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How Post-Modernism (and W. F. Albright) Can Save Us from Malarkey

    The key difference between the “two camps” is that the “minimalists” maintain that one cannot present an item from the biblical account as history unless that historicity is proven; the “maximalists” maintain that one can present an item from the biblical account as history unless that historicity is disproved

By Robert D. Miller II
Department of Scripture
Mount St. Mary’s Seminary
December 2003

    In approaching the current debate on historical reconstruction and ancient Israel, perhaps it is useful to prescind from not only name-calling but also from attempts to distinguish rival ideologies. Succinctly, the key difference between the “two camps” is that the “minimalists” maintain that one cannot present an item from the biblical account as history unless that historicity is proven; the “maximalists” maintain that one can present an item from the biblical account as history unless that historicity is disproved.

    Both beliefs are based on Rankean notions of “historicity” and “proof.” All of these scholars are in the rationalist intellectual tradition of Leopold von Ranke, with Ranke's goal of empirical objectivity - wie es eigentlich gewesen.1 In both the “minimalist” and “maximalist” cases, “probability” or “plausibility” does not matter. Yet these subjective notions are precisely what “history” has come to mean in developments in the broader field of post-modern history.

    Dever is fairly accurate in his surveys of post-modernism.2 He is wrong, however, to name his opponents as “post-modern” because he neglects to move from post-modernism’s literary proponents, whom most of the “biblical minimalists” do follow, to its historiographic proponents, such as Hayden White and Peter Burke.3 Following Michel Foucault, White and Burke see history as fictive constructions by scholars bound, or at least situated, by their own circumstances.4 They accuse historians of holding to a 19th-century methodology that posits a radical distinction between fact and philosophy. Historians have failed to see that history is fictive and language-constructed.5 Burke points out that the Rankean claim of “writing down ‘what really actually happened,’ no more and no less, is to fall victim to ... ‘the myth of realism.’”6 This is not to say that all reconstructions are equal, but only that “the ‘adequacy’ of any given account of the past depends on the question of the choice of the set of concepts actually used by historians in their transformation of information about events into, not ‘facts’ in general, but ‘facts’ of a specific kind.”7

    This should not sink us into a morass of cynical nihilism. Even for post-modernism, the aim of research is to gain knowledge that “constrains” the historian “not to make statements for which evidence was lacking,”8 and some reconstructions are better than others. Criteria for such judgments on reconstructions include intelligibility, coherence, and the inadmissibility of contrary reconstructions. Reconstruction of the past, however incomplete, is still important. There needs to be a way to investigate the past self-consciously and critically. Some guidance may be found in a perhaps unexpected quarter: W. F. Albright. Albright, who was certainly au currant with the works of Toynbee, Croce, Collingwood, and other great historical theoreticians of his day, pointed out that scholars had not “diverged from the approach of L. von Ranke and his followers in order to lay more secure epistemological foundations.”9 He pointed out that history will always “involve the historian in subjective considerations.”10

    The key is the construction of well-argued plausibilities, of possible pasts, which are available to further testing and examination and which challenge other possible pasts, yielding better-informed reconstructions. This is, roughly, what David Noel Freedman proposed decades ago:

    First, there is the accumulation of a body of data, and the refinement of techniques of investigation and interpretation . . .. Second, along with the accumulation of useful data is the formulation of working hypotheses which serve to collate, organize, systematize the knowledge, to bridge the gaps, to develop a structure of thought, and to provide an overall view, essential to a proper perspective in biblical studies . . .. It is only important to remember that all hypotheses are working proposals . . ., and that many must be discarded while others will require drastic overhauling in the face of new evidence.11

    There are numerous examples of such reconstructions. Several of the studies included in P. R. Davies’s 1991 Second Temple Studies12 propose possible pasts for postexilic Judea. For example, in his essay “The Achaemenid Context,” Kenneth Hoglund reconstructs the economy of Judea from archaeological data and Persian documents and then makes second-level deductions about the sociology of Judea based on this assumed economy. D. W. Jamieson-Drake has presented reconstructions for monarchic Judah, using anthropological and geographic models to interpret archaeological data.13 For a still earlier period, the settlement period, there is Uta Zwingenberger’s reconstruction of village life in Iron I Palestine, which draws on ethnographic analogy to present a model for community life.14 Each of these studies proposes plausible, admittedly non-Rankean, reconstructions of a non-objective past that we continue to strive to narrate.


[1] G. Maier, ‘Truth and Reality in the Historical Understanding of the Old Testament’, trans. P. T. Daniels, in V. P. Long (ed.), Israel’s Past in Present Research (Sources for Biblical and Theological Study, 7; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1999), p. 195 = E.T. of ‘Wahrheit und Wirklichkeit im Geschichtesverständis des Alten Testaments’, in G. Maeir (ed.), Israel in Geschichte und Gegenwart (Basel: Brunnen, 1996), pp. 9-23.

[2] ‘Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey’, BAR 26.2 (2000), p. 30.

[3] e.g., H. White, Tropics of Discourse (rev. ed., Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990) and P. Burke, Varieties of Cultural History (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997), pp. 1, 23, 73-74 and P. Burke, History and Social Theory (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992, repr. 1993).

[4] White, Tropics, p. 122; Burke, History, p. 128; Varieties, pp. 197-98.

[5] H. White, Figural Realism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), p. 27.

[6] Burke, History, p. 127.

[7] H. White, ‘Historiography and Historiophoty,’ American Historical Review 93 (1988), p. 1196.

[8] Burke, History, p. 129.

[9] W. F. Albright, History, Archaeology, and Christian Humanism (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1964), p. 23.

[10] Albright, History, Archaeology, p. 23 and pp. 24, 26.

[11] Freedman, ‘On Method in Biblical Studies. The Old Testament,’ Interpretation 17 (1963), p. 317.

[12] P. R. Davies, Second Temple Studies (Vol. 1, JSOTSup 117; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991).

[13] D. W. Jamieson-Drake, Scribes and Schools in Monarchic Judah (JSOTSup 109; Sheffield: Almond Press, 1991).

[14] U. Zwingenberger, Dorfkultur der frühen Eisenzeit in Mittelpalästina (OBO 180; Gottingen: Vandenhoeck and Ruprecht, 2001).