Myth: Myth and History

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At first glance, myth and history appear to be complete opposites. To be sure, they are both narratives, that is to say, arrangements of events into unified stories, which can then be recounted. But myth is a narrative of origins, taking place in a primordial time, a time other than that of everyday reality; history is a narrative of recent events, extending progressively to include events that are further in the past but that are, nonetheless, situated in human time.

This initial definition, however, calls for a series of qualifying remarks that reveal a network of more complex relations in the place of this stark opposition. Let us first consider the fact that our very model of myth has come down to us from the stories of the gods in ancient Greece. Furthermore, a transition from myth to history can be seen in the Greek myths themselves, as they extend to include the history of heroes and the histories of ancestors. These are more properly termed legendary narratives, unfolding in a time lying between the time of origins and that of recent events. History will encroach on this legendary time, extending its grasp to include an ever more distant past.

An even more significant intersection between myth and history has been brought to light through the extension, familiar from contemporary anthropology, of the notion of myth to types of narrative that are extremely widespread in contemporary archaic societies. These narratives are characterized by being anonymous, and so without any determinant origin. They are received through tradition and accepted as credible by all the members of the group, with no guarantee of authenticity other than the belief of those who transmit them. History will mark an "epistemological break" with this mode of transmission and reception, but only after an evolution involving many intermediate stages, as we shall see later.

A source of even more serious conflict between myth and history, and therefore also an occasion for more complex forms of transition or compromise, has to do with the object of myth itself, which we temporarily designated as a narrative of origins. The concern with origins extends far beyond the history of gods, heroes, and ancestors. The questions pertaining to the origins of things extend to all the entities of individual and social life. Thus myths can reply to any of the following types of question. How did a particular society come to exist? What is the sense of this institution? Why does this event or that rite exist? Why are certain things forbidden? What legitimizes a particular authority? Why is the human condition so miserable; why do we suffer and die? Myth replies to these questions by recounting how these things began. It recounts the creation of the world and the appearance of humans in their present physical, moral, and social condition. With myth therefore we are dealing with a very particular type of explanation, which will maintain a complex relation to history. This type of explanation essentially consists in myth's foundational function: the myth recounts founding events. Its tie and subsequent conflict with history result from this function. On the one hand, myth exists only when the founding event has no place in history but is situated in a time before all history: in illo tempore, to borrow Mircea Eliade's now classic expression. On the other hand, what is at stake in any such foundation is to relate our own time to this other time, whether this be in the form of participation, imitation, decadence, or abandonment. It is precisely this relation between our time and the time of the myth that is the essential factor constituting the myth, rather than the types of things founded by it, whether the latter include the whole of realitythe worldor a fragment of realityan ethical rule, a political institution, or even the existence of man in a particular condition, fallen or innocent.

In the light of this brief phenomenology of myth, it appears that the relation of myth to history can be situated on three different levels. In a limited, narrow sense, myth and history are two different kinds of narrative. Myth is a narrative concerning the origin of everything that can worry, frighten, or surprise us. History, on the other hand, is a precise literary genre, namely the writing of history or historiography. Taken in this strict sense, history can enter into a variety of relations with myth; history's own origin from myth is not the only such relation. The genetic point of view must not blind us to other possible viewpoints. If, as we shall see, history does not necessarily take the place of myth but may exist alongside it within the same culture, together with other types of narrative, then the question of the relation between myth and historiography must be approached from the perspective of a classification of the various kinds of narratives that are produced by a particular society at a particular moment. The genetic and taxonomical perspectives must each be allowed both to complement and to limit the exclusive claims of the other.

As a backdrop to this well-defined problem a vaster one arises, related to a second meaning of the term history. History is not only a literary product; it is also what men do or suffer. Many languages preserve these two meanings of their word for "history": history (or story) as the narrative of the events of the past, and history as the whole of these events themselves, as human beings make them or are affected by them. Beyond the question of the writing of history is the question of how a given culture interprets its historical mode of existence. A number of problems arise in this connection. How, for instance, is the stability or change affecting a culture's mores or institutions perceived? What value is attributed to it? Does change itself have meaning? That is to say, is change at once meaningful and directed toward an end, or is it incoherent, given to disorder, chance, and meaninglessness? And, if there is a sense to it, is it an improvement, a form of progress, or a degeneration, a decadence?

To move from the first sense of history to the second is not difficult. The writing of history as an essentially literary activity is after all one of the ways a society accounts for its own past. It inevitably leads to the more general question of the sense that that society ascribes to its own historical development. This interrelationship between history as literary activity and history as lived experience gives a new meaning to the question of the relation between history and myth. Myth, to the extent that it is defined by its foundational role, can function to ascribe a positive or negative value to history in general, to the extent that the latter is understood as a mode of human existence.

When dealing with myth and history at this level, we must avoid the temptation to engage in simplistic oppositions between types of civilizations or to employ genetic interpretations that are overly linear. A single society may in fact have both myths of decadence and myths of progress, whether in different epochs or in the same period. This competition of myths may express the uncertainty that a society experiences concerning the meaning of the changes that it undergoes. Furthermore, in a given culture, historiography may be intended to provide only partial explanations that make no claim to be comprehensive, while the broader question of the meaning of history is left to legends and myths. As a result, two cultures may differ as to their most fundamental myths and yet present striking similarities in both the techniques and goals of their historiography. This was true of the Greeks and Hebrews, as will be shown below.

Finally, in the background of the question of the meaning of history, we find the question of a society's interpretation of the time in which its historyand all historyunfolds. This third question is implicit in the two preceding ones. In the first place, historiography can be defined as the narrative of human actions in the past. Since this interest in the past is inseparable from an interest in the present and from expectations about the future, historiography necessarily includes in its definition a reference to time. It is knowledge of societies and people in time.

This reference to time cannot help but affect the first and second senses of history : both the meaning that a class of literati gives to the act of writing history and the meaning that a particular society gives to its history through narrative activity imply a specific perception of time. The evaluation of time may even become the object of reflection, or it may remain implicit, in much the same way that change may be evaluated positively or negatively. It is at this level that the so-called cyclical and linear conceptions of time oppose one another.

The question of the supposed opposition between cyclical and linear conceptions of time is a thorny one. To begin with, it is not certain that the notion of cyclical time has but one meaning. In addition to the paradigmatic case of the periodical regeneration of time by specific rites, there are many other ways of conceiving the periodical return of the same situations and the same events; a number of periodicities are to be distinguished here. Nor is it certain that the notion of linear time was clearly perceived as a global alternative to that of cyclical time before modern astronomy and cosmology or the even more recent ideologies of progress. Last but not least, a single culture can give rise to contrary myths concerning the cyclical or linear character of time. This is part of the uncertainty that a particular society may foster concerning its own historical condition and that of the human race as a whole. Then too, the culture that produces myths of cyclical time or of linear time may also produce a historiography that is deliberately developed outside of this framework, limiting its scope to restricted temporal segments that can be inserted in either of those versions of time. For these reasons, the problem of the apparent split between cyclical and linear time should not be tackled head-on. Instead, this debate should be carried on within the horizon of the two preceding investigations.

Ancient Greece

To guide us in this problem, it will be helpful to take as our reference the relations between myth and history in ancient Greece. In the cultural sphere of the ancient Near East and the Mediterranean, they alonealong with ancient Israelproduced a historiography worthy of the name. In addition, the variety of the relations that this production maintained with myth (a Greek term if ever there was one!) permits us to verify the extreme complexity of the problem and the validity of the three-stage model that we have just suggested.

If we adhere to the definition of history as historiography, then history's relation to myth is determined in its essential features by the birth of a type of knowledge and a type of discourse (prose narrative) that make a series of decisive breaks with the mythical mode of thought and with its privileged mode of literary expression, versified poetry. The earliest witness that we have to history's break with myth was provided by Herodotos in the middle of the fifth century bce, whose work stands as a literary landmark. Its titleHistoriē in the Ionian dialecthas ever since determined not only the name of the discipline that he inaugurated but also the principal meaning of this term, namely investigation. These "histories" are in fact investigations into the causes of the wars fought between the Greeks and the Persians. Unlike myths of origin and heroic tales situated in distant times, the histories of Herodotos are concerned with recent events. Herodotos was interested in the causal role of antecedent events and in the role of responsible agents in the events that he investigated. His writings are thus far more than mere descriptions. They are expressions of a mode of thinking that characterizes what has been called the Ionic Enlightenment and so take their place within a vaster ensemble of investigations into cosmology, geography, and ethnography. They find their speculative equivalent in philosophy as such, where phusis, a term we translate as "nature," constitutes at once the field of exploration and the key word. In Ionian philosophy the notion of archē in the sense of "principle" decisively splits off from arche in the sense of "beginning." This bifurcation of the notion of origin is of great importance for the understanding of the separation of history from myth.

The epistemological break with myth that marks the emergence of history, geography, ethnology, cosmology, and the philosophy of nature does not entitle us to represent the process as simply genetic and linear, however. This would be to overlook the intermediate stages that exist in the transition from myth to history, as well as the continued dependence of the new mode of thought on the earlier mythical mode. In addition, we would thereby overlook the simultaneous existence of several different types of narrative within the same culture.

In contrast to a simplistic representation of the "Greek miracle," we should be attentive instead to this phenomenon of transition, which preserves a sense of the different elements that went to make up the "event" of the Ionic Enlightenment. Herodotos was in fact preceded by an entire series of prose writers who paved the way for him. The most important of these was certainly Hecataeus of Miletus, whom we know only through a few surviving quotations. Already in the second half of the sixth century, this prose writer was the author of a periēgēsis, a realistic account of a voyage around the world that relates history to geography, cartography, and ethnology, and of the Genealogies, which constructed the great family tree of the heroic age. The break between myth and history did not, therefore, take place all at once, but only gradually. Herodotos's Histories themselves did not cut every tie with the stories of the heroic age, as can be seen from his attempts at a general chronology dating back to the Trojan War. And if Herodotos was concerned so specifically with the Persian Wars, this was because, in his opinion, they deserved to be reported as much as had the Trojan War. Finally, the epic dimension of Herodotos's work, which allows him to preserve the chronological and analogical ties between heroic and historical times, must be attributed to the influence of the versified epic of Homer.

The twofold relation of break and filiation between myth and history on the level of narrative form becomes clearer when we consider the end or goal assigned to this new kind of literature. Here we move from the first to the second senses of history. The end that Herodotos assigned to his investigations can be found in the prologue of the Histories : "Here are set forth the researches (historiē ) of Herodotos of Halicarnassus, that men's actions may not be forgotten, nor things great and wonderful, whether accomplished by Greeks or barbarians, go without report, nor especially the causes (aītiē ) of the wars between one and another."

Three features of this prefatory remark deserve emphasis. The struggle against forgetfulness is cited first; later we shall discuss the conception of time that is implied here. It is then to the great deeds of the Greeks and the barbarians that this exercise of memory is applied. The very notion of great deeds marks a tie with the epic of the age of heroes, even though it is being applied here to recent times. But, in particular, this cult of memory binds history to the self-understanding that a people acquires by giving an account of its past. The memory that history cultivates is therefore that of a people taken as a single body. In this way, history takes its place within the body of traditions that together constitute what could be called the narrative identity of a culture. To be sure, it does this within a critical mode that is entirely different from mythical traditions, since the latter draw their authority from the very act of transmitting the immemorial. But the opposition between the critical mode of historiography introduced here by Herodotos and the authoritative mode of the reception of myth in Homer occurs within the larger phenomenon of tradition: the poet and the man of letters are united within the single great melting pot of culture.

The third feature of Herodotos's project points in the same direction: the object of his research is to discover the cause of an essentially conflictual event, namely the Persian Wars. These wars not only served to oppose Greek and barbarian but fundamentally threatened a whole configuration of peoples, just as the Trojan War had done in heroic times. This is the major crisis for which history now seeks a cause. By attributing this cause to a responsible agent, the Histories give an ethical coloration to the entire course of events, which at the same time attests to a striking kinship between history and tragedy. It was the hubris of Cresus that endangered the harmony of a people, and even the victory of the Greeks appears as a retribution (tisis ) that reestablishes this lost harmony. In this way, a certain divine justice is effected by the course of events. One cannot help thinking here of a fragment from Anaximander: "for (existing things) pay penalty and retribution to each other for their injustice according to the assessment of Time." This fragment displays a manner of thinking halfway between myth and what, with the Sophists, Socrates, and Plato, will be termed sophia ("wisdom").

From this threefold analysis we can see that the passage from myth to history cannot be reduced to the mere substitution of the latter for the former. In competition with this linear evolution, we must make room for an accumulation of literary genres and the modes of thinking related to them: theogonic myths written in the style of scholarly and literary mythology, myths of the heroic age cast in the literary mode of the epic and of tragedy, and, finally, history. So little did history replace myth that Plato still wages war against myths in his dialogues, though not without including here and there some palaios logos received from the Orphic tradition or from alleged Egyptian wisdom. What is more, he invents certain myths himself, in the form of philosophical tales.

A third problem now remains. This is the problem of the representation of time that underlies history, a problem that forms the backdrop to the debate between history and myth. If Greek historiography holds some importance in this area, it is less in relation to the so-called opposition between cyclical time and linear time than to the dividing line between the time of the gods and the time of men.

With respect to the debate concerning the Greeks' supposed opposition of cyclical and linear conceptions of time, opened by Thorleif Boman in Hebrew Thought Compared with Greek (1960), it is clear that historiography not only does not provide any confirmation of the thesis that holds Hellenism to be massively in favor of a cyclical conception of time but in fact refuses to take either side. As Arnaldo Momigliano stresses, to the extent that Herodotos concentrates his attention on a limited segment of history, he is entirely unaware of an historical cycle, much less an eternal return. Of course, he believes that there are forces operating in history, forces that are ordinarily tied to the intervention of the gods in human life, which become visible only at the end of a long chain of events. Such was the hubris against which Solon warned. Nothing, however, indicates that these interventions attest to a cyclical time. Herodotos "attributed to the Persian War a unique, non-cyclical significance, chiefly as a conflict between free men and slaves" (Momigliano, 1977, p. 187).

It is instead to the second problem, that of the split between the time of the gods and the time of men, that the earliest Greek historiography makes the most decisive contribution. The comparison with Homer, Hesiod, and the tragedians is instructive here. In Homer, the little substance that human time takes on is due still to the family tie that unites most of the heroes to the gods. In order to evoke these heroic times ordinary memory is not enough: it is not a mere literary convention when in book 2 of the Iliad (lines 484487), the poet asks the Muses, the daughters of Memory (Mnemosyne), to guide him through the confusion of human time and space. "And now, tell me, Muses, dwelling on Olympus, for you are indeed goddesses: present everywhere, you know all things; we hear only noises, we ourselves know nothing. Tell me who were the guides, the leaders of the Danaans?" It is because time is utter confusion for the human observer that the poet calls upon a Muse to unite him with the higher vision of the gods. In Hesiodic myth, the ages and the races that live in them are inserted between the time of the gods and human time, serving as much to separate them as to connect them. This is a history of decadence, interrupted only by the fourth race, that of heroes. The fate of the race of the last age, the iron age, is to suffer fatigue and hardships and hence to live painfully in time. The only remedy for this is the monotonous repetition of work in the fields. Nevertheless, the cycle of time is already that of a human time.

In the works of the tragedians, man is defined as "ephemeral." This is not because man's life is short but because his condition is tied to the accidents of time. The "sovereign time" sung by the chorus can at the same time be the "avenging time" that will reestablish justice. Historiography, on the other hand, by virtue of the task that it sets for itself, introduces a certain consistency into the time of men, relating it to the human time of the "first inventor" (protos euretēs ). On the one hand, Herodotos recognizes these first inventors in those who first gave offense to the Greeks and thereby brought on the Persian Wars. On the other hand, the historian himself, by naming himself, by giving the reasons he has for recalling the past, and by seeking the sense of past events, establishes himself as a first inventor. It is in this double manner that he gives human time its consistency. Despite its linear framework, however, this human time still leaves room for analogies and correspondences that elevate the characters above and beyond time.

It is only with Thucydides that a logical time will govern the disorder of historical time that stems from the repetition of the same dissensions between cities, which make innumerable and terrible evils "occur and recur unendingly." The second great Greek historian is then able to define his work as a means of "seeing clearly into events of the past and those yet to come by reason of the human character they possess, offering similarities or analogies" (History of the Peloponnesian War 1.22). This is the sense of the famous expression ktēma eis aei ("acquisition for all times"): human time will take on consistency in the face of the time of the gods only when the narrative is anchored to a sort of logic of action.

Ancient Israel

Following the majority of exegetes and cultural historians, we have adopted the working hypothesis that only the Greeks and the Hebrews developed a historiography comparable to that of the moderns. It is therefore in reference to the birth of history in Greece that we shall discuss the similar phenomenon in ancient Israel. Obstacles to this sort of comparative undertaking are by no means lacking, however.

The first source of difficulty lies in a difference of literary genre. Literary genres such as epic, tragedy, lyric poetry, and history, which are represented in Greece by distinct works and authors, are found grouped together and often interwoven in the Hebrew Bible, a book that is itself actually a collection of books. Therefore, if we are to find in the Hebrew scriptures a collection of texts comparable to Herodotos's Histories, we will have to ignore the important question of context at the risk of serious distortions. This is the case, for instance, with the story of David's rise (1 Sm. 16:142 Sm. 5:25) and the succession story (2 Sm. 7, 920; 1 Kgs. 12).

A second difficulty lies in the complexity of narrative as a genre. The narrative genre is represented by such a wide variety of forms that we cannot restrict our classification merely to an opposition between history and myth. It is necessary to work out a typology of narrative forms, however rudimentary and merely provisional, before we can inquire into the possible filiations between one form and another.

There is still another difficulty. In addition to the variety of literary genres surrounding the narrative core and the diversity of narrative forms themselves, the Hebrew scriptures present a hierarchy of different texts. First-order units that represent the entire range of narrative forms are incorporated into larger ensembles such as the compositions of the Yahvist, which present narrative features that differ from those of the first-order units. In order to account for the difference of level and structure between these larger narratives and their smaller, properly historiographic segments, it is advisable to refer to the former as "history-like narratives."

Finally, concerning the specific problem of myth and history, we must be prepared to confront the paradoxical situation that, in contrast to the evolution that led from myth to history in Greece, in Israel the quasi myths or myth fragments borrowed from neighboring cultures were incorporated into the great narrative ensembles mentioned above in the form of historicized myths, as is the case in Genesis 111. This reinterpretation of myth on the basis of history appears quite specific to the literary sphere of ancient Israel.

We can navigate our investigation through the reefs of these difficulties by proceeding along the lines of the three levels of inquiry outlined in the first paragraph: namely, a typology of narrative forms, an analysis of the historical mode of understanding of the community that produces these narratives, and, finally, a brief look at the conception of time that may be implicit either in the literary forms or in the self-understanding revealed in ancient Israel.

With respect to the typology of narrative forms, in which history and myth take their place at the two opposite poles of the spectrum, it is important to note that genetic investigations, stemming principally from the work of Hermann Gunkel and Hugo Gressmann, have employed structural analysis to establish criteria for the identification of narrative forms and then gone on to work out their filiation. Gunkel (1928) himself argued that the historiography illustrated by the two narratives concerning David mentioned above stemmed from legends (Sagen ), rather than from the myths of the ancient Middle East or from the lists, annals, and chronicles that were widespread among Israel's neighbors. In order to establish this thesis, Gunkel had to work out a brief typology that allowed him to distinguish legends from other types of stories. He first distinguished legends (Sagen ), which refer to characters in the real world but living in times gone by, both from myths, which are origin narratives, taking place in a time different from that of ordinary experience, and tales (Märchen ), which are pure fictions intended for amusement. Then, within the Sagen themselves, he distinguished between father legends (Vatersagen ) and hero legends (Heldensagen ). Father legends are tied to family leaders who are representative of their social group. They are sometimes related in a series, like the stories of Joseph; Gunkel calls these "novellas" (Novellen ). Hero legends (Heldensagen ), to the extent that they concern public figures like Moses, Joshua, Saul, and David, can contain a genuinely historical element. According to Gunkel, it is within this subgroup that we can follow the evolution from the pure heroic legend, illustrated by the story of Gideon, to history in a sense similar to that of Herodotus, as in the two narratives of David referred to above. Gressmann (1910) then carried this approach further by calling attention to the prophetic legends, whose purpose is devotional and edifying.

Gressmann's major contribution, however, was his tripartite division of history. First there is the history that concerns recent events (it is assumed that the narratives relating to David were written shortly after the events recounted). Then come legends, concerning distant events, and, finally, myths, relating to primordial times. The advantage of this threefold division is that it brackets the question of the presumed degree of veracity, as measured by our modern notion of documentary proof. Nevertheless, in Gunkel and Gressmann the concern for typology is immediately swallowed up by the interest in genesis: their major interest is in determining how historiography as a scholarly genre arose out of legend.

The same question is considered by Gerhard von Rad (1962), but on the basis of different preoccupations. He too asks about the preconditions for the emergence of historiography, but whereas Gunkel stresses the decisive role of the emergence of a monarchic state, von Rad focuses on the demand for explanation present in the etiological function of legends, on the formation of a prose literature, and especially on the organizing role played by a theological vision of history. It is under the influence of this third and decisive factor that the narrative organization prevails over the parataxic presentation of the heroic legends. By the same token, the relation of filiation between the legend and the myth appears even weaker. And it is an enlightenment similar to that in Ionia that permits the passage from the novella, which itself is already relatively complex, to even larger ensembles, such as the stories of David and the Yahvist document, which are thus placed on the same level as the historiographical core, at least as far as their organization is concerned.

Armed with these sketchy typological criteria for distinguishing between genres, Hebrew exegesis set out to examine the question of their filiation, a question held to be fundamental. It is within this framework that Gunkel's continuist hypothesis has been tested by his successors (Gerhard von Rad, Martin Noth, William F. Albright, Umberto Cassuto, Claus Westermann, and John van Seters). This hypothesis can include a number of different emphases. Emphasis can be placed on the political factor, on the enlightened spirit of the age assumed to be close to the reported events, or on the degree of organization in the legends themselves prior to their literary phase. One can emphasize the possible existence of early Israelite epics influenced by Mesopotamian and Canaanite epics, the constitution of court archives, lists, annals, and other documents similar to those found among Israel's neighbors, and finally and most especially the organizing power exerted by the theological motif. In fact, however, these rival genetic hypotheses have shown themselves to be practically unverifiable in the absence of Israelite sources distinct from the canonical texts of the Hebrew scriptures. It is not even certain that the texts that appear closest to Greek historiography were actually written at a period close to that of the events reported, or even that there was an Israelite literature prior to the writing of Deuteronomy.

The responses of scholars to these doubts have taken three forms. Some have sought a renewal of genetic investigations on the basis of new hypotheses. Others have accorded a privilege to a more detailed structural analysis of narrative forms, and still others have undertaken a properly literary study of the narrative art, which is found in all narrative forms.

The first orientation is illustrated in particular by the works of John Van Seters and Hans H. Schmid, who date the first Israelite writings five or six centuries later than previous scholarship did and thereby overthrow all the earlier hypotheses concerning filiation.

The second orientation is illustrated by the taxonomical concern that presides over the works of George W. Coats on Genesis. Coats divides the main narrative genres into the saga, the tale, the novella, legends, histories, reports, fables, etiological narratives, and, finally, myths. The term saga (not to be confused with the German Sage, "legend") here refers to the Icelandic and Nordic sagas of the Middle Ages, which are long, traditional narratives in prose, subdivided into family sagas and heroic sagas. The tale is characterized by the fact that it has few characters, a single setting, and a simple plot. The novella, in turn, is a complex tale with a plot involving tension and its resolution. Legends are static narratives with no plot in praise of the virtues of a hero. A history is intended to report events that actually took place; a report describes an isolated event. Fables depict a fictional world, while etiological narratives purport to explain a situation, to name a place or a character. Finally, myths are reduced to the sphere that remains, namely the imaginative domain relating to the activity of the gods in the divine world (hence Genesis 6:14).

A noteworthy example of the third orientation is given by Robert Alter and Adele Berlin. These authors, unhampered by typological concerns, have studied the art of narrative composition, basing their studies on the poetic model applied to the modern novel. So-called primitive and naive narratives suddenly appear to be works of consummate refinement in the use of dialogue and in the handling of events with reticence and understatement. At the same time, the literary analysis enhances the theological import of these texts and suggests that the conflict between the inevitability of the divine plan and human recalcitrance is in itself the source of narrative developments.

The development of structural analysis has tended to obscure the problem of the relations between myth and history behind its more detailed typologies. Nevertheless, the problem reemerges at another level as the problem of the self-understanding of a culture as this is expressed through its traditions. This new line of questioning is called for by the typology itself, to the extent that the aim of any narrative form is to contribute to self-understanding. Here, then, in the context of the Hebrew scriptures, we confront the second sense of history : history as it refers to the historical mind of ancient Israel, its manner of conducting itself historically. In this regard, most exegetes agree in characterizing the self-understanding of ancient Israel as globally historical, something that cannot be said of the Greeks. If the latter did indeed produce a historiography that is more clearly set out on the level of its works and more deliberately critical with respect to received traditions, they nevertheless sought their identitywithout perhaps ever actually finding itmore in the political sphere of their existence. At the same time, their philosophers developed a cosmological and nonhistorical philosophy of reality as a whole. Israel alone understood itself principally through the traditions of which it was at once the author and recipient. This is essentially what von Rad wanted to stress in his The Theology of Israel's Historical Traditions (1962), the first volume of his Old Testament Theology. With Israel, the act of narrating had from the outset a theological value, and the theological intention was instilled in the collection of traditions, which the theologian could not help but retell.

This second level of investigation must not be confused with the first; the "historical" understanding of a people through its literature is not exclusively, nor even principally, expressed in historiographic writings. It may instead be expressed through an entire range of narrative forms and even, little by little, by all the other literary genres inasmuch as they are historicized or, better, "narrativized." This expansion of the historical mind beyond the narrative form characteristic of historiography finds its expression in the internal hierarchy characteristic of the narrative literature of the Hebrew scriptures, through which the narrative units distinguished by the typology are subordinated to larger ensembles, of which the Yahvist document is a good model. Not only does this vast composition reach back before the monarchy, before the settlement, before the patriarchs, to the very creation of the world; it also encompasses units that represent the entire range of narrative forms distinguished above, as well as vast nonnarrative texts, such as laws, sapiential segments, praises, curses, and blessingsin short, a wide variety of literary forms and "language games." As noted above, in order to preserve this internal variety and difference of level, it is advisable to reserve the term history for those units that display a structural and thematic kinship with early Greek historiography and to refer to other narratives as "history-like," following Hans W. Frei in his The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (1974).

It is on the level of this vast history-like narrative, and on that of the different narratives superimposed on the great Yahvist narrative, that the theological design of narrative literature itself is revealed. In this regard, there has been noticeable evolution in interpretation since Gunkel sought to save the ancient historiography that he considered to be contemporary with the epoch of Solomon from the regretted influence of the prophets. Von Rad considerably reworked the problem by seeing in the great Yahvist construction the expansion of the confessional recital that can be read in Deuteronomy 24:59 and Joshua 24:213. According to von Rad, this "historical credo," with its own distinctive liturgical roots, governed the history of the settlement, leading the people from Egypt to the Promised Land. It then incorporated into itself the Sinai tradition, which, as a distinct cult-legend with its revealed commandments and its theology of the covenant, had heretofore had a separate existence. Around this core was clustered the history of the patriarchs, prefaced by the majestic history of the creation of the world and the origin of humanity. The Yahvist would then be the writer of genius who, due to the shifting of the myths from their original matrix, used the theological motif inherent in the tradition of the settlement to give coherence to this collection of heterogeneous narratives. With the Yahvist, we are no longer dealing with a storyteller but with a theologian-narrator who expresses his vision of the relations between God and his people by means of a continuous history, in which the history of the chosen people is bound up with the universal history of humankind and with the history of the world itself.

Starting from the historiographic pole, von Rad's successors have asked how the historical recital of the settlement relates to the narratives of the succession and to those of David's rise to power. What exchanges took place between the sacred and political vision of God's sovereignty over history and the idea of a divine guidance operating throughout the migration and the settlement? Did the former serve as a structural model for the latter, and the latter as a theological model for the former? It is in this connection that Robert Alter's suggestion takes on its full importance: he asks whether the paradox of the inevitability of the divine plan and human recalcitrance is not revealed in even the smallest narrative units when these are examined in the light of the art of biblical narrative. The most significant narratives turn out to be those in which the divine intention is realized, not through divine intervention, but through the very play of human passions, after the fashion of a nemesis inherent in human conduct.

We move from the historiographic pole back to the mythical by inquiring into the theology of history that is evinced in the large narrative units, or even in the smaller ones. Actually, we should speak of theologies of history, for it is not certain that what has been called salvation history (Heilsgeschichte ) covers all the intentions of the biblical writers. We must be careful not to project the biblical theology of today onto the Hebrew scriptures. The interweaving of a number of different theological themes must be respected: the covenant, the promise and its fulfillment, ethical instruction through the narrative, and so forth. Aside from this plurality of the theologies of history, there is the question of the function of the theological plan as a whole. As a kind of counterpart to the historicizing of the origin myths, could it not itself function as a myth, in the sense of the transcendent founding of present history on the basis of a more fundamental history? More precisely, it seems that the theology of traditions has been assimilated into an etiological myth of the settlement in a foreign land, hence of the gift of the soil. After the catastrophe of the exile, this myth was itself capable of being transformed into an etiological myth of the loss of the land. This second etiological use of the myth results in a new theology of history, centered around the theme of retributionin short, a theodicy. In the Deuteronomic narrative, this new theodicy finds an expression that may be weak historiographically but is strong in its moral resources. Nevertheless, we must admit that by calling salvation history itself a myth, we are stretching the notion of myth beyond its strict sense of a history of origins in illo tempore. Salvation history unfolds in the time of men rather than in the time of the gods. This fundamental difference must make us more careful in using the term myth to characterize theological interpretations like those of salvation history.

We must reserve for a third level of analysis the controversial question of whether the conception of time in ancient Israel was explicit or merely implicit. James Barr, in Biblical Words for Time (2d rev. ed., 1969), warns us of the temptation to seek information on the Hebrew conception of time at the level of the language itself, in its vocabulary and semantics, or in the etymology of individual words. The meaning of words, Barr observes, results from their use in determined contexts. Thus in our attempt to discover a Hebraic conception of time we are led back to the contexts provided by the narrative forms considered above and to the historical mentality discussed earlier.

An initial question arises: is a specific conception of time implicit in the narrative forms used in the Hebrew Bible? The reply would seem to be negative. The various types of narrative taken separately include very different temporal implications. No general view of time can be extracted from the historiography of Samuel and Kings ; it concerns a given segment of time that permits no extrapolation. To be sure, we can admit that the historiography of the Hebrew Bible, like that of the Greeks, assumes a certain familiarity with temporal succession and chronology. But this relation to time is purely pragmatic. In addition, and this is the most important point, other narrative forms, such as the saga and the legend, on the one hand, and the origin myth, on the other, take place in qualitatively different times, which can be usefully described as "recent," "distant," or "primordial." Thus the "days" of creation are incommensurable with the years in which the monarchs reign; the same is true concerning the patriarchs, who are situated, so to speak, "between" primordial times and historical time. It is therefore advisable to respect the specific temporal qualities belonging to the various classes of narrative.

If we now consider the great narrative compositions, like that of the Yahvist, in which the historical mind of ancient Israel is expressed, it cannot be denied that the various traditions with their heterogeneous durations are submitted to a single temporal order that we should probably represent as a rectilinear and irreversible time underlying a universal history that stretches from creation to the end of the monarchy and to the period of the return from the Babylonian exile. However, besides the fact that this representation is never made explicit by the brilliant composer of the Yahvist document, it would be sorely inadequate for the narrative style of this quasi-historical narrative even if it had been made explicit. This is so for several reasons.

First of all, the time unfolded by the great narrative remains a creation of the narrative art itself. The time immanent in the great narrative configuration by no means abolishes the differences between the heterogeneous time-spans that it encompasses. Thus we cannot say that the election of Abraham occurs after the seven days of creation. The mere succession of narratives does not allow us to project along a single time scale the time of origins, that of the patriarchs, that of the settlement in Canaan, and that of the monarchical period. The idea of a single narrative scale common to all the time-spans is a modern idea foreign to the thinking of ancient Israel and even to that of ancient Greece.

In addition, a series of correspondences and analogies are added to the temporal succession in which one event follows another, as for instance between the various covenants and the various laws, and even the various theophanies. In this regard one could speak of a cumulative aspect of time in the Hebrew Bible rather than of a purely successive one.

Finally, and what is most important, the relation between God's faithfulness and man's recalcitrance, which is illustrated in so many different ways by the special narrative art of the Hebrew storytellers, narrators, and historians, does not lend itself to interpretation in terms of the categories inherited from Platonism and Neoplatonism, where divine immutability is diametrically opposed to the mutability of all things human. God's faithfulness, which marks the history of men, suggests the idea of an omnitemporality rather than that of a supratemporality. This omnitemporality, moreover, is in perfect agreement with the sort of cumulative history we have just mentioned. In order to be able to speak of a biblical time, we would have to take all of the literary genres into account and not only the genre of narrative. There is an immemorial time of the laws, a proleptic time of prophecy, an everyday time of wisdom, a "nowness" of hymnic complaint and praise. Biblical timeif this expression has any meaningis made up of the interweaving of all the temporal values that are added onto the numerous temporal qualities preserved by the variety of narrative forms. The representation of a linear and irreversible time is wholly inadequate for this chorus of voices.

Would we then be justified in speaking of a return to mythical time by way of a history-like narrative, on the basis of the theologies presiding over the narrative composition itself, as, for example, in the conception of history as salvation history? This could be done only by ascribing to the term myth the extremely broad sense of a founding narrative that is related to everyday existence. In fact, it is just as important to stress the historicization of myth as it is to emphasize the mythologization of history. The position of the origin myth in Genesis 111 attests to this decisive subordination of myth to history. It is only as a broken myth that the archaic myth is reasserted within the gravitational space displayed by the historiography of the monarchic period and by the narrative of the conquest and settlement.

Perhaps it is in this that the hidden kinship between Greek thought and Hebrew thought resides. Each of them in its own way breaks with myth. Each, too, reinvents myth, one as a philosophical tale, as we saw in Plato, and the other as a broken and historicized myth, as in the Yahvist account of creation.

See Also

Cosmogony; Historiography; Sacred Time.


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