If it is fair to say, with Robert Kawashima1 and Arnaldo Momigliano,2 that the very notions of history and universal history have their origins in biblical literature, it might be wise to insist on exploring the ways in which biblical narrative emplots and historicizes cultural memories, sources on hand, living traditions, personal and collective experiences, and future hopes.
It might also be important to try again to conceive of a history of the religion of Israel, a history of emergent Christianity and normative Judaism, insofar as they can be constructed from biblical, post-biblical, and non-biblical sources. Now is an inopportune time to walk away from the questions which have animated modern biblical studies from the beginning.
Passover and Easter allow further formulations. Beyond Hegel, beyond the Shoah, in light of the “unbearable lightness of being” (Milan Kundera), it is still possible to pose the question, with Emil Fackenheim, of “God’s presence in history.”3 The sense in which the following statement was meant to be true also remains of interest: “what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we have observed and handled with our hands … we declare to you” (1 John 1:1-3).
A sense of history and historicity is as important today as it has ever been. A historical approach to the Bible adequate to its object might provide insight into the shape of life not only then and there, but here and now.
Raymond van Leeuwen4 has recently seen fit to point out the gross inadequacies of approaches to the Bible which judge its contents on the basis of the following modern ideas: (1) the idea that the master narrative of history consists of an enfolding of freedom and progress (“historicism” in the terminology of van Leeuwen); and (2) the rival (or complementary) modern idea, that the particular approach to reality of science and technology is the key to human flourishing (“scientism”).
The point is cogent. Historicism and scientism so defined are modern myths. In the diction of Bruce Lincoln, they are ideologies in narrative form.5 Both stand in contradiction to the narrative of the Bible in which everything hinges on a vital relationship with a singular principle of truth, justice, and goodness which occurs to people as a God of great power and beauty.
Van Leeuwen goes on to argue for a reorientation of academic biblical interpretation in which the long-standing emphasis on things like elucidating the history of the religion of Israel and delimiting the date, provenance, and historical matrix of the Bible’s component parts would be replaced by an approach to the text in which the truth it tells is seen to reside in the text and not outside of it. In particular, a literary critic of the stature of Meir Sternberg is thought to illuminate the text and attend to its truth claims more adequately than a text critic, source critic, and historian of religion of the stature of, say, Julius Wellhausen.
There I would hesitate. With Gadamer,6 it seems better to insist on the historicity of all understanding, that of authors and readers first of all, and aim for dialogue. Author, reader, text, and the realities the text points to, all require attention. Each deserves to be honored and “defended” from the other terms of the equation. In my judgment, the methodologies of a source critic like Wellhausen and a literary critic like Sternberg, along with those of an archaeologist like Avraham Faust, a biblical theologian like Bernd Janowski, a scholar of cultural history like Seth Sanders, and a scholar of comparative law and religion like Jacob Finkelstein – each approach has important contributions to make if the truth claims of biblical literature are to be given their due rather than swept under the rug.
To put it in the sharpest of terms, I cannot follow van Leeuwen when he states that “the historical quest of the sources of a text is incompatible with experiencing the text as … a ‘discourse’ that mediates the world and its significance, by stylizing it, by fashioning it into a mode of being that is not the world but communicates the world’s meaning to its readers. The proper stance before any great text or object of knowing is humility and reverence, even delight and love.”
On the contrary, if a text presents itself to a reader as the sum of a variety of precursor texts, the whole is unquestionably greater than the sum of its parts, but an understanding of the whole is enhanced to the extent that a reader can take the text apart and put it back together again.
Moreover, if a particular textual component corrects or contradicts another, why is it irreverent or unloving to point it out? The point is obvious in the case of the book of Job. The truth it mediates lies at the intersection of not one contradittorio (cross-examination, debate) but many. It is no less true in the case of the Pentateuch, if one treats it, as one should, as a literary whole. For example, the treatment of specific topics across the various legal corpora, the Covenant Code, Deuteronomy, and the Holiness Code, embodies a debate, the sum of whose parts must be constructed beyond the bounds of the text. There is a strong sense in which the truth Torah tells inevitably resides, not in the text before us, but outside of it.
One must look beyond the text again insofar as the attributes of God revealed in Exod 34:6-7 are at stake. They are at stake, whenever anything happens in this world, unless the text is void of significance.
Thus, if one treats the Tanakh as a literary whole, as one should, the controversy over the cross-generational transfer of the consequences of human behavior, per Exod 34:6-7, to the point of whole scale destruction, exile, and the end of any semblance of self-rule to which torah, prophecy, and lament bear witness has to be seen in terms of sources and specific historical situations. The texts themselves so see it. A truncated list of relevant texts: Lev 26:27-45; Deut 29:2-30:10; Lam 5:7; Isa 40:2; 43:26-28; 50:1; 53-1-12; Jer 31:27-30; Ezek 16; 18.
The truth claims of Exod 34:6-7 were thought to hold water outside of the singular world of a singular text. In point of fact, the attributes of God revealed in Exod 34:6-7 were thought to be universally valid, however problematic such a claim was in practice (so, e.g., the book of Jonah). No wonder, then, that the divine middot of Exod 34:6-7 find a place in the Ten Words.
Source citation is occasionally explicit in biblical texts (Ezra 5; Matt 5:17-48; 1 Cor 7). More often, the sourcing is implicit (e.g. the selective citation of Exod 34:6-7 in Jon 4:2). Even if it is covert (e.g., the case of Amenemope and Prov 22:17-32:11), it is not a sign of suspicion or irreverence to bring it to light and establish meaning on that basis.
Van Leeuwen's description of the Bible as a text which seeks to communicate the world's meaning to its readers is eloquent. With that in mind, it seems all the more appropriate to approach the biblical text with humility and reverence from every point on the methodological compass, not just one.
I am aware of how sleep-inducing source-criticism often is. By definition, it is a thought experiment of grand proportions built on tenuous foundations. Source-critics, furthermore, often seem to have a cruder grasp of inner textual dynamics than critics who leave diachrony to one side.
I cannot forget a conversation I had with Rolf Rendtorff less than a decade ago. Forget about source criticism, he said, with considerable vehemence. The sentiment is understandable, but the paradox is this. The day will soon arrive in which most details of the source-critical and redaction-critical work of the last 50 years will fade from memory, but the task of writing a history of the religion of Israel, the grand project of Wellhausen, will remain. No attempt to proceed with the project will be taken seriously if questions of date, author, provenance of biblical writings, and emplotted sources and traditions are bypassed.
There are fundamental questions which stand no chance of being adequately addressed apart from a discussion of the source-, tradition-, and canon-consciousness the texts reflect. These questions include: what a biblical understanding of history and of the historicity of the human subject look like. If that is the case, the need for a historical approach to the Bible that is adequate to its object is as pressing as ever.
Benjamin Sommer also seems to want to see a shift of attention away from the typical questions a historical critic poses in order to focus on the timeless dimensions of the text, a grasp of which, he comes close to saying, does not depend on getting to the bottom of the kind of questions over which academic biblical study has heretofore labored with passion and energy.7
Sommer does an excellent job of pointing out how weak and ineffectual arguments made for dating a particular biblical text often are. The irony is this. His latest volume, of blockbuster importance, marries an interest in history, history of religion, philology, and archaeology with an interest in theology, in the hallowed tradition of the much despised biblical theology movement.8 It turns out that Sommer qua biblical scholar is a gregarious matchmaker. He himself offers discussions of “timeless” (one might prefer more precise qualifiers, such as “perennial,” or “of long duration”) dimensions of textual meaning that depend on determinations of date, authorship, genre, historical context, and social location. To be sure, Sommer's determinations are grounded in a helpful sensitivity to anthropological and historical constants.
Sommer is good at pointing out that great swathes of biblical narrative, law, prophecy, psalmody, and instruction are just as credibly dated to the 8th or 7th century as to the 6th, 5th, or 4th century. However, when he gets down to brass tacks, he correlates texts with delimited historical contexts ranging from pre-8th century, 8th century, 7th century, and so on, down to the 2nd century of the former era. As it should be.
In a volume rich with acute methodological considerations, Angela Roskop seeks to read select itinerary notices in the Torah with a focus on the added value scribes built into the fabric of the narrative. But she refuses to play off a concern for reading the composite text as a unified whole against the traditional concern of elucidating the composition history of the text. I also see her as choosing not to privilege one of the terms of the following binaries over the other: historical veracity over fictional versatility (“fictional” of course is not the opposite of truth nor even of fact, insofar as art by definition reveals the truth or truth which comes to expression, not in one set of facts but, at least potentially, in many); reason over myth; and argument over metaphor. The takeaway of Roskop’s volume may seem meager, in that she does not offer the Pentateuchal equivalent to a Theory of Everything capable of unifying all the fundamental interactions of nature. But she is clearly working on it, as must any self-respecting student of the Pentateuch who has read widely in the field.9
What do van Leeuwen, Sommer, and Roskop have in common? An openness to the possibility that biblical literature contains truths of perennial validity. In my judgment, an interdisciplinary approach to the biblical text, as opposed to a purely source-conscious, purely literary, purely anthropological, purely political, or purely theological approach, stands the best chance of ensuring that such openness is fecund.
1 Robert Kawashima, in his review of Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009), remarked as follows:
“what distinguishes this view of kingship from Hammurabi’s ‘imperial ideology’ is” that “[b]ehind the apparent hubris of Hammurabi’s fantastic claim to have assumed the throne at the time of creation lies the mythic idea that human institutions are nontemporal, i.e., aspects of the unchanging cosmos. Behind texts such as 1 Samuel 8 and Deuteronomy 17 lies the revolutionary idea that such institutions are temporal, originating in the flux of human existence. Biblical literature not only introduced the people into history; it invented the concept of history itself.”
2 Arnaldo Momigliano wrote extensively on the notions of history and universal history in Greek, Roman, and Jewish antiquity. He also wrote with great insight on modern historiography. It is best to read Momigliano wherever possible in Italian. The long awaited Decimo contributo alla storia degli studi classici e del mondo antico, edited by Riccardo Di Donato, has just appeared (Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 2012). The other nine contributions remain in print. The biblical scholar will want to read widely in his Contributi. Failing that, the best two places to begin are The Classical Foundations of Modern Historiography (Sather Classical Lectures 54; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990) and Pagine ebraiche (ed. Silvia Berti; Torino: Einaudi, 1987; ET Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism (ed. Silvia Berti; trans. Maura Masella-Gayley; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994). Berti’s piece for the centenary of Momigliano’s birth (1908/2008) is stupendous; go here. A favorite quote: “Perché — così mi disse durante una conversazione pisana — un problema storico, se è vero problema storico, e non un semplice accertamento di fatti, te lo porti dietro tutta la vita.” The following essays by Momigliano deserve to be mentioned in this context: “Il tempo nella storiografia antica ,” in La storiografia greca (Torino: Einaudi, 1982) 64-94; ≈ “Time in Ancient Historiography,” History and Theory 6 (1966) 1-23; “Le origini della storia universale,” in Tra storia e storicismo (Pisa: Nistri Lischi, 1985) 25-55; ≈ “The Origins of Universal History” in On Pagans, Jews, and Christians (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1987 ) 31-57; “Il posto della storiografia antica nella storiografia moderna,” in Sui fondamenti della storia antica (Torino: Einaudi, 1984) 46-69; ≈ “The Place of Ancient Historiography in Modern Historiography,” in Settimo contributo alla storia degli studi classici e del mondo antico (storia e letteratura; raccolta di studie e testi 161; Roma: Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura, 1984) 13-36; “Daniele e la teoria greca della successione degli imperi,” and “Profezia e storiografia,“ in Pagine ebraiche (Torino: Einaudi, 1987) 33-39 and 109-116, respectively; ≈ “Daniel and the Greek Theory of Imperial Succession” and “Prophecy and Historiography” in Essays on Ancient and Modern Judaism (ed. Silvia Berti; trans. Maura Masella-Gayley; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994) 29-35 and 101-108, respectively; “Storiografia pagana e cristiana nel secolo IV d.C.,” in Il conflitto tra paganesimo e cristianesimo nel secolo IV (ed. Arnaldo Momigliano; Torino, Einaudi, 1975); ≈ “Pagan and Christian Historiography in the Fourth Century A.D.,” in Essays in Ancient and Modern Historiography (Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1977) 107-26; repr. from idem, The Conflict between Paganism and Christianity in the Fourth Century (Oxford: Clarendon, 1963) 79-99. A key statement:
“The Hebrew historian never claimed to be a prophet. He never said ’The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me.’ But the pages of the historical books of the Bible are full of prophets who interpret events because they know what was, what is, and what will come to pass. The historian implicitly subordinates himself to the prophet, he derives his own values from him. The relation between the historian and the prophet is the Hebrew counterpart to the Greek relation between historian and philosopher. But, at least since Plato decisively formulated the antithesis between time and eternity for which he is noted, there could be no collaboration in Greek thought between history and philosophy as there was in Hebrew thought between history and prophecy” (“Time in Ancient Historiography,” History and Theory 6  1-23; 20; I have tweaked the ET here and there in the interests of greater perspicuity).
3 Emil L. Fackenheim, God’s Presence in History: Jewish Affirmations and Philosophical Reflections (Charles F. Deems Lectures; New York: New York University Press, 1970; repr. Northvale: Jason Aronson, 1999).
4 Raymond C. Van Leeuwen, “The Quest for the Historical Leviathan: Truth and Method in Biblical Studies,” JTI 5 (2011) 145-58. Online here.
5 Bruce Lincoln, Theorizing Myth: Narrative, Ideology, and Scholarship (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) 147.
6 Hans-Georg Gadamer, Wahrheit und Methode: Grundzüge einer philosophischen Hermeneutik (Tübingen: Mohr, 11960; 61990, vol. 1 of Gesammelte Werke); ET Truth and Method (2nd ed.; trans. J. Weinsheimer and D. G. Marshall; New York: Crossroad, 1989). Gadamer’s project revolved around examining how hermeneutics post-Heidegger “can do justice to the historicity of understanding” (268).
7 Benjamin Sommer, “Dating Pentateuchal Texts and the Perils of Pseudo-Historicism,” in Thomas B. Dozeman, Konrad Schmid, and Baruch J. Schwartz, eds., The Pentateuch: International Perspectives on Current Research (FAT 78; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2011) 85-108. Online here.
8 Benjamin Sommer, The Bodies of God and the World of Ancient Israel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009).
9 Angela Roskop, The Wilderness Itineraries: Genre, Geography, and the Growth of Torah (History, Archaeology, and Culture of the Levant 3; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011).
Avraham Faust, Israel’s Ethnogenesis: Settlement, Interaction, Expansion and Resistance (London: Equinox, 2006); The Archaeology of Israelite Society in Iron Age II (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, forthcoming);, Judah in the Neo-Babylonian Period: The Archaeology of Desolation (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, forthcoming); Jacob J. Finkelstein, “The West, the Bible and the Ancient East: Apperceptions and Categorisations”, Man 9 (1974) 591-608; “The Ox That Gored,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society NS 71/2 (1981) 1-89; Bernd Janowski, Sühne als Heilsgeschehen. Traditions- und religionsgeschichtliche Studien zur Sühnetheologie der Priesterschrift (WMANT 55; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2000 ); Gottes Gegenwart in Israel. Beiträge zur Theologie des Alten Testaments 1 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2004 ); idem, Stellvertretung. Alttestamentliche Studien zu einem theologischen Grundbegriff (SBS 165; Stuttgart: Katholische Bibelwerk, 1998 ); Die rettende Gerechtigkeit. Beiträge zur Theologie des Alten Testaments 2 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 1999); Der Gott des Lebens. Beiträge zur Theologie des Alten Testaments 3 (Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2003; Konfliktgespräche mit Gott. Eine Anthropologie der Psalmen (3d ed., Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener Verlag, 2009 ); Seth L. Sanders, The Invention of Hebrew (Traditions [gen. ed., Gregory Nagy; editorial board: Olga M. Davidson, Bruce Lincoln, and Alexander Nehamas]; Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2009); Meir Sternberg, The Poetics of Biblical Narrative: Ideological Literature and the Drama of Reading (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985); Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels. Mit einem Stellenregister (De Gruyter Studienbuch; Berlin: de Gruyter, ebook 2012; ≈ 2d ed.; Berlin: G. Reimer, 1883; revision of Geschichte Israels. In zwei Banden. Erster Band; Berlin: G. Reimer, 1878; ET of 2d ed., Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (New York: Meridian Books, 1957; repr. of Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel; trans., J. Sutherland Black and Allan Menzies; Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1885; trans. of Prolegomena zur Geschichte Israels, idem, Israelitische und jüdische Geschichte (10th ed., a reprint of the 7th ed. , with a foreword by Rudolf Smend, Berlin: de Gruyter, 1981; 1st ed., Berlin: G. Reimer, 1894), idem, Die Composition des Hexateuchs und der historischen Bücher des Alten Testaments (4th ed., a reprint of the 1963 repr., Berlin: de Gruyter, 2012; 1st ed., Berlin: G. Reimer, 1876/77; 3rd ed., 1899)