Does the Hebrew Bible Contain History?
The answer to the question—Does the Hebrew Bible contain history?—ultimately hinges on how one understands the concept of history. This is a complicated matter, one that I am not interested in fully fleshing out here. My interest is simply to recognize that one must have a narrow definition of history if one is to answer “No” to the question posed.
There are innumerable factors that are relevant to such a question. I am particularly intrigued by the numerous references in the Hebrew Bible to extra-biblical literary sources:
The Scroll of the Wars of Yhwh (Num 21:14)
The Scroll of Jashar (Josh 10:13; 2 Sam 1:18)
The Scroll of the Acts of Solomon (1 Kgs 11:41)
The Scroll of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel (1 Kgs 14:19; 15:31; 16:5, 14, 20, 27; 22:39; 2 Kgs 1:18; 10:34; 12:19; 13:8; 14:15, 28; 15:11, 15, 21, 26, 31; 2 Chr 33:18)
The Scroll of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah (1 Kgs 14:29; 15:7, 23; 22:45; 2 Kgs 8:23; 14:18; 15:6, 36; 16:19; 20:20; 21:17, 25; 23:28; 24:5)
The Midrash of the Prophet Iddo (2 Chr 13:22)
The Scroll of the Kings of Israel (1 Chr 9:1; 2 Chr 20:34)
The Scroll of the Kings of Judah and Israel (2 Chr 16:11; 25:26; 27:7; 32:32; 35:26-27; 36:8)
Untitled work written by Isaiah about a character not prominent in the biblical book of Isaiah (2 Chr 26:22)
The Midrash of the Scroll of the Kings (2 Chr 24:27)
The Scroll of the Records of your Fathers (Ezra 4:5)
The Scroll of the Genealogy of those who Came up at the First (Nehemiah 7:5)
The Scroll of the Chronicles (Neh 12:23)
The Scroll of the Chronicles (Esther 2:23)
The Scroll of the Chronicles of the kings of Media and Persia (Esther 10:2)
(“Scroll” translates the Hebrew ספר, though the Hebrew could connote an inscription or some other kind of written medium. The versions refer to these works as books, which is an unfortunate anachronism.)
What are these sources, and did they ever exist? Such sources are characteristic of what we see being composed and preserved in neighboring cultures where a literary heritage from the Iron Age has been preserved. To speak definitively beyond this goes beyond the available evidence. Nevertheless, the available evidence suggests some such works were likely composed, particularly in royal circles in ancient Israel and Judah.
Naturally, this does not speak to the character of such sources. Do they present their material in a disinterested way and strive for objectivity, or are they ideologically motivated and biased in their presentation? Questions such as this raise interesting and important avenues of investigation.
Nevertheless, if it utilizes archival material in ancient Israel and Judah as source material for the narratives it constructs, then broadly speaking, the Hebrew Bible does indeed contain history.