Scholarly Trench Warfare to Defend the Bible by Means of Rationalistic Paraphrase

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by Neil Godfrey

This post is based on a discussion by Niels Peter Lemche in The Israelites in History and Tradition. It begins with a quotation from Assyriologist Mario Liverani:

Laziness is common among historians. When they find a continuous account of events for a certain period in an ‘ancient’ source, one that is not necessarily contemporaneous with the events, they readily adopt it. They limit their work to paraphrasing the source, or, if needed, to rationalisation.— Liverani, Myth and politics in ancient Near Eastern historiography, p.28. (Cited p. 149 in The Israelites in History and Tradition)

Liverani is addressing historians of Hittite history here. Historians of the Hittites felt they had all they needed to know to get started by the discovery of a decree by King Telipinus. This presents an outline of Hittite dynastic history that has been used by many Hittite historians. But Liverani showed that the “history” had little to do with actual reality. It was a highly ideological text designed to establish a (fictional) rationale for King Telipinus’s usurpation.

Lemche adds:

In few places is Liverani’s warning against naively accepting an ancient text as a historical source as relevant as in biblical studies, where the amount of rationalistic paraphrase has in fact been overwhelming. (p. 149)

Lemche is speaking specifically of Old Testament studies. But my observation is that it applies at least equally strongly among New Testament studies.

Some reasons for this that Lemche offers:

The biblical narrative has been part of most biblical scholars’ earliest educational experiences in Sunday school or primary school. Result: this history is part of our cultural heritage; it is so embedded in our makeup that “we automatically subscribe to this history without thinking about it.”

The word used here is “brainwashed”.

Being brainwashed means that we are ready in advance, without reflection, to accept everything that we are told by our biblical source, and only secondary investigation and reflection will eventually persuade us to give up this biblical history of ours. As such, the loyalty that most Old Testament historians feel towards Israel’s history as told by the biblical authors is a psychological rather than a scientific fact. It is part of their upbringing and education, not of their historical research.

Lemche illustrates how this has worked in Old Testament scholarship. (It is interesting to keep in the back of one’s mind similar processes at work in the case of historical Jesus and early Christianity studies.)

He shows how biblical historians have felt the need to defend everything as long as possible.

Old Testament scholarship has been fighting a kind of trench warfare, defending hopeless positions until forced out of its hidings, only to retract to the next line of defense, where the process is repeated for another time.

First, here is the biblical framework of Israel’s history:

  1. Patriarchs
  2. Sojourn in Egypt, Exodus, Wilderness wandering
  3. Conquest of Canaan
  4. Judges
  5. United monarchy, followed by the divided kingdom
  6. Exile to Babylonia
  7. Return from exile and the post-exilic period

The battle to save the Patriarchs

Historiography in Europe began to question the historicity of the Patriachal era (Abraham, Isaac and Jacob) as early as the nineteenth century with Wilhelm Martin Leberecht de Wette. This critique was cemented by Julius Wellhausen, and further by Martin Noth. Only a few German conservative historians (Rudolf Kittel and Ernst Sellin) held the fort of historicity.

In America, meanwhile, the Patriarchs continued to be viewed as historical through the influences of William F. Albright and John Bright. It was only seriously challenged there when Thomas L. Thompson and John Van Seters published in the 1970s.

The battle to save the Exodus and Conquest

The Exodus was removed from history by German critical scholarship but was long-held fast as historical by American scholarship (Albright).

German scholarship replaced the conquest of Canaan with the view that there was rather a gradual “settlement” of Israelite tribes (Alt).

American scholarship proposed another theory to replace the bible’s description of a conquest: early Israel was the outcome of a social and religious revolution (Mendenhall, Gottwald). These scholars at the same time kept hold of the idea of the Exodus by re-writing it as an escape by a small group of refugees from Egypt (a notion borrowed from German scholarship). This small exodus group “experienced the presence of Yahweh at Mount Sinai, and carried with them the idea of the covenant between God and man, which became their message to the oppressed peasantry of Canaan when they arrived in Palestine.” (p. 150)

The group that left Egypt was so tiny that it was invisible to archaeologists and ancient historians. But such a down-sizing meant that modern historians could rationalize the Exodus narrative and hang on to it nonetheless.

It is, however, still a paraphrase of the biblical narrative from which everything supernatural has been removed. At the same time, the recourse to such a tiny group of immigrants as imagined by this kind of research made it possible — in spite of all critical sense that says the opposite — to retain the central parts of the biblical tradition. This included the revelation of the supreme God of Israel, and the originality of the monotheistic credo of the Old Testament. It was not seen as a serious obstacle that neither this group of Moses nor the revelation at Mount Sinai was mentioned in any source except the Old Testament narrative — before it was rationalized.

Retreating and Re-paraphrasing the Sources

Thus has been the pattern of steady stubborn retreats to hold on to whatever they can salvage of the Biblical narrative.

But this effort has meant that scholars have rewritten their texts to mean something quite different from what their authors originally wrote. The biblical narrative is a drama between two primary actors: God and Israel. Lemche observes that what the scholars have done in order to defend the historicity of the narrative is to remove one of the key protagonists in the story, God, “with the hope that the history that remained could be considered as profane a history as found in other parts of the world.”

It is of course a highly questionable exercise from the beginning, to remove one of the main characters from the play. The result must be an amputated narrative, and it is hard to see how the other part in the play, Israel, could be left untouched by such developments. However, the next logical step — to remove also biblical Israel from history — was not taken. Instead, the “manuscript” had to be changed so that instead of being a dialogue between God and humanity it could be a monologue only implying the participation of human beings. (p. 151)

Thus scholars were determined to maintain the story of Israel’s originating a monotheistic religion despite the primary evidence of history. The real history of Israel “was accordingly sacrificed on the altar of Yahweh, the Lord of the world.”

The battle to save the Conquest narrative

The absence of archaeological evidence for Joshua’s conquests presented a challenge to holding on to this story also. Albrecht Alt proposed the solution most Europeans found acceptable. Israelites did not come from Egypt, but were cattle-raising nomads who infiltrated Canaan from the Syrian desert. At first there were peaceful relations with the city-dwelling Canaanites, since the Israelites occupied the mountainous regions. Over time, however, as the Israelite population grew, conflicts increased, and conquest eventuated.

Many objections have been raised against this hypothesis (too many for inclusion here — really the subject of another post) but Lemche notes that was is most important here is the reason Alt’s theory proved so popular for so long despite regular devastating criticisms of it.

The theory is unsupported by the biblical narrative. But its advantage is that it keeps the Israelites together as a cohesive ethnic unit distinct from the Canaanites. By this means it perpetuates one of the major themes of the biblical narrative: that there was from the beginning, and there always remained, a vast gulf between the Canaanites and the Israelites of the land.

This meant that scholarship could support the biblical thesis that Israel was a chosen people, that Israelites felt a sense of their uniqueness from the beginning.

In this way the scholars succeeded in transferring the biblical narrative of the election of Israel, of its miraculous escape from Egypt and encounter with Yahweh at Sinai, including the concept of the people of God as the people of the covenant, into something manageable for historians of this world. This was done in spite of the biblical picture’s being “not of this world.” It remains, however, nothing except another rationalistic paraphrase of the biblical narrative. (pp. 152-3)

The battle to save the Judges

“It goes without saying that the period of the Judges and the following one of the united monarchy were paraphrased without further ado.”

The only difference is that with this period scholars tended to follow the narrative more slavishly since the narrative read less like fanciful sagas and legends.

It is strange that people may sometimes be so blind that they don’t recognize a phenomenon that is familiar because it also turns up in other cultures, including their own. It is a mystery that German scholars of the Romantic period could not see the connection between the heroic tales in the book of Judges and the similar ones found in Norse legends, in Icelandic sagas, in the traditions of King Arthur and the Round Table of Charlemagne’s heroes, or in Greek and Roman tradition. These kinds of tales are common in every place where a “nation” tries to establish a past that reaches back to the darkness of primeval times. The stories of the Old Testament were considered history in spite of the fact that in other places similar stories had to be dismissed. Scholarship developed only as far as its paraphrases of the biblical text became more and more refined. (p. 153)

The battle to save the period of David and Solomon

If the period of the united monarchy cannot be sustained by historians, then there is nothing left of any notion of a united ethnic Israelite people and kingdom up to this time period. The foundation of biblical tradition crumbles to dust blown off in the wind.

Without a Davidic empire there was no Israel in the biblical sense. The only thing that remains is the tradition of two tiny states of Palestine in the Iron Age, which were long after their disappearance chosen as the basis of a history of a new nation to be established on the soil of Palestine in the postexilic period. The tradition may have been preserved by descendants of the people who were really carried into exile by the Assyrians and Babylonians, or by others, who simply inherited and re-created it as their own history. (p. 155)

The biblical picture of a Davidic empire is defended heatedly. The same techniques used to hang on to the Exodus and Conquest are now being used to hang on to David. Scholars are using “the age-old technique of reducing the biblical narrative through a paraphrase of its content.”

Most scholars can acknowledge that the biblical extent of David’s empire is at least an exaggeration. But no matter:

To many scholars it does not matter if David is no longer a great imperial monarch, or a petty chief of a small and insignificant political structure — some would still call it a state – hidden away in the Judean mountains. This was the technique that isolated the Moses group from the multitudes of Israelites who escaped from Egypt, or retained only the framework of the biblical story about the conquest of Canaan. It is also a procedure that without remorse destroyed the narrative as it is written, in order to find and isolate its historical nucleus. It was at the same time forgotten that the ideological framework of the narrative [i.e. the ideology that “all Israel” was a distinct people with a sense of being specially chosen] must be destroyed at the same time. (pp. 155-6 – my emphasis)

Scholars have a choice to make

Lemche describes the above efforts of scholars to hang on to some semblance of the biblical narrative as well as hanging on to some sense of doing real history as attempting to have their cake and eat it too. They can’t honestly do both.

They can decide to keep David as a historical figure, however reduced into something quite different from the biblical towering figure of the almighty king.


They can also keep the biblical figure that is literary and not a historical figure.

Lemche: “They cannot have it both ways.”

Christian origins?

Lemche of course does not touch on the question of Christian origins. But does anyone else notice a similar technique of “rationalistic paraphrase” at work to hang on to the historicity of Jesus and some of the early apostles?

Is this really any more justifiable as a genuine historical method in New Testament studies than it is in those of the Old Testament?

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15 thoughts on “Scholarly Trench Warfare to Defend the Bible by Means of Rationalistic Paraphrase”

  1. What an inspiring review of what sounds like a heavy read! You wrote: “The biblical narrative has been part of most biblical scholars’ earliest educational experiences in Sunday school or primary school…” When reading this, one cannot help thinking about the Acts of the Apostles and the scholarly reluctance to accepting this book as fiction. In 2005, Leonard V. Rutgers (Utrecht University) published the results of a radiocarbon dating, according to which the Jewish catacombs of Rome came into use one or two centuries before the earliest Christian ones, which all date from the third century onwards. Again, archaeology suggests that, prior to the third century, Christians had no separate identity. How can this fact be reconciled with the story presented in Acts (and the rest of the NT)? How was Christianity able to exist for 170 years without leaving a visible trace? When interviewed about the results, Prof. Rutgers kept talking about Peter and Paul as if they were real characters. As you wrote, Sunday school teaching comes before archaeological evidence.

  2. Not all, but several Christ myth authors have all the genuine historical methodology on their side. All Lemche, Davies and others are expounding is nothing other than how basic historical research generally works in nonbiblical studies and applying the same methods of working from primary to secondary sources in that order. And that generally leads to explaining the narratives of secondary sources as artefacts in their own right in need of explanation, instead of assuming without any supporting justification that their contents are about genuine history. Not all nonbiblical historians follow the ideal either — as noted, Liverani’s critique is directed at sloppy historical work on the Hittites.

    “Biblical archaeology” and “biblical historian” are themselves invalid terms, really. They carry with them the assumption that the Bible’s narratives are historical and all the historian has to do is find the evidence or explanation for them as (often paraphrased) history. The legitimate historical question is to seek to account for the texts and their narratives themselves. Instead, “historians” begin with the assumption that the narratives are about genuine history. This is completely backwards. The nature of the narratives as real history is something that needs first to be established, proven. Thus the quote from the academic paper delivered in 1904 by E. Schwartz that I’ve quoted so often in this blog already:

    only in special cases does there exist a tradition about a given literary production independent of the self-witness of the literary production itself; and that the person who utilizes a literary-historical tradition must always first demonstrate its character as a historical document. General grounds of probability cannot take the place of this demonstration.

    1. According to Leif E. Vaage (_Religious Rivalries_, 2006, p. 6), the following question is still unanswered: “What is the significance of the fact that, for at least two centuries … and effectively well into a third, there is no extant material (apart from literary) evidence of Christianity as a distinct socioreligious phenomenon, since the first two centuries of self-definition and growth remain ‘buried in obscurity or disguised by fiction and declamation’?”

      Since I am a scientist and not a scholar, I may be prejudiced in this respect, but I fail to understand what evidence has prevented scholars from dating the earliest writings of Christian antiquity closer to the years that, from an empirical point of view, mark the beginning of Christianity, i.e., 180-200 CE. The possibility of literary forgery is rarely contemplated (see W. Speyer, _Die literarische Fälschung im Altertum_, 1971), and unsupported claims abound about the dating of the earliest papyri. The pope, a biblical scholar, allows himself to proclaim that some bone fragments found inside the Basilica of St. Paul’s Outside the Walls in Rome in 2009 “confirm the unanimous and uncontested tradition” that Paul was buried in Rome! Where is his academic integrity? At least, there is one brilliant scholar, Otto Zwierlein (_Petrus in Rom_, 2010), who has successfully proven him wrong.

      1. The same issue has interested me, too. I find it interesting that the earliest archaeological evidence — as you are pointing to, too — dates from the late second century. I’m particularly interested in the “Christians for Christians” inscriptions in Phyrgia. This is also one of the areas where we have substantial evidence for earliest Christian movements, and leads me to wonder if here, in Asia Minor, as well as Alexandria, we are looking at more likely candidates for places of origin than Palestine.

        The late archaeological evidence strikes me as consistent with the ideas of such as Bruno Bauer and a few scholars still that the gospels were not composed until well into the second century, even after the Bar Kochba war.

        This strikes me as very plausible given the other Christian literature that until then appears to be largely ignorant of so many of the basics of the gospel narratives. It’s one of the points I find most intriguing when reading Justin Martyr.

        Paul’s epistles, too, address issues that were hot topics in the early and mid second century, and it is is surely a little questionable that they should only first appear at this time, along with many other rival Pauline literature (Acts of Paul and Thecla, Marcion and his opponents, the Pastorals).

        1. Many years ago while visiting Rome, I recall being struck by the fact that early Christian inscriptions generally contained some symbol other than the cross. My sample was small and your mileage may vary, but what seemed most common were the symbol of the Good Shepherd and the Chi-Rho. Oddly, the Good Shepherd was always depicted as young and robust, similar to the conception of David as a young man. In ancient inscriptions we see anchors, fish, shepherds, and labara.

          We’re told that Paul was the earliest Christian writer, and that he hit the scene around 50 CE. He’s supposed to have preached “Christ crucified,” and not much else (at least in the way of biography). So, if the cross was the chief concern for Christians as attested by the self-appointed Apostle to the Gentiles, then why don’t we see the symbol of the cross right away?

          Apologists say that the symbol of the anchor is a disguised cross, but that’s a bit of a stretch. On the contrary, the anchor appears to be a sign of safety and related to the symbol of the fish. So what’s going on here? Why no crosses? And who is this young, clean-shaven chap with the lamb draped over his shoulders?


          1. Tim, without addressing your main point, I think the idea that the earliest Christians avoided cross-like symbols is only partially true. Hurtado’s book, The Earliest Christian Artifacts (2006), features a discussion of the so-called staurogram, formed by superimposing the Greek letter “rho” upon the “tau” (pp. 135-154). This symbol could be the earliest visual reference to the crucified Christ, with the superimposed “rho” suggesting the head of Christ. The staurogram occurs in manuscripts dated to the early 3rd century, i.e., in the oldest known manuscripts of Christian origin. But of course you are right that allusions to the crucifixion in early Christian art are virtually absent. When alluding to narratives, early Christian artists preferred the Old Testament. Jonah being lowered over-board into the open mouth of the great fish may be interpreted as a typological reference to Christ on the cross, ready to enter the tomb.

      2. Dating the beginnings of Christianity as late as 180-200 strikes me as rather problematic. Even if we admit the late archeological evidence (and we all know how hard it is to interpret archeological data) it is hard to see all the literary evidence as late forgeries. Do you believe the works of Irenaeus are all forgeries? If he wrote around 180 there is just too much in his writings in terms of earlier sources and various groups of Christianities for it to all have emerged in a few years time.

        What do we do with Tacitus and Suetonius? Attempts have been made to discard these early 2nd century references to Christ as later Christian insertions, but in contrast to the references in Josephus, these have not been very convincing.

        I admit that the Christian writings in the early second century do not provide very clear evidence for the use of the Gospels (I’d say clear evidence starts in the 150s with Justin Martyr), but there are quite a few texts that quite plausibly show knowledge of at least one of the Gospels (Barnabas, 1 Clement, Ignatius, apocalypse of Peter, 5 Ezra, Polycarp, Didache, Shepherd of Hermas, 2 Clement, as well as other early Gospels such as the Egerton Gospel, the Gospel of the Ebionites, the Gospel of the Nazoreans, the infancy Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Peter, the infancy Gospel of James, the Gospel of Mary). Now, all of these may be disputed on a case by case basis, but I find the overall pattern quite convincing, especially when you compare this to the earlier texts (the biblical epistles and revelation). In fact, even in the biblical texts one suddenly finds that the latest texts (2 Peter and the pastoral epistles) start to show some cases of plausible use of the Gospels.

        In other words, there seems to be a development in which the Gospels start to get used (albeit without being regarded as authoritative) in the early second century and then only later in the 2nd half of the 2nd century become authoritative sources for many Christians. To me this suggests a period around 100-140 in which the canonical gospels were written.

  3. The constant theme in the art of the well-to-do Christians seems to be new life emerging out of the old, security out of danger. The metaphors of Jonah, the young Jesus and the old John the Baptist, the healed paralytic joyfully leaping up with his “bed” — a crucifixion scene would be very out of place among these scenes of peace and serenity secured by the embodiment of peace and new life and security, Jesus in his various guises himself.

    This strikes me as further evidence of the “riotous diversity” that was earliest Christianity. (Does not Doherty argue that one of the Fathers deplored the notion that Jesus was crucified like a criminal?)

    The gospel-toned crucifixion metaphor (with Jesus being deserted by God and dying like a criminal) is also far removed from some of the epistles and other writings, as we know. Yet it became the dominant image, and the symbol came to be seen as most appropriate for funerary associations with its associated promise of the resurrection. I suspect this was a quite different form of Christianity from what is represented in some of the earliest Christian art.

    1. It isn’t just “riotous diversity” — it’s the vague feeling that we’re looking at a different religion entirely. I get the same sense of confusion when looking at Mithraic symbolism. And I’m not buying the later imposition of sensibilities from late antiquity and the medieval period. Some of the symbols found on on Christian graves and within the Roman catacombs are quite odd. For example, what’s really behind the pervasive Orans figure?


    2. You wrote: “The metaphors of Jonah, the young Jesus and the old John the Baptist, the healed paralytic joyfully leaping up with his ‘bed’ – a crucifixion scene would be very out of place among these scenes of peace and serenity secured by the embodiment of peace and new life and security, Jesus in his various guises himself.”

      The binding of Isaac, too, was a favourite motif in early Christian art. This is not a scene of “peace and serenity.” The image of Isaac carrying the wood of the sacrifice up the slope of Mt. Moriah is a type of Christ carrying his cross to Golgotha. May the early Christian taste for images of Abraham and Isaac, Jonah, Daniel, etc. be interpreted as a confirmation that the gospel narratives are indeed wholly derived from the Old Testament? Only yesterday I stumbled across a paper in which the parallels between Matthew 28 and Daniel 6 are demonstrated to great effect (R. Carrier, “The Plausibility of Theft,” in: R. M. Price., ed., The Empty Tomb, 2005). As for Isaac, Leroy Huizenga has recently shown that the intertextual relationship between the Aqedah and the passion narrative, contrary to common belief, cannot be valued highly enough (The New Isaac, 2009). Huizenga writes:

      “Since the Akedah was the patriarchal grounding of the temple and its sacrifices, particularly the ‘whole-offering’, the presentation of Jesus as a new Isaac in the Gospel of Matthew functions in service of the Matthean theme of Jesus as the replacement for the temple. The temple’s legitimacy is predicated on the Akedah; the Matthean Jesus’ legitimacy is predicated on the claim that he is the beloved Son like Isaac, a divinely ordained sacrifice for the redemption of his people. That Jesus is to replace the temple more or less requires that Jesus be presented as a new Isaac” (p. 291).

      From this point of view, the frequent use of the Akedah motif in early Christian art becomes quite understandable.

      1. I’d say it’s a little strong to claim that the gospel narratives are wholly derived from the Old Testament. Of course the Old Testament writings were a major source, but the epistles were also used as sources and possibly some non-biblical Greek sources (Homer is a good candidate, although this is not quite clear) and much is also the result of the evangelists own creative imagination and story-telling skills. Oh, and then there are also some Jewish sources that were not included in the Old Testament (like 1 Enoch). Josephus might even have been used, especially by the author of Luke-Acts.

      2. You encourage me to look into this again in some more depth. A little while ago I did a series of posts picking what for me were the eyes out of Levinson’s Aqeda/Binding of Isaac relationship to early Christianity. They are collected in the archive here http://vridar.wordpress.com/category/book-reviews/levenson-death-res-of-beloved-son/

        I don’t think these images are associated with the funerary art of well-to-do Romans, though. (Tell me if I’m wrong — long time since I looked at these.) The binding of Isaac is certainly a major idea among (some/many) Christians. What is interesting is that Christian art should feature so many scenes from the OT that appear to be the templates for certain gospel narratives about Jesus. It’s almost as if we are being given visual clues as to what was really behind the Jesus narratives themselves. I am of course putting my “the gospels were all roughly mid-second century productions” cap on. Justin Martyr around that time himself was very vague on Jesus stories and relied heavily on explainin or proving what Jesus did by reference to the OT.

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