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II: The Understanding of History in the Era before Christ 1

II: The Understanding of History in the Era before Christ1
The Beginnings of Historiography. Historiography in Graeco-Roman Antiquity. Historiography in the Old Testament.

(1) The oldest narratives of peoples are not yet history but myths. Their themes are not human deeds and experiences but theogonies and cosmogonies and that means they are really talking about nature the phenomena and powers of which are personified as Gods. A well-known example is the Babylonian ‘Poem on the Creation’.2 Such myths often belong to worship and rites whose institution is motivated by mythical narratives. Mythology originated in the peoples of prehistoric times and is still alive today in primitive tribes which have no real history. Imagination is still occupied only with observation of nature in its order and regularity as well as in its astonishing and frightening occurrences.

Only when a people becomes a nation through its history does historiography appear. For along with historical experience grows up a historical consciousness.3 To begin with of course the form of the historiography is primitive being partly poetry partly prose. The memory of important events of great men and their deeds is handed down in poetical accounts (‘Sagas’) such as for instance the Iliad of Homer or the song of the ‘Nibelungen’ in Germany and also in tales which report single memorable events and stand in transition to historical reports proper. Even Herodotus used such tales as material for his history.4 In poetical accounts the Gods still play a part and the same is true of many chronicles which recount the deeds of rulers in the form of deeds of Gods. Such historical records or annals were kept at the courts of kings and at large temples and also in city archives. They enumerate deeds of the rulers the construction of buildings and important events such as wars earthquakes and other catastrophes. An example from a later time is the famous ‘Res gestae Divi Augusti’ and many more are found in the inscriptions of Egypt Babylon and other parts of the Orient.
May I cite a simple example from a record of the Assyrian King Tiglathpileser I (ca. 1100 B.C.):
I marched on Lebanon I cut down cedars and ordered them to be conveyed away for the temples of the great Gods my Lords Anu and Adad. I marched further on the country of Amurru. I conquered the country of Amurru in its whole area. I received tributes from Byblos Sidon Arwad. I sailed in ships of the city of Arwad a distance of three double hours along the shore from the city of Arwad to the city of Zamurri in the country of Amurru. I killed a so-called seahorse in the midst of the sea.5
Another example may be cited from an inscription of the Assyrian King Sennacherib recording his expedition against Jerusalem:
What concerns Hezekiah (king) of Judah who did not submit to my yoke: I laid siege to forty-six of his fortified cities and innumerable little towns storming over bole-ways by assault of battering engines and by infantry attacks… and I conquered them. I took away 200 150 persons big and small men and women horses mules asses camels cows and small cattle innumerable and I reckoned it as booty. But as concerns himself (Hezekiah) I enclosed him in Jerusalem his residence like a cage-bird.6
Historical narrative proper arises when a people experiences the historical processes by which it is shaped into a nation or a state.7 This happened for example in Israel as a result of the victories over the Philistines and in Greece in consequence of the fights for freedom against the Persians. Then the stage of chronicle and ‘tales’ is left behind the course of history begins to be presented as a unity and the historian asks for the causes and the connection of events and reflects on the powers moving the events.
(2) In Greece historiography became a branch of knowledge governed by principles derived from typical Greek attempts to understand the field of history as well as that of nature. It is characteristic that in the origins of Greek historiography in the so-called ‘Logographoi’ historical and geographical interests are combined. This is still evidenced even in Herodotus. Yet the reasons he gives for his undertaking to describe the history of the world so far as it was known to him are characteristic. He says that he will publish his account ‘lest the deeds of men should fade in course of time and the great and marvellous works which Greeks and Barbarians have performed should be without glory and especially for what reason they carried on war against each other’. It is true that Herodotus sees the reasons for events in the government of the gods who chastise wrongdoing humble human pride and put down overmuch prosperity. But on the other hand he also sees the personal motives of the persons and peoples concerned.
Thucydides does not consider divine influence on the course of history and does not apply a moral standard to actions and events as though there were an immanent law in history according to which punishment follows upon wrong. Under the influence of the Sophists he looks on the human occurrences as natural events and as historian he is so to speak a scientist. He endeavours to show the real forces which move the individuals as well as the masses and which set the historical process in motion. The primary force in history is according to him the striving for power. While we can say that according to Herodotus there is meaning in history in so far as punishment follows wrongdoing according to Thucydides there is no such meaning. The study of history has meaning in so far as history gives useful instruction for the future by showing how things happen in human life. For the future will be of the same kind as the past.
Thucydides' view of history is typical of the Greek understanding of history in general. Historical movement is understood in the same way as the cosmic movement in which all change is simply the same thing in new constellations. History therefore is not regarded as a peculiar field of life distinct from nature. The Greek historian can of course give counsel for the future in so far as it is possible to derive some rules from the observation of history. But his real interest is directed to knowledge of the past. The historian does not reflect on possible future eventualities nor does he regard the present as a time of decision in which man must assume responsibility towards the future. The Greek historian does not raise the question of meaning in history and consequently a philosophy of history did not arise in Greece.8
The historiography of Polybius is of the same kind as that of Thucydides in so far as he also understands history by analogy with nature. He asks for the causes of the historical process but he does not inquire about its meaning. Perhaps we can say that he conceives the historical process as a natural process in a deeper sense than ever in so far as he understands history as a uniform organism and therefore attempts to write a uniform history of the world. So to a certain extent he prepared the way for the later Christian world-historiography. The unifying point towards which previous history runs is the Roman Empire. He calls his historiography a pragmatic one since history is for him essentially political history. He proves the usefulness of history and likewise the necessity of historiography by the statement that history is the teacher of the political man: ‘The experience which grows out of pragmatic history must be valued as the best education for real life’ (I 35 9).
According to Livy too historiography has education as its aim as well as the preserving of noble deeds in the memory of the future. In his preface he says: ‘We can gain from history standards for ourselves and for our country but no less can we learn what arc the things to be avoided because they are ugly in growing as well as in being successful’. Livy writes critically looking at the moral corruption of his time and intends to help to show how it may be cured. Therefore he tries to prove that a moral law is at work in history and narrates the events according to a moral standard presenting the characters of the great Roman personalities as models.
Tacitus also stresses the moral importance of historiography. He says that it is a praecipuum munus (a main purpose) of his account that merit shall not remain silent and that he may hold the threat of an infamous posterity over evil words and actions (Ann. III 65). From this originates his psychological interest in the persons whom he describes. His picture is determined by sympathy and antipathy and his eye is directed chiefly to the vices of his characters. The main vice which poisons the state is striving for position which expresses itself in ambition jealousy envy and illusion.
In our context we do not need to deal with the method of Graeco-Roman historiography. Our intention is only to show the general trends in the historians. And to sum up we can say that the task of historiography was understood from analogy with the task of natural science. Connected with this is the fact as I have already said that history is not seen as the field of human responsibility for the future. And I must add that the process of history is not regarded as a process in which individuals as well as peoples or nations receive their character by their actions and experiences. The idea of evolution in every form is far from the thoughts of these historians. Collingwood calls this fact the ‘substantialism’ of the Graeco-Roman historiography. This means that the historical agent is regarded as an unchanging substance in relation to which his actions are accident. The agent from whom the actions flow ‘being a substance is eternal and unchanging and consequently stands outside history’.9 That indicates that man is not understood in his historicity. But about this question we will speak in the seventh lecture.
(3) The conception of history and therefore the character of historiography in ancient Israel is a completely different one. First there are no picturesque descriptions of countries and peoples of the kind which the Greeks as seafaring men and traders liked. Then the centre of history is seen not in politics but in the actual experiences and deeds of men of the Israelite people a people which is thought of not as a state in the Greek sense but as a community of men who arc neighbours to each other. The main point however is that the experiences of men are understood as divine ordinances as blessings or punishments of God and their deeds as obedience or disobedience to the commandments of God. Israelite historiography is therefore not science in the Greek sense. It is interested not in knowledge of the immanent powers working in history but in the intention and plan of God who as creator is also the ruler of history and leads it to a goal. As a result the idea of the organisation of history grew up. History as a whole is understood as articulated in periods or epochs which each have their importance for the whole structure. The meaning in history lies in the divine education or in the direction to the goal. If there is an interest in knowledge it is in self-knowledge and the historian calls his people to self-knowledge in reminding them of the deeds of God in the past and of the conduct of the people. This call is at the same time a call to responsibility in face of the future which will bring welfare or destruction the blessing of God or chastisement. Therefore historiography is not a means of education for politicians but a sermon to the people. Looking back into the past means critically examining the past in order to warn the present.10
This understanding of history develops in the course of Israel's own history. The earliest historical documents the so-called Jahwist and Elohist have similarities to Herodotus in their manner of recounting events and are still largely a series of tales. But there is some endeavour to understand history as a unity and the course of events as a way to a goal. The leading thought of the Jahwist is that of the national unity of the people under the leadership of Judah. This unity finds its expression in the fact that the beginning and the end are connected through the divine promise. For although the Jahwist ends his account with the fall of the house of David and the decay of the unity of the twelve tribes still there remains the ideal of the future which will restore that unity under the leadership of Judah and its kings.
In the Elohistic tradition the history of Israel is also understood as a meaningful unity. The course of history stands under the divine promises which aim at the rule of David over Israel. The narrative of the Elohist derived its principles from the great prophets of the eighth and seventh centuries. History shows the alternation of divine grace and the nation's sin of divine judgment human penitence and divine forgiveness. The narrative displays a certain similarity to Herodotus in so far as here also the law of the sequence of human wrongdoing and divine punishment rules the course of events. But the difference is clear. Firstly the wrongdoing according to the Elohist consists not only in moral trespasses but above all in the sin against God of apostasy form the right worship which he has commanded. Secondly according to Herodotus the law of retaliation rules in the essentially unchanging course of history whereas according to the Elohist the course of history goes on its way to the goal and therefore the divine punishment has the significance of bringing the people nearer to that goal. The Elohist ends his record with the catastrophe of the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall of Judah. This catastrophe is understood as the divine chastisement but at the same time it opens a door of hope for the future because the dynasty of David is not exterminated.
The Deuteronomic redaction of the history of Israel is also influenced by the prophets. The whole of history reveals the rule of God who has chosen Israel to be his people. Reflection on the past brings to light a permanent cycle of apostasy to idolatry and the divine punishment of defeat and subjugation to foreign rulers of conversion to God and deliverance. In this way the narrative is the critical account of the past and an exhortation for the present. To the exhortation is joined the promise of a future of salvation for a chastised people if the people is now willing to obey the will of God.
Similarly in the Priestly narrative the reign of God in the history of the past is pointed out and his promise for the future is proclaimed. The interest however is not so much in criticising the past as in showing the divine revelation within it. The past is divided up according to the stages of the gradually unfolding revelation. The first three periods begin with Adam Noah and Abraham and are followed by the revelation to Moses. The priestly legislation is dated back to the time of Moses. The goal of this history is the return of the people from exile and their reconstruction as a worshipping community under the law.
In all these presentations history is conceived as a unity full of meaning. Its course runs according to the plan of God. He will guide his people into a prosperous future and he carries out his plan in spite of the obstinacy of the nation. Even after the national catastrophe his promise remains unshakable. Reflection on the past confirms the divine promise for such reflection shows that the promise was not fulfilled because of the nation's sin. With the promise is therefore always combined a warning a call to the present to assume responsibility in facing the future. For God will fulfil his promise only for an obedient people.
To sum up. In the Old Testament history is understood as a unity but not by analogy with nature and not therefore as ruled by immanent laws which could be detected by psychological research. Its unity is constituted by its meaning the guidance or education of the people by God. His plan gives a direction to the course of history through his enduring conflict with men. From the fact of this conflict a problem arises. If it depends on the obedience of men whether the goal of history can be attained then how can the divine promise be granted? This problem cannot be answered because the future state of welfare in the Old Testament is thought of as welfare within this world. Only the later eschatology of Jewish apocalyptic can give an answer and this answer appears in the Old Testament only at a very few points (Is. xxiv-xxvii; Daniel). With this is connected the fact that the subject of history is the people the nation. Individuals are considered only ill so far as they are members of the people. If the promise is fulfilled then the future welfare will be the welfare of the people and naturally of the individuals as members of the people—but only those who are alive at the time. What then of the others who are already dead? To this question also the apocalyptic eschatology will give an answer.

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