More Comments on the Davies-Dever Exchange

Dever has issued a clear challenge to Davies to put forward "any ‘Persian’ features" to support his contention of a Persian era creation of the Bible, and I am not aware that Davies has answered. 

By Charles David Isbell
Director of Jewish Studies
Louisiana State University
April 2003

    It is unlikely that any way can be found to resolve the differences between Professors Davies and Dever.1 The shrill tone noted by Professor Gottwald is to be regretted, of course,2 and one bizarre illustration shows how out of hand this has become. Davies blasts as breaking "all scholarly rules"3 certain words and phrases used by Rainey, Rendsburg, and Dever to characterize his work, but then he quotes their very words to describe Dever only a few paragraphs later. Why, we may ask, if these terms are opprobrious in describing his position, do they become acceptable for his use to characterize Dever? It may be impossible for forty-first [sic!] century archaeologists to determine clearly who fired the first shot, but Davies surely gives as good as he gets, and we may wonder whether he truly expected his denigration of the credentials and basic competence of Dever to evoke a gracious response. What I find most disturbing are the broad hints by each side that the other side reaches its conclusions somehow less than honorably. Setting aside all the schoolyard taunts about incompetence and secret agendas, it is obvious that both men cannot be correct, and I want to raise several points that need clarification from one or both sides.

    First, labels. I am not sure how Davies wishes his position to be described. While he laments the term "minimalism," which he believes inaccurate and artificial, it is puzzling that he would describe his work and that of the others whom he names [Lemche, Thompson,4 Whitelam], as "mainstream," while admitting that "the vast majority of biblical scholars lie in a spectrum between" his opponents and him. Since this issue began to be debated several years ago, I have assumed the term "minimalism" implied the idea that there is only a minimal amount of biblical narrative that can be trusted in the doing of history, and I have perceived it as neither positive nor negative. If a scholar can demonstrate the historical unreliability of a specific text, we are all the better for it.5 Unless my view of the word is totally off mark, "minimalism" seems about as accurate a term as any other for the conclusions that have been reached by Davies, Lemche, and Thompson. And the term has one distinct advantage: its use calls to mind precisely the scholars whom Davies denies have ever worked in close contact in developing their views, but whose conclusions share certain similarities. That is, when I see the term "minimalists," I think of Davies, Thompson, and Lemche [I will comment on Whitelam below]. Again, that there are differences of emphasis among the three is readily apparent, but it is no less apparent that all three wish to "‘minimalize’ the historical reliability of the Bible." Disliking "minimalism," admitting through the back door that he is not "mainstream," perhaps Davies can suggest the term he prefers.

    Now if minimalists can complain fairly at being described with a single label, surely Dever and others may complain about being described with too many different labels to count. I note Albrighteans, religious believers, Zionists, biblical [in this phrase, to be pronounced with a grimace] archaeologists, and neo-conservatives, inter alia. It is clear that such labels are intended in a pejorative sense, and in the case of Davies and Dever, the former seems intent, by his use of all such terms, on attacking a position that the latter has never defended.

    Second, scope. To be fair, one problem for Davies is that he has staked out a more definitive position than has Dever [he wishes to place the creation of the biblical narrative in the Persian period], and it is easier to attack a specific than a general. Reading the books of Davies, it is clear that he allows for the Persian period compilers to have access to earlier materials. But he does not tell us what these materials were, where they originated and when, or distinguish between any of these earlier building blocks and the later final forms that became "the Bible" in the Persian period. Thus, he is happy to endorse the idea that "the historicity of David is rightly questioned" but reluctant to tell us which David he means. Is it the simple country shepherd who kills Goliath whom Davies doubts? Then he should credit the Bible itself with telling us that it was really Elhanan who was the giant killer (2 Sam 21.19). Is it the musical prodigy? Is it the opportunistic guerilla warrior who attracted a mixed bag of virtually lawless rebels as his followers (1 Sam 22.1-2) and acted almost like a traitor through his flirtation with the Philistines? Is it the military leader of some success? Is it the adulterous and murderous older king who thought himself above the law, or the sanitized David of the Chronicler?

    Surely not everything about David in the Bible is historically unreliable, and the historian must accept the difficult task of dredging through all the biblical material about the man, assessing each passage carefully and critically. It is not enough merely to make a sweeping statement about a complex character represented in more than one stratum of biblical narrative in ways that are difficult to reconcile with each other. It is just such a generalization about the biblical record, a conclusion that acts as if the entire Bible lies on a flat surface with each verse equally important, which may cause a scholar like Rainey to describe Davies as a "mirror-image" of fundamentalists. After all, it is the fundamentalists who are the only other group doing biblical analysis with such a flat surface view of the entire text. The rightwing fundamentalist accepts in its totality the historical accuracy of the biblical text and ignores the idea of such things as sources, etc. When a left winger rejects such accuracy in its totality, again without consideration of the various literary strata, or even oral sources, on which the "biblical" text has drawn, what is the difference methodologically? Neither group has wrestled with the nuances of biblical literature, or the complicated paths along which core stories might have traveled en route to their final resting place in the Bible.

    By contrast, Dever has been more cautious, not assigning a specific date to "the Bible," so much as attempting to suggest from his reading of the physical evidence a context in which specific biblical narratives might make sense. To his credit, Dever has been quite specific about the evidence on which he bases his arguments, and I know of no indication in his writings that he has ever been guilty of the "Bible=history" agenda Davies dislikes.6 But Dever has issued a clear challenge to Davies to put forward "any ‘Persian’ features" to support his contention of a Persian era creation of the Bible, and I am not aware that Davies has answered. Until he does answer, Dever surely has every right to argue that his failure to produce such evidence amounts to an admission that he does not possess it. So while Dever is concerned with a Davies theory that lacks formal evidentiary proof from the area of his [Dever’s] expertise, archaeology, Davies has ruled out Dever’s arguments with the dismissive statement that he [Davies] is, "(unlike Dever, for example), a very well- qualified scholar of the Hebrew Bible." But this does not specify what Davies dislikes about Dever’s conclusions. If he disagrees with the assessment of Dever about a specific biblical passage or a particular set of material objects, I for one would like to see his disagreement spelled out.

    Third, anti-Semitism. Readers of the scholars’ discussion list ANE may remember that I vigorously defended Thompson against this charge made by another well-known figure [not Dever!] in our field. And Davies is absolutely on target to decry the use of such a horrible designation to describe a scholar with whom one disagrees about biblical interpretation. I am forced to say, however, that Whitelam appears to me a special case. And while I have no inclination to smear someone who is not involved in this debate and who may never see, and thus have the opportunity to defend against, my words, I believe interested readers owe it to themselves to read him carefully, especially his 1996 work, The Invention of Ancient Israel, which is subtitled "The Silencing of Palestinian History."

    But with respect to Davies [and Thompson and Lemche, with both of whom I have had cordial cyber relations for several years], the term anti-Semite should be placed out of bounds. And I also agree fully with Davies that the modern situation in Israel needs to be separated from biblical studies. While Davies misses the point of "choseness," which is not a "self-appointed" term of privilege but an honest attempt to take seriously a sense of moral responsibility, he is fair to denounce the attempt by right-wing ideologically extreme settlers to use settlements as a political wedge to deny a Palestinian state. But Davies could be sharper in his understanding of why modern Israelis have a problem with the term Palestinian. "Palestine" did not suddenly become a problematic term among Jews with the creation of the State of Israel, as he states, but because of the refusal of the Arab world to accept the 1947 UN mandate, including the map drawn for "Palestine" alongside "Israel."

    The current "moderate" Palestinian position appears to be that there should be not two states, but one "Palestine" in which they pledge to guarantee full rights to all religions and peoples. Since such a solution assumes the non-existence of a State of Israel, it is surely not difficult to see why a pledge of egalitarianism sounds hollow coming from a group that has dedicated the past half century to the destruction of Israel no matter how configured or constituted. And I have asked, in public debate with Arab Muslim leaders in our university community, on which current Arab-Muslim state they would model this open and democratic "Palestine": so far without benefit of an answer!

    My final issue relates to the agenda Davies envisions for the creation of the Bible during the Persian period, an issue that he describes as "understanding the Bible." This is the area where Davies considers himself "very well qualified," and here he has been clear about his goals: "how and why did the Jewish scriptures come into existence?" Or again, "What motivated the writers to create them?" Now, although they cannot and should not be avoided in the final analysis, I would like to set aside for the moment the issues of pre-exilic data unlikely to have been invented in Persian times, as well as the archaeological evidence Dever claims Davies ignores. Perhaps an effort to determine whether Davies has accomplished his own stated goal will help to move the discussion away from the dead end to which the argument between Dever and Davies has led. Instead, I would like to ask whether a fair reading of the Hebrew Bible itself would accomplish what Davies envisions. And I think the answer is resoundingly NO.

    If Davies is correct that the Hebrew Bible was a Persian era creation designed to legitimate Judahite claims that were otherwise without foundation, this must mean that the Bible was written for an external audience. No amount of Bible reading by the Judahites would have influenced the Persian government. So let us imagine the fifth-century committee assigned to write the Bible. And let us further imagine that their purpose was to produce a document that would lobby Persian authorities successfully, causing them to grant the producers of that document political control over one small part of their empire centered in Jerusalem. In such a case, I can scarcely imagine a document less well suited to such a purpose than the Bible. Had I been there to argue the case, I surely would not have begun by admitting that my ancestors originated somewhere else, wandered into Canaan for a short while, strayed down into Egypt briefly and then back, went once more into Egypt for 400 years, meandered rather aimlessly in a desert for 40 years, and then finally returned to the general area in question, although we did not even attain Jerusalem for yet another 250 years or so!

    I would not have admitted that my group included Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Kenites, Ethiopians, Moabites, some Canaanites, and a woman of ill repute or two. And I surely would not have portrayed my ancestors as the biblical text does Abraham [lying about his wife], Isaac [so old and feeble that he was easily tricked], Jacob [making himself unwelcome in two countries by his flimflammery], Moses [Egyptian name and education, speech impediment and quick temper combined!], etc. Above all, I would never have included the Levitical laws about a system of sacrifices that could be made ONLY in a temple that had never existed, but which nonetheless, my own family had so poorly performed that God kicked us out. Nor would I have wanted Persian authorities to read the vast array of social legislation in the Bible, accompanied by the prophetic evaluation of our utter failure to put it into effect.

    I would simply have said that my great grandfather was born there, by God, and my family had always lived there, until the Babylonians, whom Cyrus didn’t like either, kicked us out without cause. I would have offered a seamless narrative with no possibility of misunderstanding how many animals Noah took into the ark and no question about exactly when we started using the proper name of God, YHWH. I would have been very careful about denouncing every other deity in the world as illegitimate except my own because I don’t think the Persian authorities would have taken kindly to such narrow mindedness. And I most definitely would not have diminished the accomplishments of Cyrus the Great by claiming that he was merely a pawn in the hands of the deity of a defeated group hovering in one small subdivision outside Babylon. In short, I would not have written the Bible to do what Davies claims the Bible was designed to accomplish.

    So I would like to ask Davies to use his qualifications as a biblical scholar to explain which biblical statements even hint that the biblical document was prepared for Persian eyes? And then perhaps Dever the archaeologist could tell us whether there is any evidence that anyone in the Persian government ever read the Bible in whole or in part. In other words, if the Bible were prepared for the Persian authorities, who presented it to them and when, how much and which parts of it did they read, and what about it made them decide to grant "Judah" to the authors? And what Persian source ever records that the Bible was read as background for the assignment of political control in Jerusalem to a specific group of people who did not otherwise deserve the grant?

    Now Davies is entitled to ask why I think the Bible might have been written, if not for the eyes of the Persian government. Well, I am not a fundamentalist, and I don’t think God wrote the text, and I don’t have an agenda for modern Israel in mind when I say that quite a legitimate purpose has been served by the Bible viewed as an internal document of faith for a specific community of people. When other nations were conquered by the Assyrians or the Babylonians, their response included acceptance of the fact that the deity of the conqueror was more powerful than their own, and that same conclusion should have made a great deal of sense among Judahites. YHWH had a great run, remained undefeated for some six centuries or so, but finally lost the last war to Marduk. So, since they had argued for years that they served YHWH because He defeated the gods of Egypt, sustained in the desert, and overpowered the gods of Canaan to help them conquer the land, they should now argue on the same grounds that a greater deity had replaced YHWH, the proof being in the "historical" fact of His defeat and theirs.

    But the Judahites did not so respond. Instead, they sought for ways to document their past, including a re-copying into the new Aramaic script of certain works but not others.7 And if I may be so bold as to quote myself, "the question in Babylonia thus became whether Israel could believe that YHWH had willed the defeat of His own people, had actually created the Exile for His own sovereign purposes. For only if Israel could learn to believe that YHWH had stood ‘history’ on its ear would it make sense to hope that YHWH alone possessed the power and authority to make history right once again by ending the ignominy that He Himself had imposed."8 In other words, could Judahites in Babylonia rethink the messages of their own torah and prophets and find them to be true in exile after having utterly failed to see their truth while living free in their own country? Further, if they could accept the condemning words of the prophets, then perhaps the prophetic words of hope and restoration could also make sense and could become the basis for new hope.

    The entire biblical program may thus be understood as preparation for people to take a second shot at creating in actuality what had been true only in theory before: a nation of law, morality, and justice. And the target for that second shot needed to be an idealized picture of what Israel and Judah should have been the first time around, for people do not dream of a partially just society or halfway measures of success. The decree of Cyrus must have given great impetus to this line of reasoning, and so a document that has space for inserting him into the narrative is quite appropriate. This view of why the Bible was written can certainly stand a great deal of expansion and explanation. But enough has been said to illustrate the feasibility of the general view that the Bible was not designed as a political document to be broadcast externally but is clearly a religious document designed to inculcate faith internally within a small community. Still, to assert that the Bible presents an idealized picture of the past as part of the prophetic call to make the ideal into the actual is far different from the assumption that the Bible, targeted to outsiders, attempts to foist off a fictionalized fantasy designed to achieve a political goal.

    Let me close by stating that I view Dever far more positively as a scholar than does Davies, and I hope Davies will clarify his reasons for denying to him the ability to read and understand the Hebrew Scriptures. As readers will have noted, I am less than convinced by the arguments of Davies, but I have no reason to suspect him of perfidy of any kind, much less to label him as an anti-Jew or anti-Semite. If Professor Davies can offer a reasonable argument about when the Persians read the Bible created by its authors to convince them of their land claims, or if he can demonstrate within the biblical text any evidence that its creators worked with a Persian readership in mind, perhaps I and others will need to re-evaluate the success of his ventures. But to date, I am forced to conclude that Davies has failed to make the case that he sets for himself.


[1] Because I do not know either man personally, I am hesitant to use first names, and I use their titles to show my respect for them both. Hereafter, I shall use merely the last name of each for brevity.

[2] I have reviewed Professor Gottwald’s book, The Politics of Ancient Israel (Louisville: John Knox, 2001) for the Journal of Religion and (Aug. 31, 2001).

[3] Quotation marks for the words of Davies refer to his statement on "Minimalism, ‘Ancient Israel,’ and Anti-Semitism" published as part of the debate on this web site.

[4] I have written a detailed critical review of Thompson’s book, The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel for The Jewish Studies Book Review, October 25, 1999, Reprinted in my God’s Scribes: How the Bible Became the Bible (Warren Center, PA: Shangri-La Publications, 1999), 241-260.

[5] But I think the gumbo loses its flavor when the entire "Jewish Bible" is painted with such a broad brush.

[6] As a teacher of Bible at the flagship state university in Louisiana, the buckle of the Bible belt, I can assure one and all of my ability to spot a flat-world fundamentalist at forty paces. Dever ain’t one.

[7] Works left out, but known to the biblical authors, include: "The Book of the Deeds of Solomon" (1 Kgs 11:41); "The Book of Yashar" (Josh 10:13 and 2 Sam 1:18); "The Book of the History of Mankind" (Gen 5:1); "The Book of the Wars of YHWH" (Num 21:14); and the oft-cited "Book of the Chronicles ("Annals"?) of the Kings of Israel [and Judah]" (1 Kgs 15:31; 16:5, 20, 27, etc.).

[8] I have treated this issue more fully in the "Introduction" of my book, The Function of Exodus Motifs in Biblical Narrative: Theological Didactic Drama (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 2002). This quotation is from page 9.

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