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From An Introduction to the History of History, by James T. Shotwell; Columbia University Press; New York; 1922; pp. 96-107.




THE main sources of the Pentateuch run on into the books which follow. The old collections of traditions, J and E or similar narratives, tangle themselves together; Deuteronomist historians use them to preach their lesson that disaster is always due to sin and especially to the anger of Jahveh, then priestly hands insert, at likely points in the narrative, sections — largely imaginative — which exalt the rôle of the priesthood. Then comes the work of the author-editors, who throw the miscellany into approximately the present form, a work which was not completed until later. Since we have already seen this composite process of authorship worked out in some detail in connection with the Pentateuch, we shall pass in more hurried review over these remaining books.

Joshua is so intimately connected with the five preceding books that it is now customary to treat it along with them, the six forming the Hexateuch. It carries over into the conquest the same elements as we have seen in the Pentateuch, or continuations of them. The book falls rather clearly into two main parts: the first twelve chapters dealing with the conquest, the next ten with the division of the land, while an appendix of two final chapters gives a valedictory warning of Joshua after the fashion of that of Moses.1 Of these, the second section, that describing the allotment of the tribes, is obviously an invention emanating from the same kind of priestly imagination of a late day as the P (Book of Origins) of the Pentateuch, but the imagination in this case became somewhat too business-like, when it asserted that forty-eight cities, some of them the best in the country, belonged by right of original assignment to priests and levites. We need not delay long over that kind of “history.”2 The story of the conquest is told by a Deuteronomic 97 moralizer,3 who used the two older sources, continuations of J and E, to suit his taste. Now these earlier narratives did not agree as to how the Hebrews conquered Canaan, for the one (J) made it a movement of scattered war-bands, who settled in the open country, being unable to take the walled towns, while the other (E) had a great tale of how they destroyed the Canaanites root and branch, in a vast migration, somewhat the way the Saxon invaders were credited in the old histories of England with the destruction of the Britons. The taste of the Deuteronomic editor — whose edition was taken over by the author of Joshua — was for this latter source, with its story of miracles and slaughter. This accounts for such tales as the crossing of the Jordan in which all the wonder are repeated with which legend had surrounded the reputed crossing of the Red Sea, — waters piled up and a march through in priestly procession.4 It also accounts for the story of the falling of the walls of Jericho at the sound of trumpets, although traces of the fact that the city was taken by storm in the ordinary way are still to be detected in the narrative. The book of Joshua frankly cut out the plain facts of history in favor of heroic legend. Strangely enough, however, the substance of the unheroic narrative (J) was preserved in another place. The opening chapter of Judges and the first five verses of the second chapter sum up the story of the conquest as it probably happened.5 There the truth crops out that the advance of the Israelites was a slow, intermittent movement, and that it left the fortified cities practically untouched, making inevitable that racial blend and intercourse against which the prophets of Jahveh were to protest so vehemently. One can see, in the light of their national fanaticism, how natural it would be for writers, saturated in the doctrines of these prophets, to believe in the exaggerated rather than the true account of the war upon the native population. That is the explanation for the relatively poor history of the book of Joshua.


The book of Judges begins, as we have seen, with the fragments which might have been used as a basis for the opening of Joshua. The proper narrative of the “judges” begins at the close of this short review of the conquest and the death of Joshua.6 The keynote to the book is struck at once.7 The Israelites are continually forgetting Jahveh or violating his taboos; his anger is aroused and he turns them over to spoilers;8 then “judges” — war-chieftains and petty rulers — rise to throw off the yoke; again the people sin, and again are given up to tyrants; again a “judge” arises to smite the oppressor and to rule for a generation; again comes anarchy, and again a deliverer, etc., etc. It is an eternal round. Such history is suspect on the face of it. It is even more so when one looks at the chronology, for the periods of disaster and deliverance run regularly for twenty, forty, or eighty years, or approximately so. When we recall that this chronology runs through Samuel and Kings, that the reigns of David and Solomon are each given as forty years, which was reckoned as the average length of a generation in the Old Testament, we see here a schematic arrangement of history quite too regular and symmetrical to be true. Each moral lesson is framed in a generation. We do not have to look far to see the principles upon which the whole is constructed. The Deuteronomist interpreted tribal wars and the anarchy of Bedouin-like people as part of the providential scheme of Jahveh, and it is a significant fact that whenever a theologian — of any religion — has attempted to use history to justify the ways of God to man, he has the history rearranged so that its artificial character may convince the reader that it was actually planned!9 As for the exact time allowed each judgeship, the chronology apparently was fixed so as to try to fill in the four hundred and eighty years which, according to I Kings 66 lay between the exodus and the building of the temple, although the attempt is not quite successful.

But if the main part of the book of Judges10 was cast into this form by a Deuteronomist writer in the sixth century, the material 99 which he used is genuine, old, legendary stuff, tales of heroes and semi-savage men, often unvarnished, with all their vindictive cruelty and cunning, their boastful exaggeration, both of prowess and slaughter. The very savagery of these stories is in their favor; they bear the mark of their time, and reflect, through all their bombast, the wild age when, as the narrative plaintively repeats, “there was no king in Israel.” It was surely a triumph for the compiler of this material to reduce it, even partially, to be food for sermons. Fortunately he was still enough of a savage himself not to rub out all the savagery of his ancestors.

When we come to the narrative of the founding of the kingdom,11 our sources work out in a remarkable way. The originals become both more reliable and fuller. Contemporary accounts from those who knew intimately the ins and outs of camp and court have been preserved almost untouched by subsequent editing. There is not such artistic manipulation of events as we have just seen in Judges, by seventh or sixth century reformers. They left almost untouched the great story of David, because they could not have improved upon it in any case. Through a period of national expansion and successful war, the worship of the national god, Jahveh, was not likely to meet with serious rivalry from the local deities of earth and the fertility gods — the Baals — which in time of peace were continually drawing the attention of the farmers.12 The building of the temple at Jerusalem was the logical conclusion of the war period begun by Saul’s battles with the Philistines; later prophets and priests of Jahveh had relatively little to change in the sources which carried the narrative of J up to its fitting and triumphant conclusion, and we have fairly contemporary and unspoiled narratives.

Here, therefore, at last we come upon the best product of 100 Hebrew historiography. The story-telling art of J is13 no longer working over the naïve old tales of Genesis, but deals with well-known men and recent events, and in the tale of the houses of Saul and David we have something which will rank with the best the world can offer. Few figures from antiquity stand out more clearly, in all their complex humanity, than that of David. We have him in his weakness as well as his strength; no shocked moralizer got rid of his sins at the expense of his character. Legend, which always surrounds great men, even when alive, added something, so that subsequent ages endow him with extravagant gifts of wisdom, but his personality and the story of his reign remain on the solid basis of history.

This detailed, reliable history runs through the two books of Samuel into the first two chapters of the first book of Kings. But from the reign of Solomon a vastly different type of narrative takes its place. The events of four centuries are chronicled in the same amount of space as was devoted to the lifetime of David alone, and even this meagre outline is blurred by the Deuteronomic editors. For the history of the period from Solomon to the Babylonian captivity is cast in the same mould as that which we have already seen in Judges. Disaster is due to neglect in the worship of Jahveh, and more especially to the persistence of the old worship in high places in spite of the claims of the temple at Jerusalem to be Jahveh’s sole abode. The result of this line of interpretation of history, carried to the extreme, is that we have less a history of kings than a commentary upon Jahveh-worship, for the author pays little attention to the importance of the reigns he catalogues except as they can be made to illustrate the theological point he is making. For instance, Omri, who founded a great dynasty in the Northern Kingdom, is dismissed in one verse,14 although Assyrian inscriptions recognize his greatness to the extent of calling the Kingdom of Israel Beth-Omri.15 Since this founder of the city of Samaria, however, 101 permitted the old worship of the golden calves, he was obviously not an edifying figure for a history which was intended to prove that such heathenish rites spelled disaster. In such cavalier fashion the book of “the Kings” treats the successive reigns of both Judah and Israel. Historians have seldom resisted the temptation to draw a moral from history, but here the history itself was drawn into a moral, until it distorted the whole perspective.16 The fact that even today only biblical scholars are able to recover the correct perspective is sufficient comment upon the poor quality of these last chapters of Hebrew national history, and the critics have received most of their hints from elsewhere — cuneiform inscriptions and a study of the prophets.

From time to time, however, through this mangled chronicle, a remark is inserted which excites the interest of the historian. The reign of Solomon is cut short with the remark: “And the rest of the acts of Solomon, and all that he did, and his wisdom, are they not written in the book of the acts of Solomon?”17 Similarly at the close of the account of Jeroboam and Rehoboam: “And the rest of the acts of Jeroboam, how he warred and how he reigned, behold, they are written in the book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel.”18 . . .  “Now the rest of the acts of Rehoboam, and all that he did, are they not written in the book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah?“ 19 The formula occurs practically without fail at the end of the narrative of every reign.20 This means that, in the eyes of the author, his work was less a history than a commentary. It also shows us that from the days of Solomon, there were royal annals, like those of Assyria, which were kept in the capital, and that after the separation of the ten tribes under Jeroboam, each kingdom kept its record. The Bible does not preserve these for us; it preserves only as much as suited the priestly and prophetic writers intent upon making history a handmaid to religion.21


This royal chronicle (referred to but not reproduced in the Bible) marks the end of the age of tradition and brings us, at last, into that of written records. The separate tribes had been welded into a nation, and while the different settlements undoubtedly preserved still their ancient stories, the breaking-up of their isolation made the traditions complex, hard to remember and more or less trivial and irrelevant. The great feats of Saul and David were bound to overshadow the less notable past. So when the Hebrew system of writing came in, as it did for the first time under the kingdom, history developed at the court of Solomon in apparently somewhat the same official way in which we find it in the courts of the late Babylonian kings. The legend was giving way to annals, romance yielding to business-like records, a change which has taken place in every country at the moment when it begins to acquire what it calls civilization.

There remains only one other Hebrew history, — that which runs through the books of Chronicles,22 Ezra and Nehemiah. This is a single work, written by one hand, probably after 300 B.C.23 It is a summary of the whole history given in the preceding books, at least so far as immediately concerned the kingdom of Judah and Jerusalem. Its author uses the “Book of the Kings of Judah and Israel,” and the “Book of the Kings of Israel” and other such sources which have since been lost. He was evidently a learned priest of the temple at Jerusalem, intent upon its preëminence and especially interested in its liturgy. His exaggerations of the glory of the Davidic Kingdom are especially noticeable, but for that matter the work is not important as history until we leave the book of Chronicles and come to Ezra.

The two books of Ezra and Nehemiah are really one,24 and bear the title Ezra in the Jewish Bible. This contains the history of the Jews from the Persian release to the coming of Alexander. Its main interest for us, however, lies less in its value as source material 103 to the modern historian than in the unique personal memories of Nehemiah and Ezra which have been embedded in the narrative. In spite of the fact that they were sadly mutilated in the process of fitting them in, these two documents remain unique in Hebrew and perhaps in antique historiography. The memoirs of Nehemiah are especially fine. The restorer of Jerusalem gives no petty copy of the vainglorious boasting of Assyrian kings when they recited their great deeds. Instead, he seems to have kept a remarkably sane appreciation of the proportion of things. His sense of the importance of what he is doing, does not conceal the fact that he is dealing with petty tribal neighbors, who could end it all if he would stray over to one of their villages.25 Homely detail lifts the story into that realm of realism, which only really great writers can risk entering without loss of authority.26 The result is one of the most graphic pictures in the Bible, sketched in a few words. Take, for instance, the building of the wall: “They which builded on the wall and they that bare burdens, . . .  every one with one of his hands wrought in the work and with the other held a weapon. . . .  And he that sounded the trumpet was by me. . . .  So we labored in the work, and half of them held the spears from the rising of the morning till the stars appeared.”27

The memoirs of Ezra are of an inferior quality to this. Their significance in Hebrew historiography lies mainly in their content. For as Nehemiah tells how he built the Jews a city to be safe from their neighbors, Ezra tells how he kept them apart from these same neighbors by refusing to admit intermarriage,28 and then, in the 104 year 443 or 444, brought forth a book which, if tradition and the surmise of modern scholarship be correct, centred the whole world’s history at their very temple.29 Whatever the exact book was which he expounded, subsequent Jewish tradition believed that it was nothing short of epoch-making, and the name of Ezra, or Esdras, became the greatest among the scribes.30

The books of Chronicles, Ezra and Nehemiah contain these rich historical materials; but their compiler should have little credit for his share in their preservation. His editorial task was done as clumsily and unintelligently as his chronicle is biassed and dry. One fact, however, we can deduce from his narrative, which enables us to state the conclusion of the long process of coöperative authorship by which the Bible story was finally made. As the chronicler apparently used the Pentateuch, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings in that order, it seems likely that by about 300 B.C. they had already been put together in the form in which we have them now.

This ends our survey of what are commonly known as the historical books of the Old Testament, although it by no means covers the field of interest to the historian. For in the other works, especially in the prophetic writings, there are narratives of prime importance, if only secondarily historical. The memoirs of a governor like Nehemiah are fully matched, for instance, by the biography of Jeremiah, preserved by his friend and secretary, Baruch.31 Taken in its setting, along with the words of the prophet, this is a human document of the first order. In personal self-revelation and high religious feeling it has not unaptly been compared 105 with the Confessions of Augustine. There are similar poetic or realistic glimpses of the life of the time and the policy of rulers throughout most of this prophetic literature; but however much it affected history its purpose was not historical and we must leave it aside.

There is, finally, one supremely good piece of historical writing in that considerable body of Jewish literature which is not included in the Old Testament as known to Protestant readers. The first book of Maccabees is a stirring narrative of the most heroic days of the Jewish nation, a straightforward account, gathered from eye-witnesses32 and from written sources, of the great war of liberation begun by Judas Maccabæus in which the newly vitalized hopes of the Jews were actually realized for a period, and political was added to religious liberty. The history of this achievement is given with scientific scruple, and in minuteness of detail and accuracy of information it ranks high among any of the histories of antiquity. One appreciates these qualities all the more when one turns to the second book of Maccabees and sees how the same kind of detail is marred by inaccuracy and distorted by partisanship, until the book becomes a mere historical pamphlet for the Pharisees. The fundamental difference between the two books is that in the first, religious interests yield to the historical, while in the second they yield to nothing. It is the same contrast which we have met time and again, of a book that tells the truth as over against one that is meant to edify. But then the latest phase of pre-Christian Jewish thought passed farther and farther away from scientific interest in the facts of a past which offered no more triumphs to record, and turned from the humiliation of reality to that bright dreamland of hope, the kingdom of the Messiah. The two great eras of David and the Maccabees had produced histories worthy of the deeds they recorded; but the last sad age of Jewish national life consoled itself with apocalyptic visions and prophecies of the future. In such a situation, the genuine, old histories themselves suffered as well. They were plundered for texts to buttress belief, and history suffered that faith might live.


The significance of this conclusion of our survey of Hebrew historiography should not escape us, nor should it be misinterpreted. It is a saddening paradox that the higher we treasure ideals the more likely are we to violate others for them. The historian devotes himself to the discovery and preservation of the truth. By the truth he means an objective fact or an assemblage of such facts. He is apt to forget that this objectivity upon which he insists as the very basis of their reality does not exist for those who actually use or have used the facts. Hence when he finds high-minded moralists plundering the data of the past to point their morals, he loses respect for both their history and their ethics, without having considered the possibility that the non-historical attitude might conceivably have a justification. No one could pretend that the violation of historical standards of truth could be excused today on any basis of morals; for in our appreciation of the value of scientific work we recognize — in theory — nothing higher than truth. But in the pre-scientific world, where few of the data were established with absolute certainty, the case was different. The idea of objective historical truth could have only a limited appeal, since the medium for the preservation of fact was so imperfect. We have spoken elsewhere of the stimulus to accuracy in modern scholarship owing to the consciousness that others are on our trail. But the heightening of the value of facts brings with it a certain unhistorical failure to appreciate why they should have been so lightly esteemed by men who are apparently inspired by as high ideals — so far as morals go — as the modern critic.

This is the problem which confronts the critic of Hebrew history. For those who wrote the Pentateuch and the books of histories, who edited out their diverse sources and gave them their final form, there was something in the world worth more than annals of the past. The forces of the future were in their hands, forces which determined the fate not only of Jewish history but of the religious outlook of the whole world. The prophets of the eighth century were those great innovators who made religion over from a set of taboos to a moral code, and substituted upright living for sacrifice. It is small wonder if the legends of the past were made over as well into a form to suit the new outlook. Their own work was of vastly 107 more importance to the men who wrote under the new inspiration, than the crude details of an uncertain past. For the modern critic to fail to appreciate the point of view of these Hebrew historians is as grave a sin in historical criticism as to fail, on the other hand, to see the damage they wrought in the ancient sources. It was a point of view which has much to justify it too; for but for the work of those prophets who sought to carry Israel away from its primitive line of history into new and unhistorical ideals, the history of Israel would never have been worth bothering over at all — except as that of an obscure Oriental people who contributed next to nothing to civilization. In the same way, if the believers in a coming Messiah plundered the documents of the past, the plunder was used for no less a purpose than the documentation of the kingdom of Christ. In short it was the distorters of Hebrew history who made that history worth our while!

Yet the fact remains that, from our point of view, the history was distorted. The paradox is not an antithesis between history and morals, however, or between science and religion, or science and theology. It is simply the statement of the difference between the ideals of the scientific and the pre-scientific era.


1  In Deuteronomy 331-8. Of course there are interpolations within these sections.

2  Although some of it rests on older material, especially E.

3  One, that is, thoroughly associated with the spirit and style of the writers of Deuteronomy.

4  The infertility of the myth-making faculty becomes apparent here. Folklorists are familiar with this limitation of the imagination to a few staple exploits, which repeat themselves indefinitely. The legends of the saints are mostly alike.

5  Subsequent events of Hebrew history agree with it.

6  Judges 26. Verses 6, 8, 9 are literal repetitions from the last chapter of Joshua.

7  Judges 211-23.

8  Judges 214, 15.

9  We come upon this especially in the work of the Christian historians.

10  To the end of the sixteenth chapter.

11  The stories of Eli and Samuel really belong with those of the Judges. Even in the form in which we have it now, this connection is emphasized by the address, which Samuel delivers in I Samuel 12, and which forms a fitting literary close to the Judges, similar to the addresses of Moses and Joshua. This at least seems to fit one stratum of sources.

12  Cf. G. F. Moore, op. cit., p. 94.

13  The source of Samuel is so much in the sprit of the J of the Pentateuch and Joshua, that the same symbol is used for it; but that does not necessarily imply the same authorship or even that the text in Samuel is a continuation of the J of the older part. But whatever their relationship, the conception and style are so similar as to justify the symbol for both.

14  I Kings 1624.

15  On the translation of this see R. W. Rogers, Cuneiform Parallels to the Old Testament, p. 304, n. 2.

16  Cf. G. F. Moore, op. cit., p. 103, “Some one has said that history is philosophy teaching by example; for the author of Kings history was prophecy teaching by example.” The short survey of Kings in this admirable little book covers the ground so thoroughly and satisfactorily that it is hard to avoid repeating its treatment.

17  I Kings 1141.

20  Ibid., 1419.

19  Ibid., 1429.

20  Cf. also I Kings 1523, 31, 165, 14, 27, II Kings 823, 1034, 1219, 138, 12, 1415, 18, 28, 156, 11, 1619, 2020, 2117, 25, 2328, 245, etc.

21  Other sources were used as well as these annals. There are traces of tradition, and especially there are the heroic legends of the prophets Elijah and Elisha. Other literary sources may be detected.

22  The name Chronicon was Jerome’s rendering of the Hebrew title “Events of the Times.”

23  Vide Dictionary of the Bible (edited by J. Hastings, 1898-1904), Vol. I, pp. 289 sqq.

24  The division seems to have been due to Christians, later.

25  One possible piece of exaggeration seems to be the statement that the walls were completed in fifty-two days. Josephus, relying on other sources, says it took two years and four months. Cf. Antiquities of the Jews, Bk. XI, Chap. V, Sect. 8. But a preliminary wall may have been built, or the text may have been corrupted.

26  His interest in economic matters is especially noteworthy. Cf. Nehemiah 5 and the laws codified in Leviticus 2535-55.

27  Nehemiah 417-21. More realistic still is the twenty-third verse: “So neither I nor my brethren nor my servants nor the men of the guard which followed me, none of us put off our clothes, except that every one put them off for washing.” Was the last verse a later emendation?

28  This exclusive polity of Ezra, it has been pointed out, was likely to emphasize the question of descent and so to call forth an interest in genealogies. We see the effect of this in Nehemiah 7 (cf. verse 61), where a list of what one might term pure-blooded, patrician Jewish families is given. One recalls in this connection the fact that P, which is attributed to the time of Ezra, was responsible for the long genealogies of the earlier historical books. Evidently the reëstablished Jews were working up their ancestry with great eagerness. It should be noted, however, that there is a reference in Ezekiel 139 to registers of “the house of Israel,” at the beginning of the exile. Cf. Josephus, Against Apion, Bk. I, Chap. V. sqq.

29  The narrative of P, based upon the teachings of Ezekiel. Cf. supra, p. 94. Thus the Jews began again their national existence, self-centred and isolated, with relatively slight intercourse with the gentile world.

30  A considerable literature grew up in his name, and a late tradition went so far as to regard him as the restorer of the law, the author of some seventy works, and finally as the last of writers in the canon of the Old Testament.

31  Cf. Jeremiah 32, 364 sqq., 433, 45, etc.

32  Although written in the second generation after the event.