What is History and how can we apply it to the Bible?

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      I hope this is ok to post here as I feel it is too long for the more popular boards.

      What is History and how can it be applied to the Bible?

      I have read a few threads at the GDC which have been directly related to history and what the limitations of the subject are. I have also noted that there are a few misconceptions of what history is and what it can actually tell us. So, I thought I would type up a little background to the subject and provide an adequate working definition of what history is and how it can be used when researching alleged historical events in the Bible.

      One thing to be aware of, which I am sure many are, is that there are as many definitions of the word ‘History’ as there are historians. However, there are some basic elements that are agreed upon by almost all historians. But there still remains no satisfactory generic definition of history.

      Let’s look at some of the basics. It is agreed that history is the indirect examination of the past. The past itself has gone, it can never be retrieved. Even when we are recalling past events these are memories that are formed in the present, and are not identical to the past. Thus, historians can only examine the remains of the past, but these remains must be placed into a context before they can take on any significance at all. Here is where the disputes and disagreements begin because the context that an artefact or a text is placed into is only given meaning and significance by the historian’s own interpretation of the data. Meaning and significance are not inherent features of the material under examination, meaning and significance only exist in the human mind, and this is why we can state that “every history is a creation of the human mind” (Knauf A. 1991 p.27 “From History to Interpretation” in Edelman D.V. The Fabric of History: Text, Artefact and Israel’s Past, Sheffield Academic Press, Sheffield pp26-64).

      Essentially, history is not what happened in the past, it is what an historian reports that happened in the past. So here we have a good definition of ‘history’ that we can work with, and apply to the Bible’s historical narratives. We can define history as ‘a narrative about the past that is created in the historian’s mind and presented as a written record’.

      Now, with history being a written record of the past that is created in the mind of the historian, the history presented can be completely or partially fictional. For example, an oppressive government can publish histories that portray that government in a positive way, thus they do provide a ‘history’, but the facts in the reports are false. If we relate this to the Bible’s historical narratives, we could conclude that the narratives concerning the military conquest of Canaan are entirely false, but these narratives are still history inasmuch as they are a narrative about the past. We are now required to separate ‘history’ from the ‘past’ and remember that history is a narrative about a past event, whether the account is true or not does not affect whether it is history or not. What this ultimately means is that all histories about a certain event are plausible histories, but it is then up to the individual to decide which one of these histories is the most likely to be accurate. This is where the personal preconceptions of the researcher will come into play, as different people will place a greater degree of significance on different pieces of evidence.

      The researcher’s own biases have a great influence on the history that they produce, and these biases determine what they will accept as being a plausible historical event. Humanist historians for example, will avoid any speculation about the intervention of supernatural beings in human affairs as humanist historians prefer to limit their investigations to the natural world (Noll K.L. 2001 Canaan and Israel in Antiquity: An introduction, Sheffield Academic Press, London. p.37). Regarding the early historical narratives in the Bible, a humanist historian would not dismiss the possibility that the Sea of Reeds parted before the Exodus group, however, they would prefer to explain that particular ‘miracle’ in terms of a natural phenomenon such as a tidal wave or volcanic eruption.

      If you have completed any historical research you will be well aware that you will have regularly consulted the work of other historians who have already completed research work in the area you are studying. When you are examining the work of these historians you really need to be familiar with the reasons why these historians have written these reports as this will reveal their particular biases. As an example of this, look how many different histories have been written about Jesus. There are histories about Jesus that ‘prove’ that Jesus was the Son of God, other histories that ‘prove’ Jesus was not the Son of God, and yet more Histories that ‘prove’ that Jesus is a myth and others that ‘prove’ he was a wandering magician. All these books more than likely use the same sources as their core evidence, but because of the biases of their authors, they can produce a vastly different history for their readers.

      I have placed the word ‘prove’ in inverted commas because history is never proven. True history is really a matter of degree, the truth or the accuracy of a history is not whether it contains facts or not, it is how the historian uses these facts. If we look at the Bible’s version of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho, we can see that there may indeed be some facts in this story, for example, Jericho does display signs of being destroyed in a fiery conflagration (Shanks H. 1992 The Rise of Ancient Israel, Biblical Archaeology Society, Washington D.C. p.16). But, when the other claims are looked at, the biblical story of Joshua’s conquest of Jericho may be nothing more than the equivalent of the historical novel. The events attributed to Joshua and his army look as if they have been glamorised, and the supernatural aspects of the narrative would lead any historians to conclude that a literal reading of the Bible account looks very unlikely. This does not mean that Joshua and his army did not conquer the city of Jericho; it only means that it may not have happened exactly as described in the biblical text.

      A competent historian will never state that what they have presented is an absolute historical truth, because a competent historian should know that their presentation of a particular history is their interpretation of the evidence. They will believe that they have presented an accurate history, but they should also be aware that they could be wrong. There is a way to think of this. We do not know what finds are going to be made in the future; one of these finds could completely annihilate an historian’s theory, so how could they have already proven it was true? This is one reason why I love history, almost everything is debatable. Historical research is about convincing people that your particular view is the most likely.

      Let’s go back to the biases of the researcher for a moment. In the debate about Israel’s historical origins, the historians and archaeologists involved in this long debate also have their own particular biases. I do not think many people realise just how huge the debate on the Origins of Ancient Israel has been. If you are going to research this topic then you have to be aware of the biases of the authors of the books you are going to read. If you are going to read an historical report by William Albright, John Bright or Nahum Sarna, then you should be aware that the book will favour the Hebrew Bible as much as possible. But, if you read an historical report written by Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies or Niels Peter Lemche, then you should know beforehand that these authors will not place as much emphasis on the biblical text. I don’t have time to list all the scholars involved in the debate, but they all have their biases and the debate has become very heated on many occasions.

      Here we arrive at a very important point. The scholars named above clearly have their own particular stance when it comes to examining the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible. With this in mind, isn’t it perfectly logical to assume that the actual authors of the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible also had their own particular biases? If we assume that they did, then we do not expect the historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible to be critical, objective reports. We should expect to find reports that reflect the biases of the authors. But, these reports in the Hebrew Bible are historical, because they are narratives about the past that were created in the authors’ minds and presented as a written record. It is now the task of the modern historian to determine to which degree the information in the Bible is historically reliable.

      I hope this is ok to post here, if it isn’t I can delete it

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