History’s Place within Biblical Studies

By Megan Bishop Moore
Wake Forest University
February 2011

There does not seem to have been a time in the last generation in which biblical studies was at peace with its methods, mission, and place in the academy. Our discipline is, it seems, always in need of change. Often the change urged has to do with making biblical studies less parochial and more in line with canonized disciplines (and departments) such as history, anthropology, and literature. In other words, biblical studies’ survival is often predicated on biblical scholars being more aware of current methodology in these disciplines and having goals for scholarship and education more similar to theirs, as well.1

Recently, as submissions to this forum attest, Hector Avalos has struck a nerve with his proposal for change.2 His assertion that biblical studies ultimately upholds the authority of an unjust and violent text has prompted defenses of the discipline as we have it from a number of corners. Responses seem to imply that the change Avalos proposes is, perhaps, too much change: abandonment of the enterprise risks losing the Bible to the capricious interpretation of the general public, or negates the critical study of a text that has been so formative to (western) culture. Surely, however, Avalos’ firm, negative value judgment about the Bible and his claim that “no amount of theologizing and whitewashing will make . . . biblical practices or ideas redeemable any more than Mein Kampf is redeemable” is the hardest thesis for a biblical scholar to address directly. It stands to reason that most anyone who would spend years on a Ph.D. and put themselves through the rigors of the academic job markets holds the Bible in some esteem and would be unwilling to condemn it in this fashion.

As a biblical scholar whose sub-specialty is the history of ancient Israel, it strikes me that the pivotal juncture at which our sub-discipline stands is one that should not be hastily left until we historians, too, have examined and articulated our motives and goals, the repercussions of the way we study the past, our ideas on how the history of Israel needs to change, and whether we should continue to operate as a sub-discipline of biblical studies. But wait! Weren’t the assertions of the minimalists over the last decades and the debates that followed already extensive forays into these questions? Yes and no. Yes, minimalist viewpoints opened these questions in earnest. But no, the discipline did not find a new identity and has not yet figured out where to go. It has simply gotten tired. Thus, there is near-universal agreement that it is time to move on from the “minimalist controversy” and the methodological navel-gazing it engendered, even with an appreciation for the awakening it provided, but there is not yet momentum in any clear direction.

Here, and in two forthcoming submissions to this forum, I will explore both the philosophical and practical aspects of history finding a new identity, with some attention to the concerns Avalos raises about biblical studies’ role in academia. I begin here with general thoughts on the future shape and place of the history of Israel, and will later discuss what new publications in the field might look like and how the history of Israel might be incorporated into diverse contexts in higher education.

Let’s assume for a minute that biblical studies as we know them are not going to die anytime soon. Thus, we need to resurrect the question of history’s place within biblical studies. Throughout the twentieth century, studying the people behind the biblical text and described in it was considered a legitimate part of biblical studies. Much scholarship aimed to confirm the biblical picture of what happened in the past, or at least to nuance it enough in light of current knowledge to help it look truthful enough for a variety of theological purposes. Over time, what could be confirmed or nuanced enough such that the Bible still looked like it was telling a story about an actual past became slimmer. Then, history’s motives were questioned,3 and history’s seeming inability to operate outside of biblical paradigms suggested that even though our project appeared to have moved away from confirming the Bible or asserting its special claim to truth, not much had changed after all.

Indeed, the history of Israel finds its home in departments of religion or theology, if it is taught at all. In these places, as we know, its practitioners often must do double-duty, promoting the truth or specialness of the Bible in some way while, through history, showing that by using the types of knowledge and criticism that we apply to other ancient documents we see that the Bible is neither the whole truth nor nothing but the truth. The positive outcome of this role for history is that this mild iconoclasm has provided an entry into critical thinking and away from fundamentalist thought for students and the public alike. Negatively, in more fundamentalist circles it further confirmed that critical thinking is a threat to the truth. In any case, history’s contributions in this regard have not been enough to establish the Bible as a text that should be ignored or marginalized. However uneasy the relationship between history and religion may be, history has not torn down the authority of the Bible. Most importantly for this discussion, history as a facet of biblical studies has stalled at this point, seeming to offer biblical scholars mainly anecdotes that show that what the Bible says happened did not always actually happen.

In the meantime, the study of the past has proceeded and broadened, with archaeology, ancient Near Eastern studies, and, indeed, historical examination of the Bible and other texts from the Levant contributing new and revised perspectives on the past. These studies have had little impact on the type of historical study that we know of as part of biblical studies. As I mentioned, in subsequent posts I will examine how the contributions of these disciplines can become part of publications in history and part of biblical studies curriculums.

For now, I suggest that history’s productive future contributions to biblical studies will proceed along two trajectories. The first will be integrating the many stories from the past offered by a number of disciplines and writing stories of the past in a sustained and informed way and offering students of the Bible a much more complete picture of the past. This general idea is not new; history as the master discipline that is solely equipped to write the story of the past using evidence from many sources is as old as the modern notion of history itself. I propose nothing so exclusive, recognizing that disciplines such as archaeology and anthropology have their own debates about whether and how the stories they tell can constitute a narrative. Yet, the history of Israel must recognize that the paradigm of following the biblical story era by era and its default conversation with the Bible is no longer tenable and instead become a truly integrated story of the past offered to all interested.

The second way in which the history of Israel, now as a broader and more complete story of the past, can help biblical studies is by continuing to contribute perspectives on when and why the biblical texts were written, edited, and compiled. From consulting linguistics to archaeology to careful appraisal of the biblical texts’ themes and apparent motives, history needs to help biblical scholars break out of the circularity of dating the Bible based on old assumptions of its authorship and audience and come to some specific historical conclusions about the compilation of the text itself. The minimalists and others have tried this approach,4 but no conclusion has stuck, and there is more relevant archaeological and comparative evidence to examine than has been previously considered. What do we know about the production of texts or national ideology in the ancient world, and can we narrow down a time or times in Judah where the writing and codification of the texts were most likely?

Finally, if critiques of biblical studies as we know them such as Avalos’s persist, the history of Israel must both evaluate such claims and articulate how this niche study of the past can contribute to greater understandings about humans, the societies and structures they produce, and the way they shape and adapt to the conditions under which they live.


1 Such an assumption begs the question of whether biblical studies has actually always been dangerously behind other disciplines. It also assumes that the disciplines we should aspire to copy or to assimilate into have a mission that is more designed, more definable, and more noble than ours. I defer extensive comment on these questions but will note that my experience with methodology in other disciplines makes biblical studies look like a mixed bag in terms of awareness and development of new ideas—we certainly lag sometimes but at other times do think more progressively. Also, as the ongoing battle of the value of teaching a western canon of literature shows, other disciplines can be equally as protective of sacred cows and convinced that certain types of study are necessary for understanding and operating in the world.

2 Hector Avalos, The End of Biblical Studies (Amherst, NY: Prometheus, 2007).

3 E.g., Keith Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History. London: Routledge, 1996.

4 E.g., Philip R. Davies, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (JSOTSup 148; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1992); Niels Peter Lemche, “The Old Testament—a Hellenistic Book?” SJOT 7 (1993): 163-93; John Van Seters, In Search of History: Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1983).

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