Why Search for Biblical Elements in Historical Writing?

Patrick S. Marschner

September 15, 2018 | Patrick Marschner | HI Research Blog |

The Case of Post-Conquest Christian-Iberian Historical Writing

Throughout the entire European Middle Ages, biblical texts not only prescribed laws or told stories about hope, salvation and the history of God’s Chosen People. The Bible was also a guide to interpret, understand and depict the post-biblical history of different lands and peoples. On the one hand, the juxtaposition and comparison of historical events with biblical stories substantiated the historical law of salvation history in line with the teleology of a universe predetermined by God. On the other, it supported medieval writer’s claim to truth by connecting their statements to an authoritative text. Yet, not all of the biblical elements need to be obvious in a given text. Some are hidden, depending on how the authors connected their own story to the Bible: they could either quote directly from or paraphrase the Holy Scripture, use direct comparison or only copy the structure of the narrative. Especially in those cases, in which the connection to the Bible is not obvious, the analysis of the text and the investigation of its biblical origin can help reveal the deeper meaning of a text.
Christian-Iberian historical writing after the Umayyad invasion offers many biblical elements as soon as the cultural and religious ‘Other’ is thematised. The Christian-Iberian chronicles between the eighth and twelfth boast a triad of historical writing, perception of transculturality and biblical allusion. All of the abovementioned modes of connecting historical events to the Bible appear in these chronicles: quotes, paraphrases, comparisons, imitated narrative structures and sometimes the use of borrowed denominations such as ethnonyms. The biblical ethnonyms offer especially striking insights. Except in one single case, every appearance of a biblical ethnonym in Christian-Iberian historical writing refers to the foreign rulers of the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, there is a strong connection between biblical knowledge and the perception of the cultural and religious ‘Other’.

Ninth-century Christian chroniclers were convinced of a clear Bible-based identification of the foreign rulers. “The Saracens perversely believe themselves to be descendants of Sara, whereas they are Hagarenes from Hagar and Ishmaelites from Ishmael.” This is how their origin is defined in the text corpus known as the ‘Chronicle of Albelda’ (881/883), specifically in the section named the ‘Prophetic Chronicle’ (883). According to this source, the genealogical connection with peoples from the Book of Genesis was essential in identifying the cultural and religious ‘Other’. Furthermore, this genealogical identification ascribes the ‘Other’ a specific role in salvation history. In the Bible and in later Jewish and Christian tradition, the descendants of Sara and Isaac play a different part in the course of salvation history than those of Hagar and Ishmael. Hence, the former are on a higher rung in the hierarchy than the latter. Isaac represents the covenant with God and salvation, while Sara was the free wife of Abraham and, according to the Letter to the Galatians, represents the Church of Christ. Hagar was, on the other hand, just a bondwoman and represents the unfree, who will not find salvation.
Other ethnonyms of biblical origin enlarge the spectrum of the salvation-historical roles allocated. The ethnonym used most frequently to depict the Arabs in the ‘Chronicle of Alfonse III’, written around 900, is ‘Chaldeans’. Every time the Chaldeans appear in the Old Testament, they are a scourge sent by God due to the sins of his Chosen People. Accordingly, ‘Chaldeans’ is a judgemental term, identifying the cultural and religious ‘Other’ with divine punishment and ascribing moral failure to those who had to experience the punishment. Yet, despite the negative connotations, the identification of the Arabs as Chaldeans raises the prospect of the sinful people regaining a former status before God. For every time the Chaldeans appear in the Old Testament, they disappear again after the Chosen People does penance. Therefore, the narrative in the Christian chronicles includes a prophecy of the end of the foreign rule – this seems to be the main subject of the ‘Prophetic Chronicle’, while the ‘Chronicle of Alfonse III’ also contains ideas of salvation.
The centuries passed, but the modes of depiction remained the same. In the early eleventh-century ‘Chronicle of Sampiro’, a passage describes the attack of the Asturian king Alfonse III on the occupied city of Toledo. Sampiro describes the situation just before the battle, when the Arabs were just about to continue their campaign. The Latin text corresponds to two biblical excerpts. In the chronicle we read: “In illis diebus, quando hostes solent ad bella procedere, rex, congregato exercitu Toletum perexit[…]”, while the Old Testament offers these two passages: “Factum est ergo vertente anno eo tempore quo solent reges ad bella procedere misit David Ioab et servos suos cum eo et universum Israhel et vastaverunt filios Ammon et obsederunt Rabba David autem remansit in Hierusalem” (2 Sam 11, 1) and “Factum est autem post anni circulum eo tempore quo solent reges ad bella procederecongregavit Ioab exercitum et robur militiae et vastavit terram filiorum Ammon perrexitque et obsedit Rabba porro David manebat in Hierusalem quando Ioab percussit Rabba et destruxit eam” (1 Chr 20, 1). The chronicler is apparently echoing the Old Testament with quotations drawn from the second book of Samuel and the first Book of Chronicles. These two biblical passages tell the story of David fighting against the Ammonites. Thus, Sampiro indirectly identified Alfonse III with King David and the Arab rulers with the Old Testament Ammonites. In that way, Alfonse becomes a salvational figure and the cultural and religious ‘Other’ take the guise of a hostile people, whose origins lay in a terrible sin. For Ben-Ammi, the progenitor of the Ammonites, was the inbred son of Lot and his second daughter in the Book of Genesis. Therefore, the analysis of this particular quotation from the ‘Chronicle of Sampiro’ reveals the biblical basis for Sampiro’s perception and depiction of the cultural and religious ‘Other’.
It is reasonable to suspect a similar strategy of identification behind the denomination of the Almoravides as “Moabites” in the twelfth-century ‘Historia Silense’ and – most frequently – in the ‘Chronica Adefonsi Imperatoris’, both works of the twelfth century. While phonetic similarities may partly explain this designation, it refers also to Moab, the inbred son of Lot and his elder daughter. Like Ben-Ammi, Moab was also progenitor of a biblical people. Both the Moabites and the Ammonites were hostile to the Chosen People and in the end both lost their war against the people of Israel.
Next to the biblical-genealogical identification of ethnic groups (both self and other), the biblical elements in post-conquest Christian-Iberian historical writing could also take the form of depictions of single persons as the epitome of figures such as Moses, Noah, David, Solomon, Judas Maccabaeus or Gideon. Since mostly rulers were identified this way, these biblical allusions generally constitute obvious tools of legitimization.
Furthermore, these biblical elements in historical writing offer insights into contemporary ideas of morals. The invasion of the cultural and religious ‘Other’ was understood as divine punishment. Iberian Christians (the Visigoths) had obviously sinned, therefore, to have drawn God’s wrath following his punishment. The bearing of the “Saracen yoke” was the penance necessary to gain his mercy. Every Christian-Iberian chronicle from the ‘Byzantine-Arabic Chronicle’ (741) to the ‘Historia Silense’ coincides in presenting this moral structure of sin, punishment, penance and mercy, which framed their depiction of the events that had occured in the Iberian Peninsula since the Umayyad conquest. In some cases, this moral structure was the basis for the interpretation of single events such as the losing of a battle. In other chronicles, this structure determines the character of the entire narrative. In all cases, (biblical) morals determined the course of history.

The analysis of biblical elements in historical writing is therefore an indispensable instrument for our understanding of the intellectual world in transculturally defined regions and societies. Furthermore, it complements our knowledge of historiography in general. It demonstrates that chronicles are not jsut written history, but rather an echo of a certain world view, influenced by the contemporary circumstances – in the case of the post-conquest Iberian Peninsula, by the foreign rule of the cultural and religious ‘Other’. The Bible seems to be like some kind of “movie script” (these were the words of Jörg Sonntag, Technische Universität Dresden, who discussed this subject with me in person and whom I would like to thank for his inspiration at this point) for their own (hi)stories. Biblical stories were understood as pre-saging later history, when the scheme foretold would come to be (partially) fulfilled. Hence, the biblical elements within historical writing offer insights into contemporary Bible exegesis and also, conversely, into the interpretation of contemporary circumstances.

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