Minimalism, "Ancient Israel," and Anti-Semitism

“Minimalism” is an invention. None of the “minimalist” scholars is aware of being part of a school, or a group. 

By Philip Davies
University Of Sheffield, England
January 2002


    Let’s begin with the word itself. Like its equivalents “revisionist,” “nihilist,” and “skeptic,” it was coined by its opponents and is not supposed to be flattering. Why do its alleged proponents not have a name for themselves? I will explain presently. For the moment, let’s discover what is so revealing about the term “minimalism.” A clue lies in Baruch Halpern’s essay on “minimalism” called “Erasing History” (Halpern 1995). Minimal history, one would think. But actually not: the charge is really having a minimum of biblical narrative in history. Halpern deliberately equates the two. Bible = history is an agenda of many anti-“minimalists,” and it remains by and large the popular view of the Bible as well. Halpern, like many other self-declared enemies of “minimalism” pretends that losing the biblical narrative means losing history. “Minimalists” would say, of course, that they are merely losing bad history.

    But why, exactly, is the amount of biblical narrative that is retained by a historian important in itself? As an issue of historical research, the appraisal and use of ancient literary sources are technical matters; what counts is the method and the reasoning. Why attach a label to the outcome? I cannot think of any other area of historical research that names practitioners according to such a criterion (“critical,” perhaps?) So what is the argumentation of those who “minimize” the historical reliability of the Bible? This would be important in understanding the debate. Unfortunately, such is the concentration on the “minimal” outcome that the issues of historical argumentation are usually lost or pushed into the background. As a result, other invented “motives” are attributed.

    Let’s also ask why, as an ancient historical document, the Bible is a special case. The historicity of the Bible is an important issue for several groups: many religious believers, many Zionists, most biblical archaeologists. All of these depend in some way upon the belief that the Bible relates real history. Once these interests are acknowledged, one can readily understand not merely the coining of the term “minimalism” but also the rage, the invective, the orchestrated assault, against a number of scholars who argue that it is not very reliable. I said “understand,” not “condone” because the attack breaks all scholarly rules. But for some people, more than scholarship is at stake. What else explains language like “dilettantes” (Rainey 1994: 47) or that minimalism is “a passing fad” (Dever 1996: 8), “trendy” (Dever 2001:25), or ‘twaddle” (Rendsburg nd)? What else leads to the claim that it is motivated by anti-Judaism, anti-Zionism, or anti-Semitism?

Does “minimalism” really exist?

    I noted earlier that the so-called “minimalists” do not have a term for themselves (I have used “minimalism” myself when debating with opponents, but in my mind, the term is always within quotation marks). “Minimalism” is an invention. None of the “minimalist” scholars is aware of being part of a school, or a group. There is no such common purpose (see Whitelam 2002). From what I have read and heard, the scholars most frequently identified with “minimalism” are Thomas Thompson, Keith Whitelam, Niels Peter Lemche, and myself. That all four now work in either Copenhagen or Sheffield may indeed suggest to superficial observers a “school.” However, Thompson moved to Copenhagen only after his book Early History of the Israelite People was published (Brill 1992); he wrote it in Milwaukee. Keith Whitelam’s The Invention of Ancient Israel was written in Stirling, Scotland, before its author was appointed to a chair in Sheffield (a decision in which I played not the slightest part) in 1999. The truth is that the four scholars have indeed come to talk to each other through geographical proximity and, of course, through their shared notoriety, but not one of them developed his ideas in close contact with the others. (A much better case for a “maximalist” school can in fact be made for the students of W.F. Albright, whose temple stands in Cambridge, MA.: Halpern, Freedman, and Stager provide the cover endorsements for the recent book by Dever [Dever 2001]).

    Indeed, so-called “minimalism” remains no more monolithic than any mainstream movement is, and there exist more differences among those assigned to it than there are between them all and many other scholars. For instance, my own argument that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was created during the Persian period conflicts with Lemche’s view that it is Hellenistic, while Whitelam has not engaged in this question of dating at all but focuses rather on the ideology of representation of “Israel” and “Palestine” in ancient and modern sources. With respect to Rendsburg, only Lemche has written that the Tel Dan stela may be a forgery. I can state that Whitelam and I certainly do not hold this opinion. These last examples illustrate a second fiction about “minimalism”: there is a widespread view that “minimalists” agree in their main opinions -- that what one says, all say, or all think. This is quite ridiculous, though I can see why it is in the interests of some people to claim so.

    A third fiction about “minimalism” is that the scholars targeted are working with an agenda that is isolated and extreme. If “minimalists” regard the representation of Israel in the Hebrew Bible as largely idealized, even fictionalized, and Albrighteans (see above) insist on as much historicity as they can manage, the vast majority of biblical scholars lie in a spectrum between the two. Furthermore, the agenda that I am pursuing (and I would think the same of the work of Thompson and Lemche to a very large degree) continues the main lines of biblical scholarship over the last century and more. Albrighteanism (which is the key to the invention of the myth of “minimalism”) was in fact a neo-conservative reaction against the critical advances of archaeology and literary-critical research that were beginning to distinguish between “history” and the “biblical story.” Albright sought to validate the Bible by means of its historicity. The religious value of the Bible lay in its testimony to divine acts in history. Now that Albrighteanism has been superseded and even somewhat discredited (see Long 1997), the various agendas identified as “minimalism” mark the resumption of a critical agenda briefly interrupted by an overconfident misinterpretation and abuse of archaeology. But these agendas are not identical: Thompson, Lemche, Whitelam, and I are following different paths, some influenced by more recent developments such as New Historicism and ideological criticism, post-processual archaeology, and the sociology of ethnicity.

    Let me reinforce this claim in respect to my own work. The mainstream view of critical biblical scholarship accepts that Genesis-Joshua (perhaps Judges) is substantially devoid of reliable history and that it was in the Persian period that the bulk of Hebrew Bible literature was either composed or achieved its canonical shape. I thus find attempts to push me out onto the margin of scholarship laughable. My views about David and Solomon may differ from those of many, but my arguments are traditional enough and the historicity of, at the most, four biblical books hardly represents a major split from the mainstream. Indeed, my impression from reviewing scholarly literature over the last ten years is that the later dating of much biblical literature is gaining slightly in fashion. And the historicity of David is rightly questioned. (Even the anti-“minimalist” Halpern, in true “minimalist” fashion, finds the historical David quite unlike the biblical one, whether or not he would call the biblical David a “fiction” [Halpern 2001]). And let us not forget that many other scholars are working along similar lines. It is amusing to see Dever (2001) cope with that fact: he associates with “minimalists” a host of scholars to the point where his “conspiracy” threatens to become unmanageable!

The agenda: understanding the Bible

    Since the opponents of “minimalism” do not appear ready to describe their opponents’ argument fairly and since each “minimalist” is doing something different, let me state what drives my own work. It is the question: “how and why did the Jewish scriptures come into existence?” I am not primarily interested, nor practiced, in the archaeological issues. I use the results, like everyone else, with appropriate caution, as one must, but I am (unlike Dever, for example) a very well qualified scholar of the Hebrew Bible, and this is the phenomenon I am trying to understand. The contents of the Hebrew Bible are unique in the ancient world; despite the many ancient Near Eastern and classical parallels, they are largely unparalleled. What motivated the writers to create them? Who were the writers? In answering this question, I must rely on as much as I can know about ancient Israelite and Judean history and society, and here I rely partly on archaeology and partly on anthropological modeling.

    For that reason I am not satisfied merely to conclude (as is that “minimalist” Dever, for instance) that the stories of Genesis to Joshua are unhistorical. I also want understand what the stories mean to communicate and why. To discover “what the biblical writers knew” is both impossible and misguided; the question of one untrained in the interpretation of ancient texts and bound to literality as the only criterion of validity remains. What the writers said and meant, who they were, who were their audience, and why they said what they did: these are questions for biblical critics of a historical bent. My reasons for thinking that most of the biblical writings were composed in the Persian period by urban intellectuals are manifold. Essentially, I ask what motives the writers might have had for compiling, in stages, an epic history that went back to creation, for inventing a twelve-tribe nation that escaped from Egypt and annihilated the “Canaanites,” generated several portraits of an ideal society set in a mythical wilderness scenario, developed an aniconic monotheistic religion and assigned it to antiquity, and so on (for the arguments in more detail, see Davies 2001).

    My conviction that the writings are not to be approached as history is based not on some obscure prejudice and does not imply that there are no historical elements whatsoever: only that the picture as a whole is ideal, not real, that there never was a society (more strictly, societies) such as the Pentateuch or Joshua or Judges depicts. My theory is that the canonized writings represent a monumental project, partly conscious and partly unconscious, of defining the origins and nature of a society re-established in a small province of the Persian empire, a society composed of a group of Aramaic-speaking immigrants and a large number of indigenous, Hebrew-speaking “people of the land.” The process of creating a nation, a religion, a society, took centuries but began essentially after the period of independent statehood had disappeared. (I have spelled out my account of the growth of the biblical canon in Davies 1998). You will not find a critique of this rather detailed argument in any of the writings of Dever or Shanks because it has little to do with archaeology and goes far beyond simple-minded questions of “is the Bible true or not?”


    Although very little has been written explicitly accusing any “minimalist” of anti-Semitism (there are libel laws, after all), the charge is sometimes implied or uttered verbally (the issue is well documented in Thompson nd). How does the state of affairs I have described lead to such accusations? First, I have to say that I have never been personally accused nor, I think, has Lemche. The main target is Whitelam, though, according to the twisted rhetoric of many anti-“minimalists,” this makes “minimalism” itself “anti-Semitic.” Leaving Whitelam’s thesis aside for the moment, I suppose that the incorrect claim that “minimalists” deny there was an ancient Israel (“no real Israel of the biblical period,” Dever 2001) furnishes a kind of basis. But although Dever has to accuse me of “word games” (2001: 45) in order to pretend that what I say I do not say, my In Search of Ancient Israel (Davies 1992) has an entire chapter devoted to the historical Israel. Thompson’s book (Thompson 1992) likewise deals extensively with the states of Judah and Israel as historical entities. Lemche’s detailed analysis of the historical and scholarly evidence for ancient Israel work (Lemche 1998) is the closest that I have read to denying that there was an ancient Israel, though he likewise is speaking of an Israel defined by biblical categories.

    The point at issue is not whether an Israel ever existed, but rather whether the historical ancient Israel was like the portrait in the Bible. But perhaps the distinction is for many not so important. It was, after all, the Biblical Israel that was chosen by God, given a covenant, and promised the land west of the Jordan. Are these things true of the historical people or state that went by the name of Israel? If not…? Well, let us ask “what if not” since the question has to be faced, as Ze’ev Herzog recently did in an article in Ha-Aretz.

    Debate about ancient Israel is also debate about modern Israel, and in the eyes of many people, the legitimacy of the latter depends on the credibility of the biblical portrait. One facet of that debate is the argument in the public domain over the use of the terms “Israel” and “Palestine” to denote the land west of the Jordan, both in ancient and modern times (it can be encountered in the pages of BAR). The use of the term “Palestine” for the entirety of the land seems to some Jews to deny the legitimacy of the State of Israel or of Jewish right to all or any of the land, while the use of “Israel” denotes that the entire area denies legitimacy to any non-Jewish occupants and thus seems to support the ideology of Israeli settlers. Neither “Israel” nor “Palestine” is a fully legitimate term either in antiquity or nowadays since the land has been given different names over the centuries. “Palestine” used to be accepted, even by most Jews, as a neutral term until the creation of the State of Israel, which necessarily created a territory that was in Palestine but not in Israel. So now we have “Palestine” alongside “Israel” as part of the territory west of the Jordan. “Israel and Palestine” is emerging as the common term for the territory.

    By its exclusive interest in a small section of the history of the land, even by calling the land (and the neighboring territory) “biblical,” biblical scholarship inevitably focuses on the Israelite identity of a land that has actually been non-Jewish in terms of its indigenous population for the larger part of its recorded history. This would not happen in any other area of the planet. This state of affairs is due to the Bible and its influence in the West where our inherited Christian culture supports the notion that the territory west of the Jordan is and has always been somehow essentially “the land of Israel.” The danger is thus that biblical scholarship is “Zionist” and that it participates in the elimination of the Palestinian identity, as if over a thousand years of Muslim occupation of this land has meant nothing. Our focus on a short period of history a long time ago participates in a kind of retrospective colonizing of the past. It tends to regard modern Palestinians as trespassers or “resident aliens” in someone else’s territory. I do not mean this as an accusation; it is, I think, just an inevitable outcome of our obsession with the Bible. It becomes wrong only when ignored or denied.

    Still, what is worrying to many Israelis and Jews about the “ancient Israel” debate is that biblical studies, having for so long been a natural advocate of the land always being “the land of Israel,” is now (and I think rightly) bringing the notion under critical scrutiny that Israel was the natural or rightful owner of this piece of land. The Bible is not a text of transcendental authority but a collection of human writings. What is important is not to politicize biblical studies but to de-politicize it, to distance it from any political stance towards the present Middle Eastern crisis and thus permit that crisis to be seen in contemporary terms. Israel is part of the history, as well as the present, of Palestine. I think the Bible should not interfere in this way with modern politics. There is less of a place than ever for the notion of a self-appointed “Chosen People” in our modern pluralistic world, nor is there a place for turning the clock back 2,000 years on any part of the globe. But this does not entail being anti-Jewish or indeed wishing the destruction of the Jewish homeland. The State of Israel was the result of things more tangible and imperative than divine promises and ancient occupations. The Bible, to put it bluntly, is irrelevant—except in the indirect but very serious sense in which it has promoted the persecution of Jews, the main justification in my mind for the establishment of a secure Jewish homeland.

    I really do not think that my scholarship and my wish for equality and justice for all humans are connected except that they come from an individual who is trying in his own way to be honest on both fronts. (And in this I am surely much the same as most other scholars.) The linking of “minimalism” and “anti-Semitism” may seem superficially plausible, but it does not stand up. What is more, there is an irony in such attacks on “minimalists.” Anti-Semitism is a vicious and dangerous cancer. But precisely because cancer is such a frightening and even lethal disease, it is not helpful to diagnose it without good clinical evidence. In stereotyping “minimalism,” in branding groups of individuals with simplistic slogans, misrepresenting their beliefs, implying motives and attitudes without evidence, and in assigning guilt by association, some anti-“minimalists” (I don’t want to fall into the same trap, so let me just mention the name of William Dever and refer the reader especially to p. 256 of his 2001 book, the best self-portrait I have read in a long time) are employing the very tactics of anti-Semites.

    Insofar as I am implicated by such insinuations, I feel rather like a poor, liberal Jew must have felt when accused by a Senate Committee on Un-American Activities of being a “communist.” How do you defend a charge that is not strictly defined and never backed up by evidence? Anyone knowledgeable about the McCarthy era will know that “communist” was a blanket term that covered attacks on Jews and homosexuals as well as anyone with left-leaning political views, including friends of such persons. Dever’s egotistical crusade on behalf of the “Western cultural tradition” (Dever 2001: 294) is not a very good advertisement for its value, and his “Protocols of the Elders of Minimalism” is pure malicious fiction. Let us hope this nasty species of so-called scholarship really is just a “passing fad,” which can one day “safely be ignored.”

Select Bibliography

Davies, Philip R.

1992 In Search of “Ancient Israel” (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic      Press).

1994 “A House Built on Sand” Biblical Archaeology Review 20 (1994): 54-5.

1998 Scribes and Schools (Louisville: Westminster John Knox).

2001 “The Intellectual, the Archaeologist and the Bible,” in J. Andrew Dearman and M. Patrick Graham (eds.), The Land That I Will Show You: Essays on the History and Archaeology of the Ancient Near East in Honor of J. Maxwell Miller (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press): 239-52.

Dever, William G.

2001 What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Halpern, Baruch

2001 David’s Secret Demons (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans).

Lemche, N.P.

“The Old Testament—a Hellenistic Book?” SJOT 7: 163-93.
1998 The Israelites in History and Tradition (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press).

Long, Burke O.

1997 Planting and Reaping Albright: Politics, Ideology, and Interpreting the Bible (Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press).

Rendsburg, G.

nd “Down with History, Up with Reading: The Current State of Biblical Studies.” http://www.arts.mcgill. ca/programs/jewish/30yurs /rendsburg/index.html.

Thompson, Thomas L.

1992 Early History of the Israelite People. From the Written and Archaeological Sources (Leiden: Brill).

Rainey, A.

1994 “The ‘House of David’ and the House of Deconstructionists,” BAR 20: 47.

Whitelam, K.W.

1995 The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (London: Routledge).

2002 “Representing Minimalism” in Alastair G. Hunter and Philip R. Davies (eds.), Sense and Sensitivity. Essays on Reading the Bible in Memory of Robert Carroll (Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press): 194-223.

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