Official Blog of the Bishop of Durham

The Historical Kernel of Biblical History – Comparisons from other fields

Posted by NT Wrong on June 16, 2008

In an article entitled “Epic and history”, Kurt A. Raaflaub makes a comparative study of Sumerian epic, Homeric epic, and the Nibelungenlied, amongst others, and arrives at some interesting conclusions. He is keenly aware of the need to examine each tradition with a thorough background knowledge, but also draws attention to the ability of comparative studies to reveal new possibilities for consideration.

So, to cut to his conclusions, how well can we reconstruct the ‘historical kernel’ of heroic epic — a genre which (if not defined too narrowly) provides most of the material for what we we find in Genesis-Kings? According to Raaflaub’s brief study, the answer is simple: we can’t.

“Despite subjective conservatism inherent in the genre that prompts singers to improve on previous versions of a given song rather than altering it, over time a number of factors cause the original story to be reinterpreted, possibly more than once, and potentially to be distorted beyond recognition. These factors include, among others, audience pressure that forces singers to adjust to changing tastes, needs, and social conditions; deeper transformations and disruptions in the world in which the singers live that cause changes in outlook and values; new events, experiences, and outstanding personalities that capture the imagination of singers and audiences and induce them to replace old songs by new ones or to reinterpret traditional themes more radically; and an inherent tendency, common to all forms of oral tradition, to suppress the individual and specific in favor of the universal. In the cases of medieval and later epics, where independent historical evidence is available, it is clear that only a minimal historical core survives in the extant poems. To reconstruct this core from the epic is impossible because the process of transformation does not follow set rules, is different in each case, and can thus not be unraveled from the end.
The situation is different when we focus on the social background or environment in which the poet places the heroic events and actions. Wherever the epic evidence is substantial enough, the depiction of social structures, conditions, and interactions proves sufficiently consistent to reflect a historical society – despite archaisms, anachronisms, exaggerations, and occasional contradictions that help create a heroic aura and are traits or remnants of composition in performance. The society portrayed is usually the poet’s own.”
– Kurt A. Raaflaub, “Epic & History”. Pages 55-70 in John Miles Foley, ed., A Companion to Ancient Epic. Malden, Blackwell & Carlton: Blackwell, 2005: 69 (emphasis added).

What would be really interesting would be to get experts in everything from Homer to Monmouth and Snorri, and compare each of the epic works with history (as ascertained by modern historiography). How are the traditions transformed? How is ‘history’ invented? Why are such traditions invented? Etc, etc.

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