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.
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:
- Sojourn in Egypt, Exodus, Wilderness wandering
- Conquest of Canaan
- United monarchy, followed by the divided kingdom
- Exile to Babylonia
- 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.”
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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