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Conservative Scholarship-Critical Scholarship: Can We Talk?

At the end of the day, I believe that just as there are no "bad questions," provided that they are sincerely and respectfully posed, there are no "bogus conversations," provided they are sincerely and respectfully joined. Lemche is quite correct to decry situations in which scholars of other viewpoints are simply labeled and dismissed. This should not be done to today's minimalist scholars, nor indeed to today's more conservative scholars.

By V. Philips Long
Professor of Old Testament
Regent College, Vancouver
March 2005

Readers of Bible and Interpretation will be aware that a debate around the issue of biblical "minimalism" (for want of a better term)[1] has been taking place in its ether. A year and a half ago Niels Peter Lemche contributed a piece entitled "Conservative Scholarship—Critical Scholarship: Or How Did We Get Caught by This Bogus Discussion." He begins with a quote from James Barr's 1977 book Fundamentalism to the effect that "a conservative evangelical student" will tend to want to avoid reading Wellhausen (and, by implication, other critics of his ilk) and will prefer to read books about why Wellhausen is wrong, encouraged in this avoidance strategy by his or her "pastoral advisors." Lemche then comes immediately to his main concern: "Conservative scholarship is on the move, often disguising itself as mainstream scholarship" (p. 1).[2] As perfect examples of the kind of scholars and scholarship he is worried about, Lemche mentions Iain Provan and me. I offer the following response in the hope that it may contribute to better mutual understanding, even if understanding does not lead to agreement.

Conservatives Barred?

Provan is cited as a "perfect example" of a conservative who disguises himself as a mainstream scholar by "being reconciliatory—maybe with a touch of condenscendence [sic]—…claiming the highest level of scholarship even though other interests may be at hand at the same time" (p. 1). We shall return to the issue of "other interests" presently, but for now it may suffice simply to ask whether scholarship and scholars are ever free of "other interests." That Provan should be chosen to represent the kind of "conservative" scholarship against which James Barr warned strikes me as both mystifying and misguided. I have known Provan for almost twenty-five years, have observed his scholarly habits, have read much of his work, have recently co-authored a book with him,[3] and for the past five years have served with him in the same faculty. To attempt to paint Provan with Barr's fundamentalism brush simply doesn't work. To mention but one piece of evidence: Provan currently teaches a course entitled "Biblical Hermeneutics and Criticism" in which he introduces various critical approaches and assigns weekly readings drawn almost exclusively from the progenitors or practitioners of the various criticisms.[4] Does he encourage his students to read critically and to evaluate carefully the strengths and weaknesses of the various critical approaches? I certainly hope so, but isn't that part of what critical scholarship is about?

Misprision, Misunderstanding, or…?

I am cited as "another perfect example of this tactical new orientation" (p. 2). Specifically, Lemche charges me with a "misprision" of his work—a misprision being (according to his note 6) "a deliberate misunderstanding of the view of one's opponents"—thereby creating a "bogus victim" that I have no trouble discrediting. The statement by Lemche that I am charged with deliberately misunderstanding is this: "In the eyes 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." These words come in the last paragraph of Lemche's "Prolegomena" to his Israelites in History and Tradition.[5] In quoting them in my own introductory chapter to Windows into Old Testament History,[6] I understood Lemche to be charging those who do not share his skepticism about "biblical Israel" with having paid insufficient attention to the kind of external, outside-world evidence that, say, ancient Near Eastern studies could offer. Lemche insists, however, that his "remark has nothing to do with the ancient Near East" but stands, rather, "at the end of a discussion of European biblical scholarship in the 19th century" and is meant to criticize "ivory tower" scholarship and its "Schreibtischtheorien."[7]

While to my recollection the terms "ivory tower," "Shreibtischtheorien," and the like do not appear in Lemche's "Prolegomena," it is certainly true that he discusses European biblical scholarship of the 19th century. Having now reread Lemche's "Prolegomena," I think I can see his point—and one must in any case grant him the right to declare what he meant to say—and so I apologize for taking his words in a way he apparently did not intend. A deliberate misunderstanding ("misprision"), however, I cannot in good conscience confess. As I have reflected on what may have prompted me to read Lemche's words in the way I did, a number of factors have come to mind, but I shall relegate them to an endnote[8] so that we may move on to the more general substance of Lemche's essay. At the heart of his essay, it seems to me, is a concern that he and other minimalist scholars are being treated unfairly.[9]

Lemche's Concerns

My understanding of Lemche's key points is as follows:

  1. Conservatives seldom if ever engage in serious reading of and dialogue with their opponents (pp. 1, 4, 8-9) but seek to bury their hated opponents by name-calling (p. 6).[10]
  2. Some critical scholars have recently (unwittingly?) adopted this reprehensible tactic (p. 6) and should stop it: "Critical scholars should be critical enough to realize the tactics of conservative scholars: never engage in a serious discussion with the minimalists" (p. 9).
  3. Whether by conservatives or by critics adopting conservative tactics, minimalist scholars have been labeled and dismissed, even while knowledge of their thirty years of output has remained remarkably limited (p. 10 and passim).
  4. Finally, the notion that minimalists have pursued a hidden, ideological agenda is absurd, and one should ask who the real ideologues are (pp. 10-11).

Each of these points requires a response, so we shall take them up in turn.

Point #1: The Problem with Conservatives

Barr's (and Lemche's) indictment of conservatives and fundamentalists as obscurantist may well be true of some conservatives, but it is hardly true of the vast majority of established evangelical scholars. In fact, if citation rate in publications be any guide, evangelical writers read more widely outside their particular camp than do many (though not all) non-evangelicals. To Barr's charge that evangelicals tend to read secondary literature as a short-cut to gain perspective in lieu of the much more demanding task of reading primary literature in order to develop perspective, I would ask what scholar does not do this on some occasions? (Would it be unfair to suggest that Barr's Fundamentalism, cited by Lemche, is itself just this kind of secondary literature intended to give perspective on a particular brand of scholarship?) I would also contend that inspecting course syllabi (such as Provan's, mentioned in endnote 4) or published works (such as the recently released Biblical History of Israel by Provan, Long, and Longman[11]) shows how wide of the mark the obscurantist charge is nowadays. In the latter, a wide variety of scholarship is discussed, ranging from Davies to Donner to Dever to Deist, and including numerous works by Lemche, Thompson, and many others of various persuasions.

To the more serious charge that conservatives, or critics behaving like them, seek to bury their hated opponents by name-calling, I offer two observations. First, Lemche is of course correct that name-calling is inappropriate and unhelpful in any context—including the academy, where dialogue and understanding are desired. I entirely agree with Lemche that characterizing other scholars as, e.g., anti-Semitic is to set a very dangerous precedent, and it is hard to see how this can help anything. This cannot mean that substantive criticism, even such as might kill the sales of a book, is disallowed in the interest of civility. But it does mean that criticism should be substantive, not ad hoc or ad hominem.

Secondly, however, I find it puzzling (and disturbing—or perhaps comforting) that in his section entitled "Name-calling and the conservative position" (pp. 3-6) Lemche cites almost no evangelicals. Rather, he cites (1) a review in the Jerusalem Post, (2) a University of Tel Aviv professor who accused Lemche's daughter-in-law (herself a Jew) of being a Nazi by virtue of her relationship to "the Nazi Lemche," and (3) a critical scholar who on his website ascribes to the minimalists an "anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism." The only example of a conservative evangelical scholar cited by Lemche is the notably outspoken K. A. Kitchen, and all he is quoted as saying (borrowing Barr's summary) is that "any attempt to apply to ancient near eastern literature the sort of [documentary] analysis customary within the Bible would 'result in manifest absurdities.'"[12] No name-calling here, just a statement of opinion about a particular critical approach. Indeed, judging from Lemche's further quotation of Barr and from the fuller discussion in Fundamentalism, Barr does not seem to be accusing Kitchen of name-calling at all but only of making a "pretence of impartiality."[13] Regarding the latter, Barr's criticisms may have some force (though not just with respect to Kitchen). While notions of impartial, or objective, scholarship may have been common enough in 1966 when Kitchen wrote Ancient Orient and Old Testament, today few hermeneutically aware scholars would deny that the practice of scholarship is bound up with (though not necessarily determined by) "other issues."[14]

So, what of the charge that conservative scholars are obscurantist, preferring name-calling to dialogue? I am not about to claim that no conservative fundamentalists are obscurantist or that none have ever stooped to name-calling. After all, ignorance is bliss, and to err is human. But it does appear from the literature that evangelical scholars are as diligent in their research and as widely read as their critical colleagues. And as for name-calling, to engage in it would not just be a breach of scholarly protocol but would run counter to the most basic tenets of biblical ethics.[15]

Point #2: The Problem with Critics behaving like Conservatives

Given the evidence that Lemche cites, it hardly seems justified to lay the charge of abusive name-calling at the feet of conservative evangelicals, but this is what Lemche does when he suggests that the name-callers are "using a language that has been colored by remarks such as those found in evangelical literature" (p. 6). If such language ("slander" [p. 6]) can be shown to be widespread in current evangelical literature, we need to be made aware of it. Failing such a presentation of evidence, the suggestion that critical scholars have wittingly or unwittingly taken a page from the conservatives' book of dirty tricks remains baseless. Might it not simply be the case that some critical scholars qua critical scholars find the minimalist case lacking cogency on enough points to begin to wonder whether it is worth their while to try to keep up with the prodigious publication rate of some its leading proponents? In other words, could it not be that some critical scholars believe that they have gotten the minimalist drift sufficiently to feel justified in moving on to more fertile pastures? Engaging in name-calling while turning to these other pastures is uncalled for, but it hardly seems fair to blame conservatives either for the decision of critics to move on or for their behavior when doing so.

Point #3: Feeling Labeled and Dismissed

At the heart of Lemche's complaint seems to be a sense that the minimalists have simply been labeled and dismissed. If the refusal of scholars of various stripes to endorse minimalist conclusions leaves some feeling labeled and dismissed, then this is regrettable. I believe, however, that many scholars of various persuasions have in fact engaged seriously with minimalist writings, even if there may have been little initial or, indeed, final inclination to agree with them. My own situation is this: while I have not read all the prodigious output from Copenhagen, Sheffield, and other centers of minimalism, I have thoroughly read books by Davies, Thompson, Lemche, Garbini, Van Seters (though he occupies somewhat different scholarly space) and others; I have read collected volumes such as Can a 'History of Israel' Be Written?[16] and a wide array of articles. Further, I included essays or excerpts from Davies, Thompson, and Lemche in a volume I edited on the topic of ancient Israelite historiography.[17] Thus, in our current environment of over-publication, I feel that I have engaged seriously if not exhaustively with minimalist writings, even if I have not found them generally convincing.[18] I also wonder—and I mean this as an honest question, not an accusing one—how much contemporary evangelical scholarship the minimalists have seriously read and engaged with. Judging from the wistful tone of Lemche's recollection of a time when "the historical-critical scholar would never have accepted the conservative as his equal and never have allowed him into his company" (p. 7) and when "No conservative, i.e., evangelical scholar would ever be allowed to contribute" (p. 8), I cannot imagine that the engagement has been large.

The irony in all this is that Lemche seems to be advocating with respect to conservatives (and critics who join them in their disenchantment with minimalism) precisely the kind of labeling and dismissing that he feels he and other minimalists are suffering. The problem as Lemche sees it is that "Entering 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" (p. 8). This refusal of dialogue might appear obscurantist, but that is not Lemche's point. Rather, he maintains that "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" (p. 8). While the notion that scholarship should seek to follow the evidence wherever it leads is axiomatic, Lemche's bald statement strikes me as perhaps too positivistic. Later in his essay, Lemche himself observes that since the 20th century "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" (p. 10). If Lemche is serious about "the self as a social construct" (p. 10), how can he speak of simply pursuing scholarship wherever it may lead, as if "other interests" are not somehow involved? As I have argued elsewhere, "every scholar comes to the table not just as a scholar but as a human being,"[19] replete with those "other interests" of which Provan was earlier charged. If a kind of relative scholarly objectivity is to be achieved, it will be by recognizing and thus controlling, not denying, the influence of these "other interests."

Point #4: Conspiracy or Consistency?

Lacking evidence to the contrary, I quite agree with Lemche that revisionist scholars are not engaged in some kind of conspiracy. They are, it seems to me, simply drawn together in common cause in the same way that other scholars who tend to see things in similar or compatible ways are drawn together. To find another's views sympathetic and convincing does not mean that one has joined the other in a conspiracy. I also acknowledge the force of Lemche's claim that today's so-called minimalists did not arrive at their minimalism by taking a path different from the path traveled by their critical predecessors but, rather, by following the path consistently and relentlessly to its radical endpoint (pp. 10-11). On this point, Lemche may find himself in surprising agreement with Provan and his co-authors in A Biblical History of Israel.[20]

So, Can We Talk?

At the end of the day, I believe that just as there are no "bad questions," provided that they are sincerely and respectfully posed, there are no "bogus conversations," provided they are sincerely and respectfully joined. Lemche is quite correct to decry situations in which scholars of other viewpoints are simply labeled and dismissed. This should not be done to today's minimalist scholars, nor indeed to today's more conservative scholars. Respect should not and cannot require that one read everything another scholar has written, but it does require that a representative sampling be read, and read well, before judgments are made. Further—and this is important—if our conversations are to be not only genial but also profitable, we must begin to explore more openly the deeper levels at which some of our disagreements exist. In other words, we must become more open to discussing the "other issues" that we all bring to the table. Only then will we be in a position to work upward from the fundamental differences to the resulting disagreements at the surface level of particular judgments on specific points. In The Nature of Historical Knowledge, in a chapter entitled "The Historian's Mind and Historical Reconstruction," Michael Stanford remarks:

In all these approaches, historians employ their intentions, their hopes and fears, their beliefs, their methodological, even metaphysical, principles, their grasp and use of language and of languages, their hermeneutic capacities, and so on. All these are relevant to the major task of seeing and understanding the past, and hence making a reasonably accurate and functioning mental model of it.[21]

In short, there are indeed "other issues" involved in all our scholarly practice, and the sooner we recognize them ourselves and disclose them to others, the sooner we may get to the heart of some of our academic disagreements. But here a word of caution: to attempt to divine the "intentions, …hopes and fears, …beliefs, …methodological, even metaphysical, principles" of other scholars is a dangerous business and one that can all too easily lead to a kind of labeling—even name-calling—that, as Philip Davies fears, could "bring scholarship as a whole into disrepute."[22] But burying real points of disagreement is not the solution either. As I have suggested elsewhere,

Perhaps if scholars were more forthcoming about their own core commitments, there would be less temptation to characterize (or caricature) one another in terms that might indeed bring scholarship into disrepute.[23]

Near the end of one of his recent books, Dever poses a very direct question:

Are we not entitled to know what professional biblical scholars, whether they are clerics or not (most no longer are), after a lifetime of study and reflection have come to believe about the Bible, that is, about its ultimate claims?[24]

To borrow words from Hans Barstad, we are "all in fact practising some sort of philosophy, and it would certainly not hurt [our] work if [we] realized this."[25]


[1] It is often observed that labels are not particularly helpful, and this is certainly true with respect to the labels "minimalist" and "conservative." Simply applying a label can obscure the fact that there are often wide differences among "minimalist" scholars, as indeed among "conservative" scholars. For purposes of this essay, nevertheless, these overly general designations will have to suffice.

[2] My numbers are based on a printout of the on-line version that comes to 11 pages of text, plus endnotes.

[3] I. Provan, V. P. Long, and T. Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 2003).

[4] In brief, for source criticism he assigns the first fifty pages of Wellhausen's Prolegomena to the History of Israel, for form/tradition criticism the first seventy-nine pages of Gunkel's Genesis, for tradition/redaction criticism fifty pages of Noth's Deuteronomistic History, for rhetorical criticism Muilenburg's famous "Form Criticism and Beyond" plus fifty pages of Trible's Rhetorical Criticism, and so on in like manner through structuralism (Leach; Patte), post-structuralism (Culler plus Fowler and Clines), narrative criticism (Alter), social scientific criticism (C. Myers plus Gottwald and Whitelam), feminist criticism (Russell), and canonical criticism (Childs plus Barr). Virtually everything he has the students read is primary material.

[5] N. P. Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox, 1998), 21.

[6] V. P. Long, G. J. Wenham, and D. W. Baker, eds., Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument, and the Crisis of "Biblical Israel" (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002).

[7] "Conservative Scholarship—Critical Scholarship," 2.

[8] First, by the time I returned to Lemche's "Prolegomena" and excerpted the quotation, I had read his book from cover to cover and thus had his chapters two and three ("Israel in Contemporary Documents from the Ancient Near East," and "Archaeology and Israelite Ethnic Identity") freshly in mind. In this light, the import of ancient Near Eastern documents and archaeology seemed to me central to Lemche's project. Secondly, the final paragraph of Lemche's "Prolegomena," in which the quotation in view occurs, begins this way: "This book will analyze the concept of Israel in order to see whether the Israel of the Old Testament is a reflection of a real society of this world or the negative contrast to the new Israel" (The Israelites in History and Tradition, 21). The future tense with which this programmatic sentence begins may have induced me to understand Lemche's phrase "real society of this world" as looking ahead to his consideration of the real societies of the ancient Near Eastern world (chaps. 2 and 3) rather than back over what he had been discussing (in which the ancient Near East is indeed mentioned from time to time, but is not the central theme). And finally, in the back of my mind, I suppose, were the kinds of claims that Lemche has made in other writings about the discrediting effect of archaeological results vis à vis "biblical Israel": e.g., "the Old Testament model—or account—of early Israelite history is…disproved by the archaeological sources to such a degree that I consider it better to leave it out of consideration" (N. P. Lemche, "On the Problem of Studying Israelite History: Apropos Abraham Malamat's View of Historical Research," Biblische Notizen 24 [1984]: 94-124; on 122). Statements such as this one indicate that ancient Near Eastern archaeology and extra-biblical evidences do figure prominently in Lemche's arguments

[9] I take some comfort at least in the fact that Lemche characterizes my treatment of him as "gentle" (p. 3), in contrast to what he feels he has received from other quarters.

[10] A careful reader of Lemche's essay will note that it is actually Gary Rendsburg who is charged with issuing a "war cry, intending at [sic] burying his hated opponents," but the same reader will not miss the fact that "evangelical literature" is cited as the inspiration for Rendsburg's approach so that "In this way, conservative theology and a modern political movement combine forces—strange bedfellows!" (p. 6).

[11] See note 3 above.

[12] Barr, Fundamentalism, 130; citing K. A. Kitchen, Ancient Orient and Old Testament (Chicago, Ill.: Inter-Varsity Press, 1966), 115.

[13] Lamentably, Kitchen's forceful rhetoric does on occasion adopt a less than charitable tone (see, e.g., Charles David Isbell's insightful "K. A. Kitchen and Minimalism" on this website).

[14] For my own discussions of this general point, see, e.g., V. P. Long, The Art of Biblical History (FCI 5; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 120-22, 131-34, 171-76 and passim; idem, ed., Israel's Past in Present Research: Essays on Ancient Israelite Historiography (SBTS 7; Winona Lake, Ind.: Eisenbrauns, 1999), 585-87; idem, ed., Windows into Old Testament History, 8-10; and most recently, Provan, Long, and Longman, A Biblical History of Israel (see pages listed in topical index under "assumptions," "background beliefs," and "worldview").

[15] Though the precedent of Jesus in denouncing religious hypocrisy—"You snakes, you brood of vipers!" (Matt. 23:33)—suggests that occasions may arise where robust denunciation is indeed called for. For my own reflections on how Christian scholars should engage in conversation with un-likeminded scholars, see V. P. Long, "Renewing Conversations: Doing Scholarship in an Age of Skepticism, Accommodation, and Specialization," Bulletin for Biblical Research 13, no. 2 (2003): 227-49.

[16] L. L. Grabbe, ed., Can a 'History of Israel' Be Written? (JSOTS 245: European Seminar in Historical Methodology 1; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997).

[17] Israel's Past in Present Research (see note 14 above).

[18] For an example of such engagement, see V. P. Long, "How Reliable are Biblical Reports? Repeating Lester Grabbe's Comparative Experiment," Vetus Testamentum 52, no. 3 (2002): 367-84.

[19] Windows into Old Testament History, 8.

[20] See especially the section entitled "A Long-Term Illness: Two Initial Case Studies" (pp. 9-18).

[21] M. Stanford, The Nature of Historical Knowledge (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986), 96.

[22] P. R. Davies, "'Ancient Israel' and History: A Response to Norman Whybray," Expository Times 108, no. 8 (1996): 212.

[23] V. Philips Long, "The Future of Israel's Past: Personal Reflections," in Israel's Past in Present Research (ed. V. P. Long), 586.

[24] W. G. Dever, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?: What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 287.

[25] H. M. Barstad, "History and the Hebrew Bible," in Can a 'History of Israel' Be Written? (ed. L. L. Grabbe), 48. I would like to thank Matt Lynch, Ian Panth, and Polly Long for kindly reading over this essay and making helpful observations. The end product is, of course, my own responsibility.