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Daniel J. HarringtonMarch 14, 2005

Modern biblical study is not only a literary and theological enterprise but also a historical discipline. The term “history,” however, is hardly univocal. The six books covered here illustrate some of the approaches involved in writing about the Bible and history. They show that in the context of biblical studies today, the word history can refer to the development of an idea or theme, how the Bible came to be, the nature of biblical history, the concrete setting of a specific biblical writing, the social and religious milieu in which biblical people lived and the effects that certain biblical texts have exercised. (Click on book title to get price at Amazon.com.)

One form of historical study involves tracing the history of an idea or concept. To describe Alan F. Segal’s Life After Death: A History of the Afterlife in the Religions of the West (Doubleday, 866p, $37.50) as a tour-de-force is an understatement. In his survey of early maps of the afterlife in our foundational Western religious texts, Segal, professor of religion and Jewish studies at Barnard College, Columbia University, in New York, seeks to show the connections between visions of the afterlife and the early scriptural communities that produced them, and to explore why people wanted an afterlife of a particular kind and how those beliefs changed over time. His massive work covers all the key texts from ancient Egypt through the rise of Islam, with several fascinating side trips to our own day. If you are looking for an objective, comprehensive and encyclopedic treatment of afterlife expectations in antiquity and some of their implications for today, this is the book for you.

After a 23-page introduction, Segal describes the climate of immortality in antiquity (in Egypt, Mesopotamia and Canaan, and First Temple Judaism), traces the movement from that climate to the self (in Persian, Greek and classical, and Second Temple Jewish views). Then he considers visions of resurrection and the immortality of the soul (in apocalypticism and millenarianism, religiously interpreted states of consciousness and sectarian life in New Testament times) and sketches the path to modern views of the afterlife (in Paul, the Gospels, the pseudepigraphical literature, the Church Fathers and their opponents, the early rabbis and Islam). He concludes that our “immortal longings” are mirrors of what we find of value in our lives and serve to motivate our moral and artistic lives.

Segal describes his methodology as “comparative” and “social-historical.” He does not present a philosophical defense of the immortality of the soul or a theological treatise on resurrection. Indeed, he purposely brackets the most interesting questions: Is there life after death? And what is it like? Instead he offers basically objective descriptions of what the pertinent biblical and extrabiblical texts say about life after death. He is especially concerned with what the notions of afterlife in the key texts reveal about the ultimate meaning of life for the people who produced them and the social and historical issues that lay behind the different approaches.

The strength of Segal’s mammoth work lies in his remarkable ability to produce fresh and stimulating readings of the classic texts about life after death. He is always readable and engaging, and proves to be a wise guide as he leads readers through some very difficult material. The weakest sections are those that push too hard the alleged correlations between afterlife expectations and socioeconomic conditions, and so tend toward circular reasoning, special pleading and social-science reductionism.

The Bible itself has a history. In How the Bible Became a Book: The Textualization of Ancient Israel (Cambridge Univ. Press., 257p, $27), William M. Schniedewind, professor of biblical studies and Northwest Semitic languages at the University of California in Los Angeles, provides an excellent example of how a historian acts as a detective by calling upon evidence from archaeology and ancient Near Eastern history to illumine how, why and when the Hebrew Bible came to be written down. He also sensitizes us to the momentous social and religious implications involved in transforming an oral culture into a written text.

It has become common in academic circles to place the final composition of much of the Hebrew Bible in Israel’s Babylonian exile (6th century B.C.). In recent years some scholars have pushed the date forward into the Persian period (537-323 B.C.) or even Hellenistic times. According to Schniedewind, however, none of these theories fits the historical data.

Taking as his starting point the early history of writing in Israel, he shows how writing was endowed with a magical and even numinous character, and how it soon became an instrument of the state and the temple. Schniedewind’s basic thesis is that large parts of the Hebrew Bible took written form first under King Hezekiah of Judah in the late eighth century B.C. and then under King Josiah in the late seventh century. With the writing down of the historical books, large parts of the Pentateuch, First Isaiah and other early prophets, Hezekiah sought to create a Davidic “golden age.” In Josiah’s time, however, the book of Deuteronomy and the Torah as a whole put restraints on the king’s personal power and located the ultimate authority in a text and its readers rather than in a tradition and its community (and its ruler).

In Schniedewind’s view, the exile and the Persian period were mainly times of editorial activity and preservation, along with the composition of obviously later biblical books like Ezra-Nehemiah and Chronicles. While early Christianity and rabbinic Judaism began as primarily oral movements, they both soon succumbed to the attractions of textualization. That process was greatly advanced by the early Christians’ adoption of the codex (book) format. And the oral traditions of the rabbis were eventually collected into the huge corpus of rabbinic literature.

The phrase “the Bible and history” evokes in many people today the question, Is there real history in the Bible? Writing for a general audience, Barbara E. Organ, who teaches at the University of Sudbury in Canada, in Is the Bible Fact or Fiction? An Introduction to Biblical Historiography (Paulist, 176p, $16.95 paper) examines some aspects of the biblical historical books not so much to specify what actually happened as to identify the kind of historiography that the writers were undertaking. Her goal is to uncover the literary style and purpose of the biblical authors in order to determine their ideologies and understand their message better. To do so, she compares the parallel accounts about the Jerusalem conference and Paul’s conversion in Acts and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, contrasts the treatments of the Maccabean revolt in 1 and 2 Maccabees, and considers the narrative of ancient Israel’s history from Deuteronomy to 2 Kings. She explores how the biblical authors wrote their histories, the kind of history that they thought they were writing, how history was perceived in the ancient world, the authors’ aims and sources, their flexibility in composition and the roles of literary style and theology/ideology in their works.

In approaching the topic of fact and fiction in the Bible, Organ illustrates the need for reflecting on what we mean by history and what we can expect from ancient texts like the Bible. If we read the historical books literally as chronicles or annals, we miss their literary sophistication and theological depth. If we read them according to the conventions of modern historiography, we impose impossible demands on these books. But when we read them according to the conventions of ancient historians like Herodotus and Thucydides, we can better appreciate the sources they had, the freedom with which they used them, and their goal of imparting moral lessons and entertaining their readers. Organ wisely observes that the more we read the biblical histories in their own literary and historical contexts, the more we realize their creativity and integrity, their complexity and richness.

Historical study of the Bible includes clarifying the particular situation in which a writing was composed. In Paul’s Rhetoric in Its Contexts: The Argument of Romans (Hendrickson, 469p, $24.95 paper), Thomas H. Tobin, S.J., professor of theology at Loyola University Chicago, argues that Romans is not an abstract theological treatise but rather an occasional letter addressed to a particular situation in mid-first century A.D. In his exposition of Paul’s argument, Tobin is concerned not only with what Paul said (theology) but also and especially with why (history) and how (rhetoric) he said it. Thus Tobin interprets the letter with reference to three contexts: the Christian community in Rome, Paul’s experience of Christ and his career as an apostle, and Paul in relation to the church at Rome.

According to Tobin, Paul was primarily trying to persuade the Roman Christians about the validity of his teaching that Christians are not obligated to observe the Mosaic Law. Even though most of the Roman Christians were Gentiles, they had developed a deep respect for the Jewish way of life and so needed to be convinced that Paul’s gospel would not lead to moral disarray. In writing to them, Paul sought to explain his controversial convictions about the equal status of Jews and Gentiles, righteousness by faith apart from observance of the Law, and the ultimate place of the Jewish people in God’s larger providence. To do so, Paul alternated expositions (calm explanations of the common grounds between him and the Roman Christians) and arguments (lively diatribes aimed at responding to suspicions and objections about Paul’s gospel).

Tobin’s learned and fresh reading of Romans in its original historical setting, while not for the fainthearted, is readily intelligible, and always clear and logical in its arguments. Drawing on his own academic specializations, Tobin makes abundant use of the writings of Hellenistic Jewish authors (especially Philo) and of Greek and Roman philosophers and rhetoricians. The exegetical highlights include how Paul in Romans was rethinking and modifying his more extreme statements in Galatians, how the “I” of Romans 7 describes the experience of Gentile Roman Christians seeking to observe the Mosaic Law, and how Paul in Romans 9-11 struggled with the ultimate fate of non-Christian Jews. This remarkably illuminating study illustrates the value of analyzing a biblical writing in its particular historical situation.

One of the tasks facing historians of early Christianity is to describe and interpret the social and religious world in which Jews and pagans became part of the Christian movement. The phenomenon of conversion has been the topic of many excellent historical and theological studies. But every convert was at the same time an apostate or defector from paganism or Judaism. Paul is the classic example of one group’s apostate becoming another group’s convert. And of course, there were some who became Christians and then went over (or back) to Judaism or paganism.

In Leaving the Fold: Apostates and Defectors in Antiquity (Fortress, 158p, $25), Stephen G. Wilson, professor of religion at Carleton University in Ottawa, draws attention to the range of evidence for apostasy among Jews, Christians and pagans, respectively, in antiquity up to and just beyond the time of Constantine. He uses the terms “defector” and “apostate” to describe those who considered themselves or were considered by others to have abandoned the main practices and/or beliefs of the religious community, in extreme cases even turning against it. Wilson concludes that the range and variety of defectors are striking and that in many cases defection is defined more by actions than by beliefs, even in the supposedly more belief-oriented Christian tradition. If there is a difference between the two terms, it is that defectors go out with a whimper, while apostates go out with a bang.

The topic of apostasy is complicated by problems of definition (who sets the boundaries and applies the label?) and evidence (since religious and philosophical movements welcome and boast about converts but are embarrassed by defectors). Yet, as Wilson shows, there is enough evidence to show that “leaving the fold” had a more prominent role in the religious life of the ancient world than has been previously recognized.

Why did people in antiquity defect or apostasize? Most of the reasons are familiar from our own modern experiences: pressures due to family ties and intermarriage, excessive regulation of lifestyle and rigid demands, social dissaffection with other members and especially with leaders, intellectual doubts, intense new philosophical and/or and religious experiences, and the search for upward social mobility. Especially poignant are the accounts of those Jews and Christians who apostasized during persecutions, out of fear of torture and death or the prospect of financial and social ruin. We know such cases in passing from the New Testament (in Hebrews and Revelation) and also from Pliny the Younger’s letter to the emperor Trajan about the proper treatment of Christians in the early second century. It is also striking that in “paganism” the most serious defections took place not in religious cults but rather in “schools” devoted to philosophy and medicine. Wilson has performed a good historical service by gathering the ancient evidence pertaining to apostasy and interpreting it in an objective and illuminating manner.

An important development in biblical studies is known as “effective history” (Wirkungsgeschichte in German). In The Bible in History: How the Texts Have Shaped the Times (Oxford Univ. Press, 389p, $35), David W. Kling, associate professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Miami, explores eight cases in which specific biblical texts have shaped Western history and history has shaped the interpretation of these biblical texts. Kling’s eight case studies concern the following biblical texts and historical persons, movements or institutions: “follow me” (Mt 19:16-22) and the rise of monasticism; “upon this rock” (Mt 16:18-19) and the papacy; “Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth” (Song 1:2-4) and Bernard’s writings on love of God; “the righteous will live by faith” (Rom 1:16-17) and Luther’s search for a gracious God; “love your enemies” (Mt 5:43-44) and the Anabaptists and the peace tradition; “let my people go” (Ex 8:1) and the exodus in the African American experience; “filled with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 2:1-4) and the roots of Pentecostalism; and “one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28) and women’s ministry and ordination.

Kling treats each topic with abundant references both to biblical interpretation (ancient and modern) and to ecclesiastical and secular history. He has many good stories to tell, and he tells them very well. His informative and often entertaining survey illustrates a fascinating approach to biblical studies and to history in general. He shows how at certain “right” moments the “right” biblical text met the “right” person or group, and how the results have influenced the course of Western and, in particular, American history.

History is a multifaceted discipline. As these books show, it can greatly illumine the multifaceted book that we call the Bible.

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Jonathan Laden
14 years 4 months ago
An excellent article! There's so much to understand about the context of the time and place where the Bible first came into being. -Jonathan Laden www.BiblicalArchaeology.org

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