The so-called historical books of the Bible

The Hebrew Bible or the Tanakh does not have any explicitly historical books. There are only three divisions of the Hebrew Bible, into the Torah, Nevi’im, and Ketuvim. Torah, of course, is the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch, often called the Law or the Instructions. This Torah includes the books of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. For the Roman Catholic Church and 16th century Christian reformers this was simply called the Pentateuch. Neither Jews nor Christians have called these books historical, yet people sometimes treat them as if they were scholarly historical books about the beginning of the world, ancient times, as well as the histories of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. They are clearly inspired stories, very interesting stories with a theological bent. Thus the Hebrew Jewish writers were story tellers and not historians.

However, the later biblical writers often seem to be like historians. So what then is history? History has a Greek origin, from ἱστορία, not a Hebrew origin. History is an investigation or inquiry about things and people in the past and how they might relate to us. History is closely related to story-telling so that history maintains a narrative about events and people. History tries to remember and preserve sources from the past in order to weave a narrative story. So that history is story telling with recognized sources. History and tradition are closely tied to each other. We try to find out why we do things the way that we do by studying how we came to do the things that we do.

The Biblical books are themselves the documents of history. They were written at least 2,000 years ago or more. These historical story tellers were themselves relying on other sources that we no longer have, whether they be oral or written. Thus the biblical books are historical documents that tell us more about the people writing them than the story they are trying to relate to us about the past. It is their understanding of the past. No matter what you say about the biblical books, they represent the thinking of religious people from 2,000 to 3,000 years ago in the area of Israel. Thus we really do know what they thought about and believed in. It is their story or their history. Whether the events happened as portrayed is not the main objective of the biblical writer. He was expressing his own beliefs about various stories that he had heard or read about. Certain stories were put it and other stories were left out. It was the perspective of the biblical author, writing under divine inspiration, that we really know about today.

Then there is the problem of single narrative versus competing narratives. This also brings up the question of historical methodology. While the biblical narratives were quite comfortable inserting divine influence into human activities, there is a school of historical method that only looks at human causality, nothing else. Thus we end up with various philosophical concepts about history.

The dilemma of history comes with the classifications by the Christians about the Hebrew Bible. Instead of the Law, the prophets, and the writings of the Hebrew Bible, Christians have divided the Bible into the Pentateuch, the histories, the prophets, and the wisdom books. They have added a category not in the original Jewish Hebrew Bible, historical works, to the already existing prophets and writings of the Hebrew Bible.

It is the Christians who have made these stories into histories. The Torah remains the Pentateuch. However, many Christians consider the stories in the Pentateuch to be historically accurate, not merely stories. To show how these are historical, the stories of Genesis, Exodus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus have become the history itself and not the sources of history.

This places the so-called Christian historical works of the Hebrew Bible in a new light. Instead of being called the former prophets as in the Jewish Hebrew Bible, the books of Joshua, Judges, 1 and 2 Samuel, and 1 and 2 Kings, are now called historical books. Suddenly a whole new category has been created out of these four prophetic Hebrew books with interesting stories. The Book of Samuel and the Book of Kings have now become two books each, 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings instead of one book. Thus four or the six books of the Hebrew prophetic tradition have become Christian historical biblical works.

On top of that, six books that were considered writings in the Hebrew Bible have now become part of the Christian Bible so-called histories. This would include Ruth, 1 and 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, and Esther. Thus twelve books of the Hebrew Bible have been taken from the prophets and the writings now form a whole new category called histories of the Bible.

However, there is much more to the histories from a Catholic perspective. There are four more books added to the histories that were not in the Hebrew Bible, but were in the Greek Septuagint Bible. They are often referred to as deutero-canonical, Tobit, Judith, 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Thus the Christian, more specifically Catholic perspective has now sixteen books that are called histories, a completely foreign concept to the Jewish Hebrew Bible. As I am following the Catholic Jerusalem Bible, I have now completed my commentaries on these sixteen so-called historical books plus the five books of the Pentateuch.

The value of these so-called historical books is that I now have a greater sense of what the Israelite or Jewish people thought about themselves from the 8th    century BCE to the 1st century BCE. These so-called histories show the Jewish thought and beliefs in the centuries that were leading up to the Common Era around Jesus of Nazareth. I now have a background or context to help understand the writings or the wisdom writings and the prophets.

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