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Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion

On Behalf of the Dever-Davies Exchange

By Niels Peter Lemche
Department of Biblical Studies
The University of Copenhagen
September 2003

"A conservative evangelical student, asked to read Wellhausen and discuss the reasons for his ordering of sources in the Pentateuch, will not want to read Wellhausen and will try, if possible, to escape from the imposition: what he will do is to read a work which will tell him why Wellhausen was wrong. His pastoral advisers, if he has any, will council him to read this kind of book: they will not advise him to read energetically the works of Wellhausen himself, or of de Wette, or of Kuenen."[1]

Conservative scholarship at the move

Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship. Part of being mainstream has to do with being reconciliatory-maybe with a touch of condescendence-asking people in the frontline to behave, abstain from labelling and name-calling. Professor Provan's contribution to this discussion is a perfect example of this new attitude, claiming the highest level of scholarship even though other interests may be at hand at the same side.

Another perfect example of this tactical new orientation can be found in the recently published volume Windows into Old Testament History edited by V. Philip Long, David W. Baker, and Gordon J. Wenham, including among other articles Ian Provan's lecture at the IOSOT conference in Oslo in 1998[2] and also lending pages to two contributions from Copenhagen-of course not by members of the "Copenhagen School" but from the Free Faculty, a private evangelical institution with no relations to the University of Copenhagen.[3]

In his "Introduction" that mostly has to do with my writings, V. Philip Long criticizes me for my general attitude to historical studies.[4] His point of departure regarding my critical remark about traditional critical scholarship that does not look out of the window into the real world[5] is a reference to a lack of interest among biblical scholars concerned with the ancient Near East. As a matter of fact, my remark has nothing to do with the ancient Near East: it stands at the end of a discussion of European biblical scholarship in the 19th century and has to do with the place of the traditional scholar of that time who is located in the lofty "ivory tower" of the central European university institution. In sociology, biblical scholars' ideas about society, about its institutions, and how they function will mostly be dubbed "Schreibtischtheorien," happily constructed without regard for the disturbing realities of the surrounding world but ignored by the scholar in his quest for "true science."

However, having misunderstood- a "misprision"[6] as the late Robert Carroll would have phrased it-my remark, Long proceeds to discuss the merits and lack of merits of his bogus victim. Positing that my lack of interest in the ancient Near East has prevented him from truly understanding the character of ancient Israel in its near eastern context, Long has no trouble in creating an image of a scholar who does not know his stuff. It can be done in a gentle way, as in Long's introduction. It can be sharpened as in the quote by J.K. Hoffmeister, cited in Long's introduction, or it can be rude as found in several publications by W.G. Dever and other scholars on the same line like G. Rendsburg.[7] The meaning is the same: do not discuss the points made by these people; just say that they are incompetent.

Name-calling and the conservative position

There are several kinds of name-calling, but in the end, they all tend to impress a readership in such a way that it will simply abstain from reading material written by members of the group characterized by the name-calling. The worst form is the slanderous labelling such as the one found in Magen Broshi's review in the Jerusalem Post of Thomas Thompson's The Bible in History[8]-a very negative review in itself-ending with a note that informs the reader that Thompson's favored readings are "The Protocols of Zion." As Thompson told me, this put an effective end to the sales of the book on the American market, and once it aired, it seems to have been repeated so many times that many people believed it to be true. Such slander can be dangerous to the scholar so characterized but also to his relatives. Thus, my daughter-in-law was accused by one of her teachers at the University of Tel Aviv of being related to the Nazi Lemche, and by extension, she was also accused of being a Nazi-a quite ridiculous accusation as she is herself a Jew and the daughter of one of Israel's highest decorated soldiers. It is in this light that Philip Davies' angry attack on William Dever in the course of this exchange must be seen.

What is the aim of this labeling? Here it is interesting to compare with the characterization of conservative scholarship in James Barr's book on fundamentalism where Barr in his own acid way reviews the tactics of conservative scholarship.[9] We may summarize Barr's argument in this way: The advice to the novice in biblical studies is never engage in any serious way in a discussion with non-conservative scholars. You should just denounce them as incompetent and not worth reading and continue this tactic until people believe you. Barr, himself born into an evangelical environment, has no doubts about the background and motivation of the conservative standpoint. The following are a few quotations starting with Barr's résumé of a statement by K.A. Kitchen:

Nowhere in the Ancient Orient is there anything which is definitely known to parallel the sort of history of sources and redaction postulated by the documentary hypothesis of critical scholarship, and any attempts to apply to ancient near eastern literature the sort of analysis customary within the Bible would "result in manifest absurdities."[10]

In Barr's words:

Here again we find the assumption of an objectivist intellectualist attitude: there is no need to quote dogma, no need to indulge in heated religious controversy. One simply and calmly states the evidence from outside the Bible that shows how unnecessary and how completely wrong the entire series of critical questionings has been. ... Indeed, it is a necessity of the conservative argument from recent ancient near eastern evidences that it makes at least a pretence of impartiality. ... And, finally, one other point ...probably none of the writers of conservative evangelical literature on the Bible who are actual professional biblical scholars can be found to be so completely negative towards the main trend in biblical scholarship as are those like Kitchen who look on the subject from outside. In view of all that has been said, this should not be surprising.

Let us stop the discussion between James Barr and Kenneth Kitchen at this point; however, it is interesting that William Dever has used Barr against the likes of Davies, Thompson, and Lemche.[11] The next step is to introduce the criticism of minimalism by Gary Rendsburg, who, on his homepage, has the following words to say about this group of scholars:

...To give you the names of the four best known among them, they are Thomas Thompson, Philip Davies, Niels Lemche, and Keith Whitelam. Some of them are driven ... by Marxism and leftist politics. Some of them are former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. 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. But the two most important elements in the profile of these scholars are the following. First, almost without exception, these scholars have no expertise in the larger world of ancient Near Eastern studies ....Second, ...almost without exception, the scholars of this group are not Jewish....Furthermore, and I do not hesitate to use the terms, these scholars are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism.[12]

Here we have an example of the same sort of criticism; this time it is not presented by a conservative scholar in the narrow sense of the word. Nevertheless, Rendsburg follows their example by using a language that has been colored by remarks such as those found in evangelical literature. Here all the elements of the kind of slander which some scholars (N.K. Gottwald and C. Issbel, for example) want to minimalize or dismiss as bad manners are included. However, it cannot just be disregarded as never said or intended. Rendsburg is very outspoken in his efforts to ostracize the minimalists. It is a war cry, intending at burying his hated opponents, and although it is not printed in the usual way, but published on an official homepage of McGill University, it is no less serious in its accusations of the minimalists for being anti-Semites. Rendsburg implies that their writings are similar to those found in Mein Kampf. He is aiming at destroying the minimalists without ever engaging in a serious debate with them. In this way, conservative theology and a modern political movement combine forces-strange bedfellows!

Changing image-never changing tactics

How can it be that historical-critical scholars end up allied to conservative scholars? A generation ago the historical-critical scholar would never have accepted the conservative as his equal and never have allowed him into his company. It is a strange by-product of recent trends in biblical scholarship that opposing forces have now joined in the effort to crush so-called "radical" critical scholarship. Now it is common that traditionally minded (meaning accepting critical results of the past) scholars, who cannot accept recent ideas and trends in biblical studies because of their own critical opinion-an absolutely legitimate position-resort to the same kind of polemics as formerly found only in conservative literature.

There may be a number of explanations for this strange fact. One may be that the majority of critical scholars originate within a religious milieu and at the bottom of their hearts are conservatives without probably realizing this. Thus, critical scholarship represents a kind of breaking away from one's own background. The changing attitude towards even more critical scholars questioning, e.g., the very existence of King David, may have to do with the fear of totally losing the tradition-after all Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem so the new David could be born there! Somehow there seem to be questions that we are not allowed to ask.

Another explanation may have to do with the change of gravity within biblical scholarship. A generation ago the center was definitely Europe, and here German scholarship was unquestionably the flagship. European scholars were all brought up in the shadow of de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad, and without accepting these scholars as leading stars; nobody would be allowed to enter the temple of academic biblical studies. It is true that some critical voices were raised, mostly in the periphery of German scholarship such as the Uppsala School in Scandinavia and the "Myth-and-Ritual" school in Great Britain; in addition, these voices joined the chorus of historical-critical scholars. No conservative, i.e., evangelical scholar would ever be allowed to contribute.

Now days, biblical scholarship is dominated by American scholars, presenting a much more colorful picture. Historical-critical scholarship has no monopoly like it used to have in Europe; academic institutions may be-according to European standards-critical or conservative, but in contrast to the European tradition, these very different institutions will communicate, thus lending respectability also to the conservative position.

This definitely represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition. Entertaining a dialogue with an opponent who has different goals from the ones of the critical scholar means the same as diluting one's own position: in the universe of the critical scholar, there can be no other goal than the pursuit of scholarship-irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her.

As a matter of fact, critical scholarship should not be in danger. If we study the conservative literature of the last fifteen years, we will with a few decent exceptions never find a serious discussion of ideas put forward by scholars dubbed "minimalists."[13] There is no reason to be surprised. James Barr made the point twenty-five years ago: never read Wellhausen; read books about Wellhausen. An evangelical student of mine made that mistake: he took part in a seminar on fundamentalism and choose Luther as his subject; a couple of days later he returned to tell me that after having read Luther he had come to the realization that Luther was not a fundamentalist.

Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of the conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists. Don't read Davies, Thompson, and Lemche; read books about them! Happily, many critical scholars understand the problem, and their contribution to the discussion is sound and helpful. It is, however, a serious mistake when critical scholars like Dever and Baruch Halpern apply the tactics of the conservatives, thereby ending up in a morass, supporting ideas that are not really their own.

The moot question of ideology

One last point often included in the discussion has to do with ideology. Here the minimalists are accused of pursuing a hidden agenda. They are ideologically against the Bible bashers, as Dever sometimes calls us. They enjoy destructing the Bible and have no respect for tradition-not to say traditional critical scholarship. From the very beginning, the minimalists planned this destruction, and they are now reaping their reward, being condemned by traditional scholarship and being burned at the stake in the classical theological fashion.

We may, however, be entitled to ask: who are the ideologists here? Ian Provan has in a number of publications stressed the issue of ideology as distorting the views of the minimalists,[14] and his criticism has been taken up, e.g., by James Barr, who, although expressing his agitation with minimalism, nevertheless expounded the ideology of Ian Provan, claiming him to be the true post-modernist among us.[15]

Barr is critical of the minimalists for, among other things, not paying due respect to positions such as those formulated by Jürgen Habermas, thereby ignoring that the minimalist position would probably not be possible without Habermas' introduction of the self as a social construct. To make it short, what really happened in the 20th century within the humanities was the change from history to sociology, from philosophy to psychology, and from philology to linguistics. And it is within this immensely changed scientific world the criticism of the minimalist should be truly understood. We possess an immensely improved understanding of the cognitive process and its ideological basis in the milieu of the individual scholar. Of course, there is no such thing as objective knowledge. This goes without saying. However, to maintain that the present minimalists from the very beginning knew all of this would be presumptuous. It was never the case, as a review of the last almost forty years of scholarship may tell.

Here it is interesting to see how narrow the range of knowledge of the output of the minimalists among their critics really is. Very little from before 1990 is known or quoted or discussed, although the minimalists-or the main exponents of the trend-are senior scholars approaching retirement and have been publishing for thirty years or more.

Thus, it is never understood that we did not start with ideology. On the contrary, as historical-critical scholars of the old school, we started with critical scholarship as it used to be-trained in the European academic tradition already described-but we did not stop when the results were disconcerting and bewildering. The demolition of the history of ancient Israel proceeded along a logical line of advance from the patriarchs, via the Exodus and the conquest, over the Period of the Judges to David and his time, and the center of discussion has now moved on to the late pre-exilic, the exilic, and the post-exilic periods. It is correct that havoc followed in the wake of progress, but it was certainly not because of a preconceived ideology different from the one shared by the majority of historical-critical scholars.

By accusing a special group of critical scholars of today of being ideologists, the conservative scholars simply invert the fact that they are themselves embedded in religious communities with conservative ideologies. Barr's study on fundamentalism is more than twenty-five years old and refers to a different situation, but the tactics of the conservatives are the same, and nothing has changed.


[1] James Barr, Fundamentalism (London, SCM, 1977), pp. 121-122.

[2] "In the Stable with the Dwarves: Testimony, interpretation, faith and the history of Israel," in Long, Baker, and Wenham (eds.), Windows into Old Testament History (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Eerdmans, 2002), pp. 161-197 (first published in A. Lemaire and M. Sæbø (eds.), Congress Volume, Oslo, 1998 [Leiden: Brill, 2000], pp. 281-319).

[3] In Danish, Dansk Bibelinstitut, sponsored by the Lutheran Mission. It has no officially recognized status and studies there do not qualify for anything.

[4] V. Philip Long, "Introduction" in Long, Baker, and Wenham (eds.), Windows into Old Testament History, pp. 1-22.

[5] In N.P. Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition (Library of Ancient Israel; London, SPCK/Louisville Kentucky, Westminster John Knox, 1998), p. 21.

[6] A deliberate misunderstanding of the view of one's opponents.

[7] A selection of such quotes can be found in my article "Ideology and the History of Ancient Israel," SJOT 14 (2000), pp. 165-93, an article not included in Long's introduction, although it appeared almost two years before his own Windows into Old Testament History. Parts of the argument here can be found in an expanded form in this article.

[8] T.L. Thompson, The Bible in History: How Writer's Create a Past (London, Jonathan Cape, 1999) (American edition, The Mythical Past [New York, Basic Books, 1999]).

[9] J. Barr, Fundamentalism, pp. 120-159.

[10] Barr, Fundamentalism, p. 130, cf. K.A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (London: Tyndale, 1966), p. 115.

[11] W.G. Dever, "Contra Davies," in this series of exchanges, § 8

[12] G. Rendsburg, "Down with History, Up with Reading: The Current State of Biblical Studies." I responded to Rendsburg's wild accusations in SJOT 14, questioning the relevance of the picture painted of the minimalists, including this writer who, besides being a professional scholar, has had a military career of almost 30 years as an officer in the Danish armed forces-hardly the most left-wing organization in this world.

[13] One such exception is D.W. Baker and Bill T. Arnold (eds.), The Face of Old Testament Studies: A Survey of Contemporary Approaches (Grand Rapids, Michigan, Baker, 1999), which although definitely a conservative work, nevertheless lends pages to the ideas of also the minimalist party.

[14] In his above mentioned article, "In the Stable with the Dwarves", and already in his "Ideologies, Literary and Critical Reflections on Recent Writing on the History of Israel," JBL 114 (1995), pp. 585-606.

[15] J. Barr, History and Ideology in the Old Testament: Biblical Studies at the End of a Millennium (Oxford, University Press, 2000), p. 69. In spite of often being introduced to the minimalist-maximalist discussion, Barr's contribution is primarily aimed against the positions of Robert Carroll, who happened to die a couple of weeks before the appearance of Barr's work, thus in some way making it strangely "off limits" and missing its focal point.