The Chronicler’s History

Written by Martin Noth Reviewed By Gordon McConville

This book is a translation of the second part of Martin Noth’s highly influential Uberlieferungsgeschichtliche Studien, which first appeared over 40 years ago. The first part of the same work was Noth’s more celebrated treatise on the Deuteronomic history, which also appeared in translation in JSOT’s supplement series in 1981. The appearance now of The Chronicler’s History fills an important gap in the range of material available to the English reader on the books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah. Anyone interested in tracing the history of study of Chronicles (Ch.) in the present century has to pay attention to Noth.

The influence of Noth is well charted by H. G. M. Williamson, the translator, in an introductory essay written specially as a preface to the book. Essentially it consists in Noth’s insistence on seeing Ch. in its own terms and the Chronicler as having theological concerns, related to conditions in his own day, which have influenced the shape of the books he produced. The revolution which this portended was that the books could be viewed as having a message of their own rather than as being merely a set of curious appendices to the other account of the history of Israel and Judah in Samuel-Kings (which was in any case generally regarded as more reliable). The task of reading Ch. became less a matter of using it in the reconstruction of Israel’s history than of observing how the author used his sources (chiefly Samuel-Kings), and what he intended to say by his adjustments, additions and omissions. Nearly half the material in Ch. is peculiar to those books. Yet on Noth’s view omissions become equally important. Is it an accident that Ch. has omitted virtually everything from the portrayals of David and Solomon which might reflect badly on them, such as David’s affair with Bathsheba? Or does he thus pursue a project of holding these first kings of Israel up as a kind of ideal? It is possible in fact to give an account of the central theological ideas of the Chronicler: the election of David and the exclusive legitimacy of the Jerusalem temple, the special roles of priests and Levites, a close connection between acts and their consequences and (for Noth) an openness to a possible better future for the covenant people beyond its present (in the period of restoration) condition of vassaldom. Most recent commentaries on Ch. have taken their cue from Noth and explained the peculiarities of Ch. in terms of theological concerns.

The view thus established implies that the overwhelming interest of the Chronicler is not in the events themselves which he records, for all the lengthiness of his account of them, but rather in constructing an understanding of the restoration community in his own day. Figures from the past, and the way in which they experienced the hand of God, for good or ill, thus become models, and foci of hope, for the author’s contemporaries. Part of the force of this is the close connection between Ch. and Ezra-Nehemiah, which deals precisely with conditions after the restoration from Babylon. (Noth, and many before and since, have regarded these books as being from the same hand as Ch.) It seems to the present reviewer that this general point has been firmly established. The interests evinced by the Chronicler are just those which a Jew of the Persian period might be expected to have. The question is thus raised with some force, of course, whether the Chronicler can be regarded as a historian at all. His claim to be such would seem to become the more precarious if in fact he has falsified or invented material in order to compose a picture which suited his purposes. Noth thought that he did freely compose parts of his work. He attempted to defend the Chronicler from charges of dishonesty which might ensue, on the grounds that he simply could not have imagined that conditions that prevailed in his own day, with respect to the cult, would not also have prevailed in the time of David and Solomon. The Chronicler did indeed set out to portray Israel’s history in a certain way, but accusations of unfair bias, Noth argues, are anachronistic. Within his own world of ideas he did set out to convey information about Israel’s past. This, however, would not be everyone’s idea of a defence of the Chronicler’s reputation as a historian.

Some of the study of Ch. that has been done in the years since Noth has given grounds for thinking that the Chronicler was not as cavalier in his use of historical material as Noth thought. The Dead Sea Scrolls show that not all of Ch’s deviations from Samuel-Kings can be attributed to his ideology, since they witness to a Hebrew text of Samuel-Kings which more closely resembles in parts the parallel passages of Ch. than it does the Masoretic text of Samuel-Kings. Other studies have been more positive about the Chronicler’s use of independent historical sources than Noth was (again Williamson helpfully documents the developments).

Unfortunately evidence about the Chronicler’s reliability remains patchy. However, the question as to a correct view of the Chronicler is not simply one of accuracy, but raises more elusive questions about the nature of historiography, and biblical narrative in particular. Whatever view is taken of Ch. must reckon with its carefully executed portrayal of Israel’s history as a means of laying certain theological propositions before Persian-period Judah.

The importance of Noth’s work is that by its nature it raises these fundamental questions. In doing so it is both comprehensive and compact. The present volume is also supplied with appendices to the German original, which pertain directly to the Deuteronomic history rather than to the Chronicler.

Gordon McConville

Cheltenham and Gloucester College of Higher Education