Ancient Israel: A New History of Israel (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).

Thoughts about a reissue

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
November 2015

It is something special (or is it really?) to become a classic when you are still alive. When I was informed by the publisher that they intended to republish my more than 25 years old Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society, I recalled wonderful Sara Mandell’s comment on the Minimalist-Maximalist controversy: “In any case, I firmly believe that by the beginning of the twenty-second century, the Minimalists will be remembered and respected as worthy exemplars and forebears of the best current thought. They will be studied just as we now study such Classical giants as T. Mommsen, H. Dessau, T. Frank, and several others, as well as such Old Testament giants as Engnell, Gunkel, Alt, Noth, and several others. The works of many of the ‘mainstream’ scholars of today, whose focus on literature Lemche rightly decries, will be gathering the dust they deserve, and they will be forgotten.”[1]

Wow, that was fast!

On the list of volumes published in “Cornerstones”, we also find studies by Philip R. Davies and John Van Seters. So it is really a case of not collecting dust.

I know that this period is dominated by “retro-tendencies”, a search for the past in a troubled age, which has as one of its consequences the reappearance of relatively traditional – if not to say “very traditional” – ideas concerning biblical studies and especially the study of the society which is commonly known as “ancient Israel”, although the only thing we know about this ancient Israel comes from the texts of the Old Testament. For a short moment a subject like “cultural memory” seemed likely to provide an interesting entrance to these ancient texts and their description of the past, but the quest for cultural memory very soon turned out to be a rather traditional quest for the historical “Israel”, whatever that was, muddling up the field more than any time before. Otherwise we are back to the discussion about the historicity of King David and his Jerusalem and similar subjects. I will hopefully be able to address these issues in a book under preparation, Cultural Memory is Not a Paper Tiger, but it is still a couple of years away.

So what is the use of the reappearance of Ancient Israel? It is probably a classic by now, although the label: “A new History of Israelite Society” should probably be changed to “A not-so-new History of Israelite society”! When I was asked some twenty years to publish a new corrected edition, I declined with the comment: That would mean that I had to change 90% of the content. It didn’t make sense to me to invest in an updated version. Instead I wrote a new much more comprehensive book, The Old Testament between Theology and History: A Critical Survey,[2] to put matters straight. But Ancient Israel has a purpose to fulfill: To show how everything started (almost); meaning how the following two decades of rewriting the history of ancient Israel began, now probably more correctly understood to be the history of ancient Palestine. Ancient Israel did not come out of nowhere, of course, but built on a series of studies not least by Thomas L. Thompson, at the time of appearance not yet my colleague in Copenhagen (as a matter of fact, I had in 1988 never met Tom in person), and Norman K. Gottwald. However, Gottwald’s analyses were included in an almost 1000 pages long heavy volume,[3] and Tom’s studies on the Patriarchs were badly received – at least in the United States where he became an academic paria for years.[4] So you could say that Ancient Israel with its modest size for many students became the point of entrance to the new orientation of biblical studies that occurred in these years.

Republishing Ancient Israel does not mean that I today endorse everything written there. Far from it, but if it helps the reader – layperson as well as students of theology and history – to understand the changes that were to appear, it has a role to play also in the most recent discussion. To help the reader to understand what happened and where we should be, I wrote a new introduction to the book: “Introduction to Ancient Israel: New Edition: Dating biblical historiography; Identifying the hot spots of recent historical analysis,” and added a supplementary bibliography covering the most important (in my view) publications since the original date of publication). Is this way I hope that Ancient Israel will be received and read as a “classic,” and not criticized for what it is not, an up-to-date discussion of the history of ancient Palestine.


[1] Sara Mandell, ”Response to Niels Peter Lemche’s ’How to do History?’,” in Alice Hunt (ed.)m Second Temple Studies IV: Historiography and History (LHBOTS, 550; London: T&T Clark, 2012), 17-25.

[2] Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

[3] Norman K. Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh: A Sociology of the Religion of Liberated Israel, 1250-1050 B.C.E. (New York: Orbis Books, 1929.

[4] Thomas L. Thompson, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives (BZAW, 133; Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1974).

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