The Contrast Between the Bible's Idea of History and the Modern Idea

In the Bible there is no solid differentiation but rather fluidity among what we moderns call past, present, and future.

A sixteenth-century illustration of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. ART Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

A sixteenth-century illustration of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem. ART Collection / Alamy Stock Photo.

Aug. 13 2018
About the author

Jon D. Levenson is the Albert A. List Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard University and the author of Inheriting Abraham: The Legacy of the Patriarch in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (Library of Jewish Ideas; Princeton University Press).

Eric Mechoulan’s essay, “What Is the Meaning of Jewish History?,” is a wide-ranging, learned, and challenging exploration of the modes and purposes of historiography, or the writing of history, especially Jewish history.

As for the Bible, to which Mechoulan turns early in his article, some of its historiography, especially in the book of Kings, falls into the annalistic mode, recording who ruled when and for how long. But most of the recording and invocation of the past in the Bible falls into the category of “memory” rather than history, if I may recur to an important distinction that Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi (among others) made and that Mechoulan develops.

Most biblical appeals to the past have a very practical goal: to secure the listeners’ or readers’ acknowledgment that the God of Israel is their generous sovereign and the ultimate source of all they have. As in the profession that a farmer makes upon presenting his first fruits (Deuteronomy 26:5–10), which Mechoulan cites, the past is not simply something recorded; it is also, and more importantly, something to be internalized. The person making the profession places himself and his bounty into the story of the people Israel. The recitation gives meaning to the ritual, a meaning derived from the foundational story of the nation, and, ideally, cultivates a sense of gratitude and obligation in the person making the presentation.

Here, and generally in biblical historiography, there is no hard differentiation of history from story, no search for objective controls on the traditional narrative and the rituals that it authorizes. By contrast, modern historians, as we shall see, sort through the narratives to assess their historical reliability, concluding, for example, that most of the stories about King David are of greater historical worth than are any of those about Noah.

But the Bible itself performs no such assessment and does not grade its narratives according to their correspondence with ascertainable historical fact. Indeed, it is a characteristically modern practice to identify the truth of a set of scriptures with its historicity. Doing so makes for some strange bedfellows, linking fundamentalists (who insist that the Bible, being true, is an accurate account of history) and secularist debunkers (who use its historically unlikely narratives to prove the Bible false).

Given its practical goal, its theological purposes, and its lack of accountability to external data of the sort in which archaeologists trade, biblical historiography has a malleability that many modern readers find difficult to approve. The famous story in Samuel of David’s adultery with Bathsheba and involvement in the death of her husband (2 Samuel 11:1–12:25) is a parade example. When Chronicles, a later book than Samuel and one dependent on it in some ways, gets to this point in retelling the story of David, it simply leaves the troubling material out, going directly from its first verse to the section that follows the offending narrative (1 Chronicles 20:1–3).

My students over the years have tended to label this as “whitewashing” David, but I think that is too simple. For the Chronicler, what is important about King David is not his messy personal life but rather his status as the faithful servant of the Lord to whom the latter promised a lasting dynasty; the man who began the process of constructing the Jerusalem Temple, God’s palace on earth; and the figure who commissioned the Levitical singers and, by extension, the liturgy they sing. Those are elements of enduring significance, matters that bear on the lives of the readers of Chronicles and to which those readers can devote themselves. Whereas modern historians would see the story of David and Bathsheba in Samuel as historical evidence that no honest historian can avoid, the Chronicler most likely saw it very differently, as at best a diversion and at worst something that would actively undermine the theological purpose of his work.


In this light, I would like to enter a small qualification of Mechoulan’s observation that “the essence of biblical history is to convey the virtues (and the failings) of the earliest humans and the patriarchs as refined through their progeny, from one generation to the next.” There is truth in this, but more important than the moral example (positive or negative) of the ancestors, especially the fathers of the nation, is their identity as recipients of promises, gifts, and mandates from God. Given the intergenerational and familial conception of the self that generally obtains in the Bible, those promises, gifts, and mandates devolve upon their descendants as well. Jacob/Israel, Esau, Joseph, Aaron, and David are presented as individuals, but they are also lineages. A firm distinction between ancestor and descendants cannot usually be drawn.

And so, when Mechoulan writes of the Jewish “idea of a history that is not a simple succession of events but a progress of mankind toward an accomplished purpose,” I would nuance his word “progress” (at least with regard to the Bible) with Faulkner’s famous adage, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Just as there is fluidity between ancestor and descendants, so is there fluidity among what we moderns call past, present, and future. That is why events that appear in some texts as primordial can appear in others as taking place at the end of days (e.g., Psalms 74:14; Isaiah 27:1). In fact, visions of future redemption in the Bible are actually very often visions of the restoration of a long-vanished order of things.

Although Mechoulan wisely differentiates the talmudic and medieval notions of development from Hegel’s or Marx’s concept of historical progress, I am a bit concerned that an expression like “progress of mankind” can obscure the deeper dynamics at work in most premodern Jewish thinking. In that thinking, the past is kept alive, is regularly recalled or even reenacted, and continually gives instruction, with the old texts yielding valid new insights. What historians may think of as past still speaks and casts its judgment upon the present.

Mechoulan is thus certainly correct in writing, “In order to observe [their] multiple rites of memory, Jews needed a calendar, not a history.” A calendar keeps different moments, representing different, even diametrically opposed, aspects of the God-humankind or God-Israel relationship in an unending association, preventing any single one from altogether eclipsing the others. Hence, the developed Jewish liturgical year keeps Passover, with its joyous notes of triumph and redemption, in the same framework as the national day of mourning, the Ninth of Av (Tish‘ah Be’Av), with its funereal tone and its agonizing evocations of defeat, torture, and apparent God-forsakenness.

Another example is the celebration of Jewish fidelity on Shavu‘ot (Weeks), which, in the rabbinic elaboration, commemorates Sinai, when Israel unanimously accepted the Torah: “All that the Lord has spoken we will do!” (Exodus 19:8). But about four months later comes the great penitential occasion of Yom Kippur with its communal confession: “Our Father, our King, we have sinned before You. . . . Be gracious to us and answer us, for we have no good deeds.”

In this calendar, there is thus a cyclicality of feasting and fasting, of celebrating and mourning, of high success and abysmal failure, that stands in tension with, and relativizes, any “progress of mankind toward an accomplished purpose.” The messianic consummation is indeed promised and, for the believer, draws closer with each passing day. But whether humankind is making progress toward it is a very different question.




Among Christians in Western Europe, a new sense of history (though one with some ancient antecedents) began to appear late in the Middle Ages. The 14th-century Italian poet Petrarch, for example, investigated the remains of ancient Rome, using coins and inscriptions to reconstruct its history. In the next century, as the Renaissance gathered force, various purportedly ancient documents, some with religious authority behind them, came under suspicion of forgery. Soon emendations to the New Testament were being suggested and its historical connections reconstructed. In the 17th century, figures like Benedict Spinoza and Richard Simon would use similar techniques and modes of thought to launch the historical-critical study of the Hebrew Bible.

In The Renaissance Sense of the Past, Peter Burke speaks of three elements that constitute a “sense of history”: “the sense of anachronism,” “the awareness of evidence,” and “the interest in causation.” Historians working with this sense of the past necessarily approach their subject in a way that is quite the opposite of biblical historiography. A sense of anachronism counteracts any simple identification of the historian’s world with that of the past; an awareness of evidence drives a hard wedge between story and history; and an interest in causation undermines the sense of God’s sovereignty and gracious intervention that the biblical texts sought to sharpen and deepen.

Among specialists in ancient Judaism and Christianity, the new paradigm of study gathered more strength in the 19th and 20th centuries from the recovery of ancient Near Eastern texts and of much Greco-Roman material as well (including literature of Second Temple Judaism) and from the new understanding of compositional techniques that these discoveries provided.

A massive shift, albeit a gradual and uneven one, also came about in the context of study. The ecclesial sponsorship and theological purpose of institutions of higher learning began to fade, and the community of scholars became correspondingly diverse; in the 19th century, even Jews could study in some universities. This diversification, too, made talk of the uniqueness and authority of any given history or body of literature vastly more difficult. In the contemporary and very international classroom of many American universities today, to speak of American exceptionalism or even of the genius of the United States Constitution would be a major challenge, even if (however improbably) the instructor’s convictions impelled him or her to do so.

As Mechoulan puts it, the emergence of the Wissenschaft des Judentums (the historically controlled, academic study of Judaism) in the early 19th century “was the moment when history replaced memory—with memory, hitherto a collective undertaking, now relegated to the realm of the personal and the private in order to clear room for history.” The counterpart to this in the realm of political thought was freedom of religion, or the separation of religion and state, an idea that was, not coincidentally, spreading and growing more influential in the same period.

Another way of stating the change is to say that the scope of religion was narrowing, losing much of its power over politics and scholarship alike, and rapidly being transformed into a subjective preference. Individuals of great learning in the older mode alone began to look uninformed, intellectually limited, and obscurantist to those trained in, or even aware of, the new. Whatever their personal sanctity, the traditionalists’ ignorance of the wider historical world and the newly available texts and methods caused them to lose intellectual credibility among historically trained scholars.




But just here an enormous problem arises. Once we say that texts and ideas can be properly understood only in their original historical context, how can we speak about any enduring meaning and value? “These days, too many Jewish historians, lest they open themselves to accusations of ethnic or religious particularism, have abandoned any pretense of finding meaning in what they study,” Mechoulan rightly observes, “insisting instead that there is no such thing as Judaism, only ‘Judaisms’—that is, the randomly constructed Jewish identity of given communities at given times in given places.”

What Mechoulan laments is, in fact, only the logical outcome of an extreme and severe historicism. It is hard to disagree with his conclusion: “This is not only self-defeating; it nullifies any quest for the inner meaning of Jewish history.”

But apart from inner meaning and from the ability of contemporary individuals to discern it in ancient texts, there also looms the related issue of value. What is the value of pursuing value-free scholarship or, in the specific case Mechoulan discusses, value-free Jewish history? The assumption that the material is important to pursue—and more important to pursue than other potential claimants on the scholar’s or student’s attention—constitutes an unspoken acknowledgment that the value of value-free methods is, well, limited. The same assumption also points, however abashedly, to the existence of enduring, trans-historical meaning of the sort that the historiographical method itself cannot acknowledge. What had been relegated to the realm of private, idiosyncratic preference turns out to have some relevance to a larger, more communal discourse after all.

There is also the well-known fact that historians always work within some more comprehensive and overarching framework that does not arise spontaneously and self-evidently from their data. Although it is now fashionable to unmask the “agendas” of scholars (especially those who are conservative, patriotic, or religious), all scholars have agendas, though not all agendas withstand critique equally well. Mechoulan does a good job of briefly sketching the teleological impulses of various modern Jewish historians. And it is hard not to be moved by the grandeur of his prescription for a new Jewish history:

To complete the task, needed are historians who can reconcile collective Jewish memory with scholarly Jewish history, the sages’ approach with the secular Zionists’ approach, who are proficient at detecting universality in chronology, honest enough to record that Jewish history has both its victors and its vanquished, inspired enough to breathe a Jewish spirit into “mere” fact-finding, and wise enough to render contemporary Israel as both a return to the origins of the Jewish people and the successor and heir to the exile.


But, as I see it, “collective Jewish memory” and “the sages’ approach” operate on a paradigm that is incommensurable with “scholarly Jewish history” and with secularity in general, Zionist or otherwise. What I would propose instead is an approach that is dialectical rather than integrative.

That is, rather than imagining a reconciliation of these very different paradigms for relating to the past, we should recognize that there are both gains and losses that come from examining any historical phenomenon as either a committed insider or a disinterested outsider (so far as the latter is possible). Neither discourse in the first person nor discourse in the third person tells the whole story. In matters like those Mechoulan discusses, both unqualified identification and unqualified objectification have their limitations. The whole truth is larger than either traditional memory or modern critical historiography can accommodate alone.

In my experience, a high proportion of those who pursue the fields of religious studies or Jewish studies in university settings were set on that path by their family upbringing or other non-academic personal experience—a type of experience that the academic mode of study has trouble honoring. In some cases, it is true, the scholars’ academic pursuit can function as a kind of exorcism intended to free them from their past, as is obviously the case with many of those who devote themselves to debunking foundational religious texts on the basis of “ideology critique” or what have you, or with Israelis who interpret the state of Israel as conceived in sin and wholly villainous.

In other instances, however, a mature religious or other personal motivation coexists well with critical scholarship, recognizing both its benefits and its limitations. The existence of Jewish intellectuals in that latter mode augurs well for the future of Jewish thought and the Jewish people.

More about: Hebrew Bible, History & Ideas