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The Critical Danes and History:
How to Avoid Being Hit by the
Boomerang from Copenhagen

    The purpose of this essay is not to question Lemche’s right, therefore, to defend and commend such a historical-critical tradition as mainstream European scholarship, but to point to some inconsistencies in his argument for describing the conservative or evangelical tradition as non-scientific and therefore non-academic.

By Jens Bruun Kofoed
Copenhagen Lutheran School of Theology
April 2005

In September 2003, The Bible and Interpretation site published an essay by Niels Peter Lemche on the relationship between conservative and critical scholarship in biblical studies. [1] The essay appears to be a sequel to an earlier essay published in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures. [2] In the essay, Lemche wonders how it can be that historical-critical scholars have ended up allied to conservative scholars in the effort to crush the so-called "radical" critical scholarship and complains that the conservative scholar is now allowed into the historical-critical scholar’s company as his equal. The reason given for this wonder and complaint is that it "represents a danger to biblical scholarship as an academic discipline in the European tradition" and that "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."

It is a matter of fact that there is a long academic tradition in both Scandinavia and wider Europe for basing research and teaching on a non-theistic, humanistic ideology, philosophy, and epistemology, and it comes as no surprise, therefore, that Lemche, standing in this European tradition, is predisposed to view with suspicion and ridicule scholars subscribing to a theistic worldview and therefore rejects their admittance into the guild of mainstream European scholarship. The purpose of this essay is not to question Lemche’s right, therefore, to defend and commend such a historical-critical tradition as mainstream European scholarship, but to point to some inconsistencies in his argument for describing the conservative or evangelical tradition as non-scientific and therefore non-academic.

The only real argument given in the essay mentioned for excluding the conservative scholar is that he has not accepted de Wette, Wellhausen, Kuenen, Alt, Noth, and von Rad "as leading stars," and that he has other goals than "the pursuit of scholarship – irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her," and it is only between the lines one can theorize what these "other goals" are. In a discussion on the ANE-List, Lemche has made it clear, however, that it is belief that disqualifies the conservative scholar from being critical, i.e., scientific and academically acceptable.

What have your beliefs to do with scholarship? Isn’t it immaterial whether you believe in the historicity or not? Or just a statement of faith like the statement of faith in Jesus, Moses, Muhammad or King Arthur and his merry knights? I always have to tell the students that they as persons are not an argument in a scholarly dispute … it is not very different whether you say believe or say I am convinced. You cannot be an argument. You as a person do not carry any weight, neither do I for that matter. The correct phrase is to say: Evidence available has convinced me, or evidence available has made me believe that... [3]

What Lemche here seems to subscribe to is the well-known modernistic one-liner that history is not a democratic process, but a tyranny of evidence, and the belief that belief is incompatible with critical scholarship. But what does Lemche mean, then, when he asserts that "there is no such thing as objective knowledge" in the "immensely changed scientific world" in which "the criticism of the minimalists should be truly understood"? Is he giving up his former modernist position and subscribing to a more postmodern worldview by acknowledging the subjectivity of his own interpretational community? Hardly. Nothing in his conclusions makes us believe that. He regrets, on the contrary, that distinguished academic institutions are now lending respectability to scholars basing their research on a different, theistic paradigm. There seems to be an inconsistency in Lemche’s argumentation, therefore, for if we really must give up the positivistic and modernistic ideals of impartial scholarship and accept that "there is no such thing as objective knowledge," then it follows that there is no "tyranny of evidence," that belief is an essential part of any given paradigm, and that any attempt to prove the opposite is an illusion created by the paradigm’s underlying presuppositions. The historical-critical scholar is just as restricted by his paradigm, as is his evangelical opponent, and the "pursuit of scholarship – irrespective of where his investigations may lead him or her," is just as good a description of the historical-critical scholar as it is of the evangelical.

Lemche is no doubt "path-dependently" right in his conclusions about ancient Israel’s history, that is, on the basis of his beliefs. But so are Iain Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman. The issue is not – as I have argued elsewhere [4] – whether either the "maximalist" or "minimalist" reconstruction of ancient Israel’s history is correct, but what kind of history we want to write (or read), and which presuppositions we want to guide our selection and interpretation of the sources. Historiography is not a "tyranny of evidence." The evidence will, of course, always put a limit on the number of possible and plausible interpretations, but the evidence itself is limited in that it has to be interpreted. And in interpreting it, the historian is not only relying on the pool of available evidence but also—and in this regard, significantly—on his presuppositions, "grid," or whatever we choose to call it.

History-writing is therefore to some degree a democratic process in which historians move toward a consensus, or rather consensii, on the question of method, for pragmatic reasons; for methodological consensus, in the "singular" meaning of the word, is impossible - and perhaps even undesirable - to achieve in the guild of historians. Davies’ plea that what we need in the future are "multiple histories" so that we "may learn in how many different ways ‘history’ may be represented" may be a good one. [5] We do need a multiplicity of new histories with different perspectives on Israel’s history that deal fairly, of course, with the facts of the ancient Near East. They are only to be welcomed. What we do not need, however, are histories that do not present to the readers a full discussion of the philosophical and epistemological assumptions that have determined their choice of methods and the basis for their assertions. Repeating Davies’ call for good historiographies may therefore serve as an appropriate conclusion to this paragraph: "One is not to discourage the production of good historiographies and encourage people to read many of them so that they may learn in how many different ways ‘history’ may be represented, and perhaps even ask themselves why these stories differ." [6]

It is not only the axiomatic level, however, that defines the boundaries of interpretation. Moving up from the more basic and subjective level of worldview, we find that choice of method is also of utmost importance, and we need, as J. Maxwell Miller has put it, "to be reminded that methodologies are ways of examining evidence and never should be mistaken for evidence itself." [7] It is highly pertinent to ask in the remainder of the essay, therefore, on what methodological grounds the biblical texts are dismissed as is the case in both Thomas L. Thompson’s and Lemche’s approach to ancient Israel’s history. Both Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson have called for a multidisciplinary approach in reconstructing ancient Israel’s history, [8] and, subscribing to Fernand Braudel’s three-tier model of historical explanation, Thompson sees la longue durée, with its very slow-moving structures (e.g., climatic or geological changes) and the more mobile la moyenne durée with its conjonctures (e.g., changes in sociological and economic patterns), as the basic levels of historical development, while the third level, l’histoire eventiellement, is to be seen as the immediately intelligible but very superficial explanation of a given historical event in regard to temporal and causal matters.

Thompson’s methodology and philosophy seem to be threefold: that structures and conjunctures are basic to the understanding of the Iron Age history of Palestine, that the event-oriented textual evidence is to be considered "secondary" or "intellectual" history, and that an analysis and interpretation of the artifactual data therefore must serve as the interpretive context for the textual data, not least the "biblical traditions." Such a weighing and use of artifactual and textual evidence is not necessary within Braudel’s model, however, but is a materialistic or positivistic use of the model, and the degrading of the biblical texts in reconstructing ancient Israel’s history must at least in part be explained as a result of this rather positivistic use of the model. [9] In other words, the reason why Thompson’s reconstruction of the Iron Age history of Palestine differs from earlier reconstructions is not new evidence but Thompson’s positivistic use of Braudel’s three-tier model to interpret roughly the same evidence. Is this well-crafted historiography? Definitely! Within the perimeter of this worldview and method, he has written a consistent historiography, describing – perhaps for the first time – the impact of structures and conjonctures on the personal, religious, and political life in Iron Age Palestine, i.e., what, on the basis of well-known sociological patterns and the natural laws, can be said about the conditions, possibilities, and impossibilities under which the people in Iron Age Palestine had to live and make their decisions. And there can be no doubt that artifactual remains are crucial to studies of this kind. The problem arises, however, when the method is used to answer questions it is incapable of answering, namely what people chose, and why they sometimes chose the unexpected. People (such as the Babylonian king Nabonidus, who suddenly moved from Babylon to Teiman for 10 years) sometimes do make unexpected choices. Artifactual remains are certainly capable of indicating the possibilities and impossibilities under which the people of the past had to live and make their decisions, but they cannot and do not tell what choices people actually made, and they certainly do not explain why they made them. Texts, such as the texts of the Hebrew Bible, are indispensable, therefore, and should not a priori be dismissed as second-rate evidence, as is the case in Thompson’s historiography.

Another reason given by Thompson and especially Lemche for discarding the biblical texts as a source for ancient Israel’s history is the lateness of the text. With recourse to mainstream heuristic theory, Lemche discards the biblical texts as a primary source for the history of ancient Israel and distinguishes between layers of interpretation and historical "leftovers" in the texts:

Historians began in the early 19th century to develop methods of source criticism that enabled them—or so they believed—to make a distinction between real information and secondary expansion. In the words of the leading historian of this period, Johann Gustav Droysen (1808-84), the historian had to distinguish between "Bericht," that is story or interpretation, and "Überreste," that is, what is left of historical information. In every part of the historical narrative in the Old Testament, it would, according to this view, be possible to make a distinction between information that originates in the past, and additions and commentaries to this information from a later period. [10]

Lemche does not deny that there is reliable historical information in the texts. He argues, on the contrary, that "it is obvious that the history of Israel and Judah as told by biblical historians is not totally devoid of historical information. The people who wrote the historical narratives of the Old Testament did at least know some facts about Israelite and Judaean history. We might even say that there is a certain number of Überreste—i.e., historical remains—included in the texts of the Old Testament." The problem is, however, "that it is almost impossible to decide which part of a biblical narrative belongs to the genre of Bericht and which part includes Überreste if we have no other information than that which is included in the biblical texts. If we do not possess external evidence, it is the individual scholar who decides what is history and what fiction, and this scholar will only have his or her common sense as a guideline. This is clearly a logical problem that has to do with historical-critical studies at large." [11] In a paper presented to the Social-Scientific Studies of the Second Temple Period Section at the 2004 SBL Annual Meeting in San Antonio, Lemche seems to have adjusted his use of Droysen’s distinctions in the article quoted above from the Journal of Hebrew Studies. Referring to the Danish historian Kristian Erslev’s critique of Droysen’s heuristic principles, Lemche argues: [12]

In Scandinavia—and especially in Denmark—we are privileged because of an early criticism of Droysen’s distinction by a historian who in my country is considered the father of Danish historiography, Christian Erslev, who around 1900 wrote an introduction to historical method, denouncing Droysen’s distinction as an insufficient instrument when studying an ancient historiographic text. Erslev does not deny the relevance of Droysen’s source division, but he adds the observation, that the—in Droysen’s eyes—original information about an event of the past may at the same time be an expression of interpretation. This leads to the conclusion that the distinction between a primary and secondary source is based on its intentionality: Is this a report from the past, or a later interpretation of this report? However, a report from the past also includes interpretation.

Now, it is true that Erslev softens up the sharp division between Bericht and Überreste since a reconstruction or retelling of a past event cannot be seen as both report or relic from the past and a later interpretation of this report or relic. But he does so, not simply by giving it up, but by shifting focus from a material to a more functional approach to the sources: "This division [between Bericht and Überreste], which is still in vogue in Germany, is untenable. It is clear that any interpretation [Bericht] is at the same time a relic [Überrest]; what Saxo [Grammaticus] tells about the achievements of the Danes is interpretation, but his work as such is a relic from the Valdemar period. [13] This collapses the division, and considering the matter carefully, it appears that the division is not to be found in the sources themselves; it is the historian that sometimes uses the source as interpretation, sometimes as relic." [14] This does not, however, lead to the conclusion drawn by Lemche "that the distinction between a primary and secondary source is based on its intentionality." Both Erslev, his contemporary colleague Johannes Steenstrup, and modern textbooks from the Scandinavian curriculum on historical theory state unanimously that it is the modern historian’s – not the source’s – intention that determines whether the source should be used as Bericht or Überrest. [15] If the modern historian wants to write a history of the Valdemar period, Saxo’s Gesta Danorum "History of the Danes" can be used as a relic [Überrest] from that period. If he wants to write a history of, say, pre-Christian Denmark, things are more complicated. Erslev, as we have seen, more or less discards the distinction between Bericht and Überreste and suggests, instead, a much finer heuristic discrimination between a) relics (Danish "levninger") from people of the past and their natural environment, [16] b) all products (Danish "frembringelser") that has been preserved from peoples of the past, and c) present life inasmuch it can be used deductively to describe and understand the past. [17] The vast majority of the sources, Erslev asserts, falls in the second category, and "from this group one should only single out sources containing a message – in words or pictures - from the producer; sources that are best labelled ‘speaking sources.’" [18] The criteria for deeming them primary, however, is not whether they are Bericht or Überreste in Droysen’s terminology, but whether they can be described as authentic, primary sources, however late they may be. The next step according to Erslev – and Erslev is again in full concord with both contemporary and modern mainstream historians – is therefore not just the difficult and laborious task of discerning Bericht from Überreste so that only the latter is used in the reconstruction of the period they purport to describe but also to determine the reliability of the former so that it too can be included or – if deemed unreliable – excluded from the pool of primary sources: "In this way not only historical reports but nearly all speaking sources can be seen as observations on the real world, and one must always inquire, therefore, about the reliability of the informant; before we use the account [Bericht] we must validate the narrator as witness." [19] It should be clear by now that Lemche’s reluctance or downright refusal to use Berichte as sources for the (earlier) period they purport to describe just because they belong to the Bericht and not the Überrest part of the source cannot be supported by mainstream heuristic theory. For two reasons. First, Bericht – according to Erslev – can only be discarded when proven unreliable and inauthentic. That is, if it can be proven that a reliable oral and/or written transmission of the information in question cannot possibly have taken place, or if the informant can be otherwise established as an untrustworthy witness. In Erslev’s heuristic methodology even the Bericht part of a source, therefore, seems to be innocent until proven guilty, and not the opposite. Secondly, while it is true that only primary sources have heuristic value, it is not true that sources are secondary just because they are late. When Lemche states that "the distinction between a primary and secondary source is based on its intentionality: Is this a report from the past, or a later interpretation of this report?" He seems to have mixed up the heuristic categories primary/secondary and firsthand/secondhand sources. According to this distinction in mainstream heuristic theory, [20] a source may still be secondary even if its information is taken from an earlier extant source. In other words, it is secondary if the author does not provide more information than we could obtain from another source. A source is primary, however, if it stems directly from an eye- or ear-witness or, importantly, a later account that relies on an earlier nonextant source. In other words, a primary account is the oldest extant source available. The distinction between "primary" and "secondary" has to do, therefore, with the value or importance of the witness rather than its contemporaneousness with the event it purports to describe. Secondary sources are unimportant as witnesses since they only repeat what is already known. They are often useful, however, as a means of confirming or supplementing already known information. Primary sources will always be of importance since they constitute the first extant information we have on a given event, person, or something else. It is crucial, therefore, that the terms "primary" and "secondary" sources are distinguished from the terms "firsthand" and "secondhand" witnesses. Information in a firsthand source stems directly from an eye- or ear-witness, however late these accounts may be. [21] A secondhand source is an account written by someone who was not present and therefore had to rely on others in telling what happened. A firsthand account will always be a primary source, but the opposite does not apply because a secondhand account may be the oldest extant witness and therefore a primary source.

Firsthand witnesses are, both in Erslev’s finer discrimation of the sources and in modern, mainstream heuristic theory, to be preferred to secondhand sources. Not because reliable transmission of firsthand information in secondhand sources is impossible per se, but because the information in question is only filtered through the eyes of one informant in the firsthand source while it has been used and interpreted by multiple informants in secondhand sources. But again, whether a secondhand source has transmitted information reliably depends not on the Bericht/Überrest distinction, but on the possibility of reliable transmission and the authenticity of the witness, [22] and as far as the biblical texts are concerned this necessitates a discussion on the possibility of oral and written transmission as well as a discussion of how the biblical authors’ different perspectives have influenced their use of historical information and thus their status as reliable witnesses.

Lemche is in full concord with modern, mainstream history theory when he admits that "to apply source criticism exclusively in the sense of Droysen would be a mistake," and it is nothing but a logical conclusion when he asserts that 200 years of historical-critical scholarship must be committed to the dustbin because it has been based on a false methodology. [23] Lemche’s own dismissal of the biblical text as a reliable source for ancient Israel’s history does not, however, comply with mainstream heuristic theory in its distinction between primary/secondary and firsthand/secondhand sources. These distinctions require a thorough discussion of the possibility of oral and/or written transmission in ancient Israel before it can be determined whether to include or exclude the texts as primary evidence. Such transmission did – as I have argued elsewhere [24] – in all likelihood take place, and since there are good reasons to believe that the biblical authors were authentic and reliable witnesses, heuristic theory demands that we approach the texts as primary, firsthand and secondhand sources and include them along with other texts and artifacts in the reconstruction of ancient Israel’s history. Lemche’s ideological crusade against conservative scholarship and his usage of confused heuristic terminology to discard the biblical text as a primary source for the history of ancient Israel thus appears to be an axiomatic and methodological boomerang that missed its target, and it shall be interesting to see what it hits on its way back.