The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies
Book 1. The Crisis of Sacred History
Given that most of the events described in the bible had taken place many centuries prior to the time that they were written down, it is extremely difficult to know when they are factual historical accounts and when they are partly allegorical.
The Divine Crisis
William G Dever, the former head of the University of Arizona’s Near Eastern studies department answers questions like this. Dever, after more than 30 seasons of fieldwork in Israel, 12 years as director of the American post-graduate research center, has been a UA professor for 22 years, and was head of the largest graduate program in Near Eastern archaeology in the world. He is a leading spokesman for American and Israeli archaeologists who oppose what he and others call a “Divine Crisis” because of “revisionists” and their ideological agenda. He, of course, has no “ideological agenda”.
Work begun in the 1970s by Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters has spoiled the earlier consensus that the bible was historical, and opposite positions of “minimalists” and maximalists have emerged. The minimalists, also called “revisionists” and “nihilists”, see minimal historical value in the bible, and would radically correct Jewish history to dispose of early myths that find no basis in real history having left no trace in contemporary annals and archaeology. Maximalists, also called “literalists”, and even “fundamentalists”, see the bible as historical, and would rather revise history to fit the bible than do the reverse.
Minimalists ask of biblical texts: Who wrote them and why? Whose purpose did they serve? To whom were they addressed? The Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua and the so-called conquest, David and Solomon have all been challenged on the basis of evidence, or the profound absence of it. Nothing distinguishes Israelites from Canaanites, and the history of Samuel and Kings is basically fiction, albeit with “an often realistic and accurate setting”.
The crisis has come to a head during the last decade because the “revisionists”, mainly European scholars, argue that the Jewish bible was written, almost in its entirety, much later than traditional scholars accept—the bible was not written during the Iron Age (c 1200-600 BC) when many of its stories are set, but in the Persian (the fifth century) and Hellenistic periods (the third to first century BC). According to Thomas L Thompson, of Copenhagen, “The bible’s stories are not about history at all”.
History or Historiography?
An innocent layman, even one not particularly interested in religion, might wonder why we have to inquire into the history of Israel. It seems to be set out in astonishing detail in the Jewish scriptures—so well set out, the religious person might add, that they must be God’s word! The same layman might have the same thought about Christian origins. They too seem to be well described in the New Testament.
The truth is that religious history is not history. A historian wants to know what happened in history, and why, accepting that the natural world was subject to the same laws then as it is today. The religious writer wants to persuade their readers that their own religious viewpoint is the one to hold and, if they agree, to give them some moral codes to live by. In this way they hope to control their existence. History is scientific but religious history is tendentious. When history is written for some purpose other than to investigate the past then it becomes historiography—the art of the monks—polemic writing disguised as history. That is what the bible is.
To paraphrase a “revisionist”, Philip R Davies, of Sheffield University, the notion of an “ancient” or “biblical” Israel is a “modern conception”, perpetuated by Jewish and Christian writers for the same theological reasons as the writers and editors of the Jewish bible. If the revisionists are right, then the Jewish bible is a collection of myths, fantastic tales, and late religio-political propaganda—a “pious fraud” containing little history, and that little is hard to discern among the fiction.
Contradictions and Unreason
If the contention that biblical Israel is fiction is extreme, the response to legitimate questioning of biblical texts is more extreme. William G Dever blames it all on “postmodernism” or “political correctness”, and concludes:
Ancient Israel is a fact. That this historical Israel does not correspond in all details with the ‘ideal theological Israel’ portrayed in the Hebrew bible is true. In the end, however, that is irrelevant.
Roy Vince describes the article in which this appears (Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey, BAR 26, 2000) as
One of the most vicious “scholarly” attacks I have ever seen.
Perhaps he has not come across Gary A Rendsburg, an odious Cornell University biblicist who seems to think he is at the “cutting edge of Jewish studies”, as he puts it. Rendsburg thinks biblical Studies have gone from consensus to crisis. The consensus was that the bible contains “reliable historical information” that had been passed down “accurately”. Any contradictions are “minor problems” for the basic storyline is “trustworthy”.
The crisis is “relativism, skepticism, and indeed nihilism” which now dominates. “The arm of Marxism had spread to biblical studies”. Some minimalists “are driven by Marxism and leftist politics”. Some of them are “counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives”. Some of them are even former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. So, they are not all bad, then! At this rate, some of them might even be normal human beings!
Our bad-mouthing “scholar” admits Albright (the doyen of traditional biblicists) overstated the case, but not too seriously! His group later would come under attack by what their detractors would term parallelomania, and some of these great scholars often went too far in making connexions between the bible and the ancient world. But even though they made all these errors, at least they were clever! Minimalists are no good at anything.
Anson Rainey of Tel Aviv University has noted that Thompson, Davies, Lemche, and Whitelam (minimalist scholars) have never excavated an archaeological site or translated an archive of ancient Near Eastern texts, so they are “untrained”, and produce only “baseless twaddle”. Rendsburg goes on. “With the current group of revisionists, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs”. “If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general”. What is more, “almost without exception, the scholars of this group are not Jewish!” They “are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism”. Cornell used to have a good reputation.
It is plain enough that this deep thinker slings around every insult he can find in his limited political repertory, and only succeeds in painting “idiot” all over himself. Rendsburg simply cannot see the wood for the trees. He is utterly blinded by his own rage. He quotes Robert Farrell on the Danish poem Beowulf because “the fact that a literary work is a literary work first and foremost, with its own agenda, does not automatically mean that it lacks any historical value altogether:”
Beowulf is a work of heroic history, a poem in which facts and chronology are subservient to the poet’s interest in heroic deeds and their value in representing the ethics of an heroic civilization. A poet writing in this mode does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is, as we know it. He rather sees it as less important than other considerations… His account will sometimes mesh reasonably well with history, as in the episode of Hygelac’s raid on the Frisian shore. But more often, his work will be a freely woven structure in which the characters and actions of the past will be part of an ethically satisfying narrative.
The same words could apply to the Torah. The narrative is based on historical facts known to the author, but the author is more interested in presenting an “ethically satisfying narrative”. So while the author “does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is”, these facts take a back seat to the main thrust of the story.
Shakespeare’s histories are literary creations, but one would not deny the actual existence of the kings themselves. Arthur Miller’s The Crucible has a 1950s agenda, but the basic story line of the Salem witch hunts of colonial Massachusetts is historically accurate. And Robert Altman’s film M*A*S*H and the television series which followed speak clearly to the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam War generation, but this does not mean that the Korean War is a fictional invention of the writers.
These citations show that Rendsburg has lost his track. He has forgotten what he is talking about. If he has not, then he never knew, and he is saying that others need training. Yet the minimalist argument is simple.
He is quite right to say that Beowulf is similar to the Jewish scriptures, in that the authors do not disregard historical fact, but these facts take a back seat to their main purpose. Minimalists agree! That is what they are saying! Literary books might contain history, but without reference to external evidence no one knows what it is!
Shakespeare’s historical plays contain history, and so does Beowulf, The Crucible and M*A*S*H, but Rendsburg has forgotten that we already know what is history and what is drama in these cases. We know that King Henry V was based in history and King Lear was not. If we did not know, then we might suppose Lear to be historical because the other plays are about historical kings. Much of the Jewish scriptures is King Lear—it bears little relationship to history, as Rendsburg seems to concur—and what is, like Henry V, based on history we do not know without external evidence. He concludes:
There still can be history in these texts, even if we would not wish to create true history based on these texts alone. Obviously, the narrative cannot be taken at face value for the recovery of ancient Israelite history. But at the same time, especially when a variety of sources from the ancient Near East confirms elements of the biblical narrative, we are absolutely justified in using the bible as a source for recovering the early history of Israel.
He gives an example. A text from Ugarit includes a trade agreement between merchants of Ugarit and those of Ur (Urfa, the birthplace of Abraham) negotiated by the king of the Hittites, as both cities were his. The merchants of Ur could trade in Ugarit, but could not buy land or property, or settle permanently there. In Genesis 34:10, the people of Shechem offer Jacob and his family these same three rights:
And ye shall dwell with us: and the land shall be before you; dwell and trade ye therein, and get you possessions therein.
So, Genesis 34:10 seems to reflect real history of roughly the right time for Jacob. QED, Rendsburg seems to think. But it took the Ugarit tablets to confirm it as other than fiction, and even then we are not sure it is history unless we know that the three elements are peculiar to the time and place and not common to agreed resettlement elsewhere in the ANE BC.
Is this arrogant and insulting “intellectual” really so blind or ignorant that he cannot see that he is epitomising the minimalist position, and not refuting it. Minimalists say precisely that “the narrative cannot be taken at face value for the recovery of ancient Israelite history”, and precisely that the Jewish scriptures are indeed only valid “when a variety of sources from the ancient Near East” confirms them. Quite frankly, there is only one conclusion from this astonishing example of McGill and Cornell “scholarly” debate. The man is so emotionally entangled in an irrational hatred that he has lost his marbles. Is it the function of prestigious universities and their publications to give a platform for such manic hate and unreason?
Oddly, Professor Dever, in his understanding of Israel’s early formative years, recognizes he differs little from the revisionists, despite his huffing and puffing. Dever counts himself among those who accept the Jewish scriptures “to the extent that it can be corroborated by archaeological scholarship”. He wrote a popular book to “isolate a core history, using archaeology as a supplement and corrective to the text of the Hebrew bible where it is biased, exaggerated, or too selective to be an adequate source for history”.
Dever provoked the “biblical archaeology” debate in the 1970s about whether “biblical archaeology” might be better termed “Syro-Palestinian archaeology”.
Dever’s reasonable case lost, even though most full-time archaeologists from the United States and virtually all from Europe and Israel favored Dever’s suggestion. Biblicists and theologians did not. Furthermore, Ziony Zevit in Biblica 83 (2002) tells us frankly:
The overwhelming majority of excavators interested in biblical periods who work in Israel and Jordan were not full-time archaeologists. Most are employed at seminaries or denominational institutions where they teach Bible or courses with names like “Ancient Israelite Civilization”.
They refused a terminology that did not declare clearly that this archaeology was biblical. Even more important to them was that the new terminology would have made it harder for biblical phonies to get financial support from patrons and institutions for their phony scholarship, and to recruit gullible believers for their amateur archaeology.
They argued “biblical” was appropriate as long as it was understood as meaning a particular people in a particular place and time—Israelites in the Land of Israel from the Iron Age until the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Persian period which followed the Iron Age, c 1200-332 BC, or even Jesus, Paul and the early church. It was similar in this sense to “Roman” or “Greek” applied to branches of classical archaeology. K F Kell had long ago defined biblical archaeology thus:
By biblical archaeology or knowledge of antiquity we mean the scientific representation of the way of life of the Israelite people as the only nation of antiquity that God had selected as bearer of revelations recorded in the Bible.
This archaeology is not scientific but a branch of exegetical theology. So, theologians would not let go of it, even though it begs the question. Indeed, because it does!
Dever must have been attacking, rightly, those using biblical theology for archaeological interpretation, though he was chary about raising it as an issue in public. The reason was most biblical scholars assumed that, if archeology could demonstrate that something might have occurred, then when the bible so indicated, it had occurred. This is called euphemistically “giving the bible the benefit of the doubt”. It is given this large degree of benefit because God wrote it. Such “bible is true” thinking gave the biblicist scholars a halo that seemed to make these Enochs think they were walking with God. “Predications were raised to prominence as proclamation while events tested and not found wanting were esteemed as witnesses to the proclamation. Events found wanting, such as the enslavement of Israelites in Egypt, were classified as myth, their lack of historicity ignored”.
Dever lost the debate because there are many more bible teachers in the world than archaeologists. Theologically driven biblicists wanted to retain their claim over archaeological data. Dogma defeated enquiry, religion dictated to science.
Syro-Palestinian archaeology was accepted in professional circles, and is now used in departments of archaeology, anthropology and history. Biblical archaeology became a word used by Christian popularisers and apologists in their propaganda publicised in magazines and popular books, mostly pandering to people’s ideas half remembered from schooldays and thought possibly to have some truth. Zevit concludes:
The debate had precipitated changes beyond professional terminology. It had disseminated the notion that the Albrightian synthesis of biblical studies and archaeology no longer maintained its integrity…
Dever categorically assures us that biblical archaeology is “long since dead” and “few mourne its passing”, yet the term biblical archaeology is still used by scholars to mean the interface between proper Levantine archaeology and biblical studies. Do those who use the term biblical archaeology know that it now has this restricted sense, or could they still be labouring under the impression that it was what it formerly was? If the scholars do know, do the clergymen and the earnest preachers of the Word also know? Should someone tell them? Many of these people are quoting selectively from modern workers, or superceded work to support their mythical beliefs.
In Dever’s view as a professional archaeologist, “The bible is about real people in a real time and place—like us”. In short, he is like the notorious W F Albright, an archaeologist who achieved world fame by refusing to let archaeology speak for itself, but incessantly forced it into the straitjacket of the biblical account of Jewish history. Joel Sweek says, about Dever:
Dever, while having at one time given out the suggestion of opposition to biblical archaeology, nonetheless can write passages that sound neo-Albrightian.
Only when revisionist biblical scholars began to invoke archaeological data, having lost confidence in the biblical texts as sources for history writing did archaeologists working in Israel become involved. Dever, like Rainey, says non-specialists are simply not competent to deal with the mass of complex data that will soon truly revolutionize the writing of ancient Israel’s history and religions, rather than the fashion for revisionist theories. Like Rainey, Dever criticizes Philip Davies, as a revisionist, for not being an archaeologist, as if only archaeologists can understand archaeologists.
If this is true then archaeologists might as well be confined to their own asylum. The point of archaeology must be to illuminate history. If this is not its point, then it has only one other possible purpose—to confuse history by digging away whatever might actually illuminate it if read properly, and by issuing utterly false accounts of what has been found. If the archaeologists genuinely seek to illuminate history but refuse to give accounts of their work that are intelligible to non-archaeologists, then again their discipline is valueless for the majority of us. Once archaeologists have clearly explained what they have found, there is no reason at all why historians who are not archaeologists should not interpret it. The archaeologists can present us with their data but we are not obliged to accept their opinions, especially when we have better ones. One suspects that this is one of Dever’s problems.
Writing of Thomas L Thompson seeing the Persian period as the earliest admissible context for the biblical romance, Dever calls him a “nihilist”. The ones who seek out tenable theories to explain the nature of the Jewish scriptures are nihilists while the dead heads that believe in a supernatural ogre playing toy soldiers with the human race are purveying pure truth as golden sunbeams. We should be seeking to understand the reasons for what we see in the ground, confident that the finger of God has nothing to do with it, but human motives, movements and ideologies do.
Dever admits that his views of the Patriarchal period and the Exodus are as minimalist as any minimalist. He must mean that he accepts they are mythical. But he is not at all minimalist about the Iron Age and the United Monarchy. Dever accuses “revisionists”, who deny any state of Israel before about 850 BC of “ignorance”, and adds that Israel Finkelstein, who Dever recognizes as being the authority on the Iron Age sites of Palestine, holds a minority view in asserting no ethnic distinctions can be made from the evidence, and there is no basis for distinguishing an “early Israel” in the early Iron Age. Plainly, people lived in the Palestinian hills in the twelfth century BC but only biblicists call them Israelites as opposed to Canaanites, like the rest of the population.
So, when Dever refers to the Iron Age or “Israelite” period, he classifies himself. He wants revisionists to refute the data, in typical evangelic style, as if the data are unequivocal. What the revisionists do is refute the biblicist interpretation. The inference that there is any sign of cultural change in the data that might suggest a different people appearing is what is refutable. As Finkelstein declares, there is no such sign. The data show continuity of occupation. One thing only impels biblicists to see phantom signs—their reading of the bible!
Dever is keen on showing the unanimity of those who support the idea of the scriptures being written in the Iron Age. “I and all other archaeologists I know (along with most mainstream biblical scholars) put the context in the Iron Age”. So all the archaeologists he knows are in the same camp as mainstream biblical scholars—presumably that can only mean they accept the finger waggling view of history. But what does he mean by putting “the context in the Iron Age?” The Jewish scriptures are set entirely in the Iron Age. It has no other context. It could have been written in its entirety at the end of the Iron Age in the Persian period, but could not have been written at the court of king David, as biblicists want to believe. He has to concede that these miraculously early histories were edited “rather late”.
Dever maintains a larger issue is “How do we know what we claim to know? How can we communicate that knowledge with any confidence?” Dever blames the lack of rationality he thinks he perceives on postmodernism, and its weapon, “deconstruction”, challenging the “positivist paradigm” of the Enlightenment, attacking reason and science as the basis of knowledge. Deconstruction, he says, approaches any text, ancient or modern, with suspicion, tearing it apart to reveal its supposed “inner contradictions”. Such “scholars” deny the book or work of art any inherent meaning. Ideology and politics—especially race, gender, and class—became the issues, not rationality. Deconstruction, Dever says, tends to intellectual anarchy and to anti-establishment politics. The “assault on reason” and radical reinterpretation of all ancient texts might pose a threat to the Western cultural tradition, founded as it is on the twin pillars of the biblical word-view and the modern Enlightenment.
It is difficult, subject to this criticism, to stand on any ground other than that on which Dever himself stands. If you offer evidence that a biblical text is mythical, then you are rejected as being postmodern, a grievous insult implying you will not believe any documentary evidence. If you take a milder line and suggest that a biblical text is equivocal and offer an ideological reason why it might have been written rather than a supernatural one, then you are turning the biblical writers “on their heads” and treating them as “guilty until they are proven innocent”. Become more conciliatory still and suggest tentatively that biblical history might have been romanticized, then you are making out that “all knowledge” is just a “social consruct”. The biblicist position is that any critic of the bible is an extremist until they accept that the bible is the true account of God’s finger waggling in Jewish history.
Dever says the revisionists are off target “for all the noise” they make, and complains that they attack him as their bête noire while leaving others with the same views unmolested. The reason is plain enough. It is Dever who makes the noise because he is outraged that the revisionist view should be put at all. He repeatedly dismisses revisionists as being off the mainstream, an isolated but vocal minority. But he cannot resist his self imposed role as bulldog—the revisionist’s most persistent challenger in print. Of course, by writing a load of irate polemic to add to his 250 other papers, he can give himself more material to boost his self-citations.
Dever’s more serious charge is that revisionists, like Keith W Whitelam of Sterling University, have politicized archaeology by accusing American, and especially Israeli, archaeologists of conspiring to “rob the Palestinians of their history” through their tendentious support for biblical mythology. Dever’s concern is that eliminating “ancient Israel” from history will challenge modern Israel’s right to exist. He concludes: “This challenge cannot go unmet”.
Historians Resist Polemicists in Israel
In Israel, A Elon, a novelist, and Y Shavat, a historian, claim that the Israeli passion for archaeology—verging on a mania, according to Dever—is a secular religion, a sentiment for a lost past when God was your neighbour and the Good were safe. Surely this is precisely what biblical religions are. Tel Dan has been developed by the Israeli National Parks Authority, but is labelled by them in such an outrageously biblicist way that one suspects even they would blush. Then again, no. Yet, the “Haredin” of Israel, the ultra-orthodox right wing Jews, are violently opposed to archaeology, claiming that archaeologists are desecrating the sacred land. Really they fear that scientific investigation will disprove their religious tradition.
Ninety percent of fieldwork in Israel is sponsored by the Israeli government and subsidised by American institutions, and excavations are staffed by American students. Who would come to dig in these hot and unpleasant conditions except those who were motivated by a conviction that they were digging up God? Few indeed, and if this few, dedicated to archaeology rather than God, wanted to make archaeology of the Levant a career, they would be unlikely to get a post. The American university departments of biblical studies and biblical archaeology want committed evangelists, not skeptics. In any case, the university departments themselves are getting more cautious after modern archaeologists have dug down to the roots of the bible stories and found them rotten. Dever says the discipline of biblical archaeology in the US is dying and its funds drying up, even though popular interest is great. One might think because it is!
Postmodernists often do seem to want to evade problems rather than solve them. Dever’s points about the “scholarship” of deconstruction compared with careful cross-checking of source material to attempt to approach objectivity is surely valid. Deconstruction techniques might give a scholar some insights but, since these can hardly be anything other than subjective, they cannot alone be acceptable to anyone seeking some sort of objective truth.
David Clines of Sheffield University, explicitly presenting a postmodern agenda for biblical studies, says the tradition of scholarship does not matter very much, because the tradition enshrined and promoted the principles common to both dogmatic and modernist scholarship, the principles of a unified truth and a common quest for that truth that we were all engaged in—and “grand narratives” like that no longer carry conviction. Meaning matters too, but not some one right meaning because there is no such thing, but everyone’s meanings for that is all there is.
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi agrees with Clines and defends postmodernist exegesis by asserting:
It is an error to construe postmodernism as a nihilist denial of meaning.
What it rejects is privileged claims on behalf of some essential meanings that persist in time through language or words.
According to deconstruction, the futile quest for authoritative, original meaning or permanent meaning is a misapprehension of what meaning is or how it operates.
The postmodernists sound as contrary as Professor Dever. Eshkenazi’s last statement contradicts the first. Words have a meaning intended by the author, and the fact that the words later do not seem clear is not to deny that the author had an intention to convey a particular meaning. Like many of these classically trained people calling themselves biblical scholars, she does not understand science, and thinks in terms of the creeds they are used to. Religions, not science, make “privileged claims on behalf of some essential meanings that persist in time through language or words”. An “authoritative” meaning is quite different from a “permanent” one, and an original one might be neither. Religious souls believe in permanent meaning not scientific ones who know that discovery might require an authoritative interpretation to change.
The fact that postmodernists do not believe objectivity should be aimed for is reason enough for rational minds to reject it, but Dever uses it as a weapon, accusing his critics of postmodernism so that they can be written off. In the same way, critics of conventional dating are written of as Velikovskian, but these are just sad ploys by people who have run out of arguments. Perfection in anything is impossible but that is no reason why anyone should not aim for perfection. The same is true of objectivity. It might be impossible but it is up to critics to show how it falls short and might be approached more closely, rather than saying, “It’s hopeless. Let’s forget about truth and make everything up”.
Postmodernists note the axis of myth and history, with myth at the fictional pole and history at the factual pole, then note that history is often partly if not largely fictionalized while myth might be allegorical history and therefore contain historical truths. Apparently this is too hard for them to face, so they have come up with the “solution” of abolishing the distinction between history and myth. Instead it is all narrative to be essentially disbelieved except for whatever the reader decides to believe, having “deconstructed” the text! Any attempt to decide the degree of validity of a text by comparing it with agreed historical fact is for the birds. The acceptance of inbuilt bias that might be allowed for, or at least highlighted, seems insufficient for the postmodernist. Subjective writing cannot be avoided and so objectivity is discredited and discarded.
It can be said that objective history is impossible, as it is, but natural and inevitable bias is quite distinct from deliberately composing history to support a religious view. All good historians try to recognize prejudice and try to correct it whether in others or themselves. The historiographer is not interested in what is or was true but in what upholds a chosen view. It might be said that any revisionist is therefore a historiographer, and perhaps in a sense that is true, but the revisionist is nevertheless trying to correct an error to get at the historical truth. Revisionists are not trying to hide truth to uphold a dogma. When a bias can be seen in some historical work, the revisionist will try to point it out and correct it. The reader has access to both views and can judge.
The historiographer will not be challenged. Religious writers all lean in much the same direction, squabbling over arcane details to give an illusion of scholarship when they are all agreed on the bulk of the religious edifice they have. The reader, if unprepared, will get enmeshed in this esoteric quibbling about how God meant His bad communicating to be interpreted, and will finish up praying to empty space for help, by which time it is too late to get any.
Religious works that purport to be history cannot be assumed to be accurate until confirmed by independent means. It is not safe to accept, with the guardians of religion, that we should accept religious history unless it is proven wrong. It is safer to take the skeptical scientific view that it is myth, or at best legend, until it is proven true.
Nor can the logical jump be made that it is all correct because something in it has been shown to be historical—historiography often takes the form of historical fiction. It is put in a historical setting that might be more or less convincing, but a convincing setting cannot vouchsafe the central plot. This should be plain today—plainer than it ever was—because historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy fiction are commonly presented to us on TV, the silver screen, video games and in books. All give us an acceptable period setting for fictional stories. Are we to suppose that people 2000 or even 3000 years ago—only 30 or 40 lifetimes distant—could not write fiction? They could, and many ancient papyri and stelae prove it by exaggerrating the exploits of the king who commissioned the work.
So, we have good reason to question the history of the Jews and the Christians. They will not, so we must. We immediately find our suspicions confirmed, but the walls of the established religions are not so unsteady as those of Jericho. N P Lemche published Early Israel. Anthropological and Historical Studies on the Israelite Society Before the Monarchy in 1985 but attracted little attention. G Garbini in History and Ideology in Ancient Israel, New York (1988) attacked theological interpretations of history that countenanced the theologizing historiography of the biblical texts as historical statements.
Garbini is Professor of Semitic Philology in the University of Rome, essentially a philologist and archaeologist with a specific interest in the history of Israel, and is neither Jew nor Christian, but part of the wider circle of ancient historians.
But P R Davies, In Search of “Ancient Israel”, Sheffield (1992) opened up the debate and invited the descriotion “biblical minimalists” and the even less flattering ones. The same year, T L Thompson published a book reaching similar conclusions, Early History of the Israelite People. From the Written and Archaeological Sources, Leiden (1992).
Zevit says that though they are “much maligned by Biblicists and historians”, minimalists are engaged in a legitimate historical undertaking. All proper historians are trained to require adequate answers to certain questions about any written documents before they decide how they can be used:
The Jewish scriptures make up a constitution for the Jewish people to whom they were given. The earliest time that rules like reading the Torah publicly and observing its charges faithfully, abstention from work and commerce on the sabbath, avoiding intermarriage, tithing, maintaining temple sacrifice through a self-imposed tax (Neh 10:30-40) could appear is when Ezra and Nehemiah were sent by the Persian king during the fifth century BC to determine civil and religious policy in Yehud.
Textual examination of the books of the scriptures shows that they could not have been written in the times they claim to have been. Moses cannot have written the Pentateuch in 1500 BC or even 1300 BC; Isaiah could not have written his book in 700 BC.
Moreover, the books are not uniform within themselves and so are not written by a single author, but by different hands at different times. The period intervening between the supposed events and when they were set to paper is explained by historiographers as a period of oral transmission. It never occurs to them that the gap is better explained by the author being a fiction writer.
They use the poems of Homer describing the seige of Troy as a parallel because Homer wrote in 800 BC when the seige of Troy was in 1200 BC. Yet the bulk of Homer’s works were romance, even if they were based on recollections of real events. And Troy has been discovered but no trace of an exodus of two million people from Egypt has. Nor has any unequivocal trace of a kingdom of David or an empire of Solomon. We can be certain that the scriptural accounts of these events are fictional and no amount of explaining away by Jewish and Christian believers can alter it.
Garbini had already dated biblical compositions to the Persian and Hellenistic periods, and minimalists conclude that the books of the Jewish bible were written then. The historical books are fictional histories based on earlier legends or less refined fictions, through which the local Persian colonists provided themselves with a mythic past that linked them to the land and to a religion. Zivit points out:
This conclusion has two important corollaries:
No archaeological data or any data external to the bible itself confirm the patriarchal or exodus stories as narrated in Genesis and Exodus. Only with qualified explanations can archaeological data be drafted to support some elements in the Joshua-Judges narratives. If Egyptian slaves escaped in dribs and drabs over a period of 400 years and were joined from time to time by bands of wandering Arab shepherds, then we do not have a biblical exodus! If these runaway slaves and nomads settled in Palestine over a long time span, then we do not have a conquest and we do not have a Joshua! Is that clear? you at the back!
The patriarchal narratives were first told by colonists from Syria who were settled in the Palestinian hills, but the proto-exodus-conquest narratives were written by the colonists to explain the law which they had to obey because it was imposed by the Persians whose enemy was the Egyptians, and to allegorize the century of struggles by the colonists to establish their hegemony over the native Canaanites.
Historical Israel, the actual flesh and blood people who dwelt in the central mountains during the Iron Ages, didn’t come from Egypt. They were descendents of earlier, Bronze Age inhabitants of the places where they lived. Their culture and religion was a slightly evolved form of the earlier, Bronze Age Canaanite ones.
All the factual evidence we have is that the culture of the Hill Country of Palestine called Israel and Judah remained Canaanite until the Persians came at the end of the sixth century BC. Only in the following century were books about Jewish history written down. The people of Israel, its leaders and heroes are literary fictions or inventions or constructs. Stories about them, their victories, defeats, religious policies are all late concoctions written at the earliest in the Persian period.
Even when the stories were written down in a book, it was not treated, as it is by simple Christians today, as the unalterable word of God. The history of Israel given in Chronicles is not the same as that given in Samuel and Kings, just as the gospel of John is not the same as the gospel of Mark. Readers of the bible should realize that it was not written in one sitting. The Persians began it using various older legends and the available annals, the Greeks of the Ptolemies added Hellenistic romances, and the Maccabees added more of them and justified the free state. Some of these early legends and proto-histories were greatly elaborated as Hellenistic romances perhaps in the third and even the second centuries BC.
Contrary to what their detractors believe, minimalists take the historical writings seriously. Some events of the bible are confirmed by external investigation. Some of the kings of Israel and Judah appear in Assyrian records and therefore can be dated. However, given that the history of Israel was only first written in the Persian period, and the Persians had conquered Assyria and Babylonia, and had access to their archives covering hundreds of years, it is more than likely that the scriptural stories of the monarchical period were simply written from the official king lists, inscriptions and diplomatic correspondence of those formerly mighty powers. In short, it is largely historical fiction but set in a realistic historical framework. For those who are Jews and Christians and want to explore history, they should realize this.
Although minimalist claims are derived through reasoning processes practiced by contemporary historians, and constitute a valid and necessary undertaking, they shocked biblical scholarship by their boldness and in their assignment of biblical historiography to the genre of apologetic mythmaking and “big lie” propaganda methods. Davies challenged his readers to decide if they were truly historians or believers masquerading as historians. Did they intend to introduce theological concerns to their analyses?
Is reconstructing “ancient Israel” a historical undertaking or a theological one? If theology is part of the argument, then it can no longer be scholarship, which has to be free of religious commitments to avoid bias. Davies thought belief was more important to biblicist motivation than truth or knowledge. Davies’s statements were considered an attack on the intellectual integrity of those who thought they could hold religious faiths and still be objective scholars. Common sense says that they cannot.
Both Judaism and Christianity are supposed to reject idolatry—the venerating of material objects above God. Yet, to regard the bible as, in any way, infallible is to treat it as a god. The rabbis, indeed, are particular in their monotheism to point out that nothing outside of heaven is perfect, and so the bible (they specify Torah ) cannot be infallible. The good historian here agrees—the veneration of any earthly writing must be eschewed. Those who cannot had better be honest enough to become theologians instead of pretending to be historians or archaeologists.
The sad thing is that non-religious historians think religiously motivated historians are honest and so leave the religious fieldwork to them. Some religiously motivated historians do deserve praise and much of what we do know, they have uncovered, but they have done so like a patient taking the dressing from their own wound—slowly and with a lot of grimacing!
In summary, minimalists exposed the overt influences of theological assumptions in the interpretation of Biblical literature. Their concentration on the importance of the Persian period should lead to more scholarship being concentrated here to rectify the obfuscation and neglect of earlier times.
A Proper Approach to Religious History
What is needed now is for objective historians to take over religious history and place it in its proper context. The bible should be ignored until external evidence shows that something in it is valid. God should be ignored as a cantankerous supernatural personality stirring up the affairs of humanity with His index finger. Anyone with such an absurd and childish belief should be relieved of their academic positions, and the many useless and unproductive departments of theology should be abandoned and their funds transferred to proper history or ancient language departments.
If this were ever done we could hope to make huge strides in the confusion of Near Eastern history, much of which remains quite baffling, despite being recorded for 5000 years, because it is always packed into the biblical jam jar and is never allowed to display its own shape. The Assyrians and particularly their disciples, the Persians will prove to be the founders of the Jewish strand of monotheism, and the history of the Jews will become part of the history of the many small kingdoms set up in the Levant of the Iron Age before the Assyrians and then the Persians absorbed them into empire.
In using old records, chronicles and inscriptions, the historian has to be alert to the fact that that the writer might be writing propaganda. Kings want to glorify themselves not admit their failures, so a battle won might really have been inconclusive and a battle lost might be omitted altogether, and will have to be sought in the records of the victors. Knowing this, biblical historians ought to be aware of the possibility of such tendencies in the scriptures, yet most firmly set themselves against such thoughts, or only accept them grudgingly when they are forced upon them.
What is needed now for progress to be made is a change in paradigm. The scriptural paradigm of Jews and Christians traditionally is that of a gradual revelation of God to His Chosen People through the medium of their history. To state it thus is enough for any proper historian to reject it. The paradigm that should replace it is that of scriptures written by world conquerors intent on pacifying and intimidating their vassals to act as watchers upon a larger and dangerous country subject to the same world power and known to be rebellious. The world power was Persia and the dangerous subject nation was Egypt.
The Christian and Jew will say that the scriptures are the natural place to start to understand Jewish history, but they are the last place to start if bias and pitfalls are to be avoided. Biblical history is largely myth, but the task is to show what is and what is not, within the parameters available, using every technique that is relevant, documentary, archaeological, anthropological, scientific, social and so on. Ideally, the budding historian of the Near East should read what has been discovered about Near Eastern history from other sources first. Since this is probably impossible for anyone brought up in our culture, they should begin by firmly believing that all of the bible is myth and forgetting it while they get a historical picture first. Only then should they turn to the scriptures to try to understand who, writing hundreds of years later would want to invent a bogus history for the Jews.
Doubtless, it seems old hat to postmodernists, but how can pure subjectivity do better? If “deconstruction” is interpreted as “textual criticism”, in which evidences of the author’s prejudices are adduced then that is fine—it is constructive despite its name. But, if the rhetoric of postmodernism is to be believed, it replaces enquiry after truth with fiction writing, and all scholarhip might as well cease.
While Dever has some valid points about the extremes of postmodernism, he walks right into the trap of supporting the postmodern contention that so-called “objective” scholarship is far from objective but is meant to support the status quo and the establishment. Furthermore, he ends up being the one who defends fiction against truth.
Biblical scholarship is largely a sham and should be mercilessly criticized, deconstructed or whatever, but with the objective of replacing it with proper scholarship. The opposite viewpoint ends up with giving prizes to the worthless rubbish that biblicists keep churning out—despite themselves, the epitome of postmodernism. It is all make-belief. Honest checking of the biblical stories against other criteria so far shows that biblical history is, to say the least, improbable. The “deconstruction” of biblical history presented in these pages is to stimulate the reconstruction of a better one, and that is initiated too. There is no doubt that it will be thoroughly disliked by Jews, Christians and Moslems alike because it shows that their religions began in a country they all hate, a country whose history has been ignored—Iran!
Others are not interested either in the trendy faddishness of postmodern subjective meanderings, or the aim of supporting present political set-ups, but are interested in truth, or the closest they can get to it, when much of the data are lost or deliberately destroyed. The Israelis have control of Palestine de facto. If they feel they need a myth to justify it, that is up to them, but their psycho-sociological need for it should have no bearing on any scientist trying to determine the true facts of history. If the leaning of the data we have is that ancient Israelite history is mythical then to defend the Israelis is no reason to deny it.
Dever does not like the criticisms of the traditionalists but they are quite justified. After one hundred years, Dever says we must still wait for some “mass of complex data” that will revolutionize the history of Israel. The critics of the truth of the Jewish scriptures as history are tired of hearing this, and are tired of hearing so-called archaeological experts lie through their eye teeth about what the archaeological record says.
The trouble is that most of these people have a vested interest in their belief, not in truth. When a few renegades suggest that a belief that depends upon lies should be questioned, they get enraged. It is not just Judaism or Christianity that they see as threatened but, as Dever says, the “Western cultural tradition”. It is a poor tradition that has to be upheld by lies, and it is a poor god that requires his believers to lie for him.
P R S Mooney says ( A Century of biblical Archaeology ) that “it was no longer possible [as early as 1890] to accept without question that the original religion and society of the peoples of ancient Israel had necessarily been different in kind from their neighbours”. Yet more than a full century later, not only are people who want to be ignorant taught it in churches, children who are supposed to be being educated are taught it in our schools. Is it right that Christians should oblige us to be taught what is not, or even what might not, be true? Julius Wellhausen’s Prologemena, over ten years before that, had dated the Pentateuch and Joshua to the Persian period. Solomon Schechter, the discoverer in a Cairo geniza of the Damascus Document, called Wellhausen anti-Semitic.
What Christians cannot fight they ignore. R J Coggins and J L Houlden can edit a book that purports to be a dictionary of biblical interpretation without even having an entry on Julius Wellhausen, rightly described by Joel Sweek as “the most important biblical critic since the Reformation”. Christians are aware that sins of omission are more effective—because less easily noticed—than sins of commission, though they use both to fool their ignorant flocks.
Nineteenth century archaeology might have been relatively amateurish and even incidentally destructive, but it was mainly non-sectarian and non-apologetic, and therefore honest. The archaeology that arose in the twentieth century under W F Albright and his school was much more destructive because it was sectarian and apologetic and so would not entertain contrary evidence. It was “biblical archaeology”. W G Dever wrote that W F Albright’s “overarching goal was to undo the critical, liberal re-writing of Israel’s history, ie, to rewrite Wellhousenism”, while J M Sasson said that “Albright never exerted himself to understand” Wellhausen, confirming that this highly cited Christian archaeologist was no professional at anything except being a Christian.
For over half a century, the gadding about Palestine of W F Albright and his school was counter-productive for many outside of America. European scholars saw it as ruled by a theological motivation and an apologetic purpose which was to defend the authenticity of the bible through its fundamental historicity. The contempt for archaeology the Albrightians generated led to its neglect and almost to its rejection by many European scholars. It shows that some students of the bible are interested in integrity and truth, but they are a rare breed among Christians.
Gosta Ahlström was a European scholar who became an American one through spending half his working life in the USA. He had no regard for the Albright school of mendacity. Biblical research could not be divorced from any other sort of historical research. Theological preconceptions and biases should be set aside along with any other bias not based on evidence, and nor were enquirers scholars unless they were willing to be led wherever the evidence led. He disdained those who played to their peers in the gallery to prove their academic purity without any commitment to historical fidelity. He said that they were not just wrong, they were immoral. Of course, most Christians say, “Not me!”
Ahlström did not want to accept an idea just because it was popular, but only when it had been satisfactorily demonstrated. Christian apologists remain fond of influencing young minds with expressions like “most scholars believe” but Ahlström would tell his students that the weight of scholarly opinion counted for little, if they were all wrong! From the bible alone Ahlström by 1963 had decided that the perpetual monotheism of Yehouah was a myth. It was clear to him that the god had begun in a polytheistic setting.
It was also clear to Ahlström, according to Carl D Evans, a professor at the University of South Carolina, that he saw religion was an instrument of royal policy and administration in the ancient near east, a hugely important observation just because it defies orthodoxy, and explains so much. And yet in his posthumous history of ancient Palestine, he shows how hard it is for biblical scholars to purge their minds of the prejudices they were brought up with. The earlier chapters are commendably objective, but he later falls into the trap of accepting and paraphrasing uncritically the Deuteronomistic history.
In 1921, Friedrich Delitzsch made out the Wellhausenian case afresh, refuting the empty apologetics that had filled books and journals since Wellhausen. Again it made no difference and churches continued to teach their myths as history. What is less forgiveable is that newspaper writers and academics did the same. A recent case reported that medics had diagnosed Herod’s mortal illness from his reported symptoms. It is a nice exercise for doctors, no doubt, and nothing wrong with that. Herod had to die of something whether the doctors are right in their diagnosis or not. But the reporter added to his report the so-called massacre of the innocents as if it were history! This reporter ( Mark Henderson, UK Daily Telegraph ) is a science reporter too! It is time that people of all walks of life stopped pandering to Christian mendacity, especially scientists and historians.
Even though the biblicists came to accept that the oldest date for the earliest parts of the bible to be written was the ninth century—as much as a millennium after Abraham—they claimed these stories had been passed down by a historically reliable oral tradition! Yet the evidence we have in any depth on oral transmission, from the middle ages, does not confirm that it is historically reliable. It might nevertheless be possible to argue that there is some reliable history in these traditions, but how is anyone to know what it is? Without independent confirmationn it is impossible to know. What Christians mean, when they claim there is some historical truth in these ancient tales, is that they are essentially historically true, quite a different argument, but the one that they want Christian tyros to believe. They are essentially mythology, and any history in them cannot be decided upon, so they are useless as historical documents and should be discarded.
Biblicists, under pressure from genuine historical scholars sought to classify portions of the bible as secondary. Having done this, what was left was primary, and what was secondary was not authentic. What was primary was authentic. Naturally what was primary and authentic was declared historical and turned out to be the core history of Israel!
Delitzsch saw it as the propaganda that it was, and he too was often denounced as anti-Semitic for trying to distinguish truth from lies, and Christians even called him anti-Christian. Anyone who brings forward evidence that the Jewish and Christian bibles are mythical stands the risk of getting such treatment. Those who know nothing about truth and try their utmost to hide it will never hear truth as a defence. To attack falsehood is to them to propagate hatred, yet they are often the people who hate, and not their critics. It is another right that religious people want to preserve for themselves while hiding behind a bland veil of love.
An extreme but obvious lie that Christians propagate and like to believe is that they stand in a minority as the defenders of god and His truth in the world against the critical scholars, who plainly then are in a huge majority! B S Childs ( Introduction to the Old Testament in Scripture ) says critical scholars are a “hegemony”. He means a dominating force. Albright thought he was standing against the massed disciples of Wellhausen, apparently a recently coined name for Satan. The clappies like to feel they are struggling like the victims of Nero against a cruel world, when the only cruelty they suffer is the indulgence of their parents and their overweening selves. These though are not sheep but pretend to be scholars. When scholarship is not concerned with truth it is not scholarship, and to claim God’s Truth, is to admit to being a liar.
The opposite of a critical dominance is the truth. The critics cannot get any broadcast time or print space to air their views and can only get published in academic tomes. Every newspaper has its devotional columns, extremely rarely given over to a non-Christian view and very rarely indeed any view critical of the Christian tub of hogwash. This medium, the internet, is overwhelmed with Christian pap while having little that is critical. There has even been recent talk by the UK government, run by a frustrated vicar, as the country’s foremost satirical journal knows, of extending the blasphemy laws. More than a hundred years of critical scholarship has penetrated to the minds of ministers to the extent that they must stop their parishioners from hearing about it, and if by accident they do, dismiss it as cranks or devil worshippers. The whole of critical scholarship has not impinged in the least on the way that clerics address their congregations or the way they teach their Sunday schools. What is this if it is not dishonesty and contempt for discovery?
Views contrary to the believers’ are not argued against but are declaimed as contrary to faith:
Views like those of Noth attack the very heart and core of the biblical proclamation.
Reaction against such extreme criticism is the only possible approach for those committed to the truth of the bible.
Opponents are extreme and are not even allowed to be sincere Christians, committed to the truth of the bible. They are in error, and “error must be combatted!” We know how Christians have comvbatted what they call error in the past. What do they propose to do today?
T L Thompson observes upon the circularity of the reasoning of the biblicists who “derive context from text” and interpret “that text in terms of its wholly dependent context”. This utterly unscientific nonsense is the lifeblood of biblical scholarship. G E Mendenhall writes that the apologists have destroyed any pretence that biblical studies is scientific:
If the ability to command general assent among those who are competent be the criterion of the scientific, it must now be admitted that a science of biblical studies does not exist.
The real point about scientists is that they must bow to the weight of realistic evidence. That is what committed Christians cannot do, and why they are unscientific. What is worse is that they pretend to be scientific for the sake of their sheep. Though they ignore the evidence countering the Christian myth, they effect a pseudo-scientific purity for the benefit of their converts. It can be nothing other than hypocrisy when Christianity braggs that the central requirement of salvation is persistence of belief whatever evidence is brought against it.
Defenders of the scriptures are beginning to accept that they are not history and seeking to present them as something less than historical, without actually admitting they are myths. Two recent editions of popular text books frequently accept the bible as less than historical. Understanding the Old Testament (UOT ) and Old Testament Survey, according to Ron Vince in a review, defend the bible by denying its historicity. Repeatedly they say of a biblical passage that it “is not history as defined by modern historians”, or it “is not history in the modern sense”. History in the “modern sense” is “a purely objective practice”, or “a detached report of events”. The exodus story, writes Anderson (UOT ), “does not pretend to be objective history”.
The historicity of the bible is a religious premise. Expressions such as “Faith affirms that blah blah was superintended by the same Spirit of God that prompted blah blah”, are quite impossible to contradict without being insulting. To do so is to challenge the religious beliefs of the utterer, not to challenge any evidence. That is why these pages are quite uncompromising. Compromise leaves the pious Jews and Christians unchallenged and so continuing in the delusion that their position is unchallengeable.
Minimalism points to serious questions concerning the nature of the biblical text and its relationship to religious faith, such as what is meant by the truth of the bible. In what sense is it true when it is not historically true? Is the theological truth that God revealed himself in the bible dependent upon it being historical truth, or is a different method of expression truth? Are scholarly evidence and argument to be readily accepted when they support the historicity of the bible, but to be rejected when they point to it being allegorical or mythical? Christians have an obligation to use their mind because Matthew (Mt 22:37) has Jesus adding “mind” to the commandment to love God with heart and soul (Dt 13:3;30:6). One assumes he did not mean use your mind, but ignore whatever it discovers, and combat error in those who do not ignore it!
Copyright © 1998-2015 The Circle of Ancient Iranian Studies (CAIS)