time period. We would learn that chariots and their horses when fighting in wet conditions, often got bogged down in the mud, giving the foot soldiers of Israel a strong advantage in that situation.

Au contraire, my darlings. I've seen The 10 Commandments hundreds of times, and I didn't see any of what you just described. Instead, that great hunk of a ham Charlton Heston raised his staff and a gigantic body of water parted, creating a dry path beneath 50 foot high walls of water on both sides. I thought Yul Brynner's head was going to explode he was so angry.

Actually, camel lady, the movie was LOOSELY based on Exodus 14, a prose account of the event likely written centuries later, say around 700-550 BCE. There we read about God taking the form of a pillar of fire to hold back the Egyptians while Moses stretched out his hand over the waters, and that night a strong wind created a dry path dividing between the waters. The Egyptians in time pursued, and when Israel was safely across the path, Moses again stretched out his hand, and the waters returned, covering and drowning the entire Egyptian army and their horses. You see, the author of this story was using the earlier poetic account as a source and modifying it in certain ways to fit their own purpose. Thus historical criticism in this case would not only look at the events around the time that I lived, but also when the story was written. The author of the later prose account was not only acting as a historian, recording past events of their culture, but also he was interpreting this event as having meaning and symbolism for his own lifetime. God helping Israel escape bondage and defeat their enemies in my day meant a great deal to a later audience that similarly faced enemy attacks and forced servitude if they were defeated.

Thanks Moses. As you might expect, the further back in history you venture, the more approximate the dates become as a general rule. Before we leave this section, I'd like to present the following chart to help perusers of BibleDudes focus on the fourteen key dates in the history of ancient Israel as recorded in the Bible:

A big part of historical criticism involves archaeology, which we'll explore that in the next section.