Iain Provan on Historiography and Old Testament Interpretation

I highly recommend Iain Provan’s essay in the new book Hearing the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2012). Normally I engage in conversations that talk about historical perspective and method of the gospel writers, but Provan deals with this same matter when it comes to the OT Historical Books. He is known for offering a defense of a maximalist approach, but he does make the important argument that what we have in the OT is not “pure historical reportage” (my language), but driven by theological concerns, i.e, “listening for God’s address.”

In his essay, he has a very insightful section on the changes that historiography has gone through throughout the years. The pursuit of a kind of “objective” history writing (for “history’s sake”) is a rather new invention. In the ancient world, it was not so. Historical writing was self-evidently ideological. He gives the choice quote by Dionysus of Halicarnassus: “History is philosophy teaching by example.” He goes on further to argue that it may be well and good to try and corroborate historical events and people to bolster the authority of the OT, but that is not primarily what these texts were written for and it is unbearingly unfortunate that the main reason (formation) has fallen by the wayside for too many readers of Scripture.

Here is a powerful selection from Provan’s essay:

  “We have no access to brute historical facts. To the extent that we know about the past at all, we know about it primarily through the testimony of other people. There is no way of writing historiography that does not involve such testimony or “story-telling.”…All testimony about the past is also interpretation of the past. It has its ideology or theology; it has its presuppositions and its point of view; it has its narrative structure; and (if at all interesting to read or listen to) it has its narrative art, its rhetoric. It is intrinsically embroiled in advocacy, even if it may go out of its way to try to disguise this fact and appear neutral. There is no true neutrality, however; no dispassionate, unbiased, and presuppositionless presentation of the facts is possible. People always write about the past because they wish to communicate some kind of truth to their readers or to advocate some kind of virtue. It has always been so; it will always remain so.” (257)
This statement is as true for the NT Gospels and Acts as it is for the Historical Books and we would do well to train our students and parishioners to appreciate this concept lest the Bible become merely an arid book of facts that we only need for reminder of dates and places.
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Hearing the Old Testament – an evangelical approach to theological hermeneutics

This relatively new movement of study that we call “theological interpretation of Scripture” has caught the interest of scholars from all backgrounds and persuasions, but evangelicals have been reluctant, I think, to jump in too deep. While evangelicals are all for “theological interpretation” and bringing both God and the Church into the equation of good Scriptural reading, there has been a hesitancy to accept canonical criticism with its natural side-stepping or devaluation of “historical” matters. Thus, only a few evangelicals have dared to walk on the main stage of this show, choosing instead to be sometimes commenters and interested bystanders – until now.

The new Eerdmans title Hearing the Old Testament: Listening for God’s Address (eds. C. Bartholomew and D.J.H. Beldman) brings together an impressive crew of evangelicals including Gordon Wenham, Mark Boda, M. Daniel Carroll R., Tremper Longman III, Iain Provan, Richard Schultz, and Christopher J.H. Wright.

A key argument of this book involves the authors’ firm belief that “the telos of reading the Old Testament [is] listening for God’s address” (3). In the introductory chapter, Craig Bartholomew proposes the church read the Old Testament with a Trinitarian theological hermeneutic because the people of God expect to hear the voice of God in the Word of God (see 15).

The 16 main chapters of the book are divided into three sections. First, we have “Learning to Listen,” where methodological matters are discussed. Then we have “Hearing the Old Testament,” where the texts of the OT are considered. An essay on preaching the OT offers a nice, practical conclusion to the book.

In the “Learning to Listen” section, you will find essays on the history of Old Testament interpretation and also the profit of literary criticism and OT study. But I also want to highlight the essay by Tremper Longman III on “History and OT Interpretation.” Many scholars interested in theological interpretation and canonical criticism have given up on exploring the “historical realities” behind the Biblical text. Longman, though, believes that this is a dead end too. He points to the work of Meir Sternberg who differentiates between a work that attempts to portray history from a creative standpoint and a story that is a “freewheeling invention of fiction” (Longman’s words, 107).

Longman agrees that he is a “maximalist” when it comes to viewing the OT as historical, but that does not mean he is anti-critical. He believes minimalists are not necessarily better historians either (in terms of this phantasm we call “objectivity”). Also, to concede to the minimalist position is to teeter on the brink of historiographical nihilism.

The Old Testament is the most obvious and expansive testimony of Israel in antiquity, and to discount it, as the minimalists do, is simply to concede that we cannot know anything of substance about the past. (113)

Evangelicals are often accused of only seeing in the Bible what they want to see. Longman pushes back on this and argues that “[Even] If there were numerous documents attesting Israel’s enslavement in Egypt as well as extensive and undisputed archaeological attestation of their journey through the wilderness as well as their defeat and partial settlement of Canaan, this evidence would not convince a historian committed to a secularist paradigm of the most important point of the story: God graciously intruded into history to rescue his people from slavery. (pp. 114-115).

At the same time, Longman acknowledges that “Not all narrative intends to describe actual events of the past” (p 120). He also states that “it is the text and not the event that is important to the church as Scripture” (p. 121). Finally, he argues that history-writing is ideological and shot through with theological themes and symbolism. The OT does not have the sole or main purpose of recording random events of Israel’s past, but it is “to describe God’s actions in space and time for the purpose of leading readers to worship him” (p. 121). Thus, “it is incumbent on the interpreter to ask what theological purposes are behind a text’s presentation of history” (12).

Not everyone will accept Longman’s maximalist approach to OT historical study, but he makes a fair and reasonable case that we must not  give up on thinking through the historical realities behind the narrated events per se. When it comes to the discussion of the so-called “Historical Books,” Iain Provan makes very similar statements about how to “read” those books as both history and theology (more on that in another blog post).

In six chapters, various contributors actually turn to portions of the OT to show what it means to study those texts theologically, listening for God’s address. Especially rewarding are essays by Wenham (Pentateuch) and Provan (Historical Books).

I think this volume has shown two important things.

(1) Theological interpretation is here to stay for a while and that evangelicals can embrace some key foundations of this movement, while also holding closely to the importance of seeing the Biblical historical narratives as “essentially” historical and reliable as reflecting the life of Israel.

(2) Theological interpretation is soon going to divide into a few different “camps” or “schools of thought.” It is nearing the end of its phase as a monolithic movement.

I think Hearing the Old Testament is written in the right spirit – a constructive proposal for evangelicals that champions theological interpretation of Scripture. It proposes a renewed and refreshed reading of the Old Testament that is Trinitarian, canonical, historical (!), and missional (see Wright’s fantastic essay in this volume).

Perhaps now it is time that a group of sensible evangelicals (sadly I do have to use that qualification!) to write an evangelical version of Brueggemann, Birch, Fretheim, and Petersen’s A Theological Introduction to the Old Testament Quick, Baker Academic, get to work.