Christians and Jews both have Bibles. Moreover they both have traditions of interpreting their Bibles as texts, in all kinds of ways. However, Jews and Christians also use, or have used their Bibles as history books, and have taken over the histories recounted in their Bibles as part of the histories of their respective faith communities.
Here, though, it is disturbing that these biblical histories of faith communities continue to be used quasi-fundamentalistically after there has been a revolution in the way in which we understand history writing, and we have developed a historical consciousness.
It is generally recognized that we can no longer use the Bible as a scientific textbook, though in Christianity until past the end of the first millennium of the Common Era it was thought to be just that. I would argue that it can no longer be used as a history book either, and that if we are writing the histories of our respective traditions, we need to do so on quite a different basis. However, to accept that revolution would, I suspect, cause such upheavals in our respective communities as to be almost unthinkable. This paper attempts to set out some of the issues.
Most of us probably saw something on television of the student occupation of Tienanmen Square in Peking, and of the brutal way in which that was ended. We saw with our own eyes the hospitals to which the wounded and the dead were taken and the fear stalking the corridors. So when we were told by the Chinese authorities that there had been no massacre, that this was not a legitimate protest, and so on, we were totally disbelieving. We did not accept that the authorities were speaking the truth.
Similarly, all of us are appalled that right-wing neo-Nazi groups in Germany and elsewhere claim that there were no death camps in Hitler's Germany, and that the destruction of six million Jews and others was a figment of the imagination, a myth. Obviously, even the young outsider who reads Martin Gilbert's book on the Holocaust or sees Lanzmann's film Shoah, and hears the testimony of survivors, knows that this kind of history is not true. To be told that there were no death camps is to be told lies.
We are aware that the lies which we are told in this way are told for a purpose. They are told to justify and defend a particular ideology, a particular view of society and the world, which needs for its support and continuance to describe reality in a particular way -- and if reality does not fit the ideology, so much the worse for reality. In the instances I have taken we have an ideological Chinese Communist view of history and a Fascist view of history, but these views lie outside what would be regarded as true history by the scholarly world.
We do recognize that there is truth and falsehood in history writing, that history can be manipulated, and that it is also possible to know when history is being manipulated. The distinction between truth and falsehood is easiest to see when we are told that we did not see what we did see or experience what we are experiencing. This distinction becomes less easy the further back in time we go, and in events and periods which can be approached from different, yet related perspectives. Sometimes we may be reduced to not knowing precisely what happened. I am not suggesting that anyone can write objective history, but we do know that we need to watch out for ideology, and it can be identified when it plays an excessive role.
History is manipulated now, and we may also legitimately assume a priori that, since it is unlikely that ours is the first century in which history-writing has been manipulated, it will have been manipulated in the past.
Now, as I have indicated above, we know that in the way that we look at history we are different from most of those who came before us. Our understanding of history, the way in which we approach the writing of history, what can be called our historical consciousness, is essentially a result of developments in the nineteenth century. Along with the insights symbolized by Marx and Freud, those of nineteenth-century historians, followed by twentieth-century sociologists, have led to a whole paradigm shift in the way in which we look at past and present. We are conditioned by our history and our culture, but we also know that we are conditioned by our history and our culture, a situation which can often give us almost split personalities. However, the important thing is that we can recognize that our attitudes are different from those of our predecessors, who were not aware of what we now call historical and cultural relativity. The people of the ancient world, for example, were not just people like us wearing different dress and without the benefits of technology. They were different. And our awareness of that is something that makes us what we are.
Secondly, there is a moral dimension in our view of what happened in Tienanmen Square and Auschwitz and the way in which it is reported or not reported. We believe that -- to put it mildly -- the extermination of Jews was wrong; we believe that the massacre of student protesters was wrong. And we believe it is wrong to say that these things did not happen if we know they did. Ask us why we know that it is wrong and you hit on one of the great unanswered questions of our age -- the nature and basis of moral judgments in a pluralist society -- but that is not my particular concern here. We do accept, in our society, that these things are wrong. And here, too, we know that things have not always been this way.
For in times past, massacre, genocide, extermination have, horrifically, been carried out time and again for the sake of some alleged ‘higher' end -- usually religion, often used as a veneer on economic expansion and imperialism. Think of the peoples of Africa and Latin America who were exterminated -- are still often mercilessly exploited -- without a further thought. We have a moral sense, and though the world may not be getting any better, our moral sense is certainly developing, forced by the pressure of events to take in, for example, in an unprecedented way a concern for what most of us now feel to be an immoral treatment of the animal world and the environment.
So, to sum up what I am setting out as a starting point.
That is our attitude; it is what makes us what we are, and while we can further refine it, correct it or develop it, we can only do so within limits; otherwise we remove ourselves from a whole area of social communication and move into ‘a world of our own'. As we might do, for example, if we became fundamentalists.
So what do we do about the so-called conquest of Canaan described in the book of Joshua? We are scandalized at those who, when confronted with genocide or massacre, produce an account which denies that such things happened. But how do we cope with a group which, as a majority of scholars would argue, did not experience or perpetrate any massacre on a large scale or genocide and yet claimed that it did?
We shall return to this problem later; for the moment it is a good illustration of my concern. Jews -- and Christians to an even greater degree -- all too often seem to start from the Bible as it is, basically accepting the story that it tells as a reasonably reliable account of the facts, and go on from there, without realizing the questions they beg, the half-truths they perpetrate, the moral issues which they raise and the flimsiness of the theology which they subsequently construct. Here, since I am a Christian, I shall concentrate on the Christian attitudes.
The reason why Christians treat the Bible as history the way they do is because they basically trust it. For the greater part of Christian history there was no reason why Christians should not have trusted the Bible, and indeed it was the foundation of all their knowledge. A great many people who are not aware of the problems involved still trust the Bible in this way, with varying amounts of qualification or reservation. But if we take history seriously, particularly the history of biblical study over the past 350 years, we also have to take into account the rise of a scientific approach based on methodological mistrust, and the fact that in too many areas the Bible, like other areas of Christian theology, has actually failed to stand up to the trust that Christians, rightly or wrongly, had put in it.
The story of the impact of geographical and scientific studies on the understanding of the Bible from the seventeenth century on and how it led to a shift in presuppositions by the time of the philosopher Spinoza is a familiar one. Roughly speaking, the development could be described like this: up to Spinoza, an attempt was made to see the Bible as truth, by which all else was judged; from that point on the criteria for determining what was truth lay outside the Bible, and the Bible was judged by what seemed to be the truth on the basis of these criteria from outside it. The criteria kept changing, and the questions put to the Bible became increasingly complex and sophisticated, as did the answers given, but the principle remained the same.
This shift in approach has so far not made the impact on Christian theology that it should have done, largely because of the climate in Christian theology until very recently. Most of the Christian books on the history of Israel and the history of Jesus and the early church, theology and biblical studies which have been written so far have been written as it were from within the church to an audience also presupposed to be within the bounds of the church, often making a series of assumptions as to what the reader will already know and accept. And for a long period that was not an unreasonable assumption to make. There was a church audience in the broad sense, and a reasonable part of it was literate. However, changes in society -- the great drop in churchgoing, cuts in the church's programme of education by the closure of many of its colleges, and so on -- have removed much of that audience. Not all is negative, though; on the other hand a significant number of people who would not claim to be church members are interested in making sense of their cultural and religious heritage, and in finding out more about it.
What this means is that the horizons within which the Bible and Christianity (and other religions) are studied are now very much wider. To quote the Finnish New Testament scholar Heikki Räisänen:
To confine oneself to serving a church is -- to exaggerate only slightly -- comparable to a social scientist's or a historian's confining himself to serve a certain political party (or a certain nation) with his research. It is hard to see much difference in principle between a historian committed to a party and an exegete committed to a church. In both cases a broader perspective seems desirable, a synthesis directed to the wider society.
Against that background, I shall now go on to substantiate the main point which I made at the beginning, namely that it is time to start abandoning, as a basic framework for our understanding of Christianity, the ‘history' which Christians have used almost from the start: the Old Testament narrative, the Gospel narrative, Acts and the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea. That is so because it is now possible to see that this is an ideology, party history which does not fall within the canons of what is acceptable history for us.
Here are the problems which arise for me: I shall take them in chronological order, beginning with the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament.
In describing the history of the people of Israel which provides the background to the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, it is still customary for Christians to use the outline of the Old Testament. Of course some parts of it -- for example the creation narratives -- are understood with a degree of modern sophistication, and there will be a recognition that the historical value of the accounts up to, say, the time of King David is not as good as that of later accounts. But pick up any history of Israel, even the more ‘radical' ones, and you will still see the sequence: patriarchs, exodus, settlement and judges, David and Solomon, divided monarchy, exile and so on. After a rather dark tunnel period there is then a period up to the first century of our era where all accounts are, methodologically speaking, much better, because there is no strait-jacket of a biblical narrative but a variety of sources, and biblical history overlaps with classical history. But then, with Jesus and the early church, we are again focussed upon the biblical framework. Despite all the scepticism over the possibility of writing a life of Jesus, most histories would give the account of that life some shape based on the Gospel record, following it with an account of the spread of Christianity based mainly on Acts, and when Acts gives out there is the Church History of Eusebius of Caesarea, who carries the story on to the time of the emperor Constantine. And since these sources -- Old Testament, Gospels and Acts, Eusebius -- are used so widely, it is difficult to avoid taking over at least some of their value judgments too.
It is natural to use these sources -- after all, in most instances they are all we have -- but they are confessedly partisan writing, and the motives which led to their composition also led to their selection of some material and omission of others, perhaps even to the creation of events which never happened and developments which never took place.
Now my question is -- to repeat it once again: can we take over these histories (even in what on the surface looks quite a modern, scholarly way) and use them as our history of the periods concerned, claiming that as our history, what we take over does not fall victim to the claim, which I began by discussing, that this is not ‘true' history? May it not be that in future what we have to do is to look at these histories as the way in which other people (‘they') once interpreted their religious beliefs, ask what it might have been like to have been people with views like that, and then work out on quite a different basis how we ourselves carry on the tradition and use the material that has been handed down to us?
If Christians are trying to construct the process by which there arose within Judaism a movement sparked off by Jesus of Nazareth which in due course gave rise to a new religion called Christianity, which by the time of Constantine had gained the endorsement of the Roman emperor, do they not distort that process if they basically go by what the sequence of Old Testament, Gospels and Acts, Eusebius tells them? Are they not trapped into a supposed series of events and interpretations of those events which give us a blinkered view?
As we saw, in the past Christians were forced to learn that their view of the origins of the world, the nature of the universe, the history of the human race and the interrelationship of its peoples, even details of the history of Israel, the life of Jesus and the early church was biassed and in some cases downright wrong. Can we be sure that our process of discovery has gone far enough? May not the time now have come for Christians to stop pretending that the frameworks I have mentioned, within which they customarily work, are ideologies and cannot serve for us as histories of our traditions?
The German philosopher Ernst Troeltsch, still a much-underestimated figure, once said of the nature of modern historical criticism: ‘The historical method, once it is applied to biblical scholarship and church history, is a leaven which transforms everything and which finally causes the form of all previous theological methods to disintegrate." He also remarked: ‘Give historical method your little finger and it will require your whole hand', adding wryly that in that respect it resembled the devil. Perhaps those sayings are now, belatedly, coming into their own.
One of the most important books to have been written on the Hebrew Bible recently is Giovanni Garbini's History and Ideology in Ancient Israel. Garbini is Professor of Semitic Philology in the University of Rome, essentially a philologist and archaeologist with a specific interest in the history of Israel, and is neither Jew nor Christian, but part of the wider circle of ancient historians. Though the views which he expresses may seem to be extreme, they are by no means idiosyncratic or unfounded. I have talked about his book with several of my friends who teach Hebrew Bible or Semitics in English universities, and they tell me that they would go along with most of his decidedly anti-establishment views.
Garbini argues in his first chapter that it is impossible to write a history of Israel. His main reason is that we can no longer trust the outline of that history offered to us by the Old Testament/Hebrew Bible, and since that outline is all we have, and evidence apart from it is sparse, a history is impossible. ‘An inadequate history is better than no history at all' often seems to be the reaction of biblical scholars and their readers, but Garbini points out that for us to accept the Old Testament history is to accept being manipulated -- the point I brought out right at the beginning. There is nothing new, he argues, about asserting that the Old Testament offers a series of reflections by Israel on its history rather than the history of Israel; however, it must be stressed that these are not so much historical reflections (though sometimes they are that too) as theological reflections. That means, he argues, that for us the value of the Old Testament as a historical source is very relative, and that a particular piece of information cannot be considered reliable until it has been confirmed from elsewhere.
The Old Testament puts forward distinctive theological points of view, not least in its history writing. And, Garbini adds,
The authors of the biblical text knew very well what they were doing. When the ‘Deuteronomistic historian' (or whoever) treats the Hebrew monarchy in the way with which we are familiar we can affirm that he is choosing and coordinating certain objective data with a view to a certain thesis. The kings were substantially the same, but chronology, undertakings, affinity and dynasty could be manipulated at will; if a ruler was forgotten it was possible to invent another one.
What makes his detailed study of parts of the Old Testament so damning is the way in which time and again he points out that either:
For example: the glorious empire of David and Solomon may well be largely fiction. In a whole chapter discussing specific evidence Garbini points out that not only does the general picture that we can create from archaeology indicate that it is highly improbable that an empire as great as that depicted in the Old Testament could have existed at that period; the internal evidence of the Bible also puts many question marks about it; David's kingdom is likely to have been much more limited. In other words, a similar view to what is now quite widely accepted about the ‘conquest' of Palestine, that it was a minor process of local settlement, needs also to be adopted over David's empire. Moreover, Solomon's glory may well have been projected on to him, for ideological reasons, by attributing to him activities which archaeology suggests were carried on much later, in the time of king Uzziah/Azariah, ‘the leper king', the near contemporary of Isaiah.
A critical examination of the biblical text and the use of external data radically modify the picture that the Old Testament presents of the tenth century BC. David never killed Goliath, never knew Hiram of Tyre, never fought against the Idumaeans, Ammonites, Amalekites and Aramaeans and did not create an empire. If we are to believe the biblical text he fought only the Philistines and the Moabites and managed to establish himself as a ruler in Jerusalem after fighting against Saul, a king in whose service he previously was. His son Solomon, who succeeded in preserving his father's small state, built a palace for himself with a small temple for the dynastic god as an annex, but he did not marry any daughter of Pharaoh, did not enrich himself with international trade, and was also in all probability forced to suffer the military expedition of Pharaoh Sheshonk.
More disturbingly for theologians, Garbini has serious questions about the Old Testament account of the origins of belief in YHWH, that of an alien body (Yahwistic monotheism) penetrating and for a long time living alongside an alien culture (that of Canaan) before finally conquering it (after the exile).
This would be a quite unique development, since in all other parallel instances of invasions the invaders quite quickly either impose their religion on the invaded or adopt the invaded's religion. But -- it might be argued -- Israelite belief in YHWH was something quite unique, and therefore might lead to a unique development. However, it is emerging that belief in YHWH was not unique. Names in the Old Testament itself indicate that YHWH was worshipped outside the Israelite sphere (just one instance is Joram son of the king of Hamath in II Sam. 8.10); the name occurs at Ras Shamra, Ebla and elsewhere, and an inscription at Khirbet Beit Lei may indicate that the name yah is as generic a term for God as the familiar generic term ‘el. And what are we to make of the discoveries at Kuntillet ‘Ajrud, between the Negeb and Sinai, a ninth/eighth century prophetic sanctuary with Yahweh being invoked with the god Bes and a female consort Asherah?
Thus on the evidence, the probability is that the origin of what we call distinctively Israelite religion is to be dated very much later than has been supposed, with a prophetic group much closer to the exile. This could well be confirmed by the Decalogue, which though allegedly given to Moses and wandering nomads in the wilderness, throughout presupposes life in a settled agricultural society. Indeed in critical scholarship the growing tendency is to put most of the composition of the Old Testament far later than has been previously assumed; more and more of it, from the stories of Joseph and Abraham, to the Deuteronomic literature and the book of Joshua, are being brought past the exile into the post-exilic period. The later the period, the higher the probability of (in our terms) the reading back of ideology into history with the view that this or that must have happened.
And now we move on. My further evidence will be presented much more briefly.
On what we know about Jesus I propose to say virtually nothing, because I have written a book on this subject. I am pessimistic about the amount of real historical evidence we can get out of the Gospel material in relation to his person. What needs to be emphasized, though, is the impact of increasing knowledge of the Judaism of the time of Jesus and the increasing collaboration of Jewish and Christian scholars in working on this period in our view of the Gospels.
Something that has become a burning issue for all of us is the recognition of the considerable element of anti-Judaism in the New Testament which colours all its content. Does that not in itself make New Testament history ideological?
To recapitulate some familiar recognitions briefly: We have learned, particularly over the last decade or so, and New Testament scholars have been made to realize, especially by E. P. Sanders' Paul and Palestinian Judaism, the degree to which Christians all too often work with a caricature of Judaism which they take no trouble to check out. We are also learning the degree to which the portrayal of the various Jewish groups which appear in connection with Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels is a reading in from a later time which in all probability completely distorts the historical picture of Jesus and the reasons for the subsequent split between Judaism and Christianity.
I quote just two statements:
When Christianity began, it must have appeared simply as a group of Jews, otherwise generally conforming to the norms of the Jewish populace of Judaea, who had come to believe that the Messiah had come in the person of Jesus … The Pharisees presumably regarded Jesus as yet another false messiah of a type which was not so unusual in the last days of the Second Temple. Judaism was in what we might call an experimental stage. For this reason, little opposition to the very concept of sectarian divergence existed.
Thus a Jewish scholar, Lawrence Schiffmann. Alongside that, here is the result of a survey made by E. P. Sanders in a book on the significance of Jesus' alleged breaches of the Jewish law:
Even if each conflict narrative were literally true, it would be seen that Jesus did not seriously challenge the law as it was practised in his day, not even by the strict rule of observance of pietist groups -- except on the issue of food. However, the subsequent debate on that issue in the early church makes this the point which may be denied to the historical Jesus with most confidence. He may have been in minor disagreement with one group or another about some legal observances, but prior to the attack on the Temple, I cannot find a single issue which would have been the occasion of a serious charge.
There is no time here to develop this issue at length, but we can at least pause over three consequences which seem to arise from what has been said above.
Much work is, of course, going on in this area, but evidence is not plentiful, and, as in any period of antiquity, there are always going to be arguments. But given this situation, surely much of what is said in Christian theology, specifically christology and soteriology, is shown up to be no more than ideology. And where does that leaves us?
We finally come to the Acts of the Apostles and the Church History of Eusebius. Much ink has been spilt over how much of Acts is historical and how far it can be verified. However, the most important issue is again the framework in which the various events are set. The significance of a particular happening, the historicity of which in itself can be authenticated, can be changed completely by putting it in a different context. When, for example, was the so-called ‘apostolic council' actually held? Paul seems to suggest a different time from that indicated in Acts 15, which could give the council a different significance.
Now the one thing we know about the framework of Acts is that it is essentially straight-line. It carries us through from beginning to end, but we know that it is an over-simplification and it cannot serve as a basis for what we really need, a history of the rise of earliest Christianity. As we all know, Acts is full of loose ends, the existence of which even its author cannot disguise, and raises questions which he does not seek to answer. There are troublesome figures like Apollos, and the disciples in Ephesus who had never heard of the Holy Spirit; we have no idea how Christianity first came to Rome, and so on.
I have linked Eusebius of Caesarea with Acts because he follows essentially the same kind of method. Just as Luke writes an account of the triumph of the gospel through the figures he selects, so Eusebius writes a history of the divine truth, as it meets resistance, conflict and persecution. There are good guys and bad guys: the good are bishops, Christian teachers and martyrs; the bad are heretics, evil emperors and -- of course, sadly and horrifically an inevitable development -- the Jews. Again, the ground plan is straight-line and simple.
And of course straight-line and simple ground plans can be communicated very well. They are easily remembered and are extremely influential. But they have their victims. The first and main victim, of course, is the truth. The simple approach falls to represent the complexity of events as they were. If we begin by gathering the abundant evidence, more readily available than most historical evidence, about the diversity of Christianity in the early period, we then get Acts and Eusebius in perspective and see how much is left out. And we may not be so ready to accept their basic presuppositions -- on Jews, and also on other unfortunate groups on the margin of what they consider to be Christianity. The good/bad, orthodox/heretic distinctions are judgments after the event by the winners. We are seeing a major reassessment of Gnosticism; we are also seeing a major reassessment of Arius, at the same time as the doctrinal positions of the so-called church fathers are coming under major criticism as a result of the application of doctrinal criticism. Here too, it is sheer ideology to go on repeating what past figures have said. We need to take a new orientation.
But could our respective faith communities as we know them take such a change? At present that seems highly unlikely, indeed wishful thinking. But if we leave all these questions on one side as though they were not there, what are we doing? Given the kind of world in which we live, if we live within a particular area of social communication which regards the asking of this kind of question as legitimate, perhaps even normative, then on what grounds and at what point do we say ‘No, you can't ask that?' Is not the point at which we say that the point at which our beliefs become an ideology and we shut ourselves off in our own particular closed circle?The Christian tradition to which I belong has, among other things, a long and honourable history of engaging boldly with the current scientific, historical, philosophical, intellectual developments of the day, and once it ceases to do that, surely it becomes something other than it has been. But that may be happening.
Last updated by Morgan Matthew Jul 30, 2008.