What is the definition of “objective” history?
I received a couple of comments regarding yesterday’s post linking my JWR article about Ezra’s return to Israel from Babylon – one was polite and respectful; the other was … less so. Here are some thoughts about historical veracity:
A difficult matter involves the resolution of inconsistencies between Torah and secular sources. Secular historians date the arrival of Alexander the Great in the Middle East somewhat earlier than Torah sources, and they question whether the conqueror ever visited Israel at all. They believe that the First Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 587 BCE, where Torah sources date the destruction in 422 BCE; they believe that the Second Temple stood for 589 years, where Torah sources clearly state that it stood for only 420.
Although many such questions remain questions, others have fallen away. From Thomas Hobbes in 1651 through Julius Wellhausen in 1886 to the middle of the 20th Century, secular theologians insisted with unanimity upon the “Documentary Hypothesis,” that the Torah is in fact a synthesis of four separate documents of independent origins edited during the leadership of Ezra the Scribe, sometime after 539 BCE.
In 1941, however, Umberto Cassuto published his refutation of the Documentary Hypothesis, leaving the theological community deeply divided with Wellhausen’s defenders very much on the defensive.
As recently as 2001, the historians Finkelstein and Silberman insisted that camels were not domesticated earlier than the late second millennium BCE, thereby refuting the biblical account that Abraham possessed domesticated camels around 1800 BCE. Since these assertions are based on a lack of supportive evidence rather than empirical counterevidence, they hardly constitute a refutation of the Torah or, indeed, proof of anything. In any event, the historians Bulliet and Zeuner have marshaled evidence showing that camels were domesticated no later than 1900 BCE, and perhaps as early as thousand years before that.
By and large, archeology has begun to support, rather than challenge, the historical accuracy of Torah. The Egyptian papyrus of Iphoar (translated into English by Egyptologist Alan Gardiner) describes the desolation of Egypt with remarkable similarity to the biblical account of the ten plagues.
In 1999, archeologists Avraham Biran and Gila Cook uncovered in a northern Israel excavation a flattened basalt stone bearing an Aramaic inscription commemorating a Syrian military victory over the “king of Israel” and “the House of David.” This followed decades in which historians and archeologists insisted that there was no evidence whatsoever to substantiate the existence of King David.
In 2003, Shimon Ilani of Israel’s Geological Institute declared as authentic a 2800-year-old sandstone tablet inscribed with instructions from King Joash to the Temple priests consistent with the biblical record in 2 Kings 12.
Nevertheless, bewildering and seemingly irreconcilable differences persist, most notably with regard to the duration of the Second Temple era. In the heavily documented world of the 21st Century, it is difficult for us to imagine how chasms of discrepancy could have formed in the historical record. However, during most of human history there was no universal calendar. Dates were recorded according to the year of the local monarch, and in many of these dynasties, kings were named after their grandfathers, creating a chain of alternating names which in turn creates confusion for historians trying to piece together events hundreds or thousands of years later.
Furthermore, “history” changed from place to place. Royal historians recorded only those events that met the approval of their rulers, and presented them with the most flattering editorial spin. When Egypt defeated Syria in war, Syrian historical records mention nothing about war with Egypt. When Syrian history begins to describe its army’s victories, Egyptian military history falls silent.
History, therefore, becomes a patchwork that often degenerates into educated guesswork, with the cultural, religious, and psychological preconceptions and biases of the interpreters inevitably shaping their historical conclusions.
In contrast, Jewish history has never shied away from unpleasant truths. The Torah, the prophets, and the sages have shown meticulous concern for preserving accurate chronology, as well as brutal honesty in portraying unflattering events. The authorities that invalidate a Torah scroll if even one letter has been altered prove their reliability as defenders of historical accuracy. The sages that indict Jacob for complaining about his life before Pharaoh, Moses for overzealously rebuking the people, and Gideon for taking too many wives testify to their own objectivity as honest interpreters of the historical record.
Ironically, from the perspective of historical accuracy, oral tradition may have advantages over written history. Written errors, whether intentional or inadvertent, eventually become accepted as facts with the passage of time. What may have seemed clear at one point in history may later be unclear or, even worse, may be interpreted to mean something contrary to what was originally intended. An oral tradition dependant upon face-to-face interaction between teacher and student preserves an integrity of transmission impossible through the one-way medium of writing.
Most significantly, perhaps, is the general historical community’s rejection of divine intervention. Just as secular scientists cannot accept any explanation of the origins of life and universe that involve a deity, neither can secular historians accept any fact or analysis that implies the guiding hand of a higher power. Consequently, they reject the Torah-based historical record as “religion” and considered themselves compelled to search elsewhere for their understanding of history.
Postscript: Here are some thoughts about the Documentary Hypothesis from Rabbi Gil Student at Hirhurim.