In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Memory and History in the Hebrew Bible

  • Introduction
  • Ritual and Memory
  • Memory and Transmission of the Bible

Jewish Studies Memory and History in the Hebrew Bible
Barat Ellman
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 January 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 11 January 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0143


The importance of memory in connection to biblical literature precedes its emergence as an area for scholarship and stems, in fact, from the biblical text itself. The covenantal theology espoused in Deuteronomy requires that Israel remember its history both in fulfillment of divine commandment and as a bulwark against apostasy. The history to be kept firmly in mind is contained in the Torah (Pentateuch) which, according Jewish and Christian tradition, was communicated to Moses by God and, therefore, is the truthful and complete account of the past. In addition, the six books making up the former prophets represent themselves as the seamless continuation of the Pentateuchal narrative (cf., Josh. 1:1, Judg. 1:1). Taken together, these prose narratives provide an “authorized account” of Israel’s history from its patriarchal origins up to the destruction of the First Temple, the destruction of Jerusalem, and the exile. Modern scholarship has challenged the historicity of the biblical account from many angles and largely concurs that what the Bible offers is more of an ideological than a historical portrait of ancient Israel. Where scholars tend to differ is over the nature of that ideology and the intent behind the composition of the historical narratives: to recover and record the past or to prepare for the future; to describe the Israelite nation—its origins and evolution—or to invent wholesale both the relationship among the constituent parts of Israel and its connection to the land claimed in the biblical text. Around the start of the 21st century, scholars began to speak of biblical history in terms of memory, especially collective memory, whether in the sociological sense of shared memory or the political sense of authorized memory. For that reason, although this bibliographical article is titled “Memory and History in the Bible,” “history” is not to be taken in its disciplinary sense but as narrative formed and transmitted through the processes of individual and collective memory. Put differently, this article does not pretend to cover the vast literature on the history of Israel, biblical history, or the relationship of the former to the latter. The key word is “memory,” and the concept of memory, as a psychological, sociological, pedagogical, and ideological phenomenon, provides the overarching rubric under which the titles listed here are gathered. This article is divided into two broad sections. The first section provides a theoretical framework for the investigation of memory and the Bible. The second section covers sources directly related to biblical scholarship.

Theoretical Material

Consideration of memory in connection with biblical studies involves engagement with scholarship in the social sciences on the nature of memory itself. This includes work in phenomenology and psychology, collective and cultural memory, historiography, ritual studies.

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