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Once More: Minimalism, Maximalism, and Objectivity

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Essays on Minimalism from Bible and Interpretation

By Robert D. Miller II
The Catholic University of America
May 2011

In the first decade of this century, a series of monographs and essays entered into the so-called Maximalist/Minimalist debate from a “third way.”1 This new perspective called biblical scholars’ and Syro-Palestinian archaeologists’ to developments in historical theory of the late 20th century, especially to the work of “decisive significance for contemporary historical theory”2 of Hayden White and Dominic LaCapra.3 The value of these post-modern historical theorists was in moving us beyond Rankean notions of “historicity” and “proof.” Moore, Miller, and Banks argued that the minimalists and maximalists alike perpetuated Ranke's goal of empirical objectivity - wie es eigentlich gewesen – as Smelik had already noted.4 In both the minimalist and maximalist cases, “probability” or “plausibility” did not matter. It was thus a total misnomer to dub the minimalists “post-modern.”5

But historical theory had not ceased development with the deconstructionist post-moderns. By the 1990s, “New Cultural History” was in full swing with the work of Roger Chartier, Robert Darnton, Peter Burke, and Carlo Ginzburg. By bringing their methods and ideas to bear on ancient Israel, Moore and Miller pushed for writing histories that were well-argued plausibilities, possible pasts, which are available to further testing and examination and which challenge other possible pasts, yielding better-informed reconstructions.6

It would seem that little attention has been paid to this “third voice” by either maximalists or minimalists. One must search hard among the writings of those who might most be expected to have methodological perspicuity for any discussion of White or LaCapra, yet along the New Cultural History. Rankean objectivity seems to remain the goal, even if the results are a miniscule amount that can be said of pre-exilic Israel.7

Philip Davies makes a passing reference to Hayden White,8 although in contrast to the post-deconstructionist New Cultural History, he insists that plausibility is not a valid criterion: “The assessment of probability in individual cases is, if not futile, then at least only calculable in a very general measure."9 One must therefore “adopt the appropriate degree of a priori doubt or confidence regarding biblical historicity in general.”10 Graeme Auld does consistently disavow “proof” and present his reconstructions as reconstructions.11 And another of the “Copenhagen School,” Helge Kvanvig, has studied White quite extensively; although it is unclear her voice has been heard, either.12 John Van Seters remains insistent: there is no post-scientific history.13

To be sure, some “maximalist” scholars have appealed to post-modernism, but, as will be shown below, in order to give credence to the biblical accounts of history as possible pasts and to justify their own ideological commitments within the general awareness that every scholar has an ideological commitment or two.14 “Proof” continues to be their desideratum.15

One should not overlook the fact that historians of the “middle” – neither maximalist nor minimalist – have continued to treat history as a scientific or logical positivist method.16 But one happy outcome of both the maximalist-minimalist debate and, hopefully to a certain extent the voice of the “third way,” has been the move of “the discipline to a hyper-focus on methodology.”17

While biblical scholars and archaeologists have drawn out this debate, the field of historical theory has been moving forward. New Cultural History of the 1990s is no longer the mainstay of university departments of history or theoretical journals. “The hegemonizing and imperializing fraction of the discipline” that was New Cultural History is widely criticized,18 although Chartier and others continue to practice and defend it.19 Now no one denies the contributions of New Cultural History or its deconstructionist forbearers. There has been no return to the days before Foucault and Derrida, as Dever has wished.20 Chartier is correct:

The biggest contribution of cultural history was forcing historians to question their seemingly strongest convictions. Against the hard truth of facts, it set their construction by the clashing representations of actors. Against the postulation that ideas, doctrines, texts and images have intrinsic meaning, it affirmed the historicity of those meanings, wholly dependent on their materiality. … Suddenly, the research practices, criteria of proof and models of historical understanding were completely changed.21

Nevertheless, nearly a decade after Miller, Moore, and Banks, some things need to be said differently by this “third way.”22 A good starting point is the accusation that maximalist and minimalist alike were positivists, bent on objectivity. It is clear now that there are probably three, if not four different kinds of objectivity at work in contemporary history writing on ancient Israel. The objectivity the minimalists seek is not the same as that of the maximalists. And the difference is not as simple as “Bible is true until proven otherwise” vs. “Bible is false until proven otherwise.” Allan Megill’s four types of objectivity are a useful matrix.23

Leopold von Ranke's goal was absolute empirical objectivity “. . .wie es eigentlich gewesen”(simply as it actually happened; Ranke omitted the final “war” or “ist” in his preface to Histories of the Latin and Germanic Nations from 1494-1514 [1824]).24 History was to be divorced from philosophy, and only those periods for which there were facts should be considered. This kind of “God’s-eye view, view from nowhere, aperspectival perspective, Olympian neutrality”25 has really not been anybody’s aim in writing the history of ancient Israel for the past century.

The objectivity goal of, say, Keith Whitelam or Thomas Thompson,26 is “Procedural Objectivity.” Such historiography “values totally impersonal procedures … with the intent of avoiding all subjective sources of error. Values avoidance of error as highly as the discovery of truth. Seeks to exclude all subjectivity.”27 Thus, Davies will admit that all historians are biased and prone to subjective historiography, and so claims to use a historical method that is itself objective to arrive at the objective reality of the past.28 E. A. Knauf and others appeal to the philosopher of science Karl Popper in their quest for such objective methods,29 and Megill identifies the appeal to Popper as characteristic of this kind of objectivity.30 But, as Megill points out, “Procedural objectivity tries to maintain the letter of absolute objectivity while denying its spirit – using the impersonal means that absolute objectivity recommends, but turning agnostic with regard to the hoped-for end, the attainment of truth.”31

The maximalists’ objectivity, on the other hand, is “Dialectical Objectivity.” This “aims to interact with the object and, ideally, to commune with it (and possibly also with its creators). Seeks to harness subjectivity, making it a positive force for the discovery and advance of knowledge.”32 That final (incomplete) sentence could have been written by Iain Provan. The history-writing of Provan, Long, and Longman sees the faith commitment of the interpreter – foregrounded as an act of post-modernism – to be a positive advantage in writing Israel’s history.33 The scholar who can “share the biblical prophets’ view of history” will be best able to advance knowledge of that history.34

But in practice, this has amounted to treating the biblical text “innocent until proven guilty, or accurate until proven erroneous.”35 And it is not that we should see it “guilty until proven innocent,” but that what this quote really means is “narrative material is to be taken as the genre ‘history’ until proven otherwise,” except that there is an unwillingness to examine the genre question. We are left with what Dever called, ““rational paraphrases of the Hebrew Bible.”36

This is not to negate the accusation that minimalists, too, have an “ideological commitment.”37 But it is not post-modernism, nor is it anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, leftism, post-Evangelical angst, or any of the other nihilisms with which they have been tagged.38 Rather, it is the old German progressive worldview.39 Herman Paul explains, “Historicism thus offered a worldview that embedded experiences of change in a narrative of progressive development.”40 This comes in two forms. Narrowly, historicism assumed that history-writing has progressed from its primitive state in ancient Israel to the apogee of modern scholarship.41 In the irony that White criticized twenty years ago, we failed to see that both their history and ours are fictive and language-constructed, and our historiography is “anything but metaphysically neutral”42 Thus Emanuel Pfoh can be quite critical of Ranke and his legacy (and thus of absolute objectivity), but embraces the ironic disparity between our scientific historiography and the narratively-embedded biblical historiography.43 The second form of historicism’s worldview is the grand narrative itself. Minimalists, too, seek to trace the grand swathe of history, merely moving the starting point for “what we can really know” progressively later,44 since the “procedure” of its Procedural Objectivity is “understanding biblical narrative[s] to illuminate the time in which they were written.”45

There is a fourth objectivity, Megill’s “Disciplinary Objectivity.” This “seeks to contain subjectivity: accepts only the (unacknowledged) subjectivity of the discipline (subfield, research network, etc.).”46 Although William Dever is not quite an objectivist,47 this does remind one of Dever’s continual protest that the minimalists are “out of their discipline.” They are not archaeologists, and are therefore not competent to use archaeological findings in their historical reconstructions.48 The discipline of Syro-Palestinian archaeology “is thus characterized by canonized knowledge, which is imparted as certain knowledge – as a coherent and stable body of knowledge,”49 presumably known only to the former students of Dever himself or of Lawrence Stager. But, as Megill writes, “Disciplinary objectivity-claims are also products of epistemology insecurity. They are likely to arise only when the faith in one indivisible truth that accompanies absolute objectivity seems unsustainable, and when there are doubts the reliability of personal vision.”50 Biblical scholarship is by nature both history and literary criticism, philology and archaeology, which itself ought to be anthropology, as well. As historians in general have discovered, “We do not believe that there are monopolies of wisdom, nor zones of knowledge reserved to persons with particular university degree.”51

Must we, then, try to avoid four kinds of objectivity instead of merely one? Not quite. “Objectivity is not neutrality because some measure of commitment is necessary if we are to ‘see’ the historical object at all (thus, gender issues in history were not ‘seen’ until some historians developed a commitment to feminism).”52 But in contrast to overemphasis of objectivity, we will need to bring presuppositions. “Historical inquiry requires some conception of how human beings relate to their variable social contexts, and of the nature of and the differences between these contexts. In other words, it requires a social theory.”53

Moreover, also in contrast to ultra-objectivity, “Historians must speculate. The alternative is to have no history at all, but only collections of facts. Accordingly, the question to be asked is not Should historians speculate? Rather, it is How should they speculate? Our contention – perhaps naïve in its simplicity, and certainly simple in its naïveté – is that they ought to speculate honestly and intelligently.”54 This means accepting whatever historical reconstruction best makes sense of the historical record.55 Megill explains, “The degree of certainty attributable to a set of beliefs about the past corresponds to the degree to which adopting those beliefs would serve to make sense of the totality of the historical record.56 “Making sense” means consilience (the more data explained by an explanation, the better); [and] simplicity (the fewer ‘auxiliary’ hypotheses necessary to make the explanation work, the better).”57

Thus, the explanation for the abundant parallels of certain parts of the Hebrew Bible with Neo-Assyrian royal propaganda that explains the greatest number of these parallels and requires the least convoluted explanation is that authors in 7th-century Judah were aware of and using Neo-Assyrian literature and iconography.58 A hypothesis that the texts in question are all Hellenistic compositions is neither consilient nor simple.59

A third criterion is that we “ought to expect history to be firmly rooted in seeking out the causes of known events rather than deducing the consequences of some set of events.”60 When we look at a given period and try to explain it, we are allowed to remind ourselves of what happened in a subsequent period. Lemche calls this a hermeneutic circle,61 but we can use such ex post facto knowledge to aid our understanding of what came before. Thus, if there is a direct continuity from the Iron I highlands of Palestine to Iron II Israel and Judah in pottery, settlement pattern, architecture, burial practices, and metallurgy,62 and the Merneptah Stele tells us that some entity in the general vicinity in Iron I was called “Israel,” it would be sensible to “reason from effects to causes” and connect the two.63

Our reconstructions will be modest and tentative.64 If they are in contradiction with each other, we need not wholly reject them, as it is quite possible to subscribe tentatively to two or more inconsistent hypotheses while admitting their inconsistency.65 And, of course, many are already doing these things and fully understand this. Lester Grabbe, for example, has explicitly summoned us to such methods.66 But I do not think it is so far from the advice given by David Noel Freedman fifty years 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, systematic 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 until confirmed in detail, and that many must be discarded while others will require drastic overhauling in the face of new evidence.67


1 For a thorough and fair survey of the Maximalist-Minimalist debate, see Lester L. Grabbe, Ancient Israel: What do we know and how do we know it? (New York: T & T Clark, 2008), 21-35.

2 Frank Ankersmit, “Historiography,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, ed. D. Herman, M. Jahn, and M.-L. Ryan (New York: Routledge, 2005), 220

3 Megan Bishop Moore, Philosophy and Practice in Writing a History of Ancient Israel (LHB/OTS 435; New York: T&T Clark, 2005): 17-19, 113, 118, 173-74; Robert D. Miller II, “How Post-Modernism (and W. F. Albright) Can Save us from Malarkey,” Bible and Interpretation online essay at, 2003; Miller, “Yahweh and His Clio,” Currents in Biblical Research 4 (2006): 155-57; Diana Banks, Writing the History of Israel (LHB/OTS 438; London: T&T Clark, 2006): 177-79.

4 Klaus A. D. Smelik, Converting the Past (OTS, 28; Leiden: Brill, 1992): 3; Miller, “Malarkey”; “Yahweh,” 152–54; Moore, Philosophy, 100–104.

5 H. A. Veeser, “Christianity, Wild Turkey, and Syphilis,” Biblical Interpretation 5 (1997): 475; Miller, “Malarkey”; “Yahweh,” 156.

6 Miller, “Malarkey”; “Yahweh,” 157–59; “A ‘New Cultural History’ of Early Israel,” in Israel in Transition: From Late Bronze II to Iron IIA (c. 1250-850 BCE): Volume 2, ed. Lester L. Grabbe (European Seminar in Historical Methodology 8; New York: T & T Clark International, 2010), 169-70; Moore, Philosophy, 20-23, 28, 39.

7 Niels Peter Lemche, “Conservative Scholarship on the Move,” SJOT 19 (2005): 17, 19, 22, 25; Lemche, “On the Problems of Reconstructing Pre-Hellenistic Israelite (Palestinian) History,” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 3 (2001) art. 13: 11-12.

8 Philip R. Davies, Memories of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 15.

9 Philip R. Davies, “Beyond Labels: What Comes Next?” online essay at, 2010.

10 Davies, “Beyond Labels.”

11 A. Graeme Auld, Samuel at the Threshold (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2004), 34, 43, 68-69.

12 Helge S. Kvanvig, “History and Narration in the Old Testament,” in Historie og Konstruktion, ed. M. Müller (Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum, 2005), 276-77, 284.

13 John Van Seters, “A Response to G. Aichelle, P. Miscall, and R. Walsh, ‘An Elephant in the Room,’” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 9 (2009) art. 26: 8.

14 See Jens Kofoed, Text and History (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2005): ix-x.

15 Alan Millard, “Amorites and Israelites,” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology, ed. J. K. Hoffmeier and A. Millard (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004):160; James K. Hoffmeier, “he North Sinai Archaeological Project’s Excavations at Tell-el-Borg (Sinai),” in The Future of Biblical Archaeology, ed. J. K. Hoffmeier and A. Millard (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 59.

16 L. S. Fried, “Historians Can use the Scientific Method,” Transeuphratene 31 (2006): 125-27.

17 Megan Bishop Moore, “Beyond Minimalism,” online essay at, 2010, with reference to recent works by Lester Grabbe, Hugh Williamson, Victor Matthews, Hans Barstad, and others.

18 Allan Megill, “Coherence and Incoherence in Historical Studies,” New Literary History 35 (2004): 223, 226.

19 Roger Chartier, “Cultural History Between Tradition and Globalization,” Penn History Review 16 (2009): 15.

20 William G. Dever, What did the biblical writers know and when did they know it? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 17.

21 Chartier, “Cultural History,” 15-16.

22 A guess at the latest “movement” in historical theory would be “History of Concepts”; Elías José Palti, “From Ideas to Concepts to Metaphors,” History and Theory 49 (2010): 194-211, esp. 197-98, 202; Irmline Veit-Brause, “The Interdisciplinarity of History of Concepts,” History of Concepts Newsletter 6 (2003): 8-13. But there is no need to jump on this bus that has barely set out.

23 Allan Megill, Historical Knowledge, Historical Error (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2007), 114.

24 Leopold von Ranke, Geschichten der romanischen und germanischenVölker von 1494 bis 1514 (Leipzig: Duncker & Humblot, 1885), vii.

25 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 114.

26 Keith Whitelam, “The Search for Early Israel,” Beer-sheva 12 (1998): 59; Thomas L. Thompson, The Mythic Past (London: Basic Books, 1999): 229.

27 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 114, italics original.

28 Philip R. Davies, “Methods and Madness,” JBL 114 (1995): 703-704.

29 Ernst Axel Knauf, “From History to Interpretation,” in The Fabric of History, ed. D. V. Edelman (JSOTSup 127; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1991): 30 33; Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas L. Thompson, “Did Biran Kill David?” JSOT 64 (1994): 3.

30 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 116.

31 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 124.

32 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 114, italics original.

33 Iain Provan, Victor P. Long, and Tremper Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2003), 3; also Mark Chavalas, “Recent Trends in the Study of Israelite Historiography,” JETS 38 (1995): 169; and Millard, “Amorites,” 160.

34 Provan, Long, and Longman, Biblical History, 103.

35 Hoffmeier, “North Sinai,” 59; also Millard, “Amorites,” 160; Provan, Long, and Longman, Biblical History, 55.

36 William G. Dever, Who were the early Israelites and where did they come from? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), 224. Examples are catalogued in Robert D. Miller II, “Quest of the Historical Israel,” Dictionary of the Old Testament Historical Books, 832-33.

37 Contra Keith Whitelam, “The Death of Biblical History,” in In Search of Philip R. Davies: Whose Festschrift Is It Anyway? ed. Duncan Burns and John W. Rogerson (LHB/OTS 484; New York: T & T Clark, 2011).

38 See discussion in Philip R. Davies, “Crypto-Minimalism,” Journal of Semitic Studies 50 (2005): 117–136

39 Miller, “Yahweh,” 150-51.

40 Herman Paul, “Who Suffered from the Crisis of Historicism?” History and Theory 49 (2010): 173.

41 Davies, “Methods,” 703; Davies, “Biblical Israel in the Ninth Century?” in Understanding the History of Ancient Israel, ed. H. G. M. Williamson (Proceedings of the British Academy 143; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 53, where he laments the slower progress in North America.

42 Paul, “Who,” 174.

43 Emanuel Pfoh, “Fuentes históricas antiguas y modelos teóricos modernos,” Transoxiana 10 (2005) online essay at

44 Lemche, “Conservative Scholarship,” 24. The grandest narrative of all is Philip Davies, “The Ancient World,” in Blackwell Companion to the Bible and Culture, ed. J. F. A. Sawyer (Oxford: Blackwells, 2006), 11-27.

45 Davies, “Beyond Labels.”

46 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 114, italics original.

47 See Dever, What, 90, 297.

48 Dever, What, 39-40.

49 Viet-Brause, “Interdisciplinarity,” 7.

50 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 118-19, italics original.

51 Viet-Brause, “Interdisciplinarity,” 11; provided the practitioner gains competence in the partner discipline, of course; Viet-Brause, “Interdisciplinarity,” 12.

52 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 111.

53 Alex Callinicos, Theories and Narratives: Reflections on the Philosophy of History (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), 91.

54 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 125, italics original.

55 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 127-28.

56 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 128, italics original.

57 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 132, where he downplays the traditional third criterion of “analogicality.”

58 See, for Isaiah, Peter B. Machinist, “Assyria and Its Image in First Isaiah,” JAOS 103 (1983): 719-87; Pinḥas Artzi, “‘All the Nations and Many Peoples,’” in Treasures on Camels’ Humps, ed. Mordechai Cogan and Dan’el Kahn (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2008), 41-53; for the Deuteronomistic History, Nadav Na’aman, “Solomon’s District List (1 Kings 4:7-19) and the Assyrian Province System in Palestine,” Ugarit Forschungen 33 (2001): 419-36; Robert D. Miller II, “Israel’s Covenant in Ancient Near Eastern Context,” Biblische Notizen 139 (2008): 5-18; and for Deuteronomy, Eckart Otto, “Rechtsreformen in Deuteronomium XII-XXVI und im Mittelassyrischen Kodex der Tafel A” in Congress Volume Paris, ed. John A. Emerton (Vetus Testamentum Supplement 61; Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), 239-73; “Political Theology in Judah and Assyria,” Svensk Exegetisk Årsbok 65 (2000): 59-76; Ernest Nicholson, “‘Do Not Dare to Set a Foreigner Over You’: The King in Deuteronomy and ‘The Great King,’” ZAW 118 (2006): 46-61; Nili Wazana, “Are Trees of the Field Human?” in Treasures on Camels’ Humps, ed. Mordechai Cogan and Dan’el Kahn (Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 2008), 274-95; Bernard Levinson, “The Bible’s Break with Ancient Political Thought to Promote Equality – ‘It ain’t Necessarily So,” JTS, n.s., 61 (2010): 7-8.

59 As Philippe Wajdenbaum, Argonauts of the Desert: Structural Analysis of the Hebrew Bible (London: Equinox, 2011).

60 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 134.

61 Niels Peter Lemche, The Old Testament Between Theology and History, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 110-12.

62 All catalogued in Robert D. Miller II, “Identifying Earliest Israel,” BASOR 333 (2004): 63.

63 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 135.

64 This is Derrida’s best, lasting legacy; Anselm Haverkamp, “Radical Patience: Deconstruction’s Fall into History,” Cardozo Law Review 27 (2005-2006): 551.

65 Megill, Historical Knowledge, 130.

66 Grabbe, Ancient Israel, 219-25.

67 David Noel Freedman, “On Method in Biblical Studies,” Interpretation 17 (1963): 317.