A view from Copenhagen: Israel and the History of Palestine

Author maintains that the assaults on the integrity of his scholarship has been without evidence or critical judgment.

By Thomas L. Thompson
Professor of Old Testament
University of Copenhagen

The Bible in History: How Writers Create A Past, entered what had already been a quarter-century long debate, one which William Dalrymple could accurately describe as an "enjoyably ill-tempered exchange between fiercely hostile academic enemies." Archaeology and theology have never been among the academy's kindest fields of study. Nevertheless, the extraordinary criticism that my new book and the works of scholars who have expressed a similar perspective, have received, has been so ferocious that I fear discussions on the history of Israel, have moved well beyond the "intemperate" debates that Dalrymple had anticipated. Slander and libel have displaced the academic interests of history and theology with a purpose that is far from innocent and unreflective.

This unhappy conclusion was forced on me as I read a review of my book published on December 24th, 1999 in The Jerusalem Post by Magen Broshi, the former director of the Israel Department of Antiquities. As I had expected, the review was negative. However, the very last statement of the review caught my attention: "Is it possible he does not believe in anything? Apparently there is a certain book that he does take seriously. A mutual acquaintance told me that Thompson confided in him that he is a staunch believer in The Protocols of the Elders of Zion." This open and unabashed accusation still takes my breath away. I do realize that it follows well-established rules of propaganda: The more outrageous the lie the better and, if repeated often enough, it becomes fact. The irony of such a writer creating a past is not lost on me.

Rumor and gossip, such as expressed in Gary Rendsburg's essay on McGill University's home page, had long since prepared the ground for The Jerusalem Post's Christmas message. Repetition now attempts to make it fact. I mention only a few of the most egregious that I myself have experienced, but there have been many, many more. At a conference in October, 1999 at Northwestern University, in which I participated, William Dever did not accuse me directly of anti-Semitism, but softened this judgement of my work with such adjectives as 'anti-Israel', 'anti-Bible' and 'nihilistic'. Dever charged that I and my colleagues "are no longer honest scholars." In early November, 1999, the internet's Miqra engaged in airing an accusation by Hershel Shanks, the editor of the magazine The Biblical Archaeology Review, of anti-Semitism against Ze'ev Herzog, Niels Peter Lemche and myself. At the same time, the newspaper Ha-Aretz, published Shank's attack on Ze'ev Herzog and like-minded scholars as "anti-Zionist," "anti-Bible" and "anti-Israel." "At the extreme, they can even be viewed as anti-Semitic." Over the past year, this form of criticism has proven very effective, as a recent cover story by Netty Gross in The Jerusalem Report on an Israeli-Palestinian archaeological conference indicates. Here, Israel Finkelstein and David Ussishkin, are accused of encouraging the arguments of the Palestinian Authority's director of antiquities, Moain Sadek, who, in his turn, is not only accused of using archaeology for political purposes, but, borrowing a biblical trope, is accused of "treading a path that the "Copenhagen school" walked in the early 1990s." These Copenhagen "claims, she asserts, have no scholarly basis," as they have been met by what she calls "mainstream scholarship" with "counter-accusations of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and even intellectual dishonesty on the scale of holocaust denial". One recent example of such hysteria appears in the Biblical Archaeological Review, in which Frank Cross is quoted as broaching an issue that "is not talked about too much: they [the "minimalists"] are kept alive by anti-Semitism. It bothers me." Whether Cross meant to join Broshi in suggesting that I and my colleagues live by anti-Semitism or whether he meant that anti-Semitic interests support our work, Hershel Shanks, by quoting this venerable scholar, has succeeded once again in associating us with anti-Semitism. These examples seem to be fairly representative of remarks that have been made in a number of public forums dealing with history and archaeology in recent years, such as the forum on the Bible and archaeology held in May and June in Los Angeles. At one meeting, William Dever summarized what he described as 7 "tenets" of the Copenhagen school. Among these are three whose wording seems hardly to be explained by either mistake or misreading: that there was no pre-history of ancient Israel, no early Israelite states or capitals, including Jerusalem and that there was no Judaism as a religion before about 135 CE.

Who are we, who have been described on at least one occasion as "a danger to western civilization" and simultaneously as so wrong-headed that we "can be safely ignored"? In biblical archaeological circles, we are often described as a kind of "gang of four": Thompson, Lemche, Davies and Whitelam. However, this simplification is most misleading. As I suggest above, what Khaled Nashef of the Journal of Palestinian Archaeology calls "The Debate" began more than a quarter century ago. This debate has been frequently associated with the work of Bernd Diebner, John Van Seters, Gösta Ahlström and Henk Franken. Among the central core of contributors to such new perspectives on the history of this region, are not only archaeologists such as Ussishkin, Herzog and Finkelstein from Tel Aviv, but also Giovanni Garbini, Mario Liverani and Carlo Zaccagnini from the University of Rome. Among these scholars, the reader will find substantial common ground within a very large spectrum of issues and method. However, given the broad spectrum of perspectives represented by these scholars, one would be ill advised to confuse the arguments of any one with another. They have been active participants in a debate.

If one considers a wider range of scholarship, certainly the work of Pietro Fronzaroli and Axel Knauf in historical linguistics must also be mentioned, as must that of Robert Carroll and David Gunn in literary readings. Rainer Albertz, Etienne Nodet, Graham Auld and Herbert Niehr have all added immeasurably to our understanding of the history of religion and tradition-history, but the disagreement among all of the above mentioned are as equally as engaging as their agreement. What is happening in Copenhagen, Sheffield, Tel Aviv and Rome is hardly an isolated wing of malcontents. It reflects a wide ranging international discourse. The discussion has been engaged not only in opposition to the synthetic interpretations of biblical archaeological trends represented by William Albright, Benjamin Mazar, Kathleen Kenyon and Roland de Vaux, in favor of an analysis which examines our sources of historical evidence independently of classical historiographies, such as we find in Manetho, the Bible and Josephus. They have also taken their departure from an earlier biblical scholarship's tradition-history as represented by Martin Noth or from the "salvation history" of Gerhard von Rad, from the traditions of the Religionsgeschichtliche Schule of Sigmund Mowinckel and Hermann Gunkel and from the source criticism of Julius Wellhausen and Otto Eissfeldt. Our side of this debate has been engaged with the received traditions of our own teachers: it reflects a generational shift: a quite ordinary process in scholarship.

Having listed the "22 princes of the sea coast" of my own generation, I should also draw attention to the "twelve princes of Hatti" who reflect more recent trends of scholarship, which have taken their point of departure from the debates of the 1970s and 1980s, rather than yet older theories and methods of the past. To avoid breaking the limits of a brief essay, I confine myself to a very small group of scholars from Scandinavia or who otherwise have been associated in one way or another with the work of the "Copenhagen school." Comparable lists, I am sure, can be made to illustrate the kind of scholarship carried out in Sheffield, Rome and Tel Aviv. The list hardly includes any single perspective or methodology. Fred Cryer has worked primarily in linguistics and sociology and Tilde Binger, Allan Rosengren and Hans Jørgen Lundager Jensen in the history of religion. In archaeology, I need mention Margreet Steiner and Terje Oestigaard, and in history Margit Sjeggestad, Diana Edelman and Flemming Nielsen. In biblical exegesis and the history of religion and what we used to call "intertestamental" literature, the work of Thomas Bolin, Ingrid Hjelm and Greg Doudna all reflect the questions of a new generation of scholars. None of the scholars listed are fairly described as "nihilists" or of the abuse of their office as is repeatedly claimed by Shanks and Dever. ´Nor do I assume that I have their approval for attributing a collusive association between any of them or with myself. Those familiar with the debates over the past three decades will recognize that the most productive academic side of this discussion has been largely due to the fact that many of these scholars listed have been engaged in often sharp disagreement with each other, far more than they have been with any imaginary mainstream of scholarship. I can not play a role as spokesman for this wide group of scholars as are today engaged in this debate.

The accusation of our being "anti-Semitic" and William Dever's charges in Los Angeles that we deny the existence of Israel as an historical and political reality or of early Judaism as a religious factor in Palestine's history, are obviously cases of intentional misprision. This also seems true of the many personal attacks on the integrity of our scholarship. Such assaults have been undertaken without evidence or critical judgment. Although they are patent nonsense to those who have read our work, there is, however, both function and strategy in such slander. Personal attacks, ridicule and dismissal are used to hide important issues which remain undiscussed; namely, the critical issues of writing the history of Palestine today. I will try to present some of the issues that I have raised in the debate over the past thirty years, beginning with my dissertation on the patriarchs in 1971: issues which I believe have not sufficiently been addressed or engaged. I have chosen the form of lists, not only to give this wide-ranging discourse an appearance of coherence, but also to reflect a modicum of objectivity that we all need to strive for if we are ever to resist the unfortunate attractions of personal slander. I present three lists of ten issues or theses about the history of Palestine and its interrelationship with the interpretation of the Bible. The list with which I wish to begin offer 10 specific historical conclusions that I have come to in the course of my work. Not all are necessarily original to my work. The other lists also present 10 issues about which we have established respectively agreement or disagreement. It should be noted that many of the issues of greatest disagreement have hardly been taken up in the history of the debate. These are the issues, I believe, which have been most encouraged the personal attacks. It will be recognized that exegetical issues have not been a significant part of my lists. Nor have the issues of Palestinian religion or biblical theology, however important they are in dividing us. This has been intentional on my part and reflects an effort to limit the discussion to historical issues. In an effort to support understanding, I have tried to formulate three principles related to my research which I think are directly related to what might describe as a difference of perspective between my work and those of some of my critics. My lists, moreover, are hardly complete. They are offered in an effort to renew discussion.

Guiding Principles:

1) I think that the first and most central principle in my understanding of the relationship between biblical interpretation and the writing of a history of pre-Hellenistic Palestine is the conclusion that I drew in my Historicity; namely, that these are two quite distinct tasks. A History of Palestine is based on direct evidence from archaeology and historical geography and is supported by analogies that are primarily drawn from anthropology, sociology and linguistics. Contemporary texts are often critical to such historical interpretation, but, nevertheless, must be weighted as much as by what they imply as by what they assert. Secondary literature, on the other hand, such as we find in the Bible, but also in the writings of Manetho, Josephus and other authors of especially the Hellenistic period, must involve an interpretation based on our access to the world of the author. We need to understand the authors' access to the past they discuss and assert. This, of course, requires that we be satisfied with a fragmented history of Palestine in line with the fragmented nature of our sources. However, it will be one that is both correctable and falsifiable on the basis of continuing research.

2) The Bible, I think, is neither historical nor historiographical, but a secondary collection of tradition. Our earliest extant form of biblical books come from the Dead Sea scrolls. Nevertheless, the secondary and collective nature of the traditions collected in biblical works allows us to speculate on earlier forms of these literary productions, and especially on the themes and ideologies which the texts comprise.

3) Historicity. The criterion of historicity belongs to historiography and the critical assessment of sources. It is rare that a literary or theologically oriented production can be attributed the historicity of more typical historical sources. As many of our written sources for the history of the ancient Near East are filled with both literary and theological tropes, I find it necessary to consider literary strategies in their interpretation prior to attempting to integrate them within an historical synthesis. This also has much to do with my long-standing interests in the potential of non-literary archaeological sources for the history of Palestine.

10 historical conclusions (without order of preference or importance).

1) The hypothesis about the origin of the Semitic languages in one or other form of Afro-Asiatic is not my own, but still seems plausible. The development of Semitic began, accordingly, subsequent to the closing of the Sahara. The theory privileges West Semitic and Egyptian as logically prior to Akkadian and Arabic and supports our understanding of the development of these languages based on datable inscriptions since the third millennium BCE.

2) Structurally fundamental to the history of Palestine is a Mediterranean economy and the interaction of herding, grain and vini-/horticulture. Internal trade is intrinsic to this economy, which is inadequately described simply as a subsistence economy.

3) There is considerable stability of toponomy in Palestine since the Middle Bronze Age.

4) The rule of the Hyksos is an indigenous historical development within Egypt, involving a dispute over the Delta's dominance over Thebes during the so-called "second intermediate period." The historical relationships to Palestine seem to have been secondary.

5) The balance between villages and towns dominated by agriculture and transhumant pastoralism in Palestine's Mediterranean culture is cyclical, whose dynamic is strongly influenced by climate, trade and demography on one hand and on the economic and political influence of empire on the other. Early Bronze II, Middle Bronze II and Iron II are periods of high prosperity and a relatively dense population in Palestine while the intermediary periods of Early Bronze IV, Iron I and the Persian periods are marked by a downturn of both factors.

6) The Late Bronze period inaugurates a period of stress on Palestine, eventually leading to a demographic breakdown effecting both trade and the centralization of the population in towns. Large areas of the central hill country, especially south of the Shechem area and much of Judea, are abandoned. Throughout Palestine, there is a marked rise in the proportion and number of hamlets and small villages beginning already in the Late Bronze period and continuing into the beginning of Iron II. Many of these settlements are in areas that had not known previous settlement. A contrasting prosperity is the mark of the Iron II period. The maintenance of the populations of the coast and the lowlands is strongly affected by Egyptian presence in the area.

7) Not only is the history of Palestine comprised by separate histories of different regions, but these regional histories have been strongly affected by the competing patronage societies dominant within those regions. The distinctiveness of such regionalism can be seen in the different types and history of settlement which have been found for the Jezreel valley, the Galillee; the highlands between Ramallah and Nablus and that in the Judean hills. The history of these four regions from the Late Bronze period to Iron II is best written from a perspective which holds them distinct.

8) The history of Palestine and of its peoples is very different from the Bible's narratives, whatever political claims to the contrary may be. An independent history of Judea during the Iron I and Iron II periods has little room for historicizing readings of the stories of I-II Samuel and I Kings.

9) The nature and development of separate and distinct populations in the regions of Iron Age Judah, Samaria and Galilee can not be integrated with assumptions of their having originated from a single people of "Israel." Moreover, our inability to identify the people of Judah and Jerusalem who went into exile after the destruction of Jerusalem with those who came from Mesopotamia and settled the area of Jerusalem in the Persian period or later is a central problem of today's historiography which hardly allows us to use the language of ethnicity for Palestine's population.

10) Already by the Persian period, Judaism is marked by multiplicity in social, religious and regional organization and the term should not be used as if identifying either a specific religion or people.

10 Methodological issues about which there is widespread close agreement:

1) The three disciplines of Palestinian archaeology, history and biblical exegesis are independent disciplines which should not be harmonized. Each of these disciplines have their own methods and integrity. Our discourse needs to be subject to all three.

2) The interpretation of the religion of Iron Age Palestine is a discipline whose sources and goals are not identical with biblical exegesis.

3) The literary texts of the Bible reflect a literary and intellectual world that renders for us an interpretive context that always needs to be considered before we can interpret these texts.

4) The history and development of the population groups of the highlands of Israel and Judea should be first interpreted with the dynamics of Palestinian settlement history.

5) The historicity of biblical narrative has not been established and should not be assumed. The potential relationship of biblical story to any historical events assumed of the world they present should follow an appropriate literary analysis of the texts.

6) The Bible is a theological interpretation of the past with its own motivations apart from the historical that need to be considered in every interpretation.

7) Biblical studies has need for a regionally based history of Palestine based on archaeology that is independent of the Bible's perspectives on the past.

8) The Bible comprises a literature that has close associations with ANE thought.

9) Biblical literature reflects the existence of forms of both "Late Biblical Hebrew" and "Classical Biblical Hebrew;" yet there still remains great uncertainty about their chronological separation.

10) The usefulness and importance of Iron Age inscriptions for the history of Palestine and the need to analyze these inscriptions within their own contexts before using them for historical syntheses is widely recognized.

10 Issues of disagreement or issues which have not adequately been discussed.

1) The importance of the literary qualities of "historical" inscriptions is rarely given its due. For example, the discussions of the Mesha stele, of the inscription(s) from Tel Dan and of the Israel stele have led to tendentious conclusions because of the failure to attend to the literary character of these materials.

2) The distinct regional settlement histories from LB to Iron II transition have generally been ignored in favor of harmonization with a biblically oriented synthesis. This has most seriously distorted our understanding of the Galilee and Judah, but also the early settlement histories of the Jezreel and of the southern coastal plain.

3) The recognized gaps in Jerusalem's and Judah's settlement history have not been integrated into our understanding of the past. This has particularly effected the periods from LB to Iron II.

4) The effects on Palestine's history of the many deportations and transfers of population have not been integrated except where it is seen to be in agreement with biblical interpretation. The effect on our interpretation of political propaganda in deportation texts seems inadequately recognized.

5) Scholars often reject the certain Hellenistic dating of the biblical texts we have in favor of a substantially earlier potential dating without historical warrant and independent of the texts we are dating.

6) The biblical theology of monotheism has roots in the ideology of empire.

7) The significant lack of an ad quem dating for classical biblical Hebrew and the questionable distinction of the CBH and LBH in Qumran Hebrew are not openly discussed.

8) The question of ethnicity is given apologetic treatment but rarely systematically analyzed.

9) The first principle of the comparative method: the separation of the analysis of data before synthesis, is ignored by archaeologists in their historical reconstruction.

10) The question of the genre of biblical literature and in particular some necessary distinctions between genres of historiography and other secondary antiquarian traditions on one hand and literary sources potentially offering direct historical evidence on the other, are systematically ignored.


Thomas L. Thompson is a distinguished Professor of the Old Testament at the University of Copenhagen

Add new comment

This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.