The Participant Theory of History and the Ancient Hebrews

For the early Hebrews, the truth about God was known in traditions, and traditions were shaped in history. The Hebrews saw tradition as an expression of God's will in the past, but it was not frozen, forever the same. Clearly, tradition was not truth in its own right, but an instrument for understanding how God's will addressed problems in Israel's history. But as Israel's problems changed, so did God's will. Thus, tradition expressed God's changing will for past and, finally, even for present situations. But for tradition to speak to the present, it had to be reconstructed, and this reconstruction required the participation of the historian.

Thus, the Hebrews emphasized changes in God's will and they emphasized the believer's role in those changes. This emphasis on the change in God's will and on the believer's contribution to that change was unmatched by anything in the Greek world. The difference between the Hebrew emphasis on change and the Greek lack of emphasis may have arisen because the Hebrew world was theologically different from the Greek world. The Hebrews believed in one God, not many, and for this same God to address new problems, it had to speak or be heard in new ways. Getting new truth from the same God was less of an issue for the Greeks, who had many Gods, able to address in more or less typical and consistent ways a variety of problems. The Hebrews had no choice but to make the will of God historical (or situation-specific) and to make their interpretation of that will different in each new situation.

This emphasis on change and interpretation can be illustrated by a look at the changing meanings of the Torah (the law of the Hebrews, given in the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Christian Old Testament and the Hebrew Bible). Old Testament historian Martin Noth argues that Pentateuchal law did not express the fixed will of a fixed God, but the will of God for a particular situation. That law was affected, for example, by the new political and social situation at the time of the settlement in the land of Canaan. Also, Hebrew settlers constructively shaped their Covenant with God, distinguishing their religious life from that of the surrounding Canaanites. It is not an exaggeration to say that the settlers and their God conspired to create laws and that, later, the law, as part of the settled past, went on to create in new ways their own creators (God and the Hebrews). Thus, Noth argues that originally the laws were not absolute, but relative to particular historical situations. They "presupposed a particular state of affairs, as laws normally do in human history," he said (Noth 1966:104). Similarly, Gerhard von Rad has argued that each generation was presented with a new historical situation and "with the ever-identical and yet ever-new task of understanding itself as Israel." Israel allowed its literature, in a kind of "law of theological dialectic," to add strangely contradictory accounts of its past. At each juncture, von Rad said, Israel acted largely in continuity, but also partly in discontinuity with its past (von Rad 1962, vol. 1: v, vi, 119).

However, as the Bible grew, the laws moved from being situation-specific, or "historical," to becoming non-historical. In the post-exilic period, the laws became simply "the law," no longer community- or situation-responsive, but fixed and eternal. Now, says Noth, " 'The law' became an absolute entity, valid without respect to precedent, time or history; based on itself, binding simply because it existed as law, because it was of divine origin and authority" (Noth 1966:86; italics are Noth's). Or, as Momigliano says, the law became "the Torah," and for Hellenistic Jews, "There is no earlier and no later in the Torah" (Momigliano 1990:23). The laws arose from history but they became fixed metaphors for a God whose will had become, in effect, independent of history.

Whereas earlier, Douglas Knight said, Israel's "tradition process" presupposed that not only Israel's law but its general religious meanings were revised to fit new social situations, and that the people played an indispensable role in that revision, Knight gets at the participatory, tradition-creating process by connecting changes in religious tradition to changes in the revelation of God. First, past tradition provides the framework in terms of which past revelation is understood and present revelation can occur. Secondly, because traditions fit specific situations and because situations are constantly changing, new renditions of the tradition must be made, and, thus, new revelations occur. Thirdly, the new revelations are channeled to the future by a continuity among traditions through time. Of course, none of this implies that revelation is "progressive." (What would progress mean, how would it be even measured, without some fixed standard of meaning, which the tradition process itself makes impossible?) But Knight says that, while not progressive, the tradition process, nevertheless, "creates new meaning" (Knight 19 77:169).

Thus, the Hebrews took their religious identity, not from beyond history, but from within history. It was history that provided both the old traditions and the new, incongruous situations that required new interpretations leading to revised traditions. The new interpretations also were contingent and decisional - in effect, historical. Past revelations were always outrun; new traditions gave new knowledge of God; and, for these reasons, the God of the future was necessarily unknown.

This traditioning process was sustained, at least partially, in the activities of Jesus and in the early Church. The Jews lived under the domination of the Roman Empire, hoped for the restoration of a political kingdom or the arrival of an eschatological kingdom, and yearned for a viable faith appropriate to these new expectations. Once again, the historical context provided new questions that for some were answered by Jesus as the Christ.

History for the Hebrews can be characterized as a participant theory of history. The person who is historian and believer, the situation, and God conspired together so that old traditions and truths could be revised to answer new problems. None of this is to deny that history has structure, unity or aims, but it affirms that they arise in and are altered as a result of historical participation. Even God is seen as a historical participant, one who makes promises, fulfills promises, reacts in anger, and makes judgments, working within continuities of tradition and breaking continuities of tradition.

To overlook the importance of this historical process, particularly in the modern era, is, von Rad caustically suggests, just what can be expected from the "high-handed methods of pneumatic theology" (von Rad 1955:3) - theology that witnesses to spiritual or ideal truths rather than participates fully in ever-changing historical events and meanings.

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