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It’s The Same Old Story

However, when it comes to history, especially Friedman seems to have little understanding of what is going on in modern historical research. His introduction here of post-modernism as the background of minimalism is simply nonsense as shown a long time ago by other scholars not belonging to this circle (James Pasto in SJOT, among others). Minimalism arose really as a modern response to wrong interpretations of historical evidence, and that in a very modern way.

See Also: Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine Response to Lemche’s “Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine.”

By Niels Peter Lemche
University of Copenhagen
November 2012

When I was young I was told stories about how the members of the "Baltimore-school" reacted to people they did not like, sabotaging their lectures in every possible way. I did not really believe such rumors before I myself and people around me were subjected to similar treatment by people belonging to this circle of North American scholars (at least they claim to be scholars). However, attacks such as those found on Gary Rendburg's home page at McGill ( including an incredible amount of misrepresentation of his opponents are simply substandard. We have seen the same in various publications by his mate William G. Dever: ‘These minimalists are ignorant, not trained in anything serious, simply dishonest people.’ Nowhere do we see a serious attempt to engage in serious discussion: If we can portray them as ignorant, there is no reason for a serious debate.

In the few days this debate has lasted we have seen a repetition of all these tactics. Let's start with misrepresenting the opponent's ideas. The clearest example is when Ronald Hendel—evidently belonging to the same group—simply misquoted me to such a degree that it was easy for him to accuse me of being a supporter of the Iranian president:

Hendel wrote: "Lemche writes: "Ahmadinajod is right and Friedman wrong if we begin to discuss the content of the word 'Israel.'" But "Israel" is mentioned as a polity in the Merneptah stele, the Tel Dan stele, the Mesha stele, and the coins that Robert Deutsch cites. Lemche's extreme position is simply unfounded and bizarre. I can only conclude that like his friend Ahmadinajad, Lemche "does not have a clue about any of this."1

What is wrong? Let's start with the last sentence. Any person who read my little article can see that this is slander: I am obviously no friend of Ahmadinejod: In my own words, "It is of course not a problem to destroy any credibility concerning Ahmadinajod's interpretation of history. We all remember his denial of the Holocaust (which would earn him a year in prison if he ever visited Germany or Austria as a private person). Mr. Ahmadinejod is hardly a worthy opponent to a scholar of Friedman's status."

Second, he fields two famous inscriptions against my view on Israel and Palestine, Mernephtah and Mesha as if they are something I had not addressed. Quoting myself, and directed against Ahmadinejod's position: "It is such a ridiculous postulate that we only need one reference, i.e., the Merneptah-stele, to tell us that there was something by the name of Israel in this region as early as 1200 BCE. And if you ask for more evidence, please see the Mesha inscription from Moab from the 9th century BCE."

Thirdly: The sentence about Ahmedinajod as correct and Friedman as wrong is a garbled version of my original: "So moving back to Friedman's settlement with Ahmadinejod, Friedman is obviously right and Ahmadinejod wrong, but at the same time Ahmadinajod is right and Friedman wrong if we begin to discuss the content of the word "Israel" in this connection." Ronald Hendel's paragraph is a case of misprision of the worst kind. The word was coined by the late Robert Carroll about deliberate false representations of your opponents opinions. I can be kind and say that Ronald Hendel deliberately distorted any correct meaning of my article: I can also be unkind and say that his intellectual abilities did not allow him to present my argument in a proper way. Maybe he should choose for himself which characterization is correct.

So, trying to win the day without a serious argument, Hendel turns to misprision, and so does Friedman in his answer. He has more or less the same "arguments" such as -- Lemche denying an Israel in Palestine ancient times. Since it is absolutely an absurd point of view that there was no Israel in Palestine in ancient times, any argument building on this absurd argument must be absurd in itself. But it was not what I said but a misprision of my point of view. It is quite sad that a scholar of Friedman's status should resort to such tactics, the great Davis Professor of Jewish Studies, University of Georgia Katzin Professor of Jewish Civilization Emeritus.

Now Friedman does not even feel the slightest remorse for making a cheap point about the recent deceased Frank Moore Cross: as I wrote De mortuis nihil nisi bonum. It is totally irrelevant to the argument here, apart from the last part about an interview with Cross in—of all unlikely places—the notorious BAR. But Cross is no more so I see no point in engaging in a discussion concerning him. His view on minimalism seems to be standard for his students, playing ideology out against honest scholarship, which reminds the reader about the language used in mission halls (should I call in James Barr?).

Now on to something a little more serious: The translation of biblical stories as history. This is not least found in the contributions to this discussion by Robert Deutsch, in a unique naive fashion—if only it was as easy as presumed by Deutsch, who should, perhaps have stayed with his antiquities (though I have to thank him for his reference to coinage during the Jewish rebellion in the 1st century CE, which only supports my argument in another place about the identity of the biblical Israelites). However, when it comes to history, especially Friedman seems to have little understanding of what is going on in modern historical research. His introduction here of post-modernism as the background of minimalism is simply nonsense as shown a long time ago by other scholars not belonging to this circle (James Pasto in SJOT, among others). Minimalism arose really as a modern response to wrong interpretations of historical evidence, and that in a very modern way. If in doubt, I can recommend a study of the volumes published or to be published in the series Changing Perspectives (Equinox). Van Seters' volume came out last year, mine and perhaps also Tom Thompson's should be out in December. They show via a selection of our opera minora how matters developed from the late 1960s to c. 2000.

Nevertheless, what is wrong with post-modernism per se, except to people who have no clue about what it is all about? Some sound reading of some of the main characters representing post-modernism may be in order. The work of the late Jacques Derrida could be the place to begin. I also know how popular Michel Foucault is outside of traditional biblical studies.

However, to combat post-modernism, Friedman introduces objectivism, a beautiful ideal but impossible to live up to. There is no such thing in our business as objectivity. It is strange that this has to be said again and again. A position that is said to be built upon objectivity is definitely a reason for laughter. It is a dream of the German universities of the 19th century. The closest that comes to this today may be Karl Popper's ideas about falsification (he has been called a "neo-positivist").

But to give a practical example from this discussion: If you mention an Israel in an inscription from the 9th century BCE, and an Israel on coins from the 1st century CE, you may ask for a link between the two occurrences, but you have no idea about what kind of link we are talking about: Is it a historical link: there was a history that binds these two case of Israel together: Is the later Israel a reflection of the first case? Or is it a kind of cultural memory, an idea of an Israel that was once upon a time (maybe in the never-never land of the Bible)? Are we talking about the foundation of an imagined society (in the sense of Benedict Anderson’s, Imagined Communities)? Who knows and how do you turn your beliefs into an objective argument?

Then you have biblical Israel, and we may of course follow Deutsch who seemingly believes that everything written in his Bible is historical. I am sorry, not even in his own country do scholars agree on this. He is evidently blending in his own cultural memory of his biblical Israel which he, by interchanging logical categories, (in the sense of Russell) identifies with an Israel in the real world. This could be a long discussion, but not here, and somehow I have addressed this issue scores of times, most notably in The Israelites in History and Tradition (1998) and in The Old Testament between Theology and History (2008). There is not much that can be done: As I wrote, memory is much stronger than wissenschaftliche history. You can prove any popular idea about what happened in history to be wrong, and people will still accept the memory and cut away the history. As Napoleon said: Qu'est-ce que l'Histoire, sinon une fable sur laquelle tout le monde est d'accord?

Then on to some really problematic issues:

Friedman is repeating the classical mistake of Herodotus's identification of Palestine. He is not the first person to do so. Maybe he does not know Ionic Greek as used by Herodotus well enough? Actually the passages in Herodotus run like this (an excerpt from my review of Keith Whitelam 1996, printed in SJOT):

Herodotus’ use of the term Palestine and Palestinians is particularly revealing, as he seems always to use the term in connection with Syria: I 105: (about Psammeticus meeting the Scythians in the Palestinian Syria); II 106: ἐν δὲ τῇ Παλαιστίνῃ Συρίῃ (about Stelas erected by Pharaohs Sesostris in the Palestinian Syria; cf. immediately before this II 104: Φοίνικες δὲ καὶ Σύροι οἱ ἐν τῇ Παλαιστίνῃ (about Phoenicians and Syrians living in Palestine who are tracing the habit of circumcision back to Egypt); III 91: Φοινίκη τε πᾶσα καὶ Συρίη ἡ Παλαιστίνη καλεομένη ... (‘All of Phoenicia and that part of Syria which is called Palestine’); IV 39: παρά τε Συρίην τὴν Παλαιστίνην (part of a geographical description of the Levant); VII 89: τῆς δὲ Συρίης τοῦτο τὸ χωρίον καὶ τὸ μέχρι Αἰγύπτου πᾶν Παλαιστίνη καλέεται (in A. de Sélincourt’s translation [Penguin]: ‘This part of Syria, together with the country which extends southward to Egypt, is all known as Palestine’), and in the same passage the expression Σύροισι τοῖσι ἐν τῇ Παλαιστίνῃ as (saying that the Syrians living in Palestine contributed 300 triremes to Xerxes’ fleet). Cf., finally, also III 5: ἀπὸ δε Καδύτιος πόλιος ἥ ἐστι Συρίων τῶν Παλαιστίνων καλεομένων (‘From Phoenicia to the boundaries of Gaza the country belongs to the Syrians known as ‘Palestinians’’).2

It is clear that Herodotus is not only talking about a part of the country between Syria proper and Egypt. In IV 39 he simply talks about Syrian Palestine (but don't tell Assad if he survives the present rebellion!). The problem for Friedman and others is that they know in advance how to read Herodotus: It is part of their cultural memory, and as said, history cannot do much to change memory.

Then we have a point where I simply do not believe what I am reading, but it seems that Friedman is identifying a language with a people. Since he can trace Hebrew in the scattered inscriptions from Palestine through centuries and they are mostly very short, insignificant, especially if you move into Assyriology or Egyptology—one excavation like the one at Mari has found many times the amount of fairly large inscriptions compared to the material from Palestine in the Iron Age (I will not even talk about what we have in the basement of the big museums like Louvre, the British Museum, and Baghdad [hopefully]). It helps if people move down into the Hellenistic Period. Here at least we have the Dead Sea Scrolls (and other documents).

There is only one solution: that Friedman begins to read at least a part of the modern discussion about ethnicity. Language is not an ethnic marker, although often in the primitive press it was thought to be. Furthermore, not even the ancient Jews made this mistake. Language is never used as an ethnic marker of biblical Israel (blood and land and religion are).

Not even Abraham spoke Hebrew originally, if we should believe Jubilees. He had to learn it first (Jubilees 12:25, ref. thanks to Reinhardt Kratz). It would definitely be good if our interlocutors brushed up on the subject, starting with Fredrik Barth, "Ethnic Groups and Boundaries" from 1969. There are also some very good introductions to the subject.

Finally we have the pig-bones. As far as I remember I have seen qualifications as to their importance even from people who pointed at the phenomenon. There are indeed several explanations: 1) it is an "Israelite" ethnic marker as it became a Jewish ethnic marker, 2) it is part of the changing ecological conditions in the Palestinian mountains in the Iron Age where the deforestation removed the basis for the survival of the wild boar. 3) It was the conditions in the highlands that pigs were not available, and thus became part of the regions cultural memory that "we do not eat pig", i.e., we don't start with the first proposal but combine the first and the second proposals. Finally, it would be nice to have physical evidence from say the Djebel Anseriya that people up there ate pigs. It will definitely take some time before we know.

All of this from a very ignorant and stupid European Gelehrter who, if his critics are to be believed, knows nothing. Nevertheless, the only Semitic language I never studied is Ethiopian. My Egyptian grammar (Gardiner's) I bought in May 1962, my first year in the Gymnasium), Friedrich's Hethitische Elementarbuch and Dictionary arrived in my library in 1967, etc., etc. Now this semester I am reading Gilgamesh and Atrahasis with my students (in Akkadian, of course). Next semester will include a basic course in Ugaritic. No, I see no reason to bow to my learned opponent.

On the other hand, I have no part in his cultural memory which is biblical Israel (the same goes for Ronald Hendel who writes in his recent book on cultural memory, Remembering Abraham: "The remembered past is the material with which biblical Israel constructed its identity as a people, a religion, and a culture."3 Sad to say, this is nonsense: Biblical Israel is a memory itself, so how can a memory remember?)

In spite of intensive studies in the history of ancient Israel (itself a modern memory, pace Philip Davies) / ancient Palestine that have lasted for more than forty years, it seems that the textbook for my opponents is still John Bright's A History of Israel. I have to say that it may be good enough for members of the late Baltimore School, but other critical scholars on both sides of the pond have moved on.

When support for Friedman comes from Israeli scholars such as Aren Mair, it is unsurprising and to be expected. It is his and his fellow Israelis' cultural memory which is under attack. And nobody lets go of his memory voluntarily.


1 Niels Peter Lemche, "Writing Israel out of the History of Palestine", The Bible and Interpretation: . See note 8.

2 Clio is Also Among the Muses. Keith W. Whitelam and the History of Palestine: A Review and a Commentary, Scandinavian Journal of the Old Testament 10 (1996), 88-114.

3 R. Hendel, Culture, Memory and History in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford: University Press, 2005), p. ix.