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In the first essay Jens Bruun Kofoed explores the models and methods of study employed by the so-called Copenhagen School. Nicolai Winther-Nielsen then turns to the question of how best to hear the verbal testimony of the biblical texts, proposing a pragmatic approach to reading scripture. The next three essays examine ways of testing the truth value of the texts within the ancient Near Eastern context: Richard S. Hess, Alan R. Millard, and Kenneth A. Kitchen each focus on archaeological and comparative literary studies that illustrate how extrabiblical evidence can clarify debated issues and elucidate questions that are raised by the biblical texts themselves. Two case studies of the book of Chronicles by Brian E. Kelly and Peter J. Williams then demonstrate in a practical way how biblical and extrabiblical evidence can be brought together to uncover Israel's history. The final essay by Iain W. Provan returns to the epistemological and philosophical concerns which began the book, seen anew in light of the contributors' fruitful work.
Attacking head-on the major issues involved in this fascinating yet conflicted field, "Windows into OldTestament History is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the facts surrounding ancient Israel.
Minimalism, Maximalism, and the Crisis in Old Testament Studies
It is not uncommon nowadays to hear that biblical studies in general, and OT studies in particular, are in a state of crisis. Old consensus positions have been abandoned, and questions formerly thought to be answered are again open for debate. In NT studies, the radical claims of the Jesus Seminar relating to the authenticity and historicity of the sayings of Jesus have gained a hearing even among the popular press (which gravitates naturally to the sensational). No less radical are the claims of some OT scholars regarding the historicity, or, more accurately, the nonhistoricity, of much of what the OT has to say about ancient Israel. Indeed, skepticism toward the historical value of the OT is very fashionable in some scholarly circles today. In the universities of Copenhagen and Sheffield, two of the most highly regarded centers of biblical studies in Europe, it is argued not only that the premonarchical traditions from Abraham to the judges are essentially fictional but also that the accounts of monarchical times are likewise inventions of Persian- and Hellenistic-period novelists.
Most OT scholars stop well short of such extremes. But scholars who hold a higher view ofthe historical worth of the biblical narratives, sometimes referred to as "maximalists," are occasionally accused by their "minimalist" counterparts of simply not knowing the facts, or of refusing to face them. In one of his more recent publications, N. P. Lemche of Copenhagen writes: "In thee yes of many 'scholars' of the past who have never looked out the window to perceive the world outside it, this biblical Israel was believed to have existed once." In other words, those who believe that "biblical Israel" once existed simply have not bothered to look out the window to see the reality of the ancient Near Eastern world in which biblical Israel is supposed to have existed. Lemche's own "look out the window" discovers "a situation where Israel is not Israel, Jerusalem not Jerusalem, and David not David. No matter how we twist the factual remains from ancient Palestine, we cannot have a biblical Israel that is at the same time the Israel of the Iron Age."
Lemche's insinuation that those who do not share his skepticism are either ignorant or obscurantist is astonishing, especially when one considers that skepticism regarding the historicity of biblical Israel is generally greatest among biblical scholars without specialized training in the languages and literatures of the ancient Near East. As J. K. Hoffmeier has recently observed:
One reason for the disparity between historical maximalists and minimalists is that the former tend to be trained in Near Eastern languages, history, and archaeology with the Hebrew Bible as a cognate discipline, whereas the latter are largely trained in Old Testament studies in the nineteenth-century European mold and treat cognate languages and sources as ancillary rather than central to their discipline.
In other words, maximalists tend to be found among those who have spent more, not less, time looking out the window onto the world of the ancient Near East. Lemche's remark also neglects the fact that what one sees when one looks out the window is in some measure a function of the eyes through which one looks. An absolutely "objective" look out the window is unachievable so long as a human subject is doing the looking. The best we can hope for is to become aware, ourselves, and to make others aware of our own subjectivity - particularly as this relates to our core convictions and background beliefs - and then, having acknowledged our subjectivity, to try to be honest with the evidence, even when it appears to go against what we would like to see. As Johan Degenaar succinctly remarks, "Theoretical self-reflection raises historiography to a higher level, for the historian can now take into account his (hidden) assumptions."
Lemche does not offer an explicit statement of his core convictions and background beliefs, but his agenda is not difficult to discover. While noting that some scholars look to external evidence in the hope of supporting the notion that "a certain event narrated by the Old Testament really happened and that the narrative is for that reason a valuable [historical] source," Lemche, for his part, insists that "it is at least as respectable ... to try to show that the text does not carry any information about the period worth speaking about." Having set himself the task of demonstrating the historical worthlessness of the OT, Lemche pursues his aim unflinchingly, even when faced with such daunting counterevidence as the recently discovered Tel Dan inscription with its mention of the "house of David." Lemche's approach to this piece of evidence-understandably embarrassing to minimalist scholars - appears to assume that it can be nullified simply by raising questions or presenting speculative scenarios of how the evidence, the realia, might be taken in some way other than at face value. Whether the evidence in fact should be taken in one of the alternative ways is often not argued. To raise a question seems to suffice. It is left to individual scholars to decide which explanation of the inscription seems more probable. But, of course, what will seem probable to one scholar may seem improbable to another. For at a very deep level, what is deemed probable will be limited by what is believed possible. To those already convinced that there can be no historical counterpart to biblical David, any explanation - for example, the inscription is a fake, the reference is to a town or a temple - will seem more probable than that we have a ninth-century extrabiblical mention of the David of the OT, who ex hypothesi never existed. To those not already convinced, the prima facie reading will seem the more probable.
As hinted earlier, it is unlikely that the minimalist approach will find a wide following among today's scholars - least of all among those who have spent much time "looking out the window" onto the world of the ancient Near East, or, to reverse the image, among those whose acquaintance with the literatures of the ancient Near East provides a "window into the Old Testament." Nevertheless, the regularity with which a vocal minority declares the historical worthlessness of the OT has introduced a sense of uneasiness even among those accustomed to regarding the Old Testament differently, an uneasiness perhaps most pronounced among those less directly involved in the debate.
A Field-Encompassing Field
In this climate of uncertainty about the OT and history, the present volume offers solid encouragement. Comprising a collection of essays most of which were originally delivered and discussed by an international gathering of scholars at Tyndale House, Cambridge, in the summer of 1998, the volume seeks to open "windows" onto the ancient Near Eastern world of the biblical period and in so doing also to open windows into OT history. The essays cover a wide range of topics, and this is not surprising, as it is often said that the field of history - and this would include the historical study of the OT and of ancient Israel - is a "field-encompassing field." This means that historians, in seeking to reconstruct the past, must consider many kinds of evidence: textual and artifactual, literary and material, sociological and ecological. They must consider many kinds of influences on historical process: the general, nomothetic (law-giving) influences of climate, population growth, geography, and the like, the specific, idiographic (individualizing) influences of personal decisions and particular events, and the institutional and societal influences that fall somewhere in between. Given the multifaceted character of history as a "field-encompassing field," scholars interested in "ancient Israel" can begin their investigations in any number of different areas. Important in the end is that all available evidence be considered.
For those whose interest in "ancient Israel" arises from a primary interest in the OT (i.e., for many believing Jews and Christians), a logical place to begin is with the OT texts themselves. For others, whose initial interest is not in the OT but in the history of Israel per se, the OT texts still constitute important evidence and must be considered at some point in the investigation (whether the OT should be regarded as "secondary evidence" depends on what exactly the designation means). In any case, the importance of rightly discerning the texts' truth claims (historical or otherwise) cannot be overstated. This applies as much to extrabiblical textual evidence as to the biblical texts.
If we may adduce the oft-cited analogy between history and jurisprudence, the task of rightly understanding textual truth claims is like the task of understanding a witness on the stand - with the added difficulty that direct questions cannot be posed to the former as they can to the latter. Both historians and jurists seek to establish, on the basis of a fair assessment of all available evidence, the most likely scenario regarding the specific question(s) they are asking about the past. In the interrogation of witnesses, listening must precede judging. Irrespective of whether the text/witness is ultimately to be believed, the initial task is to listen carefully and fairly in order to understand as accurately as possible what the text/witness is saying. The importance of grasping the truth claims of text/witness should not be underestimated, and neither should the difficulty, especially when dealing with occasional documents in foreign languages from foreign cultures of long ago.
Once the testimony of all pertinent texts/witnesses has been heard and rightly understood, the historian/jurist is ready to begin to assess the truth value of the claims that have been made. A necessary condition of the truth value of testimony is that it be self-consistent and coherent. Testimony that contradicts itself discredits itself. But internal consistency alone is not sufficient to prove the veracity of the testimony. (Clever liars can keep their stories straight, as indeed can competent novelists.) The testimony of the individual text/witness must be compared with the testimony of all other credible texts/witnesses. If there is compatibility (we should not expect identity) among the witnesses, a case begins to build that the testimony is true, that its truth claims have truth value. In history, as in law, there is yet another category of evidence to be considered: the material evidence. The objects, architecture, and various other physical evidences brought to light by archaeological or legal investigation all must be considered before a reasoned judgment about what happened in the past can be reached. Sometimes material evidence is plentiful, sometimes there is none, but where it exists it requires interpretation no less than does the verbal evidence. Verbal testimony can provide guidance in the proper interpretation of the material evidence, and the material evidence, rightly understood, can provide a check on the veracity of the verbal testimony.
In considering both verbal and material evidence, the historian/jurist seeks to arrive at a sensible and defensible explanation of what happened in the past. It is seldom if ever possible to prove a particular reconstruction of events, but the goal is to arrive at the most probable reconstruction. But here a third factor (touched upon earlier) enters in, namely, the historian's/jurist's personal beliefs about what kinds of things can happen, what kinds of events are possible. Even a significant body of evidence and argument will have difficulty convincing one of an event's probability, if one believes such an event to be an impossibility. Because scholars embrace sometimes fundamentally different worldviews, a given scenario (whether offered by a text or the result of scholarly reconstruction) may strike one scholar as quite possible(and perhaps even probable) and another as utterly impossible.
In sum, the task of the historian, like that of the jurist, is threefold: first, to amass all pertinent verbal testimony and to come to a fair and accurate understanding of its truth claims; secondly, to test the truth value of these claims by applying internal checks (is the testimony self-consistent and coherent?) and external checks (how does the testimony square with whatever material evidence is available - which itself must be assessed, or interpreted?); and thirdly, to bring all the evidence (verbal and material) together into a reasoned account of what most probably happened with respect to a particular question about the past. At each stage, and particularly the third, the core convictions and commitments of the investigator inevitably, even if unconsciously, come into play. V. A. Harvey puts it plainly: "all our judgments and inferences [including historical ones] take place ... against a background of beliefs. We bring to our perceptions and interpretations a world of existing knowledge, categories, and judgements. Our inferences are but the visible part of an iceberg lying deep below the surface."
The essays collected in the present volume are arranged in a roughly logical order. Given the importance of the "iceberg issue," we begin with a consideration of "models and methods." In the first essay, Danish scholar Jens Bruun Kofoed explores the philosophical and epistemological underpinnings of the so-called Copenhagen School (as exemplified particularly in the works of T. L. Thompson). Kofoed's study alerts readers to the link between general philosophical concerns and the specific judgments that scholars reach. Following Kofoed's investigation of the link between scholarly models and methods, we move to the question of how best to "hear" the verbal testimony. The second essay, also by a Danish scholar, Nicolai Winther-Nielsen, turns to matters linguistic and literary and seeks to show how "pragmatics" (i.e., the study of language use in real-life contexts) can help interpreters detect textual truth claims. He is particularly concerned with how we can judge the antiquarian intentions of ancient texts. Winther-Nielsen maintains that the pragmatics approach offers a more reasonable alternative to the absolute "verification principle" promoted, for instance, by the Copenhagen school. Once truth claims are discerned, their truth value can be tested. The next three essays relate in one way or other to the issue of testing truth value against the ancient Near Eastern context. Three authors, Richard S. Hess, Alan R. Millard, and Kenneth A. Kitchen, focus each in his own way on archaeological and comparative literary studies and illustrate how extrabiblical evidence can often clarify debated issues and elucidate questions raised by the biblical texts themselves. There then follow two sample studies, by Brian E. Kelly and Peter Williams. Each is a synthetic exegetical essay that deals with an aspect of the book of Chronicles and illustrates how biblical and extrabiblical evidence can be brought together to shed light on some of the vexed issues relating to Israel's history. The volume's final essay, by Iain Provan, provides a fitting conclusion to the collection, bringing the reader full circle to a further, broader consideration of the kinds of fundamental epistemological and philosophical issues introduced in Kofoed's essay. We shall have more to say on each of the essays or essayists mentioned above as our discussion of the "crisis of history" currently animating biblical studies continues.
Of Models and Methods
As noted above, it is now commonplace to hear that OT study is in crisis. Many former consensus positions have been abandoned. Everything seems up for grabs, and firm ground is a precious commodity. In such a climate, it is not surprising that calls for methodological discussion are frequent. And discussion of methods is certainly to be welcomed. But as we have already noted, methodological discussion alone is only half the story. If there is to be true understanding among scholars, then not just methods but also models must be open for discussion. We shall never fully understand one another - why we agree and disagree - until we are willing to take our discussions to the deeper level of reality models, worldviews, philosophical presuppositions, and control beliefs (or whatever term we choose to describe who we are and what we believe at the core of our being). The thought of such discussions is naturally threatening, but the fact is that every scholar comes to the table not just as a scholar but as a human being. Postmodernism, for all its excesses and misguided notions, has at least driven home the point that scholarship involves a subjective element (a point, by the way, that seems to have eluded some, but certainly not all, scholars of past generations). No longer can appeal simply be made to "scholarly standards of historical research to which all legitimate scholars agree." From many directions we are reminded that who we are as whole persons affects how we approach and assess evidence.
Excerpted from Windows into Old Testament History Copyright © 2002 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission.
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|Epistemology, Historiographical Method, and the "Copenhagen School"||23|
|Fact, Fiction, and Language Use: Can Modern Pragmatics Improve on Halpern's Case for History in Judges?||44|
|Literacy in Iron Age Israel||82|
|History and Legend in Early Babylonia||103|
|The Controlling Role of External Evidence in Assessing the Historical Status of the Israelite United Monarchy||111|
|Manasseh in the Books of Kings and Chronicles (2 Kings 21:1-18; 2 Chron 33:1-20)||131|
|Israel outside the Land: The Transjordanian Tribes in 1 Chronicles 5||147|
|In the Stable with the Dwarves: Testimony, Interpretation, Faith, and the History of Israel||161|
|List of Editors and Contributors||198|
|Index of Names||199|
|Index of Scripture References||202|