A (Very, Very) Short History of Minimalism: From The Chronicler to the Present
By Jim West
Quartz Hill School of Theology
“Minimalism”1 is the supposition that the biblical text cannot rightly or honestly be mined for historical reconstructions of ancient Israel or earliest Christianity. The underlying assumption here is that the biblical text is not historically oriented. That is to say, the purpose of the Bible is not to offer 21st century historians fodder for their reconstructive mills; it is to speak theologically to ancient (and I would also say, modern) communities of faith.
Though this definition isn’t necessarily the standard definition of minimalism, it does offer a more accurate understanding of what “minimalism” is and will be the working definition for the words “minimalism’ and ‘minimalist’ in what follows. Furthermore, denoting ancient persons as “minimalists” is admittedly anachronistic. Nonetheless, I’ll use it anyway simply because it encapsulates present reality. So, for example, Paul the Apostle may not have gone to Copenhagen or Sheffield to learn theology- but I describe him as a ‘minimalist” for reasons I shall demonstrate below, albeit briefly.
First, though, a few things have to be stated as clearly as possible:
1 - Most “histories” of Ancient Israel and Earliest Christianity are simply examples of circular reasoning. Many historians use the Bible as a historical source; they reconstruct a history which is often nothing more than a recapitulation of the biblical telling; and the Bible is affirmed as historical because of the history so constructed. Similarly, the life of Jesus, for instance, is gleaned from a reading of the Gospels. Said reconstruction is named a ‘history of Jesus’ life.” That “history of Jesus’ life” is then utilized to prove historically the life of Jesus as described in the Gospels. One need only pick up John Bright’s “History of Israel”2 or Joseph Ratzinger’s “Jesus”3 to see circularity in action. True, ancillary materials are added to these histories (on the very rare occasions that they are available)- but these only reinforce the circularly circumscribed reconstruction.
2 - Any attempt to construct a history of Israel or earliest Christianity without appealing to the Bible is doomed to fail. Even the heartiest efforts4 to offer a history of ancient Israel or the early Church usually draw on the biblical text. It is inevitable.
3 - Do points one and two imply, as some souls would have us believe5, that there really was no historical Jesus or ancient Israel? μὴ γένοιτο! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence; absence of evidence is evidence of absolutely nothing at all. What points one and two illustrate is that the Bible as Bible cannot be used for grandiose historical projects: nothing more, and nothing less. Something happened. We just aren’t in a position to say what. Not historically.
That said, we can now move on to assert that the Bible itself is the first and foremost witness to the propriety of minimalism as an approach. Think, for example of what the Chronicler does to the story of David’s numbering of Israel. 2 Sam 24 clearly states that Yahweh impelled David to number the nation. The Chronicler, completely disinterested in the “historical” situation, alters the tale completely and instead of describing Yahweh as inciting David to count the folk, he describes Satan doing it (1 Chr 21). These two accounts can’t be harmonized historically, and the Chronicler surely understood that. The historicity of that tradition did not matter to the Chronicler because he approached the text as a minimalist: it wasn’t “history” that mattered, but ‘theology.” In this regard, most redactional emendation can be seen as an adoption of miminalist literary technique, be it inner-biblical exegesis, midrashic interpretation, or targumic reconciliation – all of these are examples of minimalist attempts to rewrite or properly explain history.
In fact, a cursory examination of the Chronicler’s work demonstrates that he is not at all interested in “history” in the same way that modern historians of the Bible seem to be. Rather, he was first, foremost, and only, a theologian.6
But the Chronicler wasn’t the only biblical author who didn’t care about “historicity.” The synoptic Gospels, too, each go their own way. Matthew recounts a Sermon on the Mount while Luke has a Sermon on the Plain. Neither cared where the sermon (or sermons) occurred; they only concerned themselves with the theological substance of the sayings of Jesus – sayings they compiled and organized along lines purely determined by theological necessity rather than historical accuracy. In fact, even though Luke appears to be casting his Gospel in “historical” garb, he only adopts that appearance in order to make his story of Jesus sound very much like the Septuagint’s story of God’s acts on behalf of his people. That is, Luke is writing in a style intentionally mimicking the Old Testament so as to make clear to his readers that the story of Jesus is just the continuation of the activity of God among his own. If Luke were writing “history,” he got a number of things mucked up (as all commentators and historians recognize- e.g., the census he mentions at the beginning of his Gospel). But Luke doesn’t care about such things because he’s doing theology, not historiography.
The Gospel of John, similarly, does theology without any interest in portraying “things as they actually were.” John places, for example, the cleansing of the Temple right at the start of Jesus’ ministry while the Synoptics place it right at the end. Unfortunately, New Testament scholars have needlessly debated which one was “right” in their chronology7. Both and neither one is right because both are interested in saying something theological and neither cares about the historicity of the cleansing.
Paul too shows absolutely no interest in “historical” matters. See 2 Cor 5:16 where he, for all intents and purposes, dismisses any “quest” for the historical Jesus.8 In fact, the letters of Paul contain scant “historical” reference. “Born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) is about as historical as Paul gets when it comes to discussing the life of Jesus. Likewise, “I am crucified with Christ….” barely touches the fringe of the historicist garment. Paul is just not interested in the historical details of his faith’s earliest comings and goings. Rather, again, Paul’s concern is theological.
In the Deutero-Paulines and the Catholic epistles, there is no “historical reconstruction” implied or indicated in any of them. Revelation too is metaphysical and super-historical (and maybe even too metaphysical!).
In sum, the Bible, from beginning to end, is primarily interested in God. The stage is set in the opening verse of Genesis where we learn, “In the beginning, God….” The Bible’s aim is not to tell a historical tale; its aim is to tell a theological tale. For that reason its authors, minimalists all, recognized that their work and aim and calling was something other than to use traditions and tales for historical reconstruction. “What, when, and how” were of no interest to them at all; but “why and who” mattered supremely.
Time would fail us to consider Augustine and Jerome, Origen and Cyril, Clement and Aquinas, Luther and Zwingli and Calvin… men of whom the world was not worthy. They wandered in deserts and lived in caves (and in Luther’s case, taverns); they were scorned, mocked, beaten, and abused, and yet they never sought refuge in a false historicism. They and other exegetes up until quite recently (the 18th century essentially) understood that theology is the substance of things biblical and the evidence of things free from needing historical underpinning. The tyranny of the circularly arrived-at Sitz im Leben had no power over them.
Postmodern interpreters and post-postmoderners who use the Bible to ask and answer the questions about “what, when, and how” are asking the wrong questions altogether. If they were to ask the Bible “why and who,” they would at least be getting closer to the truth. As it is, that truth is obscured from them since we all know (or should know) that the answers we get are utterly dependent on the questions we ask.
Minimalism did not begin with Lemche9 or Thompson10 or Whitelam11 or Davies12 or any of the other central or marginal players commonly associated with it: it began with the Chronicler and the Prophets and the Evangelists and the Psalmists and Paul and John and was continued by the Fathers of the Church and their Reforming heirs. Minimalism is not a new phenomenon; it is as old as Scripture itself.
For this reason we can only rationally conclude that maximalists, then, are the true distorters of Scripture. They are perverters of the meaning, purpose, and intent of sacred writ as evidenced by their rejection of the methodological approach of the very authors of Scripture themselves.
1 Bible and Interpretation has published a number of essays on the theme- available here - http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/Minimalism_essays.shtml and accessed on 30 August 2010.
2 John Bright, A History of Israel, London : S.C.M. Press, 1960.
3 Joseph Ratzinger, Jesus of Nazareth, New York Random House, 2007.
4 See for example the herculean effort by Mario Liverani, Israel’s History and the History of Israel, Equinox, 2005.
5 Robert Price is a prime example. See http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/jesus_myth_history.htm, accessed 30 August 2010.
6 John Jarick’s work on Chronicles is spectacular precisely because he focuses on the theological import of the text. See more of John at http://www.theology.ox.ac.uk/people/staff-list/dr-john-jarick.html, accessed 30 August 2010.
7 See the very interesting debate currently taking place in the Society of Biblical Literature and spearheaded by the John, Jesus and History group, http://catholic-resources.org/SBL/JJH.html, accessed 30 August,2010. And while skeptical of their results (because historio-centric), I’m very glad to see John getting some positive press after all these decades of disdain.
8 Rudolf Bultmann’s commentary on 2 Corinthians remains the most useful.
9 The Old Testament: Between Theology and History, Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.
10 The Mythic Past, New York : Basic Books, 1999.
11 The Invention of Ancient Israel, New York : Routledge, 1996.
12 “Method and Madness: Some Remarks on Doing History with the Bible,” Journal of Biblical literature. 114, no. 4, (1995): 699.
We can then write Story I, the most accurate paraphrase of our sources we can manage. This is not simply vain repetition, because there will be questions of interpretation which we have to solve.
The next stage is to write Story II, where we are attempting to get at a more truthful account by making what we consider to be due allowance for the perspective of our sources. Demosthenes was anti-Macedonian, Dickens was a sceptic in religion - etc..
The final stage is to write Story III, the one we come closest to believing, by bringing to bear other information: this can be other accounts of the same events, if we have some, or generalisations about the problems of primitive democracies or of the development of industrial cities and societies - etc.etc..
Our biblical sources have qualities shared with rhetoric and with fiction - nothing too dishonourable about that. I don't see any qualitative distinction between biblical and secular literature as sources for a possible 'Story III', one which we might believe scientifically.
It may or may not be the case that the best version of Story III that we can construct, having surveyed all our information as carefully as we can, remains reasonably close to Story I. This is something to be determined case by case.
I can't see that the question of constructing a Story III doesn't arise simply because of the genre to which our sources, such as Chronicles, belong, which is surely 'accounts of past events (at least nominally) meant to convey a moral or spiritual message'. The works of Demosthenes and Dickens are not wholly outside this genre.
Matthew 12:40-41 The Son of Man will be in the earth for three days, just as Jonah was in the belly of a sea creature for three days. The people of Nineveh repented when Jonah preached, and this will give them moral leverage to condemn Jews when the time of judgment arrives.
Matthew 23:35-36 Jesus’ generation inherits guilt for all the murders in the Old Testament, starting with Cain murdering Abel.
Matthew 24:36-39 God will bring an end to this age suddenly, as he did in the days of Noah: judgment came on people when they were not expecting it, and this will happen again.
Mark 10:6-9 Men shouldn’t divorce their wives: God so decreed at the time of creation when he made the first man and the first woman.
Romans 5:12-21 The disobedient act of Adam resulted in all humankind being guilty and mortal. Similarly, Jesus’ act of obedience has led to life and righteousness for many people.
Galatians 3:17 The law of Moses cannot annul the covenant promise which God made to Abraham, because the law was given 430 years after the covenant.
1 Timothy 2:12-14 Adam was created before Eve. Adam wasn’t deceived by the serpent, but Eve was. Therefore women are unfit to be church leaders.
Hebrews 4:7-8 Joshua lived at an earlier time than David did. So the words “rest” and “today” in a psalm David wrote must not pertain to anything that happened in Joshua’s time.
Hebrews 7:9-10 Levi paid tithes to Melchizedek (while Levi was in the loins of his ancestor Abraham). This shows that Jesus’ priesthood is superior to that of the temple priests.
2 Peter 2:4-9 The Lord can rescue the godly from trial and punish the unrighteous: he did it before when he rescued Noah from the Flood and rescued Lot from Sodom and Gomorrah.
I had been thinking about the same subject along rather different lines, back to a time when it was customary (at least in the Oxford Classics Department) to congratulate the author of Acts for getting all sorts of background details right. I was a student of Geoffrey de Ste.Croix (despite his name a strong atheist) who would say that the the author of acts was 'a very good historian', because he knew that the leading official at Ephesus was called (hope I'm getting this right!) the Grammateus, at Malta the Protos etc. - even because he knew that in the first century Roman citizens were not divided into humiliores and honestiores, as they would be later. I now think that maybe some of this would have been common knowledge but still there is an indication of some kind of research being done and so of some kind of effort to anchor the story in reality. But still Geoffrey was overlooking the fact that historical research is not the sole preserve of historians. Questions of genre are very important but are not that easily settled - which is also what I'd say, with all respect, to Peter.
Many readers aren’t aware that Jim West, author of the main article above, writes a very entertaining blog called “Zwinglius Redivivus.” Jim believes in the Bible’s theology. He knows that seemingly historical statements in the Bible might threaten to undermine our confidence in its theology, but Jim’s article drives a big wedge between history and theology and then claims that only the theology is important in the Bible because that’s all its writers really cared about.
The conclusion I was trying to draw in my comment #5 is that Jim is wrong. The theology of the NT writers is based, in part, on a maximalist reading of many OT passages. History mattered theologically to the NT writers.
FWIW, I don’t wholly share Jim’s confidence in the Bible’s theology, nor do I believe NT writers were correct in assuming all those OT events I listed in comment #5 really happened. Martin’s comment #4 is for me a helpful way to frame what was going on back then.
This is like saying we are interested in trying to extract Roman cultural or other history from the Gospels. But of course this is not what the biblical historian is interested in doing.
A more accurate analogy would be that the biblical historian is trying to extract the historical Oliver Twist from Dickens.
It would have been better for you to have included Robert G. Price's the middle initial to reduce confusion, since Robert M. Price is more well known.
The linked article is by R. *G.* Price. I haven't found much information on who he is or what his credentials are.
He is no relation to biblical scholar Robert M. Price, who in his excellent book "The Incredible Shrinking Son of Man" applies the methods of higher criticism to the gospels and looks for any evidence of a historical Jesus in them, and ends up finding such evidence lacking.
And for what it's worth, I don't think that either of them is making the error you accuse Robert G. Price of. Both argue for the probable nonexistence of Jesus, not merely because of a lack of evidence for a historical Jesus, but rather based on the plausibility of alternative explanations for Christian origins, which are supported by significant evidence in their own right, and which are incompatible with there having been a historical Jesus.
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