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For centuries the Hebrew Bible has been the fountainhead of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Today, however, the entire biblical tradition, including its historical veracity, is being challenged. Leading this assault is a group of scholars described as the "minimalist" or "revisionist" school of biblical studies, which charges that the Hebrew Bible is largely pious fiction, that its writers and editors invented "ancient Israel" as a piece of late Jewish propaganda in the Hellenistic era.
In this fascinating book noted Syro-Palestinian archaeologist William G. Dever attacks the minimalist position head-on, showing how modern archaeology brilliantly illuminates both life in ancient Palestine and the sacred scriptures as we have them today. Assembling a wealth of archaeological evidence, Dever builds the clearest, most complete picture yet of the real Israel that existed during the Iron Age of ancient Palestine (1200—600 B.C.).
Dever's exceptional reconstruction of this key period points up the minimalists' abuse of archaeology and reveals the weakness of their revisionist histories. Dever shows that ancient Israel, far from being an "invention," is a reality to be discovered. Equally important, his recovery of a reliable core history of ancient Israel provides a firm foundation from which to appreciate the aesthetic value and lofty moral aspirations of the Hebrew Bible.
The Bible as History, Literature, and Theology
The Mysterious Bible
The Bible, including the Old Testament, or as we prefer here, the Hebrew Bible, is so familiar to those of us still steeped in the Western cultural tradition that it would seem to need little explanation, much less defense. For centuries the Bible has been the Classic — although that really means (1) that we take it for granted; and (2) that we revere it, but don't bother to read it any more.
Yet for all the lip service still paid to the Bible in our society, it remains largely a mystery to lay people. A recent, long-running television series in which I became involved was entitled "Mysteries of the Bible." Obviously it capitalized (so to speak) on the public's continuing fascination with the unresolved riddles of the Bible: Where was the Garden of Eden? Did Jericho's walls really come tumbling down? Why did the biblical writers think Jezebel such a wicked woman? Such examples could go on and on.
Even though I was somewhat surprised, and indeed gratified, to see the public's enthusiasm for the series (I now am recognized when I go to the local barber shop), I became skeptical in the end. The commercial and somewhat cynical exploitation of biblical topics is clearly designed to titillate more than to educate the public. Any gratuitous educational benefits aside, the Bible remains a mysterious book to most people.
The Nature of the Hebrew Bible
The above is truepartly because we forget that the Bible is not a book at all, but a whole shelf of books. That means that you cannot simply pick up the Bible and read it from beginning to end, as a connected story with a structured plot and believable characters. One of my friends was required to do that for a "book report" in a college class on "The Bible as Literature" (he confessed later that he could never bring himself to pick up the Bible again). What is the Bible's "story" really about? Who wrote it, and why? And can we moderns really believe any of it?
The many "books" that make up our Hebrew Bible (39 in English versions, but 24 in Hebrew) have many stories to tell, written almost entirely by anonymous authors. These stories were set down over a period of a thousand years, the whole finally woven into a composite, highly complex literary fabric sometime in the Hellenistic era (ca. 2nd century B.C.). This vast "library"—for that is what the Bible really is — contains such diverse and indeed contradictory literary forms as myths, legends and folktales, sagas, heroic epics, oral traditions, annals, biographies, narrative histories, novellae, belles lettres, proverbs and wisdom-sayings, poetry (including erotic poems — read the Song of Songs without your spiritual blinders on), prophecy, apocalyptic, and much more.
All of this vast compilation of literature comes down to us from a long-lost Oriental world almost entirely foreign to our modern consciousness and worldview. Furthermore, the Bible is written in a dead language. (Hebrew has been revived as a spoken language only recently, as in Israel, but in any case it differs considerably from Biblical Hebrew.) Finally, the librarians in charge of the biblical corpus seem to be mostly clerics of one sort or another, intent upon forcing their "orthodox" interpretations upon the rest of us, although no two of them agree. Or else they are academics, who seem to delight in making the Bible even more mysterious and therefore accessible only through them, although I suspect that many professional biblical scholars are closet agnostics.
The Biblical Tradition under Attack
Where does all this leave the intelligent layperson, whether formally religious or not, who wishes simply to understand the Bible better? And is the effort worth it any longer, at a time when the biblical literature — indeed the entire biblical tradition — is being dismissed by so many as "irrelevant" even by those in Synagogue, Church, and Seminary? My colleagues tell me that many priests and clergy no longer know Hebrew and Greek and thus cannot read the Bible in the original. The study of the history of ancient Israel, long fundamental to our understanding of biblical Israel and her faith, is scarcely taught in many Protestant seminaries. History and historical exegesis have been replaced by more stylish courses in liberation theology; feminist approaches to the Bible; new literary criticism, including structuralism, semiotics, rhetorical criticism, and even more esoteric "schools" that we shall discuss in more detail later.
The Atlantic Monthly ran an article in December 1996 entitled "The Search for a No-frills Jesus" by Charlotte Allen. Here Burton L. Mack, longtime Professor of New Testament at the School of Theology of Claremont in California, is quoted as saying of the latest studies in the "quest for the historical Jesus" that the forthcoming publication of Documenta Q by the International Q Project "should bring to an end the myth, the history, the mentality, of the Gospels." Says Mack, who spent his entire professional life training Christian ministers: "It's over. We've had enough apocalypses. We've had enough martyrs. Christianity has had a two-thousand-year run, and it's over." I see here a hypocrisy whereby one so long "professes" a history that he thinks did not exist. As I shall note in Chapter 6, the malaise in the scholarly pursuit of "the historical Jesus" parallels almost exactly the current crisis in the search for "the historical Israel." The same methodological issues are involved.
The irony is that the most deadly attack on the Bible and its veracity, in either the historical or the theological meaning, has come recently not from its traditional enemies — atheists, skeptics, or even those "Godless Communists" feared by Bible-believing people until recently — but from the Bible's well-meaning friends.
If its professional custodians no longer take the Bible seriously, at least as the foundation of our Western cultural tradition, much less a basis for private and public morality, where does that leave us? If we simply jettison the Bible as so much excess baggage in the brave new postmodern world, what shall we put in its place?
Is the Bible "Historical" at All?
For the purposes of the present discussion, I would argue that the most serious challenge to the Hebrew Bible in its long history of interpretation and controversy comes from a small but vocal group of scholars, mostly European, who have recently undertaken what they sometimes allude to as "revisionist" histories of ancient Israel. Of course, every generation in the history of Judaism and Christianity has assayed to write its own, "new" histories of ancient Israel — and rightly so, because the spirit of the biblical tradition is dynamic, ever-changing. Even within the biblical period itself, as Michael Fishbane, Jeffrey Tigay, and other rather conservative scholars have shown, the biblical writers are constantly in a kind of "inner dialogue" with themselves. These writers dare to rework the literary tradition, even though it was regarded from early on as Scripture, "sacred writings." And now, after centuries of such "recycling the Bible," the effort has been made even more necessary — and rewarding. That is because of the gradual development of basic tools of modern scholarship since the Enlightenment that no scholars, even Fundamentalists, can ignore: literary criticism, historical exegesis, comparative religion, and especially, as we shall see, archaeology in its broadest sense.
Given these considerations, what is menacing about the revisionists and their program? Simply this: if we look carefully at their agenda, the revisionists do not intend merely to rewrite the history of ancient or biblical Israel; they propose rather to abolish it altogether. As Philip R. Davies puts it in his little book that started much of the fuss, In Search of "Ancient Israel" (1992), there was no "ancient" or "biblical" Israel. These are all late "intellectual constructs," forced back upon an imagined past by centuries of Jewish and Christian believers. The notion of "ancient Israel" stems ultimately from the Bible itself; but the Bible is "pious fiction," not historical fact. The Bible, too, is a late literary construct, written in and reflecting the realities of the Persian-Hellenistic era (ca. 5th-1st centuries), not the Iron Age of Palestine (ca. 12th-6th centuries) that purports to be its setting.
In Chapter 2 I shall expose the dangers of the revisionist challenge in much more detail. Here I wish only to acknowledge the thrust of their major questions. Is there any real "history," at least in the modern sense, in the Hebrew Bible? And if not, how can we any longer write a history of ancient Israel or its religion(s) at all? These questions deserve to be taken seriously, even though the revisionists are hardly the first to have posed them. (As happens so often, self-styled revisionists are not nearly as radical as they suppose.)
The urgency here is simply that (1) not even the most extreme "modernists" in critical biblical scholarship of the late 19th-20th century ever went so far as to deny any historicity to the Hebrew Bible; (2) the current visibility of the revisionists in the professional journals, at national and international symposia, and increasingly on the Internet has scarcely come to the attention of lay people and may seem frivolous to scholars, but it reveals a disturbing trend toward what I would call nihilism. In adopting the term "nihilism" (Lat. nihil, "nothing"), I have in mind its common and current usage in philosophy to mean "the denial of the existence of any basis for knowledge or truth." The revisionists will reject this term; but their own declared methodology and results betray them, as we shall see presently. "No history" means no history. Here, however, I wish only to sound a preliminary alarm, while at the same time taking the revisionist challenge seriously.
What Kind of "History"?
When we are challenged as to whether there is any "history" in the Hebrew Bible, we ought to reply first by asking: "What kind of history?" It should be obvious that everything in the quest for history depends upon qualifications that must be demanded at this point. The fundamental point is that there are many kinds of history, and thus many differing but appropriate methods, aims, and materials for history-writing. English has only one basic word, "history." But German, for instance, has (1) Geschichte, or the academic discipline of history-writing; (2) Historie, or less formal narrative history; and (3) Storie, which may contain many mythical and folkloric elements, but nevertheless aims at a connected account of the past. To put matters another way, we may distinguish: (1) political history, the history of great public figures and institutions; (2) intellectual history the history of formative ideas; (3) socio-economic history, the history of social and economic structures; (4) technological history, the history of things and their use; (5) art history, the history of aesthetics; (6) ideological history, the history of how certain concepts, specifically ethnic and religious, have shaped culture (7) natural history, the history of the environment and the natural world (such as Pliny's Historia naturalis); and (8) perhaps a culture history, or total history.
Yet even most professional biblical scholars (and, I fear, nearly all archaeologists) have scarcely given serious, critical thought to historiography — the aims and methods of history-writing — even though they must presume themselves to be historians. This may seem like a harsh criticism of my colleagues, but consider the scholarly literature. As late as 1988, Giovanni Garbini complained in his History and Ideology in Ancient Israel that "all those who have been occupied with and have written about the story of the ancient Hebrew Bible are not historians by profession, though for the sake of brevity I have called them `historians'; almost without exception they are all professors of theology."
The first full-scale critical study of historiographic issues in dealing with ancient Israel in English-speaking biblical studies was John Van Seters' 1983 work, In Search of History: History and Historiography in the Ancient World and the Origins of Biblical History, followed in 1988 by Baruch Halpern's provocative The First Historians: The Hebrew Bible and History. The first publications, by a biblical or Syro-Palestinian archaeologist (for the terms, see below), that dealt extensively with historiography and ancient Israel, were by myself, beginning in 1987. The literature since these early publications should have burgeoned, but it has not. Why? Is it because we historians have lost confidence in our ability to deal with a seemingly intractable past? Surely the current skepticism about history-writing cannot be due to inadequate data, since both textual and archaeological sources have mushroomed in the past century, and new archaeological discoveries are now coming at a dizzying pace.
The Bankruptcy of "Mere Philology"
If one examines the malaise further, it soon becomes apparent that a "historiographical crisis" is perceived only among those scholars who deal specifically with the texts of the Hebrew Bible. I would argue that these scholars — some trained originally as philologians, others secondarily as theologians, many now attempting to recycle themselves as "new literary critics" — are undergoing an identity crisis that they are projecting upon the rest of us. We archaeologists have no such hesitation about writing histories, however provisional, of Israel and the ancient Near East; we have been doing this for more than a century now, with ever more promising results.
Here it may be instructive to compare two recent books, announced in the same issue of the catalogue of the trendy Sheffield Academic Press. One is a collection of essays from the 1994 Dublin meetings of the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel's History, entitled Can a "History of Israel" Be Written? The other volume results from an international seminar held by archaeologists in America the same year; it carries the upbeat title, The Archaeology of Israel: Constructing the Past/Interpreting the Present. My own chapter in the latter volume is entitled "Philology, Theology, and Archaeology: What Kind of History Do We Want, and What Is Possible? My Israeli archaeological colleagues, who now dominate the field and who were at the symposium in force, were incredulous; I was attacking a straw man. They all said: "Of course we can write histories of ancient Israel; let's get on with it!"
I wish I could be as sanguine as they. But the fact is that mainstream European biblical scholarship, which for two centuries has led the international field in new directions, has virtually given up on writing a satisfactory history of ancient Israel. In America, the revisionist discourse has not yet created much stir, certainly not among the public. But at national professional meetings, European scholars attend and make sweeping, doctrinaire pronouncements that would have been regarded as arrant nonsense only a decade ago, but are now applauded by audiences of hundreds. At the 1996 national meetings of the Society of Biblical Literature, Thomas L. Thompson of Copenhagen triumphantly announced to a standing-room-only crowd that not only was there no "ancient Israel," but there was "no Judaism until the 2nd century A.D." His remarks were greeted with applause. Mine was the only voice raised in protest; but I was drowned out, and the chairman closed the session. Afterward, I found many of my colleagues dismayed, but only a few of us had seen the handwriting on the wall (a biblical allusion — Belshazzar's feast — for those who still respond to such images). What is going on here? Should we be alarmed?
The sad state of our art is perhaps best seen in several recent developments. One is an international seminar convened by European scholars in Jerusalem in 1995, published in 1996 as The Origins of the Ancient Israelite States. The opening address was a scathing, personal attack on me by Thompson, who asserted among many other things that I had deliberately dismantled stones of the "Solomonic" city gate at Gezer and had thrown out all the pottery that might disagree with my preconceived notions of a 10th-century B.C. date. Although I was unable to attend, having just returned from Jerusalem, "our" side was ably defended by one of America's most brilliant young biblical scholars, Baruch Halpern.
The latest "exchange" of views was at the 1996 Dublin methodology seminar, to which apparently we dissidents were not invited. The papers have now been published, and again Thompson's contribution, "Defining History and Ethnicity in the South Levant," is largely a mean-spirited caricature of my views and those of my North American and Israeli colleagues. As Thompson had already put it, we are guilty of "an interpretation of Palestine's archaeology [i.e., all of it] in the context of an anachronistically projected biblical Israel." I, in particular, have been throughout my long career "dependent on (a) commitment to find a harmony between archaeologically derived sociocultural scenarios and (a) reading of the bible (sic)." As for Thompson's own conclusion, he declares: "I cannot imagine what a biblical text would look like that was judged to be `historically wholly reliable'." In much of what follows, I shall supply many such materials, to be "read historically," both textual and archaeological.
Another deplorable development, one hailed by Thompson, was the 1996 publication by Keith W. Whitelam of The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History. Whitelam claims that biblical scholars, and especially archaeologists like the Israelis and myself, have "usurped" the history of the Palestinians, the real occupants of the land from the Bronze Age onward. In the name of a fraudulently conceived "biblical Israel," we have conspired to deprive the Palestinians of their cultural heritage and dispossess them of their rightful homeland. In Whitelam's reading of history, the charge of "inventing ancient Israel" comes perilously close to anti-Semitism, as some reviewers have pointed out.
Before moving on, we need to be aware of the "shorthand" that is developing to categorize the protagonists in the growing debate, much of the terminology in the "electronic gossip" on the Internet. Apparently the terms "maximalists" and "minimalists" stem from my own writings a decade ago. Now, however, we encounter "positivists" vs. "nihilists," "crypto-Fundamentalists" vs. "scientific historians," "triumphalists" vs. "supercessionists." Next, I suppose, we will see "Zionists" vs. "Anti-Semites." Such name-calling is perhaps inevitable in the heat of the battle; but it certainly seems silly to lay people, and by oversimplifying, it serves only to obscure the substantial and serious differences between two emergent "schools" of biblical interpretation that are likely to dominate biblical scholarship for some time. In any case, the increasing rancor of the discussion is the clearest indication of the desperation among exclusively text-based historians that Halpern, quoting Jacob Burckhardt, has characterized as the "spiritual bankruptcy of philology" in itself. The revisionists are right about one thing: the impasse is such that neither they nor we can write a history of ancient Israel based entirely on the biblical texts. That is their despair, however, not ours.
In the remainder of this book, I hope to clarify these issues and to focus upon what I consider to be the crux of the matter: How and whether we can write a history of ancient Israel, and how biblical texts and archaeological evidence can interact as legitimate sources for history-writing. Before proceeding, however, we need to set the stage by noting what the revisionists substitute for the now-rejected notion of "the Bible as history": "the Bible as literature."
History, Literature, and Faith
It has always been apparent that the Hebrew Bible is, among other things, literature — and immortal literature at that. Thus the modern, critical study of the Bible began properly in the mid-19th century as "literary criticism" (sometimes called "Higher Criticism"). This approach was, and still is, despite many detractors today, a fundamental starting-point. From the beginning, however, literary criticism — the detailed analysis of the historical setting of texts; their sources, authorship, and date; and the complex history of their transmission — had as its ultimate goals (1) the recovery from the texts of a real history of events; and (2) the exegesis of these texts so as to reevaluate the theological interpretations to be derived from or attached to these events, both ancient and modern. In short, the classical literary approach to the Hebrew Bible incorporated a tacit recognition of the Bible's fundamentally "historical" character. To be sure, over time literary-critical study has seemed to many to undermine that very history, perhaps irretrievably. Again, the revisionists have a point: it is no longer possible simply to read the Hebrew Bible at face value as "history." The Bible is, rather, a series of theological reflections by later Israel on its past experience, not a "history of Israel." Yet that fact does not mean that there is no history to be gleaned from the literature, as I shall show presently.
For the "revisionists," however, one must make a choice: we are constrained to regard the Bible either as "history" or as "literature." Given their historiographical nihilism, the choice is a foregone conclusion: the Hebrew Bible is only literature. As Niels Peter Lemche and Thompson put it recently: "the Bible is not history, and only very recently has anyone ever wanted it to be." Never mind that the statement is patently false (the Bible's millions of readers over two millennia have almost always thought it to be "history"). What is at work here? What is the ideological motivation behind the revisionists' determination to view the Hebrew Bible merely as literature? And what do they mean by "literature"?
The "Bible as Literature" Movement
Once again, the revisionists are scarcely innovators, for the beginnings of the so-called "new literary critical" approach to the Hebrew Bible can be traced back nearly 30 years. What distinguishes the "new" literary approach from the traditional? According to J. Cheryl Exum and D. J. A. Clines (of the "Sheffield school" of Davies and others) in their edited collection of essays, The New Literary Criticism and the Hebrew Bible, the "new" literary approach "is not a historical discipline, but a strictly literary one, foregrounding the textuality (italics mine) of the biblical literature." According to these leading proponents of the method, who are among the first to set it forth explicitly, it is rather eclectic, embracing for instance newer (i.e., nonhistorical) literary-critical approaches, poststructuralist methods, feminist criticism, political and materialist (but not classically Marxist) criticism, psychoanalytic criticism, and above all deconstruction.
If one pursues the essays in this provocative volume, along with other recent literature on new literary criticism, the following composite portrait emerges. It should be no surprise that the resulting portrait resembles quite closely the movement of the past decade or so known in wider literary circles as "deconstruction," which in my judgment is the parent of this particular radical school of biblical criticism. My categorization here may be somewhat cryptic in the interest of brevity, but browsing a bit in recent literature will show that it is valid.
What Are "Texts"?
1. A text is an individual "work of art in its own right" not something to be pursued as a :means to an end.
2. There is no single, authoritative "meaning" for a text.
3. How a text "signifies" is as important as what it "signifies."
4. "Structure" is more important than content.
5. There are multiple, almost limitless, approaches to a text that may be legitimate and productive.
6. All texts, because of the "unbounded" nature of language, are incomplete, often contradictory; most even lack any "conscious intentionality" on the writer's part.
7. Texts have no intrinsic "meaning"; any meaning must be supplied, and it depends largely on the reader's response, as well as the "social context of knowledge" the author's and ours.
8. "Meaning" is best "produced" by reading the text imaginatively and symbolically, on many levels at once, as well as in conjunction with other texts ("intertextuality").
9. Readings far beyond the text's original boundaries are not only possible but desirable.
10. The only "test" of a reading's "authenticity" (if any) is acceptance by the reader's particular community.
Such new literary critical manifestations may not necessarily be subscribed to by all practitioners of the method, but they are typical. The theory, however, is best understood in practice, particularly if we look at how texts are treated specifically. Again, my point of departure is standard, recent literature in mainstream biblical studies.
|1||The Bible as History, Literature, and Theology||1|
|2||The Current School of Revisionists and Their Nonhistories of Ancient Israel||23|
|3||What Archaeology Is and What It Can Contribute to Biblical Studies||53|
|4||Getting at the "History behind the History": What Convergences between Texts and Artifacts Tell Us about Israelite Origins and the Rise of the State||97|
|5||Daily Life in Israel in the Time of the Divided Monarchy||159|
|6||What Is Left of the History of Ancient Israel, and Why Should It Matter to Anyone Anymore?||245|
|For Further Reading||299|
|Index of Names||303|
|Index of Scripture References||306|
|Index of Subjects||308|
Posted November 9, 2002
This book begins with Dever spelling out the internecine fighting among archeologists and biblicists. One chapter would have been plenty but three are spent seperating the good guys from the bad guys from Dever's viewpoint. (I must admit I agree with him about the foolishness of the 'Revisionist' stance. By the fourth chapter, Dever settles down into a exposition of what is said in the Bible and what is matched from modern archeological findings. At that point it becomes a great read. I'll use it as a springboard to further reading in this topic.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted October 22, 2002
Dever takes readers through his understanding of the biblical world through a synthesis of sources of evidence for his positions. The second half of the book is much better than the first. Dever needlessly spends the first 150 pages of this work going through the disputes that he has with other scholars. You get the point after the first few pages, and it doesn't add much to read characterizations of scholars who dislike him. In this long winded presentation Dever effectively disproves the arguments of those who would claim that Biblical Israel was non-existent and a modern creation to undermine today's competing claims to the land. Those who have any thoughts of entertaining arguments by such "scholars" will leave reading this book with the prospect of such an entertainment purged. The second half, however, is illuminating; Dever fleshes out the world of Biblical Israel for his reader and makes compelling arguments for his interpretation of the way Biblical Israel functioned.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.