Beyond Minimalism

Essay based on Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel (T & T Clark International, 2009).
And Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel's Past: A Guide (Eerdmans, forthcoming)

By Megan Bishop Moore
Wake Forest University
March 2010

Critical historiography of ancient Israel in the final decades of the last century was dominated by the minimalist-maximalist debate. A decade into the twenty-first century, we have now witnessed the impact of this debate and lived well into the future of our discipline after it—a future that, at least to some, was uncertain given the degree to which minimalism appeared to question the very foundations on which the discipline stood. Critical historiography is alive and well, having taken a form that is in many ways a result of this controversy. Nevertheless, conversations about ancient Israel are now no longer dominated by ideas that can be classified as minimalist or maximalist, or as responses to such ideas. Though we may not be able to write the obituary of the minimalist-maximalist debate at this time, it is worth considering how the discipline reacted to and absorbed the controversies of the last decades and the paths that now appear open to those studying Israel’s past.

To clarify what is under discussion: minimalism, by my definition, is an orientation toward Israel’s history that stems from two major claims. The first is the claim that is most familiar, and most easily stereotyped, namely that the Bible, is, at times, minimally useful for reconstructing the past. Secondly, and often missed in polemic discussions of minimalism, is the claim that ancient Israel and/or the entities with which the Bible concerns itself are of minimal importance to the study of the past in ancient times.1

I repeat, then, that minimalism is an orientation toward the Bible and the past, not a school of thought. Minimalist scholars are not monolithic in their opinions and, in fact, have different opinions on many issues. For instance, one of the points on which minimalists disagree is the extent to which the first claim of minimalism holds. In other words, there is no consensus, even among minimalists, about when and how the biblical text imparts reliable historical information about the past.2 There are several specific ideas that minimalists commonly share. For instance, many believe that the Bible can be a good source of information about ideas about Israel’s past. In other words, minimalists often claim that the Bible’s construction of Israel’s past gives us information about past ideas about Israel, maybe even more so than it gives us information about Israel’s past itself, especially its early past. Another commonly shared idea relates to the second main minimalist claim—that Israel or whatever entity scholars doing Israelite or biblical history study (and that itself is an issue, of course) is minimally important. This initial orientation leads to the claim that ancient Israel’s importance is overblown and to a concern that other cultures, other factors, and all sorts of other information about the ancient world is pushed out of view.3

The impact of minimalism’s orientation to the study of the past can be seen in the discipline today, both in the form the discipline has taken since minimalist ideas began to be articulated, and in some lingering questions that require resolution. The most obvious impact of minimalism is that its first claim, which urged scholars to seriously evaluate and even question the reliability of the biblical sources, has driven the discipline to a hyper-focus on methodology. In recent years, the majority of books published that can be filed under the topic of Israel’s history have been methodological in scope. Examples include Dever’s What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?, Grabbe’s Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It; Matthews’s Studying the Ancient Israelites, Williamson, ed., Understanding the History of Ancient Israel, and Barstad’s History and the Hebrew Bible: Studies in Ancient Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Historiography.4 Without minimalism’s strong challenge to traditional ideas about the biblical evidence—perhaps now we could even call them lazy ways of evaluating the Bible as evidence—we would not have this amount of open discussion of how historians use and evaluate their sources. This type of scholarship is crucial and should continue, and could even expand such that historians openly debate some of the claims of these methodological publications. In any case, the short story of minimalism’s primary impact is that it made almost everyone stop and reconsider how they evaluated and used their evidence, especially the biblical evidence, and that therefore methodological publications have come to dominate the discipline.

Whereas minimalism has had clear repercussions for the way scholars examine their sources, and has caused several to spell out at length, and justify, their choices in these matters, the implications of the second claim of minimalism—that ancient Israel is minimally important to the study of the past—have not been addressed nearly as well. Little of the volume, clarity, or honesty of opinion that has been put into the discussion of methodology and evidence evaluation for ancient Israel can be found in the discussion of this claim. Such discussions are crucial since the argument that ancient Israel and by extension biblical and theological questions has overshadowed the real story or the correct story of the past has larger implications and begs the important questions of what the proper object of study is—if not ancient Israel, then what—and why this study is done—if not for clarifying the Bible, then why?

It would be wonderful if every history claiming to cover ancient Israel clearly defined ancient Israel was so that readers would know whether, for instance, the historian writing it believes ancient Israel was a real and continuous entity or whether the historian accepts it as a heuristic concept that unifies a conglomerate of peoples and times. Furthermore, there are surely a myriad of justifications for studying the history of Israel, and it would be nice to see some of these spelled out for students and fellow scholars. One justification that commonly arises in conversations among those who teach the history of ancient Israel is that history can distance the interpreter from the text, thus highlighting its otherness and upsetting facile appropriations that are based on the assumption of the text’s familiarity. Similarly, undergraduates and seminarians often take away from discussions of history the idea that there are good reasons to believe that the Bible is wrong sometimes. History can be, as a graduate student once said about his experience, “the door to the journey out of fundamentalism.” These didactic purposes, however, only scratch the surface of the reasons the history of ancient Israel gets studied and taught and thus that histories of Israel continue to be needed. Of course, the discipline has not entirely ignored these questions; more than a decade ago, these topics were considered both in print and at conference meetings.5 However, scholars’ presuppositions and intentions in these matters have not been openly expressed lately, and in comparison to the extreme attention paid to methodology and evidence evaluation and use in the past few years, discussion of these matters are almost non-existent. Surely most scholars interested in ancient Israel are interested in the Bible, many with hermeneutic or theological interests that are, presumably, informed by the study of the past, but so far they have been mostly silent, with the notable exceptions of Provan, Long, and Longman.6 Interestingly, it appears that a minimalist scholar, Lemche, has begun to push the discussion into this area by examining the consequences of historical study for biblical theology.7

In short, in the decade or two since the minimalist-maximalist controversy raged, history has focused on methodological questions and discussions of evidence evaluation and use, but has mostly left alone questions of Israel’s importance to the past, the place of the history of Israel within its broader geographical and chronological framework, and the overall significance of the discipline of Israel’s history. Now, as a re-formed discipline, it also awaits the resumption of the writing of comprehensive histories. The tide of discrete information about the past did not slow down during the contentious years, thanks especially to archaeologists, but efforts to interpret it comprehensively did. When such activity resumes, however, it is doubtful that the traditional format of histories of Israel—tracking the biblical story through history—will be the most effective way to present research and conclusions. There is simply too much information about the land and people related to ancient Israel and its environs for a study of the Bible’s Israel to do justice to the knowledge available. Put another way, the few histories of Israel published in the early 2000s give only a tiny fraction of information we have about the past.8 Notable omissions in these histories include data from archaeology that relate to regional cultural patterns and archaeological data and sociological theories about how society functioned on its many levels, including those beyond the religious and political elite.

The need for new histories of ancient Israel shows that the questions raised by minimalists are not yet passé. How historians collect, interpret, and present the information and evidence will depend heavily on their opinions about the Bible as evidence and especially the place of ancient Israel in the story of the past. If history’s goal is to present data and interpretations of it that relate in some way to the biblical story, a history of Israel that tracks the biblical story and focuses on important events in it is to be expected. If the purpose of Israel’s history is broader than illumination of the historical circumstances of the grand narrative of the Bible, and history extends to illuminating such things as how an ancient culture survived in its environments, both natural and political, how it constructed itself, how it evolved, how it viewed itself, and how it conceived of the supernatural world, the shape of comprehensive accounts of this culture will be very different.

Given the vast amount of information we have about the past, the time for a new purpose for the discipline and a new kind of history appears to be ripe. This new type of history will incorporate more findings of archaeology, more knowledge about society, and tell a more rounded and complete story in which the biblical story and concerns are not the governing factor. In doing so, it will address local and regional concerns using the wide range of historical, archaeological, and historical information to describe settlement patterns, society, religions, as well as government, from the Iron Age through the Persian period.9 This type of history will not necessarily be removed from the goal of illuminating the Bible but will represent a shift in focus about what parts of biblical interpretation can be aided by knowledge of historical context.10 Hints of this new type of history of Israel have already appeared. Mario Liverani’s Israel’s History and the History of Israel introduced a new format for history, in which the first topic is history from a regional standpoint over a long period of time, and then, secondarily, addresses the story the Bible tells. By bifurcating history and biblical history and making the Bible’s place in the past a sub-topic of the book, placed at its end (rather than integrated into every chapter), Liverani offers what may turn out to be a transitional work.

The critical study of ancient Israel has managed to move itself beyond the minimalist-maximalist debate, taking with it some lessons, including that methodology and evidence evaluation and use are topics worthy of extended reflection, and leaving some loose ends to be tied up, from discussion of the importance of the study of ancient Israel and its scope to the writing of comprehensive histories. Rather than sound the death knell of the discipline, then, as some feared, minimalism opened up new avenues of research for historians, many of which have immense possibility for the future.


1 See further Megan Bishop Moore, Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel (LHBOTS 435; New York: T&T Clark, 2006), 75-107.

2 Moore, Philosophy and Practice, 90-92.

3 See discussion in Norman K. Gottwald, “Triumphalist Versus Anti-Triumphalist Versions of Early Israel: A Response to Articles by Lemche and Dever in Volume 4 (1996),” CurBS 5 (1997): 15-42.

4 William G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know, and When Did They Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001); Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It? (London: T&T Clark, 2007); Victor H. Matthews, Studying the Ancient Israelites: A Guide to Sources and Methods (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). H. G. M. Williamson, ed., Understanding the History of Ancient Israel (Proceedings of the British Academy 143; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007); Hans Barstad, History and the Hebrew Bible: Studies in Ancient Israelite and Ancient Near Eastern Historiography (FAT 61; Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).

5 Notably in 1996 at the joint SBL/ASOR conference in New Orleans, where these matters were debated as part of the discussions that led to the split meetings of these two organizations. See also Sandra Scham, “The Days of the Judges: When Men and Women Were Animals and Trees Were Kings,” JSOT 97 (2002): 37-64 for additional discussion.

6 Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003).

7 Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History: A Critical Survey (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), especially part IV.

8 Including J. Maxwell and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2006) and Provan, Long, and Longman, A Biblical History of Israel.

9 See Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle, Biblical History and Israel’s Past: A Guide to the Changing Study of the Bible and History (Grand Rapids, Mi.: Eerdmans, forthcoming).

10 For example, feminist scholars have shown for many years that knowledge of women’s lives and family matters in ancient Israel, though largely unreported in traditional histories, contributes important dimensions to, and opens up new avenues of, biblical interpretation.

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