Gospels and Kings

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by Neil Godfrey

Reading James Linville’s Israel in the Book of Kings (introduced in my previous post) I can’t help but notice resonances with the methodologies and assumptions largely taken for granted by New Testament scholars. The same issues of assumptions of historicity and lack of evidence bedevil (or at least did much more so in 1998 when the book was published) the questions of the historical nature of the narratives.

One may wonder if it is fair to make such comparisons, since it may be thought that the time-gap between the writing of the respective books, Kings and Gospels, and the events they purportedly refer to in their narratives, the history of Israel and the life of Jesus, is so different for each (one measured in centuries or multiples of decades, the other in but a few decades), that comparisons are invalid.

But no. It is the logic and substance of the methodology itself that is applicable no matter what the time gap between the apparent composition of the narratives and the time of the events within that narrative. Linville refers to De Vries’s comments on 1 Kgs 3:1 that the report of Solomon’s marriage to Pharaoh’s daughter is “virtually contemporary” with the occasion (p. 39). Such views of the evidence among scholars of 1 and 2 Kings in my view seal the fate of the argument that the methodology discussed for OT studies can not be applied to NT studies because of the “time gap” between narrative composition and events within the narrative.

Assuming historicity and arbitrary judgments

Linville compares two opposing approaches to the way Kings has been read as history by scholars. The first is represented by De Vries.

DeVries is said to consider that reading the book of Kings “as an end product”, as a complete literary entity, is a handicap to the historian. What is important is the need to break down Kings into discrete “elemental oral and written units”. One such unit is the marriage of Solomon, referenced above. Because there is no overt moralizing on this event, DeVries sees this as a clear historical report traceable to a “virtually contemporary” source.

This is not unlike the NT historical method of studying discrete units or pericopes within the Gospels and attempting to “dig through behind” the text to discover the “history” supposedly behind it.

In other words, the text (Gospels or Kings) as a single literary unit is “an obstacle” to be overcome by the historian as he/she attempts to see what really happened.

(For NT historians to say this is how other ancient historians go about discovering so-called ‘facts’ is . . . . Well, what can I say that hasn’t been said a dozen times already.)

Another approach is represented by the work of Tomoo Ishida. Ishida asserts that the notion that later redactors altered original material is hypothetical, and assumes that the text of Kings is “largely transparent, telling little else than [the author’s] object of interest.” (Linville, p.40)

Linville critiques both approaches with their assumptions of historicity and arbitrary judgments about the texts.

In both cases, the status of Kings as an artefact of history, and, as such, a product of someone’s artifice, is downplayed, if not ignored.

Both approaches assume that an original author was consciously intending to portray accurate history. This assumption, Linville, notes, is “particularly pointed when there is perceived inaccuracy in an ‘elemental’ unit.”

For example, according to 1 Kgs 10:28-29 Solomon trades in horses and chariots, but the place names are problematic for many historians.

Solomon acquired his horses from Egypt  and from Que; the king’s traders purchased them from Que. They paid 600 silver pieces for each chariot from Egypt and 150 silver pieces for each horse. They also sold chariots and horses to all the kings of the Hittites and to the kings of Syria.

Egypt is often emended to “Musri”, a region in Cappadocia/Cilicia to the north of Israel, to be consistent with the other regions listed here. (One is reminded of the geographic problems that NT historians see in some of Mark’s geography.) Egypt presents an “illogical trading route.” The problem arises because of the assumption that the narrative is meant to be factual history.

There is, however, no textual evidence in support of this emendation, and these attempts to reconstruct a hypothetical original reading do not come to terms with the reason why Kings reads the name of Egypt. This is an important oversight, since Israel’s relations with Egypt are an important theme in Kings. Moreover, the exodus is one of the primary ‘social metaphors’ for Israel which are articulated within the book. The presumption of intended accuracy and the scholarly desire to follow suit and compose for themselves accurate history have resulted in the fabrication of reliable sources, and so replaced the reading of a history already written, which is itself a product of specific ideological and historical factors. (pp. 40-41)

What Linville is arguing for is a reading of the narrative of Kings as itself the expression of a particular social, political and ideological context and need.

A similar common lament of historians is the very “laconic” notes on the reigns of various kings, including the curiously unadorned note on the death of Josiah. What frustrates historians is what they see as the “restricted use of Judaean annals”. This assumption of historical sources prevents them from seeking a literary reason for such brief notes.

On the presumed sources used by the author/redactors, Linville writes:

There is in fact little, if any, evidence that the writers of Kings had sources of information which, by their very genre, must be accorded a great level of historicity. The frequent references in Kings to other books are often taken as references to annals or other official writings contemporary with the events and reigns they describe. Their genre and compositional dates, however, are beyond demonstration. We cannot even be sure which parts of Kings are quotations from them, if they were directly quoted at all. The desire to find historically accurate sources results in an unfortunate ranking of passages in which purported ‘archival records’ are considered reliable, ‘popular legends’ unreliable, with ‘historical narratives’ occupying a debatable middle position. Burke O. Long comments that these kinds of ranking schemes lead to easy historical judgments which supplant serious literary analysis, the first task for the scholar. (pp. 41-42)

Sometimes such rankings are little more than subjective judgments that this or that passage is “authentic” or an accurate report.

One is reminded of NT studies comparing what is thought to be from “oral tradition”, what is thought to be from Q, what from later church theology, and the various colour rankings of sayings by the Jesus Seminar.

It is also of interest, I think, to see “serious literary analysis” being described as “the first task for the scholar”. James McGrath has attempted to explain NT historiography as a distinctively different approach from literary criticism. But this is a circular approach to historicity, using one’s assumptions of historicity to confirm historicity. What is necessary and justifiable, I think, is to study the text as an artefact in itself first and foremost. That means seeking to explain it in its own terms first and foremost in order to understand its nature and the nature of its narrative. Only then are we in a position to “mine” it for history, if we find reason to do so.

In the case of Kings, historians have assumed that underlying sources include real “annals” on the basis of a keyword like “then” or an ascription of an event to a king’s time. But Linville remarks that such expressions have numerous counter-examples, so the assessment that some of these refer to annals is essentially arbitrary.

Moreover, the styles of reporting associated with annals or inscriptions dealing with the actual deeds of a king could be copied by others not interested in recording only contemporary royal exploits. One often reads how the ‘sober’ or seemingly factual reporting marks a passage as stemming from a source which could not contain a fictional narrative. This kind of assessment is hardly to be taken seriously. (p.42)

Compare the regular claims that the gospels in many places have a certain “ring of truth” about them. Or how the miracles are told “soberly” without fanfare, supposedly unlike accounts of pagan miracles.

I have addressed Philip R. Davies’s arguments for the circularity of biblical historical assumptions and arguments. Linville also refers to Davies’s criticisms in relation to how historians have naively read references to sources in Kings.

Davies rightly finds the practice of linking composition to the time of events narrated to be based on circular reasoning which reinforces the initial assumption that the society depicted in the text is a historical entity.

I have argued that there is a similar circularity at work among NT scholars who assume the first gospel to have been composed within the generation of the events narrated.

Davies’s complaint goes beyond faulting the relevant scholars for mistaking the language of attribution as a resource, and not a topic of investigation.

Compare the amount of ink spilled by NT scholars over the “sources” (anonymous) in Luke’s prologue, and the so-called “eyewitness” in John.

Rather, his objection centres on the uncritical acceptance of what might be labelled entire ‘narratives of attribution’ as a resource.

Luke’s prologue begs to be read and studied the same way. First understand and explain it as a resource in itself. Don’t begin with the assumption that it is a gateway to be passed through to hypothetical historical intentions.


It is exciting to see a fresh approach to the historical study of the Old Testament writings. Circularities and assumptions that have gone unchecked are being noticed and challenged. Mostly. There seems to be a stumbling block, a sudden halt to the methodology at the time of King Josiah in particular in the work of Silberman and Finkelstein (The Bible Unearthed). One wonders if this is a reflection of the need to salvage a certain core historical Judah for many modern Jews. To begin their history with the Persian province of Yehud (and to excise the earlier Kingdom of Jerusalem as something as much ‘Canaanite’ or completely indigenous in both ethnic a cultural/religious sense to Palestine) may be considered a step just a little too far for many. Enough has been said for now about the problems of even beginning to address the circularities and assumptions at the core of early Christian and historical Jesus studies.

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Neil Godfrey

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6 thoughts on “Gospels and Kings”

  1. Circularity of the bible? certainly but sholars ignoring the facts? Neil, that is the whole point of being a religious scholar. Even luminaries in the field just cant get away from the pivotal points of the bible and the archaeology.

    Lets just assume that the archaeology isnt done. Its then safe to assume patriarchs and legendary kings. But with supporting archaeology certain parts of the bible can be shown to have happened. the associated mythology is either worth noting for a subsequent dig or well to be avoided.

    My take? Yep, there was a mesopotamia and there was a levant. Until Assyrians exacted their due and Egyptians held fort in the entire north east passage, nothing in the bible is worth noting. After the Assyrians (forgive the previous Hittites) struck the northern and southern state, the bible has very little but mythology. After? well the bible is an establishment contract jimmied up by the ill fated Josiah.

    There isnt much else after but the exile of Judah and references to persians and greeks… and romans.

    Then the new polytheistic mythology. Yep what comes around goes around and boy does the new docetism harvest on the old mythology as if it were real rather than promises.

    Lets face it, with a god who is an indian giver and a son who is Mr Promises “I’ll call you”, scholars really have to do the circular harvest and it isnt hard noticing the crop circles that students left 1800 years ago.

    Think I’ll go demonise the William Tell and Robin Hood factual evidence 1845 pamphlets for a few weeks.

    1. I’m big on archaeology, too. Have done up notes on some of the evidence for the kingdom’s of Samaria and Jerusalem — included in this archive are posts and links on the archaeological evidence for the kingdoms of Israel and Judah:

      If there’s anything in my post that you think ignores or contradicts the archaeological evidence do spill out the specifics. I’m not denying there was a kingdom of “Judah” or whatever we might call it with its royal capital at Jerusalem.

      But when reading the Finkelstein and Silberman discussion of the archaeological evidence for Josiah’s reforms and imperial ambitions I felt I was being transported back to Albrightian history — with the Bible narrative as the lense through which the archaeological evidence was interpreted.

      I favour those (including views of Davies quoted above, and Thompson) who argue the more normative historical approach is the reverse, to read the secondary literature through the lense of the primary archaeological evidence.

      After reading Linville I’m beginning to see how another reading (other than one with historicist assumptions) of Kings can be approached.

      Before finishing Linville I’m taking time out to read Kings again and am seeing how it can well be understood as a tale told with the exile and restoration in mind from the getgo. As such, it can be seen as much a fictional morality tale as the detailed stories of the Exodus-Wilderness wanderings. A theme throughout is the temporary nature of the kingdoms in Canaan (they are doomed to being exiled almost from the start, just as Israel was doomed to wander in the wilderness 40 years) — and acts of righteousness cannot change the final outcome. Indeed, even Josiah must die before seeing the worst, just as Moses had to die before seeing the best. Both prepared God’s people for the next stage of their history.

      The tale is told from the perspective of those who have been brought into the province of Yehud. It is one of many such tales created to justify their new settlement/occupation, and to create a new identity relevant to their new situation. All the tales reflect the origins of Yehud — people being deported from various parts of the Persian empire to colonize Palestine. Abraham’s wanderings, Moses’ wanderings, — both add “justifying” “memories” or identities for a people who have been settled from Syria, Babylonia, Egypt.

      Assryian and Babylonian kings sometimes attempted to “win” compliance from those deperted by claiming they were restoring them to their original lands of their true fathers and gods. It seems that this was something like the situation of the settlement of Yehud by the Persians.

      But I’m on a flying visit to Ho Chi Minh city at the moment and away from any references to give details. Luckily I’ve been robbed and lost everything here, so have a bit of time to spare between embassy and police station and travel agency visits to do this post.

      So will maybe get back to catch up with this more properly tomorrow.

      1. Sorry to hear about your travel woes, Neil. Hope everything turns out OK.

        Regarding Philip Davies, I was just re-reading the Wikipedia article on the Tel Dan Stele. Anson Rainey didn’t like what Davies had to say about various possible readings of the inscriptions. He wrote, “Davies represents what he and a circle of colleagues call the “deconstructionist” approach to Biblical traditions. The present instance can serve as a useful example of why Davies and his “deconstructionists” can safely be ignored by everyone seriously interested in Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern studies.”

        So there you have it. If they don’t like what you have to say, you can “safely be ignored.”

        1. The even less flattering portion of that review statement by Rainey in Wikipedia, but quoted by Keith Whitelam in “The Invention of Ancient Israel”, has Rainey writing that he has a “responsibility to warn the lay audience” against “Philip R. Davies and his ilk” whom he also describes as “acircle of dilettantes” with “a new fad, the deconstructionist school.” Then, “Biblical scholarship and instruction should completely ignore the ‘deconstructionist school’. They have nothing to teach us.”

          Keith Whitelam comments:

          “The reader is never informed as to the identity of these dilettantes apart from a reference to Thompson. This personal and vitriolic attack upon Davies is used as an opportunity to disparage the shifts in historical studies which have been taking place in the discipline. This movement, however, can be ‘safely ignored’ because not to ignore it would undermine the construction of the past promoted in the discourse of biblical studies which has sustained Israel’s claim to the past and its success in excluding Palestinian history. The stele might confirm the existence of a Judaean kingdom in the ninth or eigth centuries but what it does not do is confirm the construction of the extent of that kingdom or the belief that the monarchy under David represented a first-rank ’empire’. The kingdoms of Judah and Israel still need to be understood as part of Palestinian hitory rather than the only elements in that broader regional history.

          “It is clear that biblical scholars and archaeologists have been aware of the lack of archaeological evidence for a long time but have persisted in constructing the massive edifice of a Davidic empire as one of the major powers in the ancient world.”

          So Rainey resorts to this sort of attack on Davies, and presents himself to lay readers as the only kind of authority they should listen to. As you said, the aim is to turn lay readers right away from even reading Davies et al.

          Whitelam also demonstrates other extraordinary biases in Rainey’s publications in which he treats the Israelites as the only legitimate inhabitants of the land even from the earliest calcholithic age.

  2. We’re so conditioned as readers of fiction to want to suspend disbelief, that it’s hard to turn it off. I’m reminded of Lovecraft’s internal references to the Necronomicon in several of his works. Despite his clear admission that, yes, it was all fiction, for some readers it “felt” so real they became convinced that Abdul Alhazred and his accursed book were real. We want to believe what we’re told.

    On the subject of redaction and sources in 1 and 2 Kings, the constant insertion of the line — “Now the rest of the acts of [King’s Name], and all that he did, are they not written in the book of the chronicles of the kings of Israel?” — has always seemed unconvincing to me. It sounded more like a cop-out from a writer who was out of material, but wanted us to believe there was a whole lot more over there in a book that you don’t have access to.

    However, the constant insertion of the line about the relatively few good kings who cut down the groves, burned the idols to Baal, but nonetheless “did not destroy the high places” does sound like a later redactor’s hand. It seems as though the Josiah fanboys went back through the text and made sure that their guy was superior to any king who came before him — even David. But then maybe I’m still biased by the primacy effect, and see the text through the eyes of Frank Moore Cross. Perhaps the notion of Deuteronomist source layers (Dtr1 and Dtr2) is just as tenuous as Q1 and Q2.

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