THE ORIGIN OF THE HISTORY OF ISRAEL: HERODOTUS’S HISTORIES AS BLUEPRINT FOR THE FIRST BOOKS OF THE BIBLEWritten by Jan-Wim Wesselius Reviewed By K.A. Kitchen
This book claims that whoever put together the older ‘history’ writings of the OT, namely the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel and 1–2 Kings (so-called ‘Primal History’), imitated the Histories of the Greek writer Herodotus, who wrote in the later 5th century bc; and hence these biblical books were put into this sequence (or even first written) at that date if not later. Wesselius gives lists of what he views as significant common features between Herodotus and the biblical books just mentioned, which in varying measure are the evidence for his proposal, Intriguing, but has it any basis in reality?
Probably not. The comparisons are mostly far too superficial and inexact to carry any weight; or depend on untenable understandings of both texts. Just nine books in both cases is mere coincidence of no value, likewise the comparisons of Moses and the exodus with Xerxes crossing water to attack Greece; why not compare Ramesses II or Muwatallis II crossing the Orontes against/for Qadesh? Or endless Assyrian crossings of the Euphrates into the Levant? Finding drinking-water was a quest for all travelling groups, at all times! Interpreting the generations from Terah to Moses as just even links like the Persian line (Phraortes to Xerxes) is a fallacy; Exodus 6:20 gives only a summary to give Moses’ tribal (Levi), clan (Kohath), family (Amran), parent (Jochebed) line, not a full genealogy through 400 years! Cf. Numbers 3:27–28 (Amramites and relatives). Lists of equally superficially-compared data, wrenched out of their original contexts could be multiplied. This is not a deep inner pattern, but modern invention (‘eisegesis’).
Treating Genesis—2 Kings or ‘Primal History’ and Herodotus’s Histories together exclusively, and (especially) isolated from the relevant Near-Eastern literatures that are the sole true context of the entire OT, is a methodological disaster, that is guaranteed to fix results (i) as desired by the author, and (ii) that will be factually false. The work of Herodotus is basically uniform in its overall approach, of a narrative that regularly alternates the history proper with disquisitions on peoples and places involved. The ‘Primal History’ of the OT is a modern concept, not an organic unit; and it is made up of sets of writings that differ radically in style and formats, which can be dated to specific successive periods within c. 1900–550 bc, by use of objective criteria afforded us by the surrounding Ancient Near East, a matter compactly demonstrated in part in this writer’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003). Neither Ezra nor any other 5th century Jew probably ever saw or read a copy of Herodotus’s long work, produced in a language largely unknown to them except for a few ‘culture-words’, even as many natively English-speaking people know a scatter of such words today (apparachnik; intermezzo; bon vivre; putsch; costa) without in most cases a reading/speaking knowledge of the languages these words come from. This ‘Eurocentric’ (and tacitly minimalist) approach has almost nothing of lasting value to offer to serious students of the OT, one must sadly concede.
University of Liverpool
Other Articles in this Issue
Living in a World where Life is Cheap: The Relevance of the Book of Deuteronomy and the Sixth Commandment for the Debate on the Sanctity of Human Life.by Melvin Tinker