K. A. Kitchen and Minimalism

Kitchen stands as far to one edge of the stream of OT scholarship as his opponents do to the other.

By Charles David Isbell
Director of Jewish Studies
Louisiana State University
July 2004

The editors have asked me to offer a reaction to the recent book of Professor K. A. Kitchen, Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003). I have not been asked for a complete review of the entire volume, but a brief assessment of his Chapter Ten, in which Kitchen reviews and evaluates "Minimalism," a subject already discussed often on this site. But in order to understand Kitchen’s opposition to the minimalists, a brief look at his methodology is in order.

What becomes immediately apparent is that Kitchen stands as far to one edge of the stream of OT scholarship as his opponents do to the other. Both sides agree that Old Testament scholars of the past two hundred years have all missed the mark, some to the left and others to the right. In this volume, Professor Kitchen argues that the ANE setting provides texts, context, and physical data to indicate a long history of biblical "Israel" and its literature. This history begins in the early to mid-second millennium BCE, and extends well into the second half of the first. For his argument, Kitchen aligns himself squarely in the "maximalist" camp of OT scholars and draws upon a vast array of Egyptian, Mesopotamian, and Canaanite inscriptions, historical patterns, and cultural customs. In brief, it must be said that the case made by Kitchen is strong. Of greater importance, his arguments are based on the kinds of evidence which minimalists have demanded. These include physical inscriptions like the oft-cited Merneptah stela [Kitchen is correct in his reading and citation of the sign for a "people" describing Israel in the 13th century BCE], and the more recent and controversial tel Dan inscription, which Kitchen correctly shows is a piece of exactly the kind of documentation of "real" people and Israelite kings that the minimalists have demanded. This is evidence that Kitchen labels "explicit or direct evidence. But Kitchen is also clear in noting "implicit or indirect evidence," which he believes "can be equally powerful when used aright" (p. 4). To cite only one example, Kitchen argues that the parallels between the birth accounts of Sargon and Moses have been used to argue the opposite of what they imply. Thus the obvious folkloristic elements in the Sargon story do not lead scholars to assume that he did not exist, and a comparable judgment should be made about Moses.

However, while Kitchen has performed a valuable service to OT scholarship in general, there are two things that detract from his otherwise magisterial work. First, it is to be regretted that Kitchen takes the low road of name calling and negativism against all with whom he disagrees. In this, he is no worse than many others who have entered the minimalist/maximalist debate, but he is clearly no better either. Thus an opponent is not only incorrect to Kitchen, but "ignorant." Others whose views he opposes "have not done their homework," or are "factually disadvantaged." Kitchen’s venom is aimed particularly at recent minimalist scholars, as will be seen in more detail below.

Second, Kitchen’s own ideology is betrayed in numerous places throughout, beginning with his choice of the word "Reliability" in the title. What Kitchen means by "reliable" is instructive, for in brief, Kitchen always thinks the Old Testament means what he thinks it means. Four subjects in particular stand out as examples of Kitchen’s reliance [!] on ideology and his own interpretation of ANE evidence, often in preference to the biblical record itself.

1. Balaam. Kitchen has amassed numerous pieces of evidence to show the second millennium matrix of the patriarchal narratives, including the Book of Deuteronomy. Yet in the case of Balaam, and in the face of the evidence from the Tell Deir Alla text, Kitchen backs away from his own principles. This text clearly mentions "Balaam Son of Beor," the exact name of the central figure in Numbers 22-24. And the date of the Deir Alla text is, in Kitchen’s own estimation, "shortly before ca. 800" (p. 413). Based on his own arguments elsewhere throughout the book, Kitchen might be expected to date the Numbers narrative to a comparable period. But he does nothing of the sort, electing not to mention a composition date for the biblical story at all, and thus taking not a single step back from his ironclad assertion that the entire Pentateuch is datable to the second millennium.

2. Biblical Prophets. Kitchen is unshakable in his conviction that the literary works of the biblical prophets must be dated early and must be ascribed to those whose names they bear. His position is based in large part upon Egyptian prophetic texts that are datable archaeologically to a time immediate to the events about which they comment. So Kitchen will have none of the idea of a school [or "guild"] of prophets who may have been involved in an extended period of transmission of the sermons of great master prophets before some of their words were selected for a written corpus. But this ignores the clear evidence of the biblical text itself. Elisha clearly asks to be named "head" ["father"] of what can only be perceived as a widely established group called the "sons of the prophets," with representative membership at least in Gilgal, Bethel, and Jericho [see 2 Kings 2]. Isaiah specifically refers to his disciples or students [limmudim in 8.16], chapter fifty-two of the Book of Jeremiah is marked off as not from Jeremiah, and the entire Book of Amos describes the great prophet in the third person, in words obviously written by someone else after the fact [see Amos 1.1]. Such examples could be multiplied. Someone made the decision to include six sermons of Malachi in a book, just our present biblical six and no more, surely in testimony to the fact that these six were representative of his life work and teaching. Yet it is hardly conceivable that throughout his career these were Malachi’s only six utterances! In other words, what Kitchen is ignoring is the difference between an inscription carved in stone, and thereby locked in an unchanging version awaiting their modern rediscovery, and the words of biblical prophets that soon became the property of a community of like minded prophetic students who never locked them away, lost or buried them, but studied them, recopied them, handed them down to future generations. In other words, everything we have in the Bible of today, regardless of when its words were initially spoken or written, somehow wound its way through the centuries, to survive as times and circumstances changed. I believe an inter-generational professional guild offers the most "plausible" [dare I say "reliable!"] explanation of how this happened.

3. Exodus six. Here the ideology of Kitchen once again betrays him. In his view, the acknowledgement of more than one "source" for the Pentateuch would be a mortal sin. And this leads him to the most bizarre explanation of Exodus 6.3 yet. What appears in the text as a simple declarative statement in a series of similar statements, Kitchen proposes to have read as "a rhetorical negative that implies a positive" (p. 329). Of course, if translators wished to employ this principle at their pleasure, countless texts in the Bible could become the opposite of what they seem to mean. Only his prior commitment to oppose a hypothesis of "documents" pushes Kitchen to this explanation here in Exodus 6.3. Forget doublets throughout the Torah, which surely stand as warrants of authenticity from editors who were not afraid to transmit more than one perspective on the same incident. Forget differences in theological perspective. For Kitchen, even the plainest text of all must be altered, however necessary, to fit into an ideological scheme.

4. Kitchen’s view of Cyrus is also instructive. Because of his belief that the Book of Isaiah is a literary unit, he cannot allow reference to a sixth century Cyrus in the second half of a book [44.28 and 45.1] which he believes was written in the eighth century. No problem! Kitchen merely introduces a seventh century Persian Cyrus, and notes that "other Cyruses (or Kurashes) may have reigned there before 646" (p. 380). I doubt that I will be the only person to view this as special pleading, again in the face of the plain meaning of a biblical text.

With this brief look at Kitchen’s own views, we can turn to an assessment of his Chapter Ten, titled "Last Things Last—A Few Conclusions," where Kitchen takes on Thomas Thompson, Nils Peter Lemche, Philip Davies and other widely published minimalists, most of whose views have been debated here for Bible and Interpretation (Essays on Minimalism from Bible and Interpretation). His summation of the minimalist and maximalist positions opens the chapter: "Are the constituent writings in the Hebrew Bible exclusively the product of a group of Jewish literary romantics of the fourth-third centuries B.C., and thus truly a late Perso-Hellenistic product? Or do the vast, millennially long tapestry and the fact-determined grid lines of Near Eastern civilization show clearly otherwise" (p. 449)? Kitchen is further at pains to demonstrate that "present-day minimalists are not [sic] a sudden, new phenomenon without precedent" (p. 449). Kitchen finds their antecedents in nineteenth-century German scholarship, especially that of Julius Wellhausen (see pp. 485 ff.). So current minimalists present "Late-Period Minimalism," mid-twentieth century minimalists like Redford, Thompson and van Seters represent "Middle-Period Minimalism" (pp. 475 ff.), and "Early-Period Minimalism" is aligned with eighteenth and nineteenth century scholars including Astruc, Witter, Eichhorn, De Wette, and then Gunkel, Alt, and Noth among others.

Kitchen tackles Thompson first. And although Kitchen accuses all "Late-Period" minimalists of being "more scathing of others" than their predecessors (p. 449), he quickly responds in kind, with descriptions of Thompson’s work including his "idiotic charges" (p. 453), "self-delusion" (p. 455), "rollicking, silly nonsense!" (p. 456), and "hocus-pocus" (p. 457) before summarizing Thompson’s body of work as "sloppy scholarship, immense ignorance, special pleading, irrelevant postmodernist-agenda-driven drivel" (p. 457). I do not recall reading any description of one scholar by another as "more scathing" than Kitchen is here.

Lemche fares only a bit better, but is still lumped together with Thompson and described as "our Copenhagen [and related] ‘butterflies’ who are locked "inside their own antibiblical, antifactual fantasy world" (p. 459). Tellingly, Kitchen revives the most virulent tag against Lemche, whom he sees writing "crude antibiblical (almost anti-Semitic) propaganda" (p. 462). It is truly unfortunate that such a tag should be applied over a disagreement about the appropriate interpretation of the Bible, as I have remarked numerous places already (see my essay on this site, "More Comments on the Davies-Dever Exchange").

Davies is seen by Kitchen as "bereft of any serious engagement with the external evidence" (p. 462). Whitelam’s work is "mainly pure fiction from cover to cover" (p. p. 462). Even Bill Dever, whom Kitchen often admires, can be stung for the sin of reservation about the patriarchal and exodus eras (see. pp. 468-469).

In this section, Kitchen’s discussion of "Deconstruction," which he deems "The crown of all Follies" (see pp. 469-472) offers several sharp critiques that need to be heard and with which ever increasing numbers of biblical scholars surely agree. But again, despite his valuable insights on the subject, Kitchen cannot resist a series of truly cheap shots, all wholly unnecessary. Why call anyone else "willing dupes" (p. 470) or "clowns" (p. 471)? Why characterize any other scholar’s work as "absolute trash or "(anti)academic lunacy" (p. 471)?

"Middle" minimalists get off rather lightly compared to their successors. Kitchen’s analysis of their work alongside that of scholars like Albright, Gordon, and others, is actually quite balanced and helpful. Why Kitchen believes at one point that "statements to the contrary [of his perception of the evidence] are a deliberate attempt to avoid the evidence" (p. 475) is difficult to say.

The "Early" minimalists are long time foes of Kitchen. And the basis of his dislike is what he calls their over dependence on theory. In this context, Kitchen’s own view of Moses is especially interesting, and readers may judge for themselves just how theoretical it is. In order to support his belief that Pentateuchal law and covenant passages, including Deuteronomy, all belong properly to the second millennium, Kitchen offers the following. Moses was a graduate of Pi-Ramesse foreign ministry, and it was from his days in the foreign-office ministry that he "knew [sic] that every other people group and state had a sovereign ruler—a king, often as a deity’s representative. And law and treaty/covenant were the basis for regulating community life" (pp. 489-490). Further along in the same basic discussion, Kitchen makes reference to "inconvenient ancient scrolls .. [that were] quietly left unread" (p. 491). This provides the basis for Kitchen’s belief that the text found in the reign of Josiah was "a neglected old book" (p. 491). In other words, all of the Pentateuch, including those passages that deal with kings [an institution that was not begun until 200 + years later than Moses], prophets [traced in the biblical text to Samuel], "sin" during an era of "Judges," is second millennium and Mosaic. Why Moses might have written in classical biblical Hebrew [instead of Egyptian!] and then switched to a different dialect in Deuteronomy; Kitchen does not address, just as he avoids the issue of dating an extra-biblical Balaam text that does not fit into his scheme. But from the biblical text itself, Professor Kitchen can no more prove his own assertions about a Ramesside foreign ministry baccalaureate degree for Moses than his opponents can prove the opposite. That is the point. Professor Kitchen is just as alacritous about inventing possibilities to sustain a point of view [his!] as are the very foes whom he so roundly condemns. Both resort to their own theories and step outside the evidence whenever necessary to sustain a personal ideology.

Kitchen simply does not address the fact that biblical Israel and her literature were fundamentally different from ancient Egypt and its inscriptions only recently recovered. Where in Egyptian history is there evidence of a narrative that becomes the product of an entire community, weaving its way through centuries of times and circumstances to become the authoritative text? Kitchen wants early dates for biblical compositions but does not want to allow for any input by those later generations whose responsibility it was to preserve, transmit, and ultimately designate as essential for the community the writings that became our Bible. And yet the fluidity of the canonical process, unparalleled in Egypt or elsewhere, is its hallmark. We have two very different texts of Jeremiah, one in Hebrew and another in Greek. Qumran copies of biblical texts, the Isaiah copy of which Kitchen cites as evidence for the unity of Isaiah, mean very little except to attest a continuing fluidity among disparate Jewish sects of. Thus if there is no true gap between chapters thirty-nine and forty of the Isaiah book at Qumran, and if this means that all sixty-six chapters are a unit, then we would have to argue that the absence of the third chapter of Habakkuk at Qumran means that it was composed much later than the first two, a conclusion Kitchen would surely dislike. But I have seen the Habakkuk scroll, and there is clearly room at the end of chapter two for more writing. The point is that there simply is no single methodological formula that works all the time. Everyone knows this. And the mere citation of an Egyptian or Babylonian practice is no guarantee that any light is thus shed on the Bible. Kitchen has failed to acknowledge the differences between other ANE cultures and the groups that produced a "Bible" over a long period of time.

Now the community ownership of the Bible is further attested both in Judaism and in Christianity. The rabbis felt quite comfortable in producing the "Mishnah," whose very name ["Repetition"] indicates that despite their massive updating, reconstruction, and modernizing of the biblical text, its principles remained unchanged. The early Church felt equally relaxed about offering its own version of "covenant," borrowing Jeremiah’s description (31.31), and presenting its own argument that herein one finds in new words a very old truth about the God/human relationship. I think Kitchen is too narrow in his view of ANE literature in general and of biblical literature in particular. I would like to hear his response to the idea that even a very ancient text, once vouchsafed to the community, would soon bear the marks of succeeding generations of tradents. This, I repeat, was not the case with other ANE texts that were lost for centuries before being recovered within the past 150 years or so. The continuing dialogue between the "story" and the community must be factored into any view of biblical authorship.

Despite the criticisms I have made here, I do not think Kitchen’s work is either poor, wrong in many cases, or unnecessary. He is a better Egyptologist than biblical scholar, and he is actually cute sometimes, if one can avoid the stinger that always lurks inside his attempts at humor. In this, he rather reminds me of the biblical Joab, whose defense of David was always constant, even when it was not always particularly helpful. The value of Kitchen’s work is his dogged insistence upon a reading of relevant texts and an assessment of relevant archaeological recoveries as the appropriate context in which to read OT narratives. And it is precisely here that minimalists must be challenged to respond. They have called for dependence upon extra-biblical evidence, and Kitchen marshals an impressive amount of just such evidence for their assessment. Should his minimalist opponents fail to answer the specific evidence Kitchen has brought forward, we shall be forced to conclude that they cannot. Their responses are much to be anticipated. In the meantime, the work done by a vast majority of scholars of the Hebrew Bible will continue to be somewhere in the middle between the "Lion of Liverpool" snarling on the right and the "Hounds of Copenhagen" growling on the left.

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