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Biblical Historiography as Traditional History

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Biblical Historiography as Traditional History
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    in Oxford Handbook of Biblical Narrative  . Edited by Danna Fewell. Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming.   BIBLICAL HISTORIOGRAPHY AS TRADITIONAL HISTORY Raymond F. Person, Jr. Ohio Northern University Many biblical scholars draw sharp distinctions between “epic” and “history,” identifying “epic” with oral poetry and “history” with written prose. They also do not take seriously enough the characteristic of textual plurality for the biblical texts, thereby grasping to the anachronistic notion of an authoritative “srcinal” text. They also fail to accept that biblical texts were produced in a primarily oral culture, thereby requiring the public reading of texts for their primary way of distribution, as well as how this realization requires serious revision to older notions about composition and transmission. Drawing from oral traditions, I challenge these assumptions in relationship to biblical historiography. Although I accept that generic distinctions existed, we too often overemphasize the distinction between “epic” and “history,” neglecting how they have similarities as interpretations of the past. I will demonstrate that ancient historiography was typically read aloud, thereby also existing in multiforms. In this way, biblical historiography (analogous to oral traditional epic) occurs in textual plurality and multiformity and, although this undermines its “historical” value from our modern perspective, we should value ancient historiography on its own terms before trying to mine it for historical data. Thus, biblical historiography is an example of what John Miles Foley called “traditional history” (Foley 2010), which differs from “factual” history, but nevertheless can be understood as a “true” interpretation of the past. Below, I will  briefly survey discussions concerning the supposed distinctions between “epic” and “history” and the portrayal of reading historiographical texts as oral performance in Greco-Roman culture and biblical texts, before applying Foley’s notion of “traditional history” to Samuel-Kings // Chronicles as illustrated in a comparison of 2 Sam 21:18-22 // 1 Chr 20:4-8.  Raymond F. Person, Jr. 2 “Epic” and “History” as Narrative Genres in Ancient Literature Older approaches tended to draw sharp distinctions between “epic” and “history.” For example, Frank Moore Cross (1973) argued that Genesis-2 Kings was a prose adaptation of earlier Hebrew oral epic (analogous to Ugaritic epic), fragments of which nevertheless exist (for example, Exodus 15). In contrast, John Van Seters (1983) insisted that Genesis-2 Kings came from a prose literary tradition of historiography (analogous to Herodotus) that was influenced little by any purported oral epic as a source. Despite their antithetical conclusions, both Cross and Van Seters drew sharp dichotomies between oral epic (poetry) and written historiography (prose) and such distinctions continue to influence biblical studies (for a review, see Thompson 2013; Penner 2003). Although different genres existed, comparative evidence requires us to moderate these sharp distinctions between “epic” and “history.” The distinction between epic as poetry and historiography as prose is problematic in that in some cultures epic is prose (Martin 2005, p. 9) and history is poetic (Levene and Nelis 2002; Miller and Woodman 2010). The distinction  between epic as oral and historiography as written is also problematic, especially when we take into consideration the “interplay between the oral and the written in traditional cultures” (Niditch 1996, p. 4)—that is, all ancient writing was composed and received within a primarily oral culture that necessitated public readings for any wide distribution of texts. Furthermore, comparative study strongly suggests that generic boundaries were easily traversed (Wiseman 2002; see also Foley 2003; Martin 2005). Therefore, it should not be surprising that, for example, Genesis-2 Kings contains various genres—including creation stories, genealogies, victory songs, folktales, prophetic stories, and historical narratives. Even though I allow some distinction between “epic” and “history,” I emphasize how they both were ways in which the ancients interpreted their present and near future in terms of reflecting on their past. Moreover, both genres as we have them are written texts that nevertheless existed (especially then but even now) in a state of textual plurality—that is, the existence of an “srcinal” text that was determinative for all succeeding texts was extremely rare   Ray Person 2/27/14 1:57 PM Deleted: since  Raymond F. Person, Jr. 3 in the ancient and medieval world (see Person forthcoming)— therefore, “epic” and “history” as genres share some characteristics, most importantly multiformity. As is evident in the study of oral traditions (Lord 1960; Foley 2005), no single  performance of an oral epic is the exact same as another. Nevertheless, every performance can be an accurate re-performance of the tradition. Therefore, a significant characteristic of oral traditions and texts with roots in oral traditions is multiformity—that is, a high degree of flexibility within a tradition so that any one performance or written text draws from “a flexible  plan of themes, some of which are essential and some of which are not” (Lord 1960, p. 99) rather than, as most biblical scholars still imagine, a fixed “srcinal” text, which is either replicated exactly or deviated from on the basis of intentional changes or unintentional errors (Person 2010b). In the next section, I will argue that ancient historiography as a genre for public  performance shares with epic this characteristic of multiformity. Ancient Historiography as Performance  Even if   we define “history” in such a way that requires writing as its medium, we must understand how writing functioned within ancient societies. Within elite circles, written documents such as letters would have been read aloud by scribes. Moreover, some texts— including “long-duration texts like the Bible, Gilgamesh, or Homer’s works” (Carr 2008, p. 5)— would have functioned primarily as mnemonic aids with the primary locus for the texts being in the collective memory of the community (Carr 2008; Person 2011). In short, Niditch’s conclusion that “Israelite writing is set in an oral context” (1996, p. 88) applies well to most (if not all) ancient literature. Below I will provide additional support for this contention as it relates to ancient Israelite historiography by reviewing some recent studies of later historiography, specifically Greco-Roman historiography, including Luke-Acts. I will then discuss the Deuteronomic History and the Book of Chronicles as historiographies, both of which include  portrayals of public readings of written documents by leading characters, thereby suggesting the oral/aural setting for their public distribution.   Ray Person 2/27/14 1:59 PM Formatted:  Font:Italic  Raymond F. Person, Jr. 4 Rachel Zelnick-Abramovitz analyzed both Greek epigraphic evidence and classical literature and concluded that “historians, like rhapsodoi , logographers and sophists, were traveling performers” and that, although historical works were written down and to a certain degree circulated as written texts from at least the fifth century B.C., oral performance was still considered the best way to have one’s work widely known and historians were praised and honored because of their readings (Zelnick-Abramovitz forthcoming). That is, even during the time of Herodotus, the best way for a historian to distribute his written histories was through public performances. Zelnick-Abramovitz provided numerous examples; however, here I will provide only two, one from a literary text and one from an honorary inscription. Lucian wrote the following about Herodotus: As soon as he had sailed from his home in Caria for Greece, he deliberated over the quickest and the least troublesome way of attaining fame and reputation for both himself and his works. He considered reading   ( anagign !  skein ) them while traveling around—now to Athens, now to Corinth or to Argos or Sparta by turns—a tedious and lengthy business that would waste much time … Waiting for the moment when the gathering was at its fullest, one assembling the most eminent men from all Greece, he appeared in the temple hall, presenting himself not as a spectator but as a competitor in the Olympic games,  singing   ( aid  ! n ) his  Histories  and so bewitching his audience that his books were titled after the Muses, because they too were nine in number (Lucian,  Herodotus or Aëtion  1-3; Zelnick-Abramovitz forthcoming) Although Lucian was writing centuries after Herodotus, his testimony of ancient historians  publicly performing their texts finds support in earlier literary texts and in earlier epigraphic evidence, such as the following inscription honoring the third century BCE historian Syriskos of Chersonesus: Whereas Syriskos son of Herakleidas has diligently recorded and read out (  grapsas anegn ! ) the epiphanies of Parthenos, has described in detail the (past acts of kindness) regarding the kings of Bosporos, and has given the People a fitting account of the past acts of kindness regarding the cities: so that he may receive the honor he deserves, the Council and the People have resolved to praise him on account of these things … (  IOSPE I 2  344; Zelnick-Abramovitz forthcoming)  Raymond F. Person, Jr. 5 Syriskos is honored for giving “the People a fitting account” through public recitation of his texts. Thus, Zelnick-Abramovitz concluded that Greek historians’ primary way of distributing their written works was through public readings and that “in Hellenistic and Roman times most  people still preferred listening to the recitation of historical works to reading them with their eyes” (forthcoming), even if they were literate. Zelnick-Abramovitz has made a convincing argument concerning the oral transmission of historical knowledge and texts by public reading. Given the imperial Panhellenic culture of her examples, we should be cautious about making too much of the analogies between historians like Herodotus and the biblical historians. Nevertheless, Zelnick-Abramovitz distinguished  between “two types of traveling historians,” (1) those like Herodotus who wrote universal or regional histories and experienced widespread fame and (2) local historians, whose works were more limited in scope and whose reputations were close to home (forthcoming). Nevertheless, she could conclude as follows: “Local myths, stories and poems related to local cults, local historical traditions—all these served as the subject matter of works composed by these travelling historians” (Zelnick-Abramovitz forthcoming). Despite the difference between the Panhellenic culture represented by historians like Herodotus and the biblical historians, I nevertheless think that Zelnick-Abramovitz’s conclusions provide insights into biblical historiography as well, especially if we think of the biblical historians as more analogous to local historians. Although she devoted little space to a discussion of multiformity, Zelnick-Abramovitz nevertheless ended her essay as follows: “No text is conceived as authoritative while still  performed orally” (forthcoming). She argued that the ancient local histories were dynamic, responding to various needs of the audiences in ways somewhat analogous to today’s digital texts (forthcoming). Even if the historian was using a written text for his performance, he may not read every section of the text and may paraphrase or elaborate extemporaneously; therefore, the presence of a physical text does not discount the characteristic of multiformity in such oral  performances.
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