I've been reading through Israel and Revelation, the first volume of Eric Voegelin's Order and History. The primary motivation for this reading is that Robert Doran, in his Theology and the Dialectics of History, which is a landmark contribution in the development and implementation of Bernard Lonergan's thought, engages significantly with Israel and Revelation. But Order and History is a significant work of 20th-century western thought in its own right, and thus worth the time to read. In any case, there is a fascinating discussion within Israel and Revelation on the significance of chronology in understanding the development of ancient Israel. Given my fascination with matters chronological, this particularly grabbed my attention.
Voegelin distinguishes between what he calls "paradigmatic" and "pragmatic" history, each of which will have its own chronology. The former reflects Israel's own self-understanding of its history: its origins among the Patriarchs who migrated from Mesopotamia, its time spent in and around Canaan before the sojourn in Egypt, the Exodus under Moses, the revelation at Sinai, the return to and conquest of the Holy Land under Joshua, the period of the Judges and the establishment and historical course of the monarchies, the emergence of the prophets, etc. It is paradigmatic in the sense that "the single events become paradigms of God's way with man in this world" (IaR, 121). This chronology is essentially relative, offered through various notices that back-date from significant moments such as the foundation of the Solomonic temple, although with our modern historical knowledge we can give some approximation of the absolute dates that might adhere to these putative events. The latter history, the pragmatic, is not dissimilar to what is often termed "political history": the rise and fall of polities, the movements of people groups, etc. It includes the Hyksos invasion of Egypt, the rise and fall of the Assyrian, Babylonian, and Persian empires, etc. This history is often expressed by reference to regnal years: in the twelfth year of such-and-such a king, this and that happened. With appropriate reference points, we can usually convert these into BCE/CE dates with relative precision.
In a very real sense, much of the work in the studies over the last two centuries has consisted of thinking about the relationship between these two chronologies, the paradigmatic and the pragmatic. The problems are real, regardless of how much certain persons might want to deny them for ideological causes. If on the basis of the former we have reason to think that Jericho was destroyed c. 1250 BCE, but on the basis of the latter we have reason to think that there was a destruction c. 1500 but none at the later date, then we have a problem demanding investigation. (These numbers are given here as heuristic. Cavils regarding their empirical accuracy would add no light to the discussion at hand). Are one or both these dates mistaken? Is the paradigmatic history simply so unconcerned with chronological precision that it must be dispensed with in regard to such matters? Is paradigmatic history by definition so unconcerned with chronological precision that we must dispense with it in general, not just with regard to the history of ancient Israel but more broadly?
This is a problem that recurs in the study of the ancient world. Herodotus, for example, is also doing what we might loosely call a sort of paradigmatic history. For him, the events are paradigmatic not of God's way with humanity in the world, but rather of the interactions between the "western" world represented most fully by the Greeks and the "eastern" world represented most fully by the Persians. The Gospels, of course, as well as the Acts of the Apostles, are very much engaged in paradigmatic history. With regard to chronology, the central theoretical question that recurs with such materials is how or if we can work with texts whose interest in matters of temporal progression might well be radically different from our own? Or, to return to Voegelin's language, how do we translate the understanding of paradigmatic time immanent in such texts into the language of pragmatic time? And of course, the answer probably is that each text must be first understand in its own right, so as to detect the author's particular understanding of time (although of course such particular understanding will typically be related to broader understandings. One should not be surprised, for instance, if Paul evinces an understanding of time otherwise evident in the Israelite and Jewish traditions). Chronology, after all, is in all its forms a way by which the intellect organizes its contents in a legible and specifically temporal form.