Ancient Israel: Myth or History? Part 3a

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Part 3a

Responding to Biblical Minimalism

A Summary Apologetic for Old Testament Historical Reliability

In the previous two posts I tried to the emphasize importance of whether or not the general historical outlook found in the Old Testament narrative can be trusted, and secondly I laid out two of the main challenges to the historical integrity of the Old Testament. In this post I will attempt to provide a brief response to the first of the two challenges. Initially I thought that I could give a succinct response, but as I continued to write it became obvious that the article was much too long for one post. What I have decided to do is part 3a dealing with the challenge of biblical minimalism and part 3b the archaeological challenge to the Old Testament. One of the downsides of electronic media over books is that one has to summarize vast amounts of information and research. So because of space I will be limited in my response and I will be sure to cite sources for further study in the footnotes.

In Blog post 2 “Ancient Israel: Myth or History” – Part 2 The Challenge, I mentioned that the two main challenges to the reliability of the Old Testament comes from philosophy/hermeneutics and archaeological research. In the real world the two intermingle and inform one another. First we will take a look at “Biblical Minimalism.” Essentially “biblical minimalism” is a school of biblical exegesis which treats the biblical text as a purely mythical literature rather than as history. It is a categorical denial that the biblical text can shed light on actual history

Responding to Biblical Minimalism & the Cöpenhagen School

There have been a number of responses to this school of biblical minimalism. Dr. William Dever, for instance, from the University of Arizona responded with his book, What Did the Biblical Writers Knew and When Did they Know It? (1999).

Egyptologist at the University of Liverpool, Dr. Kenneth Kitchen, has provided an illuminating and accurate observation about Dever’s book. He writes that Dever’s response gave: “a robust and valuable reply to the minimalists, ruthlessly exposing their suspect agendas and sham “scholarship,” following on from his refutations of Finklestein’s archaeological revisionism. It [Dever’s book] should be read and appreciated (for the period 1200 B.C. onward) for its firsthand contribution on the archaeological aspects….there is much solid rock here….To one’s sorrow [however] there is also sinking sand…”[1]

What Kitchen is referring to is that while Dever responds to the minimalists critique of the historical value of the biblical text, he (Dever) himself will defend its historicity only up to a certain point (cf. 1200 B.C. onward).  Certainly, as much as we must give due respect to professor Dever for all of his work in the area of archaeology and Biblical studies, yet he does not speak for conservative biblical scholars nor does he answer fully the critiques of biblical minimalism. To apply the moniker “biblical maximalist” to Dr. Dever is, in my opinion a major misnomer.

In his excellent book, On the Reliability of the Old Testament, Professor Kitchen summarizes the biblical desconstructionists “method” of approaching the text with the following six principles:

1.The author’s intention is an illusion created by readers

2.The text is an interpretable entity independent of its author

3.Language is infinitely unstable, and meaning always deferrable

4.One must approach the text with a hostile suspicion, against the grain,  denying  integrity where possible in favor or dissonance and a search for inner contradiction [i.e. the hermeneutics of suspicion]

5.All texts are incomplete, as language is unbounded.

6.Structure is more important than context[2]

Simply put: if the same principles were applied to the writings of Thompson and Lemche then we would have no reason to believe anything they wrote. Their methodology for doing biblical scholarship is simply based on a poor hermeneutic at best!

In 1996 the Australian historian Keith Windschuttle wrote an excellent and incisive book about postmodern historiography (history writing) titled, The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists are Murdering Our Past. In this book, professor Windschuttle dissects and exposes the flawed philosophies and methods of many historians writing today and turns them back on themselves.

If we were to use that same hermeneutical approach to which Thompson, Lemche & others employ when they write books about the so-called “myth” of ancient Israel, then is their intention for writing books and communicating information about the Old Testament nothing but an “illusion” created by us [the reader]? Would critical scholars allow their readers to “read” any meaning into the text independent of their thoughts and intentions? Hardly. Do they want readers to approach their texts with “hostile suspicion?” If one applied the same methodology and principles to the works of skeptical biblical scholars then we would have no reason to take them seriously or believe anything they wrote. But, of course, they believe that what they are writing is true and should be believed. Why else would they have written it?

At its root, biblical minimalism is a philosophical shift (a paradigm shift?) away from a general theistic approach and to an outlook which is essentially atheistic & naturalistic (which actually began in the eighteenth century: since the time of Spinoza, T. Hobbes, D. Hume and others). Since that time, scholars in the fields of the humanities and social sciences have become more and more committed to methodological naturalism as their undergirding philosophy, and today more and more biblical scholars and archaeologists are embracing deconstructionism as well as other serious philosophical errors.

Scholars such as Thomson and Lemche, who were influenced by French postmodern philosophers like Derrida, Michel Foucault as well as the German, Hans Georg Gadmer (Truth and Method), are not philosophically neutral when they approach the biblical text. Biblical scholarship, nor is archaeology practiced in a philosophical vacuum.

Taking his cue from book V of Plato’s Republic, Dr. Normal Geisler (then president of ETS) correctly warned:

Unless either philosophers become biblical exegetes in our schools or those who we now call biblical exegetes take to the pursuit of philosophy seriously and adequately, and there is a conjunction of these two things, biblical exegesis and philosophical intelligence, there can be no cessation of theological troubles for our schools, nor I fancy for the Christian church either.”[3]

Sadly many evangelical scholars working today in the fields of exegesis, biblical studies, & theology are still unaware or unconcerned about the prevalent philosophical errors which have crept into the “Christian academy” [if there even is such a thing].

In my next post I will deal directly with the archaeological challenges to the historical trustworthiness of the Old Testament.


[1] K. A. Kitchen, On the Historical Reliability of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 2003), 468 [emphasis mine].

[2] Ibid, 469-72.

[3] Norman L. Geisler, “Beware Philosophy: A Warning to Biblical Scholars,” in The Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 42/1 (March 1999), 3-19.

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