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Narrating the past

With regard to the centuries from around 300 все onwards, Doron Mendels has suggested a detailed typology of historiographical strategies and societal attitudes towards historiography (Mendels 2008, esp. 133 45). Historiography is certainly not the only type of narrative to have been preserved, but narratives about the past and, especially, one's own past have been very successful in the process of transmission and diffusion. They are, thus, an important part of the field. Mendels proposes that we should differentiate between ‘societies that are “stuck” so-to-speak in their past’ (e.g. Sparta, Rome), ‘groups of people who constantly and consciously toy with the past and manipulate its memories’ (e.g. Greek intellectuals, kings of Commagene, Book of Jubilees), and, finally, ‘those people, groups and movements that look primarily forward, rather than backward’ (e.g. in the biblical book of 1 Maccabees; Mendels 2008, 133 4).

In considering this Hellenistic literature, Mendels identifies two basic ’modes for using the past in antiquity’: wholesale acceptance of past material, on the one hand, and manipulation and intentional modification of past material on the other. For the latter mode, he differentiates eleven distinct types: (1) the re-elaboration of the contents of still-accepted cultural or chronological frameworks from the past; (2) the manipulative use of historical figures, or (3) of time, by mixing past and present together; (4) the projection of a present feature into the past, or (5) the projection of one past onto

Narrative and History of Religion 113 another; (6) more radically, the ‘pure invention of past data’, or, less radically, (7) translation. Further types are (8) the contamination of an accepted tradition of the past by an older or more recent second past; (9) the presentation of the whole ‘past as a linear sequence of carefully chosen key events’; (10) ‘a synoptic approach to the past’ in order to combine different pasts of divided societies; and, finally, (11) the ‘fragmentation of the past in the public sphere’ in the form of exempla and many other types of very condensed partial accounts (Mendels 2008, 135-43).

Mendels’ account is primarily intended to demonstrate in statistical terms the very limited role of historiography in ancient societies. The restricted use of historiography in the Rabbinic movement in the creation of ‘Judaism’ was another example. However, the results of his analysis are restricted in their usefulness owing to his implicit treatment of the concept of ‘historical truth’ as the meta-historical measuring stick against which the value of ancient historiography and historic memory is to be judged - and to be devaluated in most cases. Yet historical truth is not, in fact, simply given so that it can be compared with a certain account. It is, rather, the regulating principle in a competition among successive representations that aim at better accounts (better being defined by ever shifting standards of historical truth) (Ankersmit 2001,2005).

In terms of forms and functions, and sometimes even of contents, myth and historiography often overlap in many periods. 1 therefore propose to construct the analysis of the textual material on the foundation of the concept of narrative rather than that of historiography, being aware that each concept would better accommodate some genres of literary communication. In Rome, for instance, the most important sources for historical memory and knowledge were dramatic performances acted out on a stage, rather than epic or prose narratives (Wiseman 1994, 1995; Manuwald 2011). Mendels’ reflections also help to sharpen my approach in another regard. Ultimately, he assumes that historiography is usually produced by a group and reflects its positions of power. Michel de Certeau’s analysis of historiography has shed light on different, indeed perhaps even opposing, processes. Certeau emphasizes the writer of history and his or her appropriation and shaping of history in terms of three factors: the (social and topographical) place of the writer; the different (epigraphic, literary, ordered, or voluntary) practices of writing; and the ways in which the writer represents history (Certeau 1988). This focus likewise informs my own choice of approach.

 
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