Minimalism and Biblical History

Garnett H. Reid

Bibliothca Sacra 155: 620 (1998): 394-410. [Reproduced by permission]

Garnett H. Reid is Professor of Bible, Free Will Baptist Bible College, Nashville, Tennessee.

The writings of a number of historians today have led to their being designated "biblical minimalists" in some circles.[1] "Minimalism" may not describe precisely this predominantly European colloquium, but the label is at least useful in tracing the leading trend of their theories.[2] Students of pop culture have applied the term across a wide spectrum of fields since the 1960s, including art, music, architecture, design, fashion, business, and linguistics. "Minimalism" generally points to the tendency to simplify, to reduce the elements of a discipline or craft to their most basic level. In business, for example, it may entail downsizing or moderation. Minimalist music is marked by repetition and recurrence in composition.

The reason for applying the description "minimalist" to the writings of historians involves both method and ideology. Their method is primarily nontextual; they admit deriving a "minimum" of credible history from the biblical materials themselves. The Bible is primarily fiction, as they view it, consisting of myth and legend. Instead they appeal to what they see as more objective, scientific sources of historical data, namely, the results of


archaeology and social science. Their ideology in turn rests on a philosophical hermeneutic inclined toward discounting the Bible as a reliable source in matters historical.

To understand the rise of this recent trend, it is helpful to set it against the backdrop of the study of biblical history in the past century. Overshadowing the last half of the nineteenth century was the historical reconstruction of Julius Wellhausen with its philosophical roots in Hegelian positivism.[3] Although the framework Wellhausen built continued, the turn of the century witnessed the demolition of its Hegelian foundation.[4] As a result, attention to Old Testament history was channeled into diverse theories on the history of Israel’s religion for the first three decades of the 1900s. The vacuum was filled, however, with the pioneering historical and archaeological studies of William Foxwell Albright and his students.[5] They built a scholarly view of biblical history based not on the hypothetical Hegelian philosophy but on the artifactual evidence and a serious reading of the text of the Hebrew Bible.[6] The stages in which Israel’s history developed were essentially those reflected in the biblical text; Albright contended that archaeology and its illumination of ancient Near Eastern culture gave evidence of a reliable historical picture. Minimalists say that with the work of Martin Noth,[7] Norman Gottwald,[8] and others who


have followed them, it is impossible to return to the paths of Albright. "There is no putting the old paradigm back together again, no matter how comfortable we may have been with it. There is no more 'Ancient Israel.' "[9] This article argues that "biblical minimalism" is deficient as a view of Israel's history for two reasons: It treats biblical history as historicized fiction, contrived for sociopolitical purposes, and it denigrates the text itself as a truth claimant.

Minimalist Genre: "Historicized Fiction"

The first criticism is that minimalists view history depicted in the Bible not as truth, that is, true history, but as historicized fiction contrived for sociopolitical purposes. Such a reading of the text stands in direct contrast to traditional hermeneutics, which regards events presented in the Bible as actual occurrences in the past.[10] A minimalist view of biblical history reflects what Robert Alter calls "historicized fiction." In this view certain events described in the Bible never really happened, though they may have the look and feel of history. The writer's "conscious artistry" has set fiction on the historical stage even though what is depicted did not really occur.[11] This approach distances itself from what Alter seeks to retain as the "historical impulse that informs the Hebrew Bible."[12] Its proponents refuse to grant "minimal" factuality to the texts, not even conceding that these narratives are "history-like" or have the appearance of "realistic narrative."[13] At least Frei and Alter are willing to grant that a measure of real history lies behind the Scriptures. But minimalists reject altogether such a consideration.

Still, minimalists hold to their claim that the historical narratives of the Bible, while fictitious, are nonetheless "true." This oxymoron, that an event can be true yet not true, is explained by redefining what "true" means. To a minimalist, a historical event is not "true" in that it conforms to the real or actual[14] but that it conveys teaching - it presents "truth."


According to Ord and Coote, prominent minimalists, "Many biblical stories are like Animal Farm. They are true, though not historically accurate or factual. They are concerned with proclaiming a message, not with providing us with a chronology of events from the history of Israel or the life of Jesus of Nazareth. We must learn to read them not as history but as message."[15]

Consequently the Exodus narrative, for example, presents a tale of release from enslavement, etiological in its effect. It presents truth but does not narrate history; its effect is to produce faith, yet its content does not provide fact.[16] This perspective extends especially to the Conquest and early monarchial periods of Israel's history. Lemche, another minimalist, asserts the following: "It is a fact that the history of Israel as told by the Old Testament has little if anything to do with the real historical developments in Palestine until at least the later part of the Hebrew monarchy . . . . [It] should be argued that from a historian's point of view we have to consider the historical literature of the Old Testament a poor source of historical information."[17]

Their skepticism about the Bible's historical reliability grows out of rationalistic assumptions popularized by nineteenth-century higher criticism. Thompson readily acknowledges his indebtedness to Wellhausen and the documentary approach to Pentateuchal origins.[18] This position, like its more recent minimalist progeny, takes an antisupernatural, nonrevelatory stance regarding the writing of Scripture. Its underpinnings are exclusively naturalistic and unabashedly secular.[19] Consequently the Bible itself, they say, must be abandoned as a credible source of history. Instead, biblical studies must move toward "an independent understanding and evaluation of the biblical tradition as an historical source and as literature."[20]


Despite the stated indebtedness minimalists feel toward documentarians and their rationalist methodology, a large gulf exists between the two. The Hegelian approach to history at least claimed as its goal the pursuit of a true representation of how Israel's religion developed. The "father" of biblical theology, Johann Philipp Gabler, though a rationalist, located the focus of theology within historical truth.[21] Even though, according to Gabler, the Bible is merely a record of what human writers thought about divine matters, it is nonetheless a witness to the historical truth lying behind the text itself. Later developments of these critical approaches also viewed the biblical text as having some basis in historical truth. For the minimalists, though, no record of Israel exists in the Bible. In fact, the very idea of knowing real history through the text is suspect. The Bible blurs history and fiction to the point that the two are indistinguishable.

What distinguishes them [fiction and history] . . . is neither their content nor mode of speech, and certainly not such tangential issues as their plausibility and verisimilitude, but rather their referent as perceived by their author. The referent of historiography lies within a world of the past understood as true and real, as probable in terms of evidence. The referent of fictional literature, on the other hand, lies within a conceptual realm, understood as valid and possible, in terms of the author's own making. . . . There is little difficulty in distinguishing historical from fictional literature when the author's intention is clear and explicit. However, such is rarely the case with biblical literature.[22]

Thus the reader has no assurance that the history he reads in the Bible is factual.[2](23) The result is a "hermeneutic of suspicion."[24] In this approach truth itself is elusive and uncertain. No literature, biblical or otherwise, can claim to be divine revelation; such a claim is an affront, since it assumes an absolutist view of truth. Davies sees this shift away from the notion of absolute truth as paradigmatic and lauds it as a "humanizing" trend. It challenges "the sense of transcendental reality which has lain just below the surface of most biblical research, as if the scholar were dealing at first or second hand with ultimate


reality (called God) or some kind of definitive revelation from him/her/it… [The] biblical literature is, like any literature, a distorting product of human authors (and it would be distorting even if it were written by a deity, since deities have to use our language and have to have a point of view)."[25]

In their approach to historical truth biblical minimalists borrow from postmodern theory. A postmodern view of history uses the deconstruction method to arrive not at past fact or truth but at a sociological representation of past culture-shaping. Extant recorded "histories" were shaped by the controlling elite of that particular culture. The textual materials of history passed down through time are therefore images chosen by the power brokers of specific civilizations for the purpose of maintaining their entrenched superiority. Accordingly "history" represents the creation of an image; historians and historiographers are nothing more than establishment spin-doctors perpetuating structures of authority.[26] The task of the reader thus becomes an effort to get beneath the surface of the text to decipher cultural and sociological data about both the people who produced the history and those subjugated by them. History assumes the role of social construct and serves as a tool for political activism.[27]

Minimalists view biblical history as a propaganda vehicle in the hands of a ruling class. Davies and Whitelam are representative of this approach. Their deconstruction of Israel's history assumes that "Israel" never was a "nation" at all. What really happened around 1200-1000 B.C. was not the emergence of Israel but the "emergence of Palestine."[28] If minimalists are correct, the Bible has nothing to say as a historiographic document.[29] Biblical data regarding history is therefore nondata, or pseudodata, and is of no value anyway because whatever past it attests was itself unreal. Even if the reader


could derive facts about the past, they would not be normative for today. Here, then, is postmodern religion: history without truth and theology without revelation.

History as Truth

In contrast to a minimalist reading of the Scriptures is the traditional orthodox view that takes the language and linguistic data in the text at face value. Characters and events of the past purported by the Bible to be true, that is, conforming to reality, are historical.[30] Faith links itself inseparably to history, according to this approach. Scripture therefore has a "historical intention" and communicates reliable history. Biblical literature speaks with one voice in its appeal to celebrate God's great acts in history. The Bible offers these events to the reader as true, not simply in the minimalist sense that they convey "truths," but as conforming to reality. Beyond acknowledging the factuality of biblical history, the reader is also invited to confess that recorded history by faith as a true testimony to the character and work of God Himself. Henry contends that "Christianity, if true, requires historical reality in its claims about the incarnation, atonement and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and indeed about God's revelation in earlier Biblical history."[31] Although the Bible is primarily theological in its message, it is no less historical in its depiction of how that message originated and developed. Scripture has a "historical intention."[32] As Sailhamer explains, "It can be said with reasonable certainty that the authors of the biblical narratives intended to write history and not fiction. Their aim, as they imply thoughout, is to record what actually happened in human history."[33] Theological history is still history.

If this were not the case, serious ramifications would follow. For example, God


repeatedly identifies Himself to His people in Scripture as "the God who brought you out of bondage." The question looms, Did He do this or not? His very character is at stake here. "Historicity, or more precisely the historicity of certain core events recorded in the Old and New Testaments, is indispensable to the vitality and even validity of the Christian faith."[34] Biblical faith cannot satisfy if it is based on illusion; it drifts into the realm of the irrational without basis in objective fact.

Theologian Geerhardus Vos contended that the factuality of biblical events carries implications for the reliability of Christian faith: "The difference between those who think they can do without the facts and us who feel that we must have the facts, does not lie on the periphery of the Christian faith: it touches what to us is the centre. It relates to nothing less than the claim of our holy religion to be a supernatural religion, and a religion which objectively saves from sin."[35]

This conclusion requires the historical reliability of those Old Testament narratives that present themselves to the reader as actual and real, including those involving two disputed eras, the Exodus/Conquest, and the early monarchy. Minimalists claim that no "conquest" of Canaan ever occurred.[36] However, Kitchen has demonstrated that the archaeological support for such a conclusion is shaky at best and that archaeological evidence actually fits the Conquest model quite well.[37] Theories that presume a peasant revolt or infiltration instead of the biblical conquest find little support from the "objective" data of archaeology or sociology. Similarly, a minimalist view of the pre- and early monarchy in Israel and the figures of David and Solomon as pure fantasy hardly squares


with evidence outside the biblical text.[38] The assertion that Judah was a small, sparsely populated state during the Late Bronze and Early Iron ages is not a problem for those who take the Hebrew Bible seriously. Joshua, Judges, and Samuel portray just such a picture of Judah from around 1300 to 1100 B.C.[39]

Contrary to the "hermeneutic of suspicion" adopted by minimalists, the archaeological data favor a presumption-of-innocence approach to biblical history.[40] The text must be allowed to stand on its own claims when it speaks of the past. Millard's criticism at this point is insightful. Modern readers of history treat few if any other historical texts with such skepticism as to their truth claims. He asks, "Is one confined to a state in which accepting the Bible as a religious composition compels him to doubt, or even to discount, any and every apparent statement of fact?"[41] He cites ancient inscriptions from various empires in which kings list their conquests and achievements alongside the claims of their religions; yet minimalist historians today do not subject these writings to the same litmus tests as they do the Bible.

A postmodern reading of biblical history raises important methodological questions. If no truth value, that is, factual reality, exists in the Scriptures, then it seems rather futile to seek any kind of "truth" or message lying beneath their surface. The same skepticism should exist toward artifacts, inscriptions, or other ancient materials. Why are they accepted more readily than the biblical text if pursuit of "true truth" is pointless? Halpern points out that Thompson and other minimalists do not expect today's readers to treat their writings the way they treat the ancient writers: "Thompson's work is history, even if I thoroughly disagree with it. Amazing, then, that he does not accord the same courtesy to his ancient colleagues."[42]

The point here is not that all minimalists are deconstructionists or have postmodern agendas. However, much of their historical reconstruction owes its final shape to obvious


postmodern canons. They view the Bible as a politically motivated document suppressing dissent and entrenching authority structures. Davies acknowledges a reader-response hermeneutic: "If the reader decides to assume the identity of an historian, then reader-response, the meaning of the text, and history come together. It's a matter of choice, and it is the choice I have taken here."[43]

Open-ended skepticism toward the text of Scripture paves the way for pluralism in interpretation, so that the Bible can say whatever the reader wants it to say. However, the pluralist, or minimalist in this case, cannot subject his own argumentation to the same rubric or he too becomes as irrelevant as the biblical history he chooses to devalue. "Pluralists are inconsistent in that they want to be understood univocally while insisting that the ancient authors, let alone God Himself, cannot be," Carson charges. "That is the perennial problem of all such pluralism: it cannot consistently argue its case without succumbing to the same kind of appeal to authority that it denounces."[44] In their writing of history the biblical writers "were concerned that God's revelation, of which they were the vehicles and custodians, was true. True in an absolute sense. It was not merely true to them; it was not merely true in their time; it was not true approximately. What God had given was true universally, absolutely, and enduringly."[45]

A Dubious Record

The second problem with a minimalist approach to biblical history is its denigration of the text, rejecting the basic reliability of the textual record as history. In fact this perspective discounts the accuracy of the ancient historiographers in general. In this view the Bible does not purport to pass along an accurate depiction of what happened in biblical times.[46] Consequently the search for "ancient Israel" in the narratives of Scripture is a futile endeavor. The Bible writers invented their record of Israel; their work then is a literary piece, not a historical one.[47]

Whitelam cautions against relying on written texts that reflect only the writer's "perceptions" of reality. "The continued conviction that the biblical text remains the


primary source for all periods of the history of Israel means that many historians perpetuate this unnecessary restriction in their consideration of other forms of potential evidence."[48] The fact is that even many of these other forms of "potential evidence" are also discredited if they do not conform to the minimalists' agenda.[49] As a result, they contend that Old Testament events and characters have been "forced on" the modern reader as if they were historical, including the Exodus,[50] the Judges period,[51] and narratives about Hezekiah[52] and Josiah.[53] For Lemche, the kingdom of David and Solomon is but a "fairy kingdom rather than a historical fact."[54] Minimalists thus take the position that the biblical narratives by themselves provide no trustworthy clue about a reconstruction of Israel's past. Their conclusions result in a polarity between the biblical depiction of Israel—Lemche's "fairy kingdom" - and the "scholarly" concept of ancient Israel which is historical.[55] The reader is left with only a literary shell, a biblical text that has no basis in fact - a "very poor source" of historical data indeed.[56]

Minimalists assume that religious texts are by their nature "distorted" texts with no basis in objective fact.[57] The traditional history of Israel deduced from biblical texts "owes . . . nothing to critical reflection, and very little indeed to historical research. It looks very


much like the procedure of a discipline motivated by theology and religious sentiment, not critical scholarship."[58] The "new direction" to which the pursuit of biblical history now turns must be "an independently conceived history," the goal of which "can no longer be some point within the 'history of Israel,' where historical-critical research might acceptably meet or harmonize with biblical historiography, at which point our research into Israel's pre-history might be seen to support and establish - however critically - what is finally only a bible history."[59]

The course of action for the minimalists is obvious: "abandoning" the biblical record as a reliable source of objective history. A certain sign of textual bias, say these critical historians, is the inclusion of material describing supernatural or miraculous intervention in human history. Whenever "gods" become actors in the events or superhuman forces are said to be involved, the text has moved beyond factual reporting into legend and superstition. Ahlström states, "The [biblical] text is concerned with mythology rather than with a detailed reporting of historical facts. As soon as someone 'relates' a god's actions or words, mythology has been written."[60]

Another reason for minimalists' discounting of the biblical text is their conjecture that the documents themselves originated in the fifth century B.C. or later; therefore they cannot speak with accuracy about a period several centuries earlier.[61] The text of the Hebrew Bible was created by scribes to give the state of Judah/Yehud, now a Persian province, "self-definition." By creating a presumed history, the fledgling state could establish a great literary-historical identity for itself.[62] Thompson and others claim that they find their "independently derived history" through the "assured results" of


archaeology. It is the supposed objective, scientific constant against which the naive biases of religious history must be measured.[63] Archaeological data confirming the biblical record of the Conquest and the early monarchy is lacking, say the minimalists, so the record itself is suspect.

The Biblical Text as History

The traditional view, on the other hand, accepts the biblical text as reliable concerning everything it attests, including history.[64] The record in Scripture is accurate because it is the product of revelation. Thus the fundamental presupposition of the traditional approach is that Scripture, as a written record of what is factual and real, is itself revelation. One of God's great acts in history involves His work of revealing the truth about Himself and His creation in propositional, intelligible language.[65] Taking the text-claims of the Old Testament at face value leads not to a "hermeneutic of suspicion," as adopted by minimalists, but to an acceptance of those claims as truth in what they intend to communicate. As Howard observes, God's authorship of the Bible settles the issue of accuracy on any level, including historical. "Thus, the Scriptures themselves are the proper focus of our study, not the hypothetical re-creations of the events behind these Scriptures. The events themselves were never sufficient—in any time—to communicate God's revelation fully, and today they are accessible only through the written interpretations, the Scriptures."[66]

Chavalas faults the entire methodology behind modern historians' reading of ancient texts. "The documents must not be viewed only as a 'source of information,' but as information themselves; not as an opening into another reality beyond, but as an element that makes up that reality. . . . The scholar should try to view a document as a source of knowledge of itself."[67]


The minimalist's skepticism toward the text's accuracy reveals two other flaws. First, its presumption that a long history of oral tradition has preceded the written record of Scripture is open to serious question. Waltke has demonstrated that the large role assigned to oral tradition in ancient Near Eastern literature has been overestimated.[68] Second, minimalist skepticism tends to beg the question. Minimalists believe the texts are not accurate because what the texts say cannot be right, given the minimalists' negative presuppositions.[69]

In response to the minimalist charge of religious bias in the text, the question is whether it is even possible, much less desirable, to write history apart from some angle or point of view that informs the historian's thesis. Historiography reflects intention, and intention requires selectivity and purpose. The historian's point of view must not sacrifice factuality; but if pure objectivity is the standard by which written history is judged, then history would remain unwritten.[70] Biblical history, while factual, demonstrates this selectivity principle as well. "Value neutrality is impossible. The unconscious assumptions of the historian's own age are inescapable. The historian himself is part of the historical process, powerfully influenced by his time and place."[71]

However, even though the writers of biblical history recorded events from their own perspective, what they wrote is no less true. Chavalas examines a number of historiographic records from various ancient civilizations and concludes that "the fact that a work is propagandistic does not preclude it from having historical value."[72](72) Millard finds it strange that biblical history is not treated with equal accord by critics. He aptly concludes, "The fact that the modern interpreter does not share the beliefs and aims of the


writers does not prevent him from reporting them and giving them their due weight."[73] In fact this whole area of the modern interpreter's presuppositions is crucial to historiographic accuracy as well. In reading minimalists' writings their biases are also evident. Davies admits as much in his estimation of events recorded in the Davidic and monarchial narratives. "The events are described as they are because Israel is involved. And to this Israel happen things that as a historian I do not accept happen in history here or anywhere else."[74] Noll explains the theory underlying this premise. "The central argument underlying this view is that present circumstances and present realities so thoroughly define the vision of a historian that our supposed knowledge of the past is actually an expression of the historian's own longings, self-interest, ideology, or psychology. No path exists to the past which is not a disguised tour of the present."[75] This is precisely one impetus behind revisionist or deconstructionist philosophies of history. The grid of the present is overlaid on the past.

The resulting divergence between historical referents is nothing less than a worldview clash between the traditional Christian view of history, which accepts the validity of epistemological revelation, and a postmodern approach, which rejects not only that revelation but the possibility of epistemology as well.[76] The Christian reader of biblical history need not relinquish his quest for truth merely because he views the text as credible and accurate. Carl Henry explains: "Because the Gospel accounts came from intimately associated sources are they therefore unreliably biased and distorted? Would such early writings be more reliable had they come from Pontius Pilate or from the Sanhedrin, or from onlookers who simply watched from the sidelines? Is that how trustworthy history is written in our own time? Would a book about the Watergate era in America be more trustworthy if written by George McGovern or the Democratic National Committee than


by those who were personally involved and who came to change their ways?"[77]

As for supernatural elements in biblical history, minimalists discount the factual value of the texts because of naturalistic assumptions. No such reality exists in their worldview, so one does not find it in historiography. Vos argues, "Naturalistic premises . . . predetermine the conclusions."[78] Yet the reader of the Bible must question whether such a closed set of assumptions reflects the whole of reality. The existence of a supernatural being and His intervention in history is not likely to go unnoticed by those who record history.[79] As Yamauchi says, the credibility of other ancient historians is not called into question by their inclusion of divine works within their histories. Likewise the credibility of the Hebrew historians should not be suspect for their acknowledging of the supernatural within the realm of reality.[80]

Assigning a Persian date or later for the origin of the final text of the Hebrew Bible fails to take the text itself seriously. Details in the historical narratives coincide with the period in which the text sets them, not centuries later, including the patriarchal customs, the Exodus chronology, the treaty background of Deuteronomy, the early first millennium setting for the wisdom corpus, and the chronology of the monarchy. Records in the narratives of eyewitness details, conversations, and personal perceptions suggest a straightforward reading of the text as contemporaneous history rather than contrived legend.[81] As for the "assured results" of archaeology, readers of biblical history would do well to keep in mind the usually illuminating and informing rather than corroborating role of the artifactual record, since "most of what archaeology can discover . . . speaks of life


conditions in general and not of specific events."[82](82) As Long concludes, archaeology "can supplement, but should not be allowed to supplant, written sources, including the Bible."[83]

Summary and Conclusion

A traditional reading of the Old Testament takes seriously the historical intention of the text. Theological implications rest on the reporting of actual events as fact, so that faith and history are inseparable. Minimalists, on the other hand, claim that no factual history lies behind the Hebrew Bible. Any purported historiography in the text is merely an image created by the ruling culture for political purposes. Thus the text does not mean what it appears to mean. Such a revisionist hermeneutic betrays itself at this point, however, for if in principle no text is to be trusted at face value, then the revisionist's reading is itself suspect. Yet this uncertain interpretive climate does not square with an honest perception of reality. Rational people communicate through language, written and spoken; the decoder can make sense of an encoded message, given a common set of semiotics. The text of the Bible presents itself as the product of divine-human communication in history, capable of conveying "true truth" with respect to all that it claims.

Minimalism leads to the obvious conclusion that the Bible is not trustworthy.[84] The deep division between a rationalist-critical reading and the traditional grammatical-historical reading continues; this divergence lies at the heart of the points of view addressed in this study.[85] Any change on that front seems unlikely. One wonders, however, just how long postmodernist expressions that attach themselves to a minimalist reading of biblical history will survive, since such expressions are contrary to epistemological reality, the very basis on which criticism thrives, namely, the pursuit of truth.


[1] Representative authors and works include Gösta Ahlström, Who Were the Israelites? (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1988); Robert B. Coote, Early Israel: A New Horizon (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1990); Philip R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel (Sheffield: JSOT, 1992); Niels Peter Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society (Sheffield: JSOT, 1988); idem, The Canaanites and Their Land (Sheffield: JSOT, 1991); Thomas L. Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People (Leiden: Brill, 1992); John Van Seters, Prologue to History (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993); and Keith W. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (New York: Routledge, 1996).

[2] They avoid the label minimalists, though no other designation has gained widespread acceptance, including evidentialists, revisionists, biblical nihilists, and positivists. This study uses the term minimalist because of its dissemination in popular circles. See the discussion in Iain Provan, Ideologies, Literary and Critical: Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel, Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 601-2.

[3] According to this paradigm, Israels history developed from a primitive spiritism to ethical monotheism along evolutionary lines. See Julius Wellhausen, Prolegomena to the History of Ancient Israel (1885; reprint, New York: Meridian, 1957).

[4] The major factors that brought down this approach were (a) the changing Zeitgeist with its loss of faith in an evolutionary system of development; (b) the rise of neoorthodoxy; (c) the interest in form criticism with its emphasis on continuity in genres; and (d) the growing presence of Near Eastern archaeology. See George E. Mendenhall, "Biblical History in Transition," in The Bible and the Ancient Near East, ed. George Ernest Wright (Pittsburgh: Biblical Colloquium, 1961), 3253; and J. Maxwell Miller, "Introduction to the History of Ancient Israel," in The New Interpreters Bible, ed. George A. Buttrick (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994), 1:244-71.

[5] Prominent were George Ernest Wright, John Bright, George E. Mendenhall, David Noel Freedman, Frank M. Cross, Harold Orlinsky, and William G. Dever. Representative works include William F. Albright, From the Stone Age to Christianity (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1940); George Ernest Wright, Biblical Archaeology (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1961); and John Bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959).

[6] Albright did not abandon source criticism, but he did seek a rapprochement between the biblical text and historians.

[7] Noth theorizes that Israel originated as a nomadic tribal league that settled in Canaan. Its religion was organized around a central religious system (Martin Noth, The History of Israel [New York: Harper and Row, 1960]).

[8] Norman Gottwald, The Tribes of Yahweh (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1979). He argues that Israel emerged from the indigenous Canaanite population as a result of peasant revolt.

[9] Thomas L. Thompson, "A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship?" Journal of Biblical Literature 114 (1995): 697.

[10] This approach readily acknowledges the presence of linguistic devices in Scripture that signal deliberate departure from historical, prosaic narrative, including figures of speech, parables, analogies, and symbols.

[11] Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic, 1981), 3233; see the discussion in V. Philips Long, The Art of Biblical History (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 61; and Provan, "Ideologies, Literary and Critical," 586.

[12] Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative, 32.

[13] Hans Frei, The Eclipse of Biblical Narrative (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974), 10.

[14] True truth, to borrow Francis Schaeffers famous description, means true to reality, the way things really are.

[15] David Robert Ord and Robert B Coote, Is the Bible Really True? (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994), 33; cf. 120.

[16] "Where this sophistication has percolated into university and college curricula, it is now much easier for a student to appreciate that the deity who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and the fish that swallows Jonah are each characters in a narrative constructed by an author, and, as the phrase goes, any resemblance to real or actual persons or events may be purely coincidental" (Davies, In Search of "Ancient Israel," 12).

[17] Niels Peter Lemche, "The Old Testament - A Hellenistic Book," Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 7 (1993): 182.

[18] Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People, 13.

[19] Ibid., 3. For Thompson, the "point of departure for all biblical scholarship" away from "religiously and theologically motivated biblical interpretation" was "the recognition of the human authorship of the Bible" (ibid., 4).

[20] Ibid., 91. One reason for Thompsons skepticism about the historical reliability of the Bible is that he presumes a long process of oral transmission was involved before the writing of Scripture, which reduced the accuracy of the written texts.

[21] Gablers famous address, "On the Proper Distinction between Biblical and Dogmatic Theology and the Specific Objectives of Each," was delivered at the University of Altdorf in 1787.

[22] Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People, 376.

[23] Darrell L. Bock analyzes similar concerns with the Jesus Seminar ("The Words of Jesus in the Gospels: Live, Jive, or Memorex?" in Jesus under Fire, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995], 7499).

[24] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 14.

[25] Ibid., 15.

[26] See Tom Dixon, "Postmodern Method: History," in The Death of Truth, ed. Dennis McCallum (Minneapolis: Bethany, 1996), 126-42; and Perez Zagorin, "Historiography and Postmodernism: Reconsiderations (with Discussion)," History and Theory 29 (1990): 263-96.

[27] Dixon, "Postmodern Method: History," 136-40.

[28] Keith W. Whitelam, "The Identity of Early Israel: The Realignment and Transformation of Late Bronze-Iron Age Palestine," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 63 (1994): 58-59. He argues that it is "distracting and misleading" to retain references to Israel. They should be deleted in favor of a Palestinian history, a move that would free one to ask crucial questions about the processes at work unencumbered by the theological baggage and agenda of the Hebrew Bible which has had such a profound hold on the study of the region and the presentation of its history (ibid., 84). See also Davies, In Search of "Ancient Israel," 106-12, 117.

[29] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 18.

[30] This definition of truth is essentially that of Roger Nicole, "The Biblical Concept of Truth," in Scripture and Truth, ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), 28798; and D. A. Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 163-91.

[31] Carl F. H. Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority (Waco, TX: Word, 1973), 2:321. Henry adds, "Not only does the God of the Bible reveal himself in history, but the very idea of history takes its rise from biblical religion" (ibid., 31-2).

[32] See Raymond B. Dillard and Tremper Longman III, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 25.

[33] John Sailhamer, Introduction to Old Testament Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 54. Eugene H. Merrill adds, "If the story as a whole is to be taken seriously as portraying facts, the persons and events to which it attests must also be taken seriously. That is, it must be seen as a true story, a narrative not only reflecting perception about events but one that recounts with accuracy and integrity the events as they actually happened" ("Old Testament History: A Theological Perspective," in The New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology and Exegesis, ed. Willem A. VanGemeren [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1997], 1:70).

[34] Long, The Art of Biblical History, 34.

[35] Geerhardus Vos, "Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History," Princeton Theological Review 3 (1906): 298. He reasoned that if the events culminating in the fulfillment of redemption - Jesus' birth, death, and resurrection - are historical, one can also assume that the events in biblical history leading up to that singular event are also factual. As he wrote, God will have hung it [Christ's redemptive work] not on the slender thread of legend and fiction, but on the solid chain of actual history (ibid., 301-2). See also Long, The Art of Biblical History, 99.

[36] For a variation of this view, see Coote, Early History: A New Horizon, 3; Noth, The History of Israel, 53-84; and John Van Seters, "Joshua's Campaign and Near Eastern Historiography," Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 2 (1990): 12.

[37] K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1966), 5769. Also see Longs harmonization of the biblical data on the Conquest with the archaeological data (The Art of Biblical History, 16068); and Edwin L. Yamauchi, "The Current State of Old Testament Historiography," in Faith, Tradition, and History, ed. A. R. Millard, J. K. Hoffmeier, and D. W. Baker (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1994), 14-21.

[38] The Merneptah Stele confirms the existence of "Israel" in the thirteenth century B.C., and the first mention of David outside the Bible has come in the "House of David" inscription (" 'David' Found at Dan," Biblical Archaeology Review 20 [March/April 1994]: 26-39).

[39] Regarding the claims that Jerusalem was not a major city until the seventh century B.C., see Nadav Naaman, "Cow Town or Royal Capital? Evidence for Iron Age Jerusalem," Biblical Archaeology Review 23 (1997): 43-47, 67.

[40] Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Toward Rediscovering the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1987), 66. He points out the alternative negative critical approach in which the text is assumed to be untrustworthy except in these isolated portions where scholarship has been able to extricate a rare strand of historical fact (ibid.).

[41] A. R. Millard, Story, History, and Theology, in Faith, Tradition, and History, 52-55.

[42] Baruch Halpern, "Erasing History," Bible Review 11 (1995): 26-35, 47. Also see the point made by C. S. Lewis, "Modern Theology and Biblical Criticism," in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1967), 159-60.

[43] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 13.

[44] Carson, The Gagging of God, 278, 281.

[45] David F. Wells, No Place for Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 259-60.

[46] See the analysis in Mark W. Chavalas, "Recent Trends in the Study of Israelite Historiography," Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 38 (1995): 161. He notes that the ancient Greek historians were the first to be taken seriously by moderns.

[47] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 12-13.

[48] Keith W. Whitelam, "Recreating the History of Israel," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 35 (1986): 55.

[49] See Daviess critique of the house of David inscription from Dan (Philip R. Davies, "House of David Built on Sand," Biblical Archaeology Review 20 [1994]: 54-55). David Noel Freedman and Jeffrey C. Geoghegan respond in "House of David Is There!" Biblical Archaeology Review 21 (1995): 78-79.

[50] The exodus . . . is currently without any plausible historical basis or other non-historical explanation (Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 119).

[51] These regional and geographic stories leave us without any knowledge of what the period was really like, suggests Thompson (The Early History of the Israelite People, 104-5).

[52] Davies ridicules commentaries on Isaiah, for instance, which concern themselves with what was really happening during Hezekiahs day as described by the text (In Search of Ancient Israel, 30).

[53] Ibid., 41.

[54] Lemche, "The Old Testament: A Hellenistic Book," 192.

[55] This latter Israel is elusive and hard to pin down, says Davies (In Search of Ancient Israel, 16). How remarkable, then, that minimalists can be so certain of its existence and nature while the plain reading of the biblical text, they say, yields only an Israel of legend.

[56] Lemche, Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society, 125. Davies concludes, "There is no way in which history automatically reveals itself in a biblical text; there are no literary criteria for believing David to be more historical than Joshua, Joshua more historical than Abraham, and Abraham more historical than Adam" (In Search of Ancient Israel, 12).

[57] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 15.

[58] Ibid., 31.

[59] Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People, 107-8. Yamauchi is correct in saying that the modern historians presuppositions about the nature of the Bible will influence his perception of biblical history ("The Current State of Old Testament Historiography," 5).

[60] Ahlström, Who Were the Israelites? 46. Thomas L. Thompson likewise maintains that the historian must distinguish between the real and the imagined, and so he must discount what is obviously unhistorical, including the maraculous [sic] ("History and Tradition," Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 15 [1980]: 59).

[61] Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel, 232.

[62] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 92, 116; and Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People, 418-23. Prophetic oracles in the Bible are viewed by minimalists as inventions of these late authors, contrived as political treatises to support state interests (Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 123-25). However, this explanation fails to explain why the prophetic position stood in opposition to the often corrupt features of the nation and its leaders.

[63] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 1617; and Thompson, The Early History of the Israelite People, 126.

[64] This position is summarized in documents produced by the International Council on Biblical Inerrancy. "The Chicago Statement on Biblical Hermeneutics" (1982) affirms that the biblical record of events, discourses and sayings, though preserved in a variety of appropriate literary forms, corresponds to historical fact, and denies that any event, discourse or saying reported in Scripture was invented by the biblical writers or by the traditions they incorporated (Earl D. Radmacher and Robert D. Preus, eds., Hermeneutics, Inerrancy, and the Bible [Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1984], 884).

[65] See 2 Timothy 3:16 and 2 Peter 1:21.

[66] David Howard, An Introduction to the Old Testament Historical Books (Chicago: Moody, 1993), 38.

[67] Mark Chavalas, Genealogical History as Charter: A Study of Old Babylonian Period Historiography and the Old Testament, in Faith, Tradition, and History, 106.

[68] Bruce K. Waltke, Oral Tradition, in A Tribute to Gleason Archer: Essays on the Old Testament, ed. Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Ronald Youngblood (Chicago: Moody, 1986), 29-30.

[69] Lemche's skepticism regarding the kingdom of David and Solomon reveals such an approach (Ancient Israel: A New History of Israelite Society, 192).

[70] See the discussion in William Barclay, "Introduction," in The Bible and History (Nashville: Abingdon, 1968), 711.

[71] David W. Bebbington, Patterns in History: A Christian View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1979), 6. Also see Long, The Art of Biblical History, 6668; Eugene H. Merrill, Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987), 17-18; and J. Maxwell Miller, "Reading the Bible Historically: The Historians Approach," in To Each Its Own Meaning: An Introduction to Biblical Criticisms and Their Application, ed. Steven L. McKenzie and Stephen R. Hayes (Louisville: Westminster/Knox, 1993), 12.

[72] Chavalas, "Genealogical History as Charter," 107.

[73] Millard, "Story, History, and Theology," 53, 55; also see Daniel I. Block, "Deborah among the Judges: The Perspective of the Hebrew Historian" in Faith, Tradition, and History, 230.

[74] Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel, 35.

[75] Mark A. Noll, Traditional Christianity and the Possibility of Historical Knowledge, Christian Scholars Review 19 (1990): 397.

[76] See Long, The Art of Biblical History, 17376. John Van Seters, a minimalist in several respects, acknowledges, History writing is not primarily the accurate reporting of past events. It also considers the reason for recalling the past and the significance given to past events (In Search of History [New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983], 45). In other words present-day philosophies help shape the interpretation of history. See Provan, Ideologies, Literary and Critical, 591.

[77] Henry, God, Revelation, and Authority, 2:324.

[78] Vos, "Christian Faith and the Truthfulness of Bible History," 293.

[79] Vos explains, A thing is no less historical because it is supernatural (ibid., 297). Lemke defines history as events that may involve both human as well as divine activity and are inclusive of deeds and words, external objective facts and the subjective apprehension and interpretation of these facts (Werner Lemke, "Revelation through History in Recent Biblical Theology," Interpretation 36 [1982]: 39).

[80] Yamauchi, "The Current State of Old Testament Historiography," 27-28. For example Dariuss Behistun inscription is noted for its informative value even though sixty-nine times Darius invokes Ahura Mazda. When the claims of deity conflict among differing religious traditions, the truth assertions of each should be evaluated according to reasonable consistency with the whole of reality.

[81] Yamauchi demonstrates from classical histories that even if a late date for the text were granted, accuracy is not necessarily forfeited (ibid., 26). This is Provan's point as well ("Ideologies, Literary and Critical," 598). See also Long, The Art of Biblical History, 73.

[82] Long, The Art of Biblical History, 144.

[83] Ibid., 148.

[84] Thompson responds to Provans criticisms by claiming that he has been taken out of context (Thompson, "A Neo-Albrightean School in History and Biblical Scholarship," 687-98). Davies is forthright about his ideological position, admitting that he is a materialist and asserting that no divine activity has occurred in human history (Philip R. Davies, "Method and Madness: Some Remarks on Doing History with the Bible," Journal of Biblical Literature 114 [1995]: 699-705).

[85] For other approaches to this subject, see W. Neil, "The Criticism and Theological Use of the Bible," 1700-1950, in The Cambridge History of the Bible, ed. S.L. Greenslade (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1963), 3:238-93; J. Barton Payne, "Higher Criticism and Biblical Inerrancy," in Inerrancy, ed. Norman L. Geisler (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), 83113; and James Barr, "Conservative Biblical Scholarship," in Fundamentalism (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977), 120-59.

Back Top of Page

Valid XHTML 1.0 Transitional

Free Sitemap Generator