History for the Hellenes and History for the Hebrews

For Herodotus (484-424 bce) and Thucydides (460-399 bce) history was, more than anything else, a body of evidence about the past, and the purpose of the historians was to help others to use that evidence. To witness to this evidence was not to be totally passive, but to be active enough to discover what is objectively the case. Herodotus wrote, he said, so "that men's actions may not in time be forgotten nor things great and wonderful, accomplished whether by Greeks or barbarians, go without report" (1958, vol. 1:1). Thucydides disparaged "the vulgar," who are careless "in the investigation of truth, accepting readily the first story that comes to hand." He, however, could "rest satisfied with having proceeded upon the clearest data, and having arrived at conclusions as exact as can be expected in matters of such antiquity" (1959:230). Admittedly, both Herodotus and Thucydides mixed their witness with strong interpretations; in their histories both consistently favored the Greeks; Herodotus included legends he knew were apocryphal; and Thucydides invented speeches for his long-dead heroes. Nevertheless, their high seriousness about memory and objectivity makes them witnessing historians.

For the Hebrew historians - the writers of the Pentateuch, the histories, and the prophetic literature - history was not primarily a body of evidence, but was an interaction, a creative interaction in which both they and their God participated. They assumed that God decided how to address the Israelites in particular times and places, and they assumed that their own reading of God's largely mysterious will was more like a construction than a rational inquiry seeking the objective truth. Although never making the point abstractly, they seem, nevertheless, to have assumed that both God and the believer participated in the continuous making and re-making of the truth.

Because the Greek historians tended to believe that they must weigh conflicting interpretations, seek the most reliable account, respect accuracy, and aspire even to objectivity, they can be credited with having introduced what became the modern academic standards for writing history.

Like the Greeks, the Hebrew historians were anxious to get history right; they worried, for example, that they might be misled by false prophets. But they were not preoccupied with technical criteria for determining what was the most reliable account of an event. They were more interested in the religious attentiveness of the historian and they allowed conflicting accounts to stand unevaluated and side by side in their scriptures - something that would astound most modern historians.

The Greeks, said Arnaldo Momigliano, "liked history, but never made it the foundation of their lives." The Greek historians' inquiry could be dispassionate partly because it did not determine the meaning of their lives. They found their religious meanings in rhetorical schools, mystery cults, or philosophies, none of which depended directly on historical evidence. Plato, for example, believed that the search for truth had to begin in history, but that history itself contained nothing fundamentally important. History was little more than a window to truths on the other side of history, to universal truths unaffected by time and place and circumstance; whereas for the Hebrews, Momigliano says, "history and religion were one" (Momigliano 1990:20). The divine lived in, not beyond, history. History told of a people's spiritual and physical negotiations with the divine and of how people's spiritual and physical existence depended on these negotiations.

Because what was most important was manifest only in history, narratives were important for both Greek and Hebrew historians. Because they are chronological, narratives can represent temporal activities the way pure ideas, which characteristically represent non-temporal things, cannot. But for the Greeks the narrative tended to be a metaphor referring to a non-narrative reality behind history. For the Hebrews the narrative was not a metaphor for truths beyond history, but a representation of historical realities themselves. For the Hebrews, history is as deep as it gets; it is history all the way down.

The sequels to these ancient beginnings of historiography are confusing. By the middle of the fourth century bce, the Jews began to lose interest in writing history and in finding meaning within historical process. They based their religious lives on the historical Torah, but made its meaning as fixed as the Greeks' eternal truths. The witness theory of history was adopted by the Romans, sustained at a theoretical level by the Christian ecclesiastical historians and theologians, and then brought into the modern era, where it remained the standard way to understand history. Nevertheless, popular Judaism and Christianity kept alive a participant theory of history, and that theory is now seriously challenging the witness theory of history.

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