What is Historiography?

(Guest Post by Ben T.)

Historiography, properly understood, is the study of the way in which history is (and has been) written. The term “history” itself proves at times a confusing concept as it can refer to either the bare events of the past or the written (and oral) records of those events.

When studying history we rarely (if ever) have unmediated access to the bare facts of the past. The way in which these events—and the circumstances and motivations surrounding them—are preserved is always perspectival. That is, history is always codified through the ideologies and experiences of certain persons or groups. This does not make the history less valuable as historical artifact, but helps us realize that when we read history—especially biblical history—we are not encountering un-interpreted and un-mediated facts.

Following Huizenga and VanSeters we may helpfully define history as “the intellectual form in which a civilization renders account to itself of its past.” This definition highlights at least two important points:

1. History writing is purposeful, not accidental: When encountering and engaging narrative texts in the Bible, it is important that we attempt to discern the purpose(s) behind them. We should ask the same questions of these narrative accounts that we do of Pauline Epistles. Who wrote this? What may have occasioned its writing? What is its rhetorical function or strategy? The sweeping biblical narrative is more than just the mere accumulation of traditions and accounts over time. It is a deliberate re-telling of events. In this way, we may note that the biblical writers purposed much more than simply relating past events to future generations. They are purposeful documents, meant to give shape and substance to the Israelite identity as a people set apart to YHWH.

2. History writing uses the past to explain the present: It can be persuasively argued that some of the best history writing takes place far after the events it purports to record. It has long been assumed that an author’s close historical proximity to an event ensures the accuracy of the recounting. While this may be true to a certain degree, it is also true that historical distance allows for a more comprehensive perspective on the event, its importance, and its lasting significance. Take for instance the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan. While we can certainly document and write of the immediate impact caused by these destructive forces, it will take many years to fully understand the implications and significance of these events. In much the same way, assigning a later compositional date to biblical texts may in fact heighten their value as historical texts. Due to this historical distance between text and event, we also see that these narratives are not written to  the same people that they are written about. Thus past recounting is meant to address present situations. For instance, the so-called historical narratives of the Hebrew Bible appear to be shaped in some capacity by the catastrophic experience of exile.

It is my suspicion that approaching narrative texts as compilations of bare historical facts has ultimately proven detrimental to the contemporary evangelical church and its understanding and appropriation of these texts. If Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Matthew, or Acts are “just bare history,” it is difficult to see their practical import. There are certainly things we can learn through the unfolding of history, but it is my contention that this approach tends to miss the rich contours of these historical narratives. More than simply “what happened?” perhaps we need to learn to ask questions like “why this story?” or “how does the narrator want people to respond to this account?” More pointedly for us as a contemporary audience, “what is this text trying to accomplish in the lives of its hearers/readers?”

What do you think? Does our understanding of historical narrative require more nuance? Is this trajectory practically helpful or is it more trouble than it’s worth?


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