Historiography and the History of Israel

Of the publication of histories of Israel there seems to be no end nowadays. Among the more recent can be mentioned: M. Noth, The History of Israel (Eng. ed.• New York, 1958); J. Bright, A History of Israel (Ph;]a., 1959); H. M. Orlinsky, Ancient Israel (Cornell University Press, 2nd ed., 1960); W. F. Albright, The Biblical Period From Abraham To Ezra (Harper Torchbooks, 1963); J. T. Meek, Hebrew Origins (2nd ed., 1950, Harper Torchbooks,1960 ); G. Ricciotti, Israel, Its Life and Culture (Eng. ed., Bruce Publishing Co., 2nd ed., 1955); E. J. Bickennan, The Jews; Their History, Culture and Religion (1949); J. Muilenburg, “The History of the Religion of Israel,” The Interpreters Bible, Vol. I (Abingdon Press, 1952); B. W. Anderson, Understanding the Old Testament (Prentice.Ha1I, Inc., 1957); S. J. Schultz, The Old T estament Speaks (Harper & Brothers, 1960); M. A. Beek, A Short History of Israel From Abraham To Bar Chochba (Eng. ed., Harper & Row, 19(3); not to mention the historical texts of recent Bible atlases and of survey reports of archaeological finds which have bearing on the study of the Old Testament.

The reasons for this prolificacy are not far to find. (1) Historiography, having come of age only in the 19th century, is still in the vigor of its youth. (2) Archaeology of the Near East continues to enlarge its treasures of historical materials, lighting up with a thousand lights the darkness long settled on the ancient past. (3) Rapidly expanding schools and colleges have an insatiable appetite for good textbooks. (4) Biblical scholarship, having largely abandoned acceptance of (inscripturated) word revelation, is preoccupied with historical events as the only solid substance of revelation, for which reason the search is on for the historical Israel.


And now there has appeared another history of Israel. This one, entitled Israel and the Nations ( Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1963, 225 pp., $3.95), was written by the noted British scholar Dr. F. F. Bruce in response to “a request by a group of Scripture teachers for a handbook which might prove useful to them in their work.” It is also intended to serve “in some sort as prolegomena to the volumes in the Paternoster Church History series” (Preface). The author is one who by his many writings has attained for himself the reputation of a prince among Evangelical New Testament scholars.

In view of the historicism! which is reflected in most histories of Israel, and the reputation of the present author, One reaches for this book with that touch of eagerness which is born of expectation. For there seems to be promise here of the fulfillment of an urgent need -the need for a textbook on the history of Israel for the senior high school and college classroom, which is competent, informed up-to-the-minute, stylistically attractive, concise, and above all true to a biblically controlled principle of historiography—a textbook on the history of Israel which can indeed assist Scripture teachers in their efforts to communicate to their students a thorough and proper understanding of Scripture.

But disappointment comes with reading for the promise is not fulfilled. Concise this work is, and pleasant of style. The scholarship is up-to-date, and the over-all competence of the work leaves little to be desired. The inter-testamental period is done in an especially masterful manner. An expert has obviously been at work.

Yet it must be said that this book, for all its many splendid qualities, manifests a major (and common) fault which vitiates the whole work. This fault springs from what can only be judged to be an impossible purpose and an improper method.

The writer sets himself the task of constructing “a political narrative” of Israel’s history (Introduction), in the course of which “Israel’s religion is dealt with only incidentally, for all its centrality in the life and continuity of the nation;” this for the purpose of providing Scripture teachers with a useful teaching aid; and the publishers of a Church history series with a prolegomena for their series (Preface). Methodologically the writer uses Holy Scripture not as a body of “‘canonical writings” but only as “historical source-documents of first-rate worth” (Introduction).

Since the author has taken this statement of purpose and method seriously, one must take care to understand it well. To provide Scripture teachers with a useful teaching aid, and to supply a prolegomena to a Church history series, the writer undertakes to write a “political narrative” of Israel in the midst of the nations. The focus, therefore, is not art, or economics, Or non-political social forms and changes, or religious faith, but politics, i.e., the political events in the life of Israel as a people in the midst of the peoples. And the purpose is not merely to present data related to such events but the construction of a political narrative. That means the relating of events in terms of cause and effect with a view to constructing a coherent political history. Furthermore, the method adopted is such that allusion to matters of Israel’s religion can be reduced to mere incidental references, and Holy Scriptures can be used simply as “historical source-documents of first-rate worth.”

The implications of this last are far-reaching, and it is important that we note some of them. I call attention to three. (1) To write a history of Israel in this manner is to work historiographically as if there were no “religious” factors, such as special revelations and unique redemptive events to which the whole of Israel’s national life was a response (whether in faithfulness or unfaithfulness), which, as such, need be taken into account in relating the political fortunes of this people. It is to write a political history of Israel as if the political fortunes of Israel were determined by purely political factors. (2) It is implied that the muse of history is autonomous when writing a political history of Israel, and that the canonical Scriptures do not provide the key to the understanding of that history. And (3), it is implied that in the construction of a political narrative of Israel the historical data of Scripture are to be subjected to all the criteria of historical criticism.

To undertake such a task and with such a method is to write a history of Israel as though Israel were not Israel, as though she were but one of the many peoples of the ancient Near East and not the peculiar creation of the saving acts and (inscripturated ) word revelation of God. It is comparable to an attempt to write a history of the Church as though the Church were but a sociological element in human society along side of and undifferentiated from other sociological elements such as the nobility and the trade guilds of medieval Europe, or the AFL-CIO, the Republican Party, and the NAACP of contemporary America. (Is that the kind of Church history contemplated in the series of which this will serve as prolegomena?) Or, to employ another comparison, it is like attempting to write a biography of Jesus taking little account of “religious” factors and drawing on Scripture only as a body of historical source documents rather than as canonical writings.

Now it seems self-evident (although it has not always, nor to all) that any attempt to write a “secular” (to use a common but unfortunate expression) biography of Jesus, i.e., to attempt to write a life of Jesus by the empirical historical method alone, is to preclude at the outset the possibility of ever finding the real Jesus of history who is none other than the Lord Jesus Christ of the canonical Scriptures. If historiography, even when writing about Jesus, is restricted to the empirical method and cannot be illumined by revelation, then the historicism of the 19th century is right: the historian, qua historian, can know only “the Jesus of history,” but never the Christ of God. Yet that is to say that the historian, qua historian, can never know the Jesus of history for the Jesus who belongs to our history is the Christ of God. To know Jesus only “after the flesh” is not to know him.

It is, I would judge, equally impossible to write a history of the Church by means of mere empirical historicism without having the Church, as Church, elude one’s scientific grasp. For how does one discover by empirical method that the Church is the mystical body of that Christ who has been made the Lord of all history, that it is the temple of the Holy Spirit, the creation of the Lord Jesus Christ, the pillar and ground of the truth? Yet how can one write a history of the Church without taking into account these fundamental facts about the nature of the Church?

Similarly, a political narrative of Israel’s history, based on mere “historical source-documents” and on archaeological data cannot but fail. For the Israel whose political narrative is thus related is then no longer the Israel of Holy Scripture nor the real Israel of the past. The narrative thus constructed (in distinction from the data employed in the construction) can only lead to a mis-understanding of Scripture, not to its illumination. And the history thus written cannot serve as a prolegomena to a history of the Church.

This is not to deny that the political history of Israel may properly become the special focus of the historiographer. (The objections being voiced here do not spring from a commitment to the “holist” view of history endorsed by such diverse historians as Tolstoy, Toynbee, and Albright.) Neither is it to deny that there is outside of Scripture a wealth of historical data pertinent to the writing of a political history of Israel. Nor yet is it to deny, what Dr. Bruce rightly affirms, that the interest of the biblical writers “was not so much in political developments as in the dealings of the God of Israel with His people” (Introduction).

However, it is to affirm that the only proper function of extra-biblical historical data for the writing of a political history of Israel (or an economic history, or a cultic history, or a literary history, or a cultural history) are (1) to augment the biblical data, and (2), to aid in the under. standing of the biblical data, as biblical, i.e., canonical, data. That is to say, a political narrative of Israel based solely on “historical” sources cannot illumine Scripture for us. For such a narrative is not and cannot be a mere compilation of historical data. It inevitably embodies an interpretation of  “historical” data, with the principle of interpretation allegedly drawn solely from the “historical” data themselves (the claim of historical positivists) , or from some intuitive insight into the patterns which are inherent in these data (the claim of most contemporary historiographers). Yet neither mere empirical data nor histOrical intuition can provide the key interpretative principle for the right understanding of the empirical data which has bearing on Israel’s political history. This only the canonical Scriptures, and they not merely as “historical source-documents of first-rate worth” but as canonical Scriptures can provide.

In other words, a “political narrative” of Israel in the midst of the nations which for the most part ignores “religious” factors and which employs Scripture only as a reliable source of “historical” data cannot illumine Scripture for us. It is canonical Scripture which must illumine Israel’s history for us, also Israel’s political history. This is the implicit claim of Scripture itself. For Scripture pervasively affirms that the political fortunes of Israel have been ultimately determined by such “religious” factors as God’s faithfulness to His covenants and Israel’s faithfulness or unfaithfulness to these same covenants, the judgments of God in history, and God’s unfolding of revelation-in-event in the course of Israel’s history, inclusive of her political history. Any attempt to reverse the order, i.e., to illumine Scripture by means of an empirically constructed history of Israel’s political fortunes, can only lead to the loss from view of that concrete Israel which belongs to our history. For the Israel that belongs to our history is the Israel of the biblical canon.

In the work here under review Dr. Bruce has not disassociated himself from those many fellows of his scholarly guild whose philosophic heritage goes back ultimately to Kant. Historiography, he seems to suppose, is a strictly empirical science (although one would suspect that the empiricism he accepts is not the unchastened empiricism of the positivists) which can maintain its own integrity only by refusing to submit to any authority, such as revelation, beyond its own critical method. To do so, this school of thought alleges, would be for historiography to betray itself and thus cease to be a science. And though every historiographer must inevitably adopt a point of view2 this point of view may not be received from revelation. If it is so received, the result is not a history but a confession of faith, in historical categories. For historiography has to do with the phenomenal aspect of the past (that which can be apprehended by the senses), faith with the noumenal (that which can be apprehended only by intuition), and more particularly with its religious aspect.

How then does the Bible speak for one who accepts the autonomy of historiography? To the historian the Bible speaks as a body of historical source·documents; to the believer it speaks as a book of revelation. But since by its own claims the Bible is not an historiography, and was not written specifically for historians, but is a book of revelation, written by believers and for believers, the historian properly stands in critical judgment over the Bible as historical source·document while the believer stands in sub· mission to the Bible with respect to his faith.

What then if the revelation preserved in Holy Scripture presents itself, as indeed it does, as a revelation of God in redemptive word and redemptive history, effecting in the arena of world history the salvation of Israel? On the basis of the position from which Dr. Bruce does not here disassociate himself, the historian by means of his critical method controls the scientific reconstruction of what on the empirical plane really happened. The believer is left to read what to Israel’s (or the prophets’) faith appeared to happen, or how Israel’s faith (or the prophetic spirit) interpreted these events, and so to learn what faith ought to believe concerning these events.

The believer is thus left to the mercy of the historian. For, the historian’s reconstruction of the empirical events is constantly in flux. Within the last fifty years it has shifted from the radical reconstruction of Wellhausenism, which made the law of Moses later than the prophets, to the conservative reconstruction of men who, like Albright, insist on the general historical trustworthiness of the biblical documents, but who nevertheless find the origins of Israel not in the twelve sons of Jacob but in an amphictyonic league of independent tribes, and the origins of Israel’s earlier religious documents in the amalgamation of differing traditions developed and preserved at various tribal cult centers. The relative “conservatism” of later historical scholarship may ring pleasantly in the ears of theological conservatives, but it must not be overlooked that this claim of general historical accuracy in the biblical documents rests not on acceptance of the canonical authority of these documents but rather on the current state of historical studies, and, therefore, on precisely the same basis as Wellhausen’s earlier radical attack on biblical historical trustworthiness.

Thus there is no guarantee, the historians themselves being witness, that the current historiographical reconstruction of Israel’s history is the last. The reconstructions of empirical historiography are always tentative, always open to new data and new hypotheses.

Furthermore, the relationship between the event and the biblical witness to the event is crucial for revelation and, therefore, for faith. If the biblical witness to the event is historical1y wholly untrustworthy, as the school of Wellhausen taught, then a revelation which claims to be central1y historical can have little or no value. If it is in general trustworthy but in most particulars historically unrecoverable, therefore subject to historical doubt; and if, in fact, it is in many important details inaccurate, as is taught by the majority of Old Testament scholars today; then we have a revelation that is little more than an embodiment of jewish (or prophetic) theological reflection 011 events as remembered or reconstructed in oral tradition. The events themselves, in which the revelation is claimed to have been embodied, are forever lost to us except insofar as the historian is able by his autonomous science to offer a reconstruction of them. But a revelation which claims to be centrally historical yet hangs loose from and unattachable to the actual course of events is also of little value. It can only communicate a confession of faith in historical terms, not a prophetically illumined narrative of the actual redemptive acts of God.

And if the Church must forever remain uncertain of the relationship between event and the biblical witness to the event until the historian has reconstructed the actual event, then the Church is in bondage to a new hierarchy. The historiographer, by means of the instrument of his critical science, in which he is free from the authority of Scripture, rules in lordly fashion over the faith of the people of God.

If Dr. Bruce had not throughout his book remained generally true to his statement of purpose and method this lengthy critique would not have been in place. He is, however, too competent a scholar to set himself one task and perform another. So he gives us an essentially historicistic reconstruction of Israel’s political history. It could have been written by any of that current crop of empirical his· toriographers who speak of the high quality of the Bible as a historical source-document.

Thus the political narrative of Israel here reconstructed reads as follows. Moses led his people out of Egypt “amid a series of natural phenomena in which could be traced [presumably by the prophetic spirit of Moses] the directing power of the patriarchs’ God, intervening for the deliverance of their descendants” (p. 14). “The undisciplined body of slaves which left Egypt under the guidance of Moses had to spend a generation in the wilderness before a nation could be fashioned to invade the land of Canaan as conquerors and settlers” (p. 16).

“…Even before the settlement in Canaan the Israelites consisted of a number of tribes united in part by a common ancestry but much more so by common participation in the covenant of Yahweh,” thus forming “what in Greek history is known as an amphictyonic league” (pp. 16, 17). Apparently the Amalekites once belonged to this league since “the bitter feud which Israel pursued against these from generation to generation can best be explained if they were guilty of some breach of covenant” (p. 17).

“’The Old Testament record attributes the drying up of the river (Jordan) to a landslide at Adam…but the fact of its occurrence just at this time was evidence to them that the God of their fathers…was now bringing them safely into Canaan. The collapse of the walls around the citadel of Jericho…was no doubt caused by the same seismic action as had brought about the landslide at Ed-Damiyeh [Adam]; to the Israelites it brought further confirmation of the directing power of Yahweh” (p. 18).

Samuel finally acquiesced in the persistent demands of Israel “and nominated as their king a man named Saul…who may have been chosen by Samuel some time earlier to act as military commander under his direction” ( p. 24)….Encroachment upon the priestly prerogatives of Samuel was the beginning of a growing alienation between the two” (p. 25). “The tragedy of Saul is that he was a sincerely religious man, deeply concerned to do the will of Yahweh, and Samuel’s announcement that Yahweh had rejected him as king preyed upon his mind as it would not have done if he had been an irreligious man. He became a victim of melancholia and persecution mania…” (p. 26).

Once David had been established as king in Jerusalem he “bethought himself of a way in which the sacred prestige of his new capital, already great [It was the ancient city of Melchizedek who had blessed Abraham and had received tithes from him], might be further enhanced, especially in Israelite eyes.” So he installed the ark, the “ancient palladium of the tribes of Israel” in his new capital amid great public ceremonies (p. 30).

“Among the arts of peace which flourished under Solomon may be reckoned literature of various kinds…The national epic and the court-chronicle flourished, together with the ‘wisdom’ for which Solomon became renowned in all succeeding ages” (p. 38). This, it is suggested, although not said, is the real beginning of the Old Testament “epic narrative” as we now possess it.” And as for events immediately following Solomon’s reign, “the prophetic party, which was opposed to the innovating trends of Solomon’s policy, marked out…Jeroboam as one to whom the national loyalty could be directed…” (p. 39).

But, enough, except to record that, mirabile dictu, this political narrative of Israel from the exodus to the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70 contains not a single reference to Jesus Christ!

As a work sparkling with many fine insights and containing a wealth of historical data Israel and the Nations can be recommended to discerning teachers and students. But as a political narrative it is unacceptable. As narrative it can onIy confuse the Bible student, or the student of Church history, if not seriously mislead him.

Dr. Bruce will have to accept the fact that this time his theological friends cannot approve.

1. The word “historicism” is used in this connection to designate the historical method of those who assume that the task of historiography is to attempt to explain all historical phenomena in terms of forces and factors actually present in creaturely existence, and therefore potentially recoverable by empirical investigation, and that alI historical phenomena are subject to adequate, if not exhaustive explanation in such terms. It involves “the combination of the evolutionary principle with positivistic historical research” (W. F. Albright, From Stone Age to Christianity, 2nd ed., Doubleday,’p. 84). This use of the term is therefore to be distinguished from that more specialized use found in other disciplines. such as sociology, cf. e.g. K. R. Popper, The Poverty of Historicism, Harper Torchbooks, 1964.

2. See, e.g. the discussion of “Historical Interpretation” in K. R. Popper, op. cit., pp. 147–152.

3. The term is borrowed from Greek history where it was used to designate a group of city states or tribes sharing a common sanctuary which served as the focus of their federation.