Thursday, February 11, 2010

Bible, History and Ancient Israel

I've just finished reading Megan Bishop Moore's Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel, well, rereading actually. I read it last year and was supposed to write a review but life got right away from me as '09 progressed. Re-reading it I'm ready to do the review but I thought I would first gather/research my thoughts here.

I have to say the book is pretty good in the way it surveys how "biblical" history or "Ancient Israel" history has been done from mid-last century to present. It provides a particularly good account of the challenge raised by the 'minimalists' in the late 80s and 90s to a whole suite of assumptions that had underpinned biblical/Ancient Israel history writing up until then. Two key assumptions, in particular, were questioned by the minimalists - the reliability of the biblical texts for providing any valid information about Ancient Israel and the very validity of the term Ancient Israel to understand Iron Age Palestine. Was the history of Ancient Israel/Iron Age Palestine nothing more than a scholarly construct based on biblical texts, themselves products of the later Persian/Hellenistic eras, that had but retrojected a constructed narrative onto the past, even displacing that Iron Age past?

The one thing that strikes me reading this book is just how much old testament biblical studies has been aligned with doing history, in many respects subsumed by doing a specific history, that of Iron Age Palestine. In terms of the texts, I'm pretty much a minimalist. I don't think any of them come from the Iron Age. They may draw on Iron Age resources, a few psalms and hymns and poems, a few laws and maybe some rituals. And clearly the author(s) of Kings had some kind of chronicle or king lists for Palestine in the Assyrian period and later because we can find references to these same monarchs in Assyrian records. But at the same time it's clear that Kings is written well and truly after the events it describes - it has to be to end, when it does, at the Babylonian conquest of Judah. Kings ends in an exile present so it has to be written some time later, later exile, Persian or beyond. And as Kings serves as final instalment of the saga, Joshua - Kings, known in Judaism as the Former Prophets, and known by scholars as the Deuteronomistic History due to recurring patterns of style and thought, ideology, then it seems fair enough to regard all those texts as roughly contemporaneous in composition. The alternative account of this history, Chronicles, definitely ends in a Persian present, as do, of course, Isaiah and the Book of the Twelve Minor Prophets. So their composition has to be in the Persian period or later.

The Torah, too, has long been regarded as post-exilic in its final form. The famous documentary hypothesis of historical critical scholarship, following Wellhausen postulated a post-exilic context to the P or priestly material that was understood as one of the four key assumed sources of the Pentateuch. This was the material added by the editors who redacted the materials into the Torah's final form. Historical critical scholars relied on the assumed age of the other assumed sources, most famously (the Book of) J, which was generally dated to the 10th or 9th centuries BCE. The dating of these various assumed sources relied on the historical veracity of the biblical narratives about Ancient Israel. But for a long time, what was crucial was to identify and date sources, it was a kind of an archeology of the text from which a history could be constructed and by which scholars could identify and locate specific voices, not least the 'original voices' of different prophets. A similar process has been employed in New Testament studies, especially in the quest for the historical Jesus but I wont go into that here.

By mid-20th century, methodological problems with such source criticism had led to the development of form criticism and redaction criticism. The latter analysed the way the sources had been edited together to create the final text. However if an editor is too skilful in their work, then they are starting to be more like an author, what became termed as the case of the disappearing editor (redactor).

Most of this historiography is not covered by Bishop who starts her account early/mid-20th century with the US based biblical archeology 'school' of Albright and Bright who weren't at all interested in digging in the text when they could be digging in the (Palestinian/Israeli) soil instead. Like the historical critics, these archeologists had great confidence in the overall historicity of the biblical accounts and theirs was a genuinely scholarly approach, unlike the ark hunters and other Christian fundamentalist so-called archeologists of today e.g. the late Ron Wyatt. She turns then from US biblical archeology of the soil to European archeology of the text as represented by Albrecht Alt and his 'school'. This is the good old historical critical project that I referred to above. Like Albright and his followers, Alt and his colleagues had as their goal the reconstruction and elucidation of the history of Ancient Israel. As with the US archeology school, Alt and his colleagues followed a genuinely scholarly approach to their work with texts. Both schools were positivist, empirical in their approach and committed to objectivity in the way they did history.

I think several factors undermined both these approaches. By the 70s archeology is starting to put in doubt some of the presumed historicity of the biblical narrative. At the same time, for both archeology and for history more broadly, the 20th century saw changes in philosophy and practice in both disciplines. Bishop outlines these shifts in her first two chapters. Inasmuch as biblical studies had been conflated with doing history, then the rise of minimalism was necessary and inevitable. The minimalists could be seen as calling people to more rigorous standards of doing history. Or even more importantly, asking just what was the point of all this history of Ancient Israel work in the first place. How much was the interest in the states/statelets of Iron Age Palestine due to theological rather than straightforward historical concerns? And, given their later provenance, how relevant are the biblical texts to reconstructing a history of Palestine in the Iron Age? Is placing reliance on the biblical version of events, evidence of theological bias, especially if artifacts and other data don't give support to that version?

Bishop gives a chapter to the minimalists and then turns to the 'opposition' which she terms non-mimimalist. It's a rather awkward term because it implies an opposing binary whereas I think the reality is more like a continuum at (or towards) one end of which sit the minimalists while the non-minimalists stretch along most of the rest of the continuum. Some such as Iain Provan (and his colleagues Long and Longman) would appear to sit right down towards the other end of the of the continuum, at least in accepting the reliablity of the biblical narrative, accepting everything from the Abraham/Sarah story onwards as a history (alas Bishop doesn't report why Provan, Long and Longman don't accord the primordial 'history' - Adam to Babel - the same sort of reliability). The problem with such an approach is that, especially with no other data, artifactual or textual, for verification, what's produced is not so much history as scholarly paraphrases of biblical narrative. So much of the older history of Ancient Israel really is nothing more than biblical paraphrase.

Bishop's final chapter assesses the state of the discipline i.e. history of Ancient Israel. It seems that for many if not most non-minimalists, there is a new consensus in approach, one in which results are understood to be more contingent and in which there can be a greater variety of reconstructions and consequent discussion and debate. As a biblical scholar, rather than ancient historian, I'm most interested in what we can learn about the religious world of Iron Age Palestine and how much continuity it had with the older 'Canaanite' world of the Bronze Age. I'm also interested in the religious interactions between Palestine and its neighbours e.g. Egypt. However what I would really like to know more about is Palestine in the Persian and Hellenistic periods and not just Palestine but the communities of YHWH worshippers within Palestine and beyond. We get a glimpse from the Elephantine papyri and can get some glimpses by reading some of the biblical texts such as Isaiah and The Twelve. Biblical history for me is, in part, the history of the religious ideas found in the Old Testament and related texts, how they fit in the broader religious world of the ancient Middle East and beyond. Whether or not there was a Samson or a Saul or a Solomon is nowhere near as important, at least from a biblical studies perspective.


  1. Thanks, Paul, although this is more a response piece, much of which will be rewritten for the review for Bible and Critical Theory e-journal.