Beyond Labels: What Comes Next?

The invention of the label “minimalism” (and some other nastier labels) and the most vitriolic reactions to it came mostly not from conservative evangelicals but from archaeologists. For it seems that rather than a “minimalist-maximalist” debate we now had a confrontation between two “archaeologies,” one following the theory and practice of the discipline as generally acknowledged elsewhere, the other continuing the established agenda practice of biblical archaeology—defending the Bible.

By Philip Davies
University of Sheffield, England
April 2010

Megan Bishop Moore’s essay on the “minimalist-maximalist” debate revealed what lies beyond these facile labels in suggesting that biblical historicity, on which the debate has turned, is a less important issue than the role of the biblical stories in modern discourse about the past. But this wider issue always played an unconscious or semi-conscious role in the debate over historicity. For how else can we explain the extraordinary over-reaction to suggestions that the past narrated in the Hebrew Bible is largely fictional?

For “historicity” really is a non-issue. It has been accepted for decades that the Bible is not in principle either historically reliable or unreliable, but both: it contains both memories of real events and also fictions. But because most of the Bible’s contents are beyond reasonable verification or falsification, the assessment of probability in individual cases is, if not futile, then at least only calculable in a very general measure. In other words, historians of ancient Israel and Judah—who hate to see black holes in the past—have to bear in mind the relative quantity of material in the Bible that reflects historical reality (as we can determine it) and adopt the appropriate degree of a priori doubt or confidence regarding biblical historicity in general and thus probability in individual cases. Such calculations have changed dramatically in recent years, since the majority of biblical historians now accept that the story of Israel’s origins in Genesis–Joshua is not history (and that includes even the twelve-tribe “nation” called “Israel,” as distinct from the kingdom of that name).

This situation—if partially anticipated by earlier critical studies on the patriarchal and conquest “traditions”—arose directly from the work of Israeli archaeologists from 1968 onwards which identified the prehistory of Judah and Israel in Iron age hill-farming populations, contradicting the biblical stories. The so-called “minimalists” did not invent the data or the conclusions, but rather took the obvious step of asking what the implied fictionality of these stories meant for understanding how, why, and when they were created. But the invention of the label “minimalism” (and some other nastier labels) and the most vitriolic reactions to it came mostly not from conservative evangelicals but from archaeologists. For it seems that rather than a “minimalist-maximalist” debate we now had a confrontation between two “archaeologies,” one following the theory and practice of the discipline as generally acknowledged elsewhere, the other continuing the established agenda practice of biblical archaeology—defending the Bible. Some practitioners were apparently confused enough to do both—decry “minimalism,” accept a high degree of biblical non-historicity and yet still “defend the Bible.” Both Dever and Cline, for example, still entertain their audiences by “illuminating” the Bible with a (decreasing) bill of “correspondences” with “history.”1 But this theme is pointless and irrelevant: there is nothing in principle to be proved or disproved, and there never was, once fundamentalism lost control of biblical history (fifty years later in America than in Europe). Only a few archaeologists have realized that the contribution of archaeology to understanding biblical narrative is to illuminate the time in which they were written, whenever that was (notably Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman). And while Finkelstein denies being a “minimalist,” he follows exactly their agenda of looking for the historically realistic contexts of what are accepted as fictions. The context itself, whether Josianic or Persian, makes no difference to the principle. Apart from the well-funded (and fundamentalist) “biblical archaeologists,” we are in fact nearly all “minimalists” now. There remain vigorous debates about the historicity of David and Solomon, but opinions range over a spectrum and there is little or no disagreement about how to go about answering the question. The real distinction is between those who are willing to accept the label and those who aren’t. So why not abolish both the label and the distinction—and the ridiculous posturing that goes with it—and get on with the common task of making sense of the archaeological and biblical data?

Moore’s essay highlights why we cannot yet do this. It is because historicity is not the real issue, but only a smokescreen. Underneath its cover lies a relationship to the Bible that, while it often has a clear religious component, is also more broadly cultural. It was personified in Albright’s sincere belief in not just the factuality but also the moral superiority of the Bible and this in turn is embedded in that affection for Israel, both ancient and modern, that characterizes so much of American culture. Biblical history and biblical ethics are also, according to the enemies of “minimalism,” American, and any attack on either of these is an attack on the USA.

Exaggeration? Well, read this:

“If its professional custodians no longer take the Bible seriously, at least as the foundation of our Western cultural tradition, much less a basis for private and public morality, where does that leave us? If we simply jettison the Bible as so much excess baggage in the brave new postmodern world, what shall we put in its place?”2

Never mind the hyperbole. Here speaks someone (a self-confessed agnostic, by the way) whose universe is predicated on biblical values (read “the American way of life”). Of all the “minimalists,” it was Keith Whitelam who suffered the most vicious attacks (including accusations of anti-Semitism) because he undermined and attacked a foundation of the biblical culture: he suggested that our modern discourse about ancient Palestine, in effect our modern cultural memory of its past—was skewed, and that this impinged on attitudes towards modern Palestine. What he actually argued was entirely reasonable, that the history of Palestine was not competently addressed by scholars specializing in the canonized memories (inevitably partisan) of ancient Judeans (these are my words, not his). But of course Palestine’s past is dominated by Israel in Western discourse, and of course it focuses on only a small part of Palestine and only a small part of its history. That fact may have a very good reason, but little intelligent reflection is needed to see that rewriting this ancient memory as a modern critical history or, worse, as a perception of the modern identity of Palestine, has political as well as methodological dangers. I note, for example, the increasing use of the term “Land of Israel” in scholarly books and articles to refer to Palestine. I know this translates the modern Hebrew erets israel, but the term is not an accurate historical description of anything. There never was a real “Land of Israel,” only an imaginary one, drawn from a few biblical chapters of the Bible and then redefined by the rabbis as a place, essentially, of memory. To refer to the “land of Israel” in this way is just one of the many respects in which biblical scholarship is drawn into contemporary politics.

But something else needs to be clear. To acknowledge as imaginary the “Land of Israel” and many of the stories set in it does not mean that the Bible is “jettisoned … as so much excess baggage.” Nor is it (an absurd slander) “anti-Semitic.” Not even anti-American! In the concluding section of a recent volume on archaeology and history,3 Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar agree on precisely this: the biblical stories and their identity-forming power are more important to modern Israel’s identity than any reconstructed history.

The power of such stories can be both good and bad. Stories are essential to our own identity-formation, personal, corporate, social. They define us, distinguish us and motivate us: they can shape the contours of our future. What is Judaism without its stories of the past—or Christianity? But these stories, however essential to our own cultural identity (“our Western cultural tradition”) should not be mistaken for fact. Biblical historians are not the “professional custodians” of the Bible, but professional custodians of the past—and it is our responsibility to reconstruct the past in ways that conform to our knowledge. This responsibility does not conflict with an appreciation of the biblical stories. In fact, it makes for a better appreciation of what they really mean. The task of the twenty-first century is to find ways of believing in stories about the past without believing they are true. Only in that way will multi-cultural, multi-identity and so multi-storied societies live harmoniously with each other. It’s actually not such a difficult accomplishment: it’s what many non-religious believers (and indeed many religious believers as well) already do when they recollect the stories of Pesah and Christmas. William Dever also wrote, “There can be none of what I have called ‘nostalgia for a biblical past that never existed’”4—a statement that goes well beyond what I personally feel. I have an enormous amount of nostalgia for the biblical stories. I can happily enter their world and yet I would like some of them to have been true, I do not believe they are history and I would not insist that anyone else should.

But Moore is right: if the ignorance and unsophistication of the enemies of “minimalism” are anything to go by, even this simple truth is going to be contested.


1 Eric H. Cline, Biblical Archaeology: A Very Short Introduction, Oxford University Press, 2009. Incidentally, his claim that the Tel Dan inscription proves David to have existed (p. 60) goes beyond what even most Israeli archaeologists suggest and likewise his assumption that the “united monarchy” is a historical fact. He still seems not really interested in the Bible except as a record of historical facts.

2 William G. Dever,What Did The Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001, p. 3

3 Israel Finkelstein and Amihai Mazar, edited by Brian B. Schmidt, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel, Society of Biblical Literature Archaeology and Biblical Studies, 17, Atlanta: Scholars Press, 2007, esp. pp. 189-95.

4 Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, p. 62.

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