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.


6 thoughts on “Does the Hebrew Bible Contain History?

  1. This is always the question I must tackle at the outset in my intro classes. I am particularly fond of Seibert’s treatment in the middle of his book, setting up a rightful distinction between “history” and “truth” (channeling Elie Wiesel, who has said “some things are true that never happened”). But I do think you’re right to point to these various ‘source’ materials as likely containing some semblance of ‘history’ that has made its way into the text. And I also think you are right to hint at the fact it is the DEFINITION of history that needs to be addressed. This is where I find Seibert most helpful. The modern connotation of history is problematic, and one students struggle to overcome (and explaining historiography to them only confuses the matter, at least for freshmen). As I often suggest, the truth is somewhere in the middle . . . yes, there is some history in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean it is all historical. Likewise, there is some myth (loaded word!) in the Bible, but that doesn’t mean it is all just a fairy tale or good fictional literature. The life and power of the text exists mysteriously outside questions of history proper.

      1. Too thick for undergrads. Perhaps were I teaching in a seminary or grad school context. Seibert does a fine job, and I have them read his whole book anyways, so . . .

        I almost switched this morning from having them read Fretheim’s ‘About the Bible’ to Pregeant’s ‘Reading the Bible for all the Wrong Reasons,’ but Pregeant goes too far afield for what I want the book to do, though his second chapter on biblical authority is quite well done for such an audience.

  2. Hi John,
    I wonder what you mean by “history proper.” I also find the differentiation between history and myth to be problematic with respect to biblical literature or most literature for that matter. Why not simply say that the Bible is basically literature (of various genres) and that some of its details correspond to factual events? Yet I would not conflate factual events with “history proper.”

    1. Hi Jacob,

      Upon further reflection, “history proper” is not probably the best phrase to communicate my intention. I could have just as well said “history” and been satisfied; my point is simply that the power, beauty, and (dare I say) intention of the text is not grounded in or reliant upon history or historical veracity (I almost wrote history proper!) as we understand it (which is what I meant by history proper in my first post above).

      re: history/myth, this is a discussion I largely try not to have with freshmen. It is, as you probably know, enough of a task to get them past the idea the Bible is not a history or science textbook. My reflections in the posts above have a pedagogical concern: how I have taught this to students, the majority of whom take the historicity of the biblical narrative for granted. I agree with your final two sentences, though, as well (and suspect Seibert would as well, though probably not in the same way or for the same reasons I do).

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