In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section History of Israel

  • Introduction
  • On Writing the History of Israel
  • Essay Collections
  • History and Theology
  • Geography
  • Social History
  • Religious History
  • Biblical History Writing in Its Ancient Context
  • Chronology and Genealogy
  • History vs. Ideology
  • History or Memory?
  • The Sheffield-Copenhagen School
  • Reconstructing the History of Israel

Biblical Studies History of Israel
Marc Brettler
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0054


The history of Israel has become a highly contentious issue. Through much of the 20th century, most histories were written by removing God from the Bible and combining what was left with archaeological finds interpreted in line with the Bible. Beginning in the 1980s, several factors caused a radical shift. Archaeology was suggesting more and more strongly that the main biblical accounts of the conquest in the book of Joshua were fundamentally problematic. Many methods from the social sciences were introduced to biblical studies. Questions from ancient and general historiography were brought to bear on the Bible, and issues of whether the Bible was story or history, and questions from Hayden White and the narrative turn—namely the extent to which the historical texts as narrative texts fundamentally obscure our ability to use them as historical sources—were introduced. Some scholars insist the Bible can never be used as a source for the history it purports to narrate, and others suggest, to various degrees, that it remains an important historical source.

On Writing the History of Israel

Bright 1956, though dated, represents important reflections of the influential “Albright school” on the writing of history. The other works reflect attempts to sort out the underpinnings of recent changes in biblical historical writing; Grabbe 1997 collects essays by scholars in the field, Barr 2000 reflects on the influence of ideology, while Kofoed 2005, Moore 2006, and Banks 2006 are monographs surveying the historiographical assumptions of various recent historians.

  • Banks, Diane. Writing the History of Israel. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 438. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.

    A survey of general historiographic methods from the mid-19th through the beginning of the 21st century, with an examination of how biblical scholars from the time of Wellhausen were influenced by general historiographic approaches that prevailed when they were writing. Its survey of general historiography is stronger than the analysis of biblical historiography.

  • Barr, James. History and Ideology in the Old Testament: Biblical Studies at the End of the Millennium. The Hensley Henson Lectures for 1997 Delivered to the University of Oxford. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.

    An investigation by a major British (and later American) scholar of ideology in the Bible and how changing ideologies have affected biblical scholarship concerning history and other areas.

  • Bright, John. Early Israel in Recent History Writing: A Study in Method. Studies in Biblical Theology 19. Chicago: Allenson, 1956.

    Bright was the major American historian of ancient Israel in the 20th century. Though conservative by current standards, this book is an important comparison and evaluation of the historical schools of Alt (see Essay Collections) and Noth (see Histories of Israel through 1987) in Germany, and Kaufmann (see Religious History) in Israel.

  • Grabbe, Lester L., ed. Can a “History of Israel” Be Written?European Seminar on Historical Methodology, Dublin, July 1996. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplementary Series 245. Sheffield, UK: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997.

    This is the initial volume of papers from the European Seminar on Historical Methodology, raising the most general questions about the writing of Israelite history, especially concerning the nature of biblical texts, correlating the biblical text with other sources, and the extent to which writing the history of Israel is unique.

  • Kofoed, Jens Bruun. Text and History: Historiography and the Study of the Biblical Text. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2005.

    A detailed, lively study of recent studies of biblical history writing, and some suggestions for how history may be recovered from the Bible even if its traditions are much later than the events they putatively describe. Less theoretical than Banks 2006 and Moore 2006.

  • Moore, Megan Bishop. Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 435. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.

    A revised dissertation written under John H. Hayes at Emory University that looks at the philosophical underpinnings of biblical historians from the mid-20th century through the recent minimalist-maximalist controversies. Evaluates scholars using general historiographic literature concerning issues such as the narrative turn, the possibility of objectivity, and the nature of historical evidence.

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