Wednesday, April 21, 2004

STORY AS HISTORIOGRAPHY: On the Bible and Interpretation website, Leo Sandgren defends the telling of fictionalized stories set in the biblical period as a historiographic enterprise. It sounds hard to pull off, but an interesting idea. In some ways it resembles the idea of using counterfactual history to help make sense of history that actually happened, which is what chapter three of my book - which I'm currently writing - sets out to do.
The Shadow of God: Stories
from Early Judaism

(Hendrickson Publishers, 2003)� Essay on Historical Imagination as Applied to Early Judaism

By Leo Sandgren
Dept. of Religion & Jewish Studies
University of Florida
April 2004

A few excerpts:
�� When one writes a book that is commonly done in a given field of study, one has to justify why (besides publish or perish) one is writing yet another book to compliment the others already out there. But when one writes a book that is not done, or rarely done, one has to justify why it should be done at all. The Shadow of God, which may be characterized as a work of �historical imagination,� falls into the latter category, covering six centuries of Jewish history, from the Babylonian exile to the destruction of the Second Temple, in 15 stories, each centered on a historical event.


�� In short, I am not primarily concerned with what did occur but with what might have been possible responses to what probably did occur. By this means, the goal is to clarify how Judaism developed over six centuries. The emphasis is on the journey itself, not a description of the milestones. The journey is imagined, just as history is the imagined reconstruction of the past by a single subjective mind whose reconstruction may be critiqued by others, if and only if, they have an equally firm grasp of the data of the past. The stories in The Shadow of God are my reconstructions of Jewish history. And I echo the sentiments of Keith Hopkins: that to re-experience life in antiquity, �we have to combine ancient perceptions, however partial, with modern understandings, however misleading.� (Hopkins, A World Full of Gods, 6.)

��� I had three structural goals for the project: 1) the development of key themes: the universalism of God and of Torah, the particularism of Jewish identity, and the development of Jewish Christianity; 2) a fairly complete portrayal of society: the major stereotypes, but including non Jews, men and women, servants and masters; and 3) anchoring the stories to significant historical events that in themselves demonstrate the growth of Judaism. Beyond these goals of content, I hoped to engage the reader with the plots, narrative, and dialogue, that is, to draw the reader into the world of the story.

��� Historical imagination strives for authenticity of the era in thought as well as setting. In recent times, filmmakers have gone to extraordinary lengths for historical accuracy in the settings and minutia. The description of the background and the minor details of daily life ought to reflect our best knowledge of the era. The reader should have a confident sense of being there, not being in a poorly furnished museum. But more importantly, the thoughts expressed must also be limited to the potential for thought during the era.


�� If works of historical imagination are to be taken seriously, they must be undertaken seriously. The value of historical imagination is to fill in what our sources have left out, but what we know must have been there. And we can expand from a few bits of historical memory into a fuller picture of ancient thought. A danger of historical imagination is that while using an art form of story telling and dialogue, we too easily project modern attitudes onto antiquity, but this is a danger for all historians and can only be guarded against by a careful comparison with our ancient sources. A second danger of historical fiction is that it can beguile the reader into thinking what might have occurred, did occur. Here, it is the responsibility of the historian cum story teller to help keep the known historical data separate from the fictional elaboration. Toward that end, I provide fairly complete endnotes to the sources, and a clarification of the historical and fictional characters in the chronology at the end of the book. Even so, I am aware of the potential for confusion, and such works of historical imagination are best read as supplements to more formal histories. It won�t replace good old fashioned history as done by the German scholars, but it can breathe some life into their histories. Each contributes to the other.

There are summaries of the stories, but a summary of a story isn't the same thing as the story. Any chance of putting one of the actual stories online? That would be a good advertisement for the whole book.

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