Perspectives Resources

Evangelicals and the Historiography of Ancient Israel

Brian D. Russell

Since the rise of modern skepticism, scholars have debated the proper presentation of ancient Israelite history. The eminent 20th century scholar Gerhard von Rad framed the issue cogently a generation ago: “These two pictures of Israel’s history lie before us—that of modern critical scholarship and that which the faith of Israel constructed .…The one is rational and “objective”…with the aid of historical method and presupposing the similarity of all historical occurrence, it constructs a critical picture…as it really was in Israel…The other activity is confessional … Historical investigation searches for a critically assured minimum—the kerygmatic picture tends towards a theological maximum. The fact that these two views of Israel’s history are so divergent is one of the most serious burdens imposed today on Biblical scholarship” (Old Testament Theology, vol 1 [Harper SanFrancisco, 1962] 107-08; italics added).

The clause italicized above describes the assumption behind most modern histories of ancient Israel: a critical reconstruction based on modern rules of evidence (such as the principals of falsification and analogy) is more scientific and thus a more accurate portrait than the one offered in Israel’s own writings.

This dichotomy between Israel’s own testimony and modern critical reconstruction has reached its zenith in the writings of a group of scholars, who are often labeled minimalists. In a stream of publications (e.g., P.R. Davies, In Search of Ancient Israel [Sheffield, 1992]; T.L. Thompson, Early History of the Israelite People [Brill, 1992]; K.W. Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel [Routledge, 1997]; and N.P. Lemche, The Israelites in History and Tradition [Westminster John Knox, 1998]), they have argued that the biblical portrait of Israel is largely a fictional one invented during the Persian or Hellenistic periods.

Although the consensus of scholars does not share this radical skepticism about the Bible’s historical testimony, the difference is only one of degree. Few critical scholars give much credence to the narratives found in Genesis to Judges, and most begin their histories with the rise of David and Solomon. For example, W.G. Dever’s What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It (Eerdmans, 2001) offers a blistering critique of the minimalist camp and demonstrates that parts of the Bible can be corroborated by archaeology. Dever, however, privileges the evidence of archaeology over the Bible. He is frank in his assessment that much of the Bible is unusable by historians. For example, he regards Genesis to Numbers as “prehistory” and the Exodus-Conquest tradition as myth in the sense of “historical fiction.” Thus, while Dever does locate a “Proto-Israel” in the highlands of the Early Iron period (12th-11th centuries B.C.E.), he does not find any correlation between the biblical record and the archaeological data until the 10th century.

Thus, although there is a wide chasm between the representative works of Dever and the minimalists, they are in essential agreement that the biblical record is problematic as a source for historiography. We turn now to this issue.

The Problem of the Sources

All scholars have access to the same sources (the writings of the Hebrew Bible, site reports of archaeological digs, and published textual evidence from the ancient Near East), but they privilege them in varying ways. The use of the Bible remains the controversial element.

Contemporary scholarship confronts three issues when using the Bible as a historical source. First, it is book of theology rather than an “objective” history that a modern historian would write. Given its ideological agenda, many critical scholars hesitate to view its writings as dependable sources unless the biblical narrative can be corroborated by extra-biblical materials. Thus, there is a tendency in critical scholarship to privilege the testimony of archaeology and extra-biblical texts.

Second, there has been a general trend toward an exilic to post-exilic dating for much of the OT. Along with dates of composition long after the reported events, many scholars assume that the historiography in the Bible tells the scholar more about the time in which the literature was composed than about the past that it describes.

Third, in recent decades, the narrative texts of the OT have been appreciated increasingly for their literary artistry. Ironically, scholars have tended to devalue the historical testimony of the biblical literature to the degree that its narrative displays a high level of literary skill. The assumption is that the higher the level of sophistication in the presentation the less reliable the historical testimony.

Evangelicals and History Writing

Evangelicals have not remained on the sidelines of this scholarly debate. For the remainder of this essay, I will sketch three lines of response: Traditional, Apologetic, and Critical Engagement. Attention will be paid to how each approaches the Bible as a source.

W.C. Kaiser, Jr.’s A History of Israel (Broadman & Holman, 1998) represents a traditional evangelical approach. By traditional, I mean that Kaiser writes as an evangelical for like-minded readers. His history is essentially a paraphrase of the biblical portrait of Israel. As we will see, there is nothing wrong with taking seriously the Bible’s historical testimony, but by assuming its truthfulness because “Jesus held this view, the text makes such a claim for itself, and the church has received it as such for these centuries” (15), Kaiser limits the possibility for serious dialogue with mainstream scholarship. Kaiser’s work is thus a “safe” volume, but little of it is fresh or particularly insightful. By assuming the Bible’s truthfulness and traditional dates for its composition, he sidesteps the first two problems discussed above. To his credit, Kaiser demonstrates that a close reading of the text often provides a more cogent starting point for understanding Israel’s history than do certain critical reconstructions.

K. Kitchen’s On the Reliability of the Old Testament (Eerdmans, 2003) takes an apologetic tact. He accepts the assumptions about sources noted above, but challenges their validity with respect to the Bible. He does this principally by appealing to the material and textual sources from several millennia of Near Eastern history. He compares the events, characters, and geography mentioned in the Bible with extant textual and archaeological data. If a biblical text can be shown to fit its putative historical context on the basis of extra-biblical evidence, there is no warrant for judging it to be unreliable as a historical source or for positing a later date for its composition. Students will learn much about the context of the Bible in this work. Kitchen also reminds scholars that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence,” i.e., it is unrealistic to expect archaeology and extra-biblical materials to reference every detail in the biblical narrative. Furthermore, Kitchen musters evidence in support of a Mosaic authorship for the Pentateuch and early dates for Joshua—2 Kings.

Finally, I. Provan, V.P. Long, and T. Longman III’s A Biblical History of Israel (Westminster John Knox, 2003) represents a critical engagement with recent historiography. Provan et al. offer just as robust a portrait of Israel as Kaiser and Kitchen, and more importantly, they offer a fresh approach to history writing. In their view, “history is fundamentally open to acceptance of accounts of the past that enshrine other people’s memories” (47). They argue for an epistemological openness in which evidence is required for not trusting historical testimony. Their work thus presents a challenge to some of the ruling assumptions of modern scholarship. The strength of their accomplishment is two-fold: 1) They argue persuasively for the acceptance of biblical testimony as a historical source; and 2) Their presentation of Israel’s history is credible. The following is a sketch of their argument.

The Problem of the Bible’s Ideology
Provan et al. argue that all testimony of the past is ideological. There are no neutral sources. Artifactual evidence is mute apart from its interpretation by an archaeologist. Extra-biblical texts are as ideologically shaped as the Bible is. Furthermore, they suggest that there is no reason to deny the trustworthiness of an account of the past simply because it is cast in an ideological framework.

The Problem of the Date of Composition of the Bible
Although Provan et al. express skepticism about some of the late dates posited for the biblical literature, they argue nonetheless that it is unreasonable to presume that a textual witness is less trustworthy because it derives from a time subsequent to the events that it narrates. Humorously, they point out that modern scholars certainly believe their work to be more accurate than their source material.

The Problem of the Artistry of the Bible
Provan et al. suggest that the OT’s sophisticated writing style is misunderstood by some scholars, who equate an artistic presentation with a fictional one. Furthermore, they argue that biblical accounts must be studied carefully as narratives before they can be used for history writing. Thus, rather than being a liability, the Bible’s artistry is the avenue by which to understand its historical testimony.

Thus, Provan et al. demonstrate that historical reconstruction turns on which sources one privileges. Their arguments offer compelling reasons for listening to the Bible’s testimony as a reliable witness in combination with other available evidence. The following quote from their work answers von Rad poignantly: “Our knowledge of the past is dependent on testimony. This being the case, and biblical testimony being the major testimony about Israel’s past that we possess, to marginalize biblical testimony in any modern attempt to recount the history of Israel must be folly. Considering that testimony along with other testimonies should be considered perfectly rational. It should be considered irrational, however, to give epistemological privilege to these other testimonies, even to the extent of ignoring biblical testimony altogether” (73).

Posted Nov 01, 2004