15. Periodization in Biblical Historiography
Peter Machinist [+]
Chronology is often said to be the backbone of history, for without it the understanding of continuity and change, the foundations of an historical perspective, is impossible. Establishing a chronological framework for his subject, therefore, has regularly been seen as an essential task of the historian. This task involves periodization: arranging the chronological sequence of the past into units of thematic coherence that make the past appear less chaotic, and so of greater potential meaning for the present of the historian and his audience. Periodization, moreover, is an historiographic activity that goes back to antiquity. This chapter treats how it was handled in one ancient literary corpus, the Hebrew Bible, along with glances at contiguous ancient Near Eastern traditions, especially the Mesopotamian, and those of later periods. The chapter begins with a general discussion of the terminology and narrative methods of periodization in the Bible, and then, with this discussion as background, explains how periodization was conceived and signaled in three different biblical examples: Genesis 1–11, the so-called Primeval History; the Deuteronomistic History and its depictions of the political history of Israel in its land; and Daniel and its scheme of universal history, viewed as the periodized succession of “universal empires” in the Near Eastern and Mediterranean world of the first millennium BC—Assyria, Babylonia, Achaemenid Iran, and Alexander. These examples, it is suggested, show that while the biblical authors were mindful of describing the past in periodic units, they did not do so with fully articulated and explicit schemes; the latter began to appear only later, in the Second Temple period of Hellenistic and Roman Judaism.