A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From The Chronicler to the Present

By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
September 2010

“Minimalism”1 is the supposition that the biblical text cannot rightly or honestly be mined for historical reconstructions of ancient Israel or earliest Christianity. The underlying assumption here is that the biblical text is not historically oriented. That is to say, the purpose of the Bible is not to offer 21st century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills; it is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith.

Though this definition isn’t necessarily the standard definition of minimalism, it does offer a more accurate understanding of what “minimalism” is and will be the working definition for the words “minimalism’ and ‘minimalist’ in what follows. Furthermore, denoting ancient persons as “minimalists” is admittedly anachronistic. Nonetheless, I’ll use it anyway simply because it encapsulates present reality. So, for example, Paul the Apostle may not have gone to Copenhagen or Sheffield to learn theology- but I describe him as a ‘minimalist” for reasons I shall demonstrate below, albeit briefly.

First, though, a few things have to be stated as clearly as possible:

1 - Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel”2 or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus”3 to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available)- but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.

2 - Any attempt to construct a history of Israel or earliest Christianity without appealing to the Bible is doomed to fail. Even the heartiest efforts4 to offer a history of ancient Israel or the early Church usually draw on the biblical text. It is inevitable.

3 - Do points one and two imply, as some souls would have us believe5, that there really was no historical Jesus or ancient Israel? μὴ γένοιτο! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; absence of evidence is evidence of absolutely nothing at all. What points one and two illustrate is that the Bible as Bible cannot be used for grandiose historical projects: nothing more, and nothing less. Something happened. We just aren’t in a position to say what. Not historically.

That said, we can now move on to assert that the Bible itself is the first and foremost witness to the propriety of minimalism as an approach. Think, for example of what the Chronicler does to the story of David’s numbering of Israel. 2 Sam 24 clearly states that Yahweh impelled David to number the nation. The Chronicler, completely disinterested in the “historical” situation, alters the tale completely and instead of describing Yahweh as inciting David to count the folk, he describes Satan doing it (1 Chr 21). These two accounts can’t be harmonized historically, and the Chronicler surely understood that. The historicity of that tradition did not matter to the Chronicler because he approached the text as a minimalist: it wasn’t “history” that mattered, but ‘theology.” In this regard, most redactional emendation can be seen as an adoption of miminalist literary technique, be it inner-biblical exegesis, midrashic interpretation, or targumic reconciliation – all of these are examples of minimalist attempts to rewrite or properly explain history.

In fact, a cursory examination of the Chronicler’s work demonstrates that he is not at all interested in “history” in the same way that modern historians of the Bible seem to be. Rather, he was first, foremost, and only, a theologian.6

But the Chronicler wasn’t the only biblical author who didn’t care about “historicity.” The synoptic Gospels, too, each go their own way. Matthew recounts a Sermon on the Mount while Luke has a Sermon on the Plain. Neither cared where the sermon (or sermons) occurred; they only concerned themselves with the theological substance of the sayings of Jesus – sayings they compiled and organized along lines purely determined by theological necessity rather than historical accuracy. In fact, even though Luke appears to be casting his Gospel in “historical” garb, he only adopts that appearance in order to make his story of Jesus sound very much like the Septuagint’s story of God’s acts on behalf of his people. That is, Luke is writing in a style intentionally mimicking the Old Testament so as to make clear to his readers that the story of Jesus is just the continuation of the activity of God among his own. If Luke were writing “history,” he got a number of things mucked up (as all commentators and historians recognize- e.g., the census he mentions at the beginning of his Gospel). But Luke doesn’t care about such things because he’s doing theology, not historiography.

The Gospel of John, similarly, does theology without any interest in portraying “things as they actually were.” John places, for example, the cleansing of the Temple right at the start of Jesus’ ministry while the Synoptics place it right at the end. Unfortunately, New Testament scholars have needlessly debated which one was “right” in their chronology7. Both and neither one is right because both are interested in saying something theological and neither cares about the historicity of the cleansing.

Paul too shows absolutely no interest in “historical” matters. See 2 Cor 5:16 where he, for all intents and purposes, dismisses any “quest” for the historical Jesus.8 In fact, the letters of Paul contain scant “historical” reference. “Born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) is about as historical as Paul gets when it comes to discussing the life of Jesus. Likewise, “I am crucified with Christ….” barely touches the fringe of the historicist garment. Paul is just not interested in the historical details of his faith’s earliest comings and goings. Rather, again, Paul’s concern is theological.

In the Deutero-Paulines and the Catholic epistles, there is no “historical reconstruction” implied or indicated in any of them. Revelation too is metaphysical and super-historical (and maybe even too metaphysical!).

In sum, the Bible, from beginning to end, is primarily interested in God. The stage is set in the opening verse of Genesis where we learn, “In the beginning, God….” The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.

Time would fail us to consider Augustine and Jerome, Origen and Cyril, Clement and Aquinas, Luther and Zwingli and Calvin… men of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and lived in caves (and in Luther’s case, taverns); they were scorned, mocked, beaten, and abused, and yet they never sought refuge in a false historicism. They and other exegetes up until quite recently (the 18th century essentially) understood that theology is the substance of things biblical and the evidence of things free from needing historical underpinning. The tyranny of the circularly arrived-at Sitz im Leben had no power over them.

Postmodern interpreters and post-postmoderners who use the Bible to ask and answer the questions about “what, when, and how” are asking the wrong questions altogether. If they were to ask the Bible “why and who,” they would at least be getting closer to the truth. As it is, that truth is obscured from them since we all know (or should know) that the answers we get are utterly dependent on the questions we ask.

Minimalism did not begin with Lemche9 or Thompson10 or Whitelam11 or Davies12 or any of the other central or marginal players commonly associated with it: it began with the Chronicler and the Prophets and the Evangelists and the Psalmists and Paul and John and was continued by the Fathers of the Church and their Reforming heirs. Minimalism is not a new phenomenon; it is as old as Scripture itself.

For this reason we can only rationally conclude that maximalists, then, are the true distorters of Scripture. They are perverters of the meaning, purpose, and intent of sacred writ as evidenced by their rejection of the methodological approach of the very authors of Scripture themselves.


1 Bible and Interpretation has published a number of essays on the theme- available here - https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/article-topics/29  and accessed on 30 August 2010.

2 John Bright, A History of Israel, London : S.C.M. Press, 1960.

3 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, New York Random House, 2007.

4 See for example the herculean effort by Mario Liverani, Israel’s History and the History of Israel, Equinox, 2005.

5 Robert Price is a prime example. See http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm, accessed 30 August 2010.

6 John Jarick’s work on Chronicles is spectacular precisely because he focuses on the theological import of the text. See more of John at http://www.theology.ox.ac.uk/people/staff-list/dr-john-jarick.html, accessed 30 August 2010.

7 See the very interesting debate currently taking place in the Society of Biblical Literature and spearheaded by the John, Jesus and History group, http://catholic-resources.org/SBL/JJH.html, accessed 30 August,2010. And while skeptical of their results (because historio-centric), I’m very glad to see John getting some positive press after all these decades of disdain.

8 Rudolf Bultmann’s commentary on 2 Corinthians remains the most useful.

9 The Old Testament: Between Theology and History, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

10 The Mythic Past, New York : Basic Books, 1999.

11 The Invention of Ancient Israel, New York : Routledge, 1996.

12 “Method and Madness: Some Remarks on Doing History with the Bible,” Journal of Biblical literature. 114, no. 4, (1995): 699.

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