The Shadow of God: Stories
from Early Judaism
(Hendrickson Publishers, 2003) Essay on Historical Imagination as Applied to Early Judaism
Dept. of Religion & Jewish Studies
University of Florida
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 complement 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. What is the justification for this approach to a short history of early Judaism?
If not a source of justification, at least one of the early encouragements I had toward the project came in a statement of E. P. Sanders, one of the leading scholars of Early Judaism. In his book Judaism: Practice and Belief, Sanders sought to enlighten readers on what Judaism of the first century was really like, as opposed to how most such books pictured it. One example is the picture of the Pharisees, which over the years had given rise to its own adjective, pharisaical, a synonym for hypocritical: in short, a curt and unkind caricature. In this context he says: “We may be certain, for example, that the Pharisees believed in both providence and free will, as did the sectarians, but we cannot describe what they specifically said and how they thought about these topics. We miss their passion, their depth, their insight. We are left with propositions, theological opinions, which are quite important, but which are a long way from what we would like to have. I am sure that Paul was not the only first-century Pharisee with driving commitment, quick intelligence, and passionate devotion. If, by an act of creative reading, we could apply these qualities to the Pharisees’ views, we would probably be closer to the essence of Pharisaism. I shall not attempt to write this way because I do not have this skill; perhaps the reader will make good the deficit.” (Sanders, Judaism: Practice and Belief 63 BCE - 66 CE [Philadelphia: Trinity Press International] 1992, 415.)
Our sources give us some of the results from the deliberation of the Pharisees, but we have to imagine the emotional intensity and the thought processes that produced the opinions handed down. Emotions are basic to humanity and remain fairly stable from generation to generation, although the intensity of emotions varies by individual and circumstance. A thought process is more elusive but is subject to deductive reasoning, and therefore it is a worthy goal of scholarship. Sanders calls for “creative reading,” and he might have tried his hand at “creative writing” but chose not to. In any case, the act of creative reading requires a good deal of historical knowledge if it is to be authentic, and not all readers have the time to equip themselves with this knowledge. Hence, there is a niche for creative historical writing.
More recently, another scholar highly esteemed in his field of Roman antiquities, Keith Hopkins, justified this creative approach to history in his book A World Full of Gods. Whether or not one appreciates his fictional style (and my approach is far less daring), his justification is sound when he states in the introduction: “But history is, or should be, a subtle combination of empathetic imagination and critical analysis. This history plays on several irreconcilable tensions. What was it like to be there? We don’t and cannot know. And yet surely empathetic imagination should play its part. We have to imagine what Romans, pagans, Jews, and Christians thought, felt, experienced, believed. But, as with baroque music played on ancient instruments, we listen with twentieth-century ears. We read ancient sources with modern minds. ... We cannot reproduce antiquity. And religious history is necessarily subjective.” (Keith Hopkins, A World Full of Gods: the Strange Triumph of Christianity [New York: Plume, 2001] 2.)
I have taken up this task of creative writing because I enjoy it, and I think there is a place for it in the study of history. The human factor in history is best re-enacted, rather than described. But since the re-enactment claims to imitate history, it is subject to the methods of studying history and of the historical imagination.
The phrase “historical imagination” is widely used today in works of history and goes back to post-enlightenment writing of history. In essence, the historical imagination is an attempt to relive the past, to stretch the common thread of human nature back into a world view of the past, or in the words of J. B. Mozley, “the habit of realizing past time, of putting history before ourselves in such a light that the persons and events...are seen as once living persons and events once present events.” (J. B. Mozley, On Miracles, i. 2, Bampton Lectures, 1865.)
The phrase was refined by R. G. Collingwood in his inaugural lecture, “The Historical Imagination.” (The Historical Imagination: An Inaugural Lecture, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1935; the lecture is included in The Idea of History, 231-249.) Collingwood’s grand task was to establish a philosophy of history, in which he argued that imagination plays an essential role in the writing of history. By imagination, he meant the mental process of filling in the gaps with those data we have called historical facts. In order to construct history, we must connect the dots of historical fact with historical imagination. Collingwood called this “a priori imagination...which, bridging the gaps between what our authorities tell us, gives the historical narrative or description its continuity.” This “historical imagination is not properly ornamental, but structural. Without it the historian would have no narrative to adorn. The imagination, that ‘blind but indispensable faculty’ without which, as Kant has shown, we could never perceive the world around us, is indispensable in the same way to history: it is this which, operating not capriciously as fancy but in its a priori form, does the entire work of historical construction.” (Collingwood, Historical Imagination, 13.)
Collingwood admits that the historian and the historical novelist are engaged in a similar pursuit, but the historical novel goes beyond a priori imagination. A novelist “composes a story where characters and incidents are all alike imaginary; yet the whole aim of the novelist is to show the characters acting and the incidents developing in a manner determined by a necessity internal to themselves. ... Here, and equally in all other kinds of art, the a priori imagination is at work.” (Collingwood, Historical Imagination,14.)
About the time that Collingwood was developing his philosophy of history in 1935, another historian, but also a novelist, Lion Feuchtwanger (author of the Josephus trilogy), was making his case for the serious historical novel. According to Feuchtwanger, the historical novel is a means of setting our present conflicts onto a more distant plane of history in order to view our own world from a more dispassionate perspective. But the novelist in no way attempts to write history. “I cannot imagine,” he says, “that a serious novelist, when working with historical subject matter, could ever regard historical facts as anything other than a means of achieving distance, as a metaphor, in order to render his own feelings, his own era, his own philosophy, and himself as accurately as possible.” (Feuchtwanger, “The Purpose of the Historical Novel,” translated by John Ahouse, “Vom Sinn des historischen Romans,” in Das Neue Tage Buch, 1935.)
The goal of novelist, by means of historical imagination, is to explain the present, while the goal of the historian, by means of historical imagination, is to explain the past. Given that distinction, the goal of The Shadow of God is that of the historian, to explain the past, and any relevance to the present may be laid to the fact that life has its constants: the more things change, the more they stay the same. On the other hand, like the historical novel, a short story uses historical facts to recreate the drama of life. I am not concerned with explaining events but with illuminating thought processes. How did people think about the problems they confronted, and how might they have expressed their thoughts in actions and dialogue?