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Final Comments on Minimalism

The discussion is about dating literature as whole, not individual stories. Judges is an excellent example. There is no evidence to show there was a book of Judges in the Iron Age.

By Philip Davies
University Of Sheffield, England
June 2003

    I have been invited to respond to comments on my paper by Norman Gottwald and Charles Isbell. Both seem to want to put Dever and me on the same level. I resent that; there are issues on both sides that need to be argued, but I have said nothing untrue about Dever. I made two points: he is not a biblical scholar, and he does deny the historicity of Genesis-Joshua. Both are correct. Dever is, as I pointed out, deliberately trying to make me say what I do not say. That’s one difference. Another is that I made no critical comments about Dever until the attack on me occurred in his book. As editor of JSOT, I accepted an article of his for publication only a few years ago. I even refrained from replying to his personal attack in a Near Eastern archaeology article which contained invented details about a person he had never met or spoken to (we met for the first time in March 2003). There is no feud. Nor, despite Isbell’s comment, is there any doubt about “who fired the first shot. “ I was surprised by the fact and the vehemence of Dever’s attack since, as Norman Gottwald says (and I also pointed out in BAR), our “differences on particular historical issues are not nearly as great as their polemics seem to imply.” I therefore feel entitled to respond as strongly as I have. However, as I recently said publicly, I shall have no further debate with him unless he wants to talk about my views and not ones he makes up. Finkelstein and Thompson told me they feel the same way, so hopefully this nastiness will now come from one side only in the future. I have reviewed Dever’s book (twice!) and will happily email anyone the text. These reviews are not exhaustive, but they do indicate what I see as the weakness in Dever’s case.

    There are, of course, scores of other archaeologists and biblical scholars doing their work in the context of the collapse of Late Albright civilization and addressing the new perspectives on Israelite origins and on dating the Bible. It is a complex set of interrelated questions and will take years of discussion, I suspect, before we grow tired and move onto a new topic (what on earth could it be?)

    Charles Isbell queries my claim to be “mainstream”; I refer not so much to the majority of current opinions but to the development of biblical criticism since the 18th century. “Minimalist” positions were common early in the 20th century; perhaps American scholars just need to read more German! If one takes the mid-20th century “biblical archaeology” movement as a temporary departure and not as the new direction, we can easily see how “minimalism” is resuming the older agenda (one that never disappeared, anyway) in a wider context that does not deal so much with the minute details of source- and form-criticism but relies more on the social sciences. As for “minimalism,” I don’t like the term because, as my article stated, it characterizes a complex set of arguments in terms purely of “how much biblical history they can retain” -- a bad criterion for how to do biblical studies. It implies a dedication to biblical historicity as a yardstick of scholarship, and this is, I think, a popular prejudice that biblical scholars ought to resist rather than encourage. As for the labels I use: “Albrightean,” Zionist, and “biblical archaeologist” are not labels I made up, and I use them in a perfectly straightforward way like everyone else. There is no comparison.

    “Surely not everything about David in the Bible is historically unreliable?” writes Isbell. I don’t know what status the “surely” has – is this an argument? I can do literary analysis as well as the next person (I have published a great deal of it), and if I think there is any way I can rescue a piece of reliable history from the stories of David, I am ready to do so. Believe it or not, I am quite prepared to make the attempt for Saul. But even guessing that there might be some vestiges of history beneath the legend is quite different from being able to identify which vestiges. Baruch Halpern and Steven Mackenzie each wrote books recently about David. Each one said that a David existed, but not the one described in the Bible. This position is not that far from mine, except that I don’t share their faith in or ability to separate a “historical” one from a “biblical one.” But we can continue to debate (and I am good friends with both). At least we all agree that when we speak of “David” historically we are not speaking of the biblical one. There are, therefore, degrees of “minimalism” over David between us; that is all. The principle is precisely the one I have sought to establish: do not equate “biblical” and “historical” except at the end of a very long and well-constructed argument, if you can make one.

    Finally, I do not think that the Bible was written for the Persians, and I don’t believe I ever suggested this. The immigrants who arrived in the fifth century in Yehud already had Persian support. They may well also have been keen to establish a new temple-centered polity, have been antagonistic to the “people of the land” and monotheistic, adopted a written law code, and developed a strong ethnic bond (such as children of the galut, “Israel”). These possibilities are taken as high as possible by a very large number of scholars working on the early Second Temple period. The members of this new society may (and here is where my own theory about the biblical narratives takes over) have been concerned to assimilate as much as possible of the language and history of Judah as they could, to really make the claim against the Judeans who never left the land, that they were really “Israel” (Isaiah 40-55 reflects this kind of issue, speaking of Zion welcoming backs her daughters). As, of course, they did become, though a different Israel from the old Iron Age kingdom of that name.

    I obviously want to develop this theory in more detail, and in my Scribes and Schools and various articles, I am trying to do that. I am currently working on a detailed case for Deuteronomy as a 5th century composition (again, this is not an original idea; it is well over a century old). What I do feel needs to be done is explain why the biblical literature was composed. We do not establish this by dating alone, and we do not establish dating by appealing to scraps of circumstantial detail that may (but often do not) point to an Iron Age setting. I need, perhaps, to say more positively that the Bible contains local oral traditions. I would have no problem in allowing that the book of Judges might contain stories written down from local traditions about heroes of the past. I would indeed imagine that the biblical writers were likely to use just such sources if they could find them. What this does not mean is that there was a pre-exilic written book of Judges or anything like its equivalent in an oral form. The book as a whole is an unhistorical reconstruction of an Israel between settlement and monarchy. I am also about to publish a paper showing why the popular attribution of so much literary activity to Josiah is fanciful.

    Yes, I am dealing with the concrete issues, and this is why I have no time to waste on Dever. I will, however, happily debate and discuss with Norman Gottwald, Charles Isbell, and anyone else who wants to. For in order to understand, we need both a grasp of detail and also some kind of overall theory to guide us.

    Finally, I want to say I welcome Charles Isbell’s words on anti-Semitism. But to me, the term means hatred of Jews, and I cannot see anything in any of Keith Whitelam’s writings that indicates that sentiment. I appreciate that his comments are hostile to the state of Israel, and I believe he is entitled to those views. His scholarly agenda, as I commented originally, is not particularly connected with mine or with Thompson’s. His own book includes a very large number of direct quotations from other scholars, and if any scholar can show that any of Whitelam’s comments express hatred of Jews, then I will have no complaints about the use of the word. I’d just like to invite Charles Isbell to send me his reasons for regarding Whitelam as anti-Semitic. Perhaps he is right, but I haven’t yet seen anyone make that case, and until I do, I can’t change my own mind on that.

    Thanks, anyway, to Norman and Charles. I appreciate their contribution and hope they think I have managed a constructive and courteous response. This is how people are encouraged to think when they might need to change or improve their position; confrontation does, I think, tend to harden one’s views, which is why I also prefer to avoid it.