Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies

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by Tim Widowfield

The only thing new in the world is the history you don’t know.

–Harry S. Truman

You have to start somewhere. That’s a distinct problem. How do we go about learning a subject as vast as biblical studies or biblical history? We could dive right in with some of the classics of text and form criticism, but we probably won’t fully understand them, because we don’t have the proper foundations.

Some of you may have taken survey courses at university in world history or American (or whatever your native country might happen to be) history. These courses tend to serve two purposes. First, they provide a means for students majoring in other studies to have some sort of foundation in “how we got here.” Second, they serve as a jumping-off point for those of us who continue on to our degrees in history.

Learning and unlearning

Every historian (amateur and professional) in America knows or at least should know our dirty little secret: that freshman history students face a serious disadvantage, because they must unlearn most of what they learned in high school. They must clear away the happy, feel-good history in which we are always the good guys and everything turns out well in the end. Imagine, for a moment, that you had learned medieval alchemy in high school only to discover in Chemistry 101 at your university that you don’t have the slightest idea what they’re talking about.

Survey courses in biblical studies or NT studies in some universities purport to do the same sort of thing. That is, they expose students to another way of thinking about the Bible other than what they learned in Sunday School. I took such a class in 1978 at Ohio University, and in many ways, I would consider it a positive experience. However, I would later discover that much of what I had accepted as bedrock could not stand up to stronger scrutiny.

I admit that my work in history in the mid-1980s at the University of Maryland should have alerted me to the obvious problems with biblical studies. However, it took the work of the so-called minimalists to push me in the right direction. I stumbled onto Thomas Thompson’s The Mythic Past completely by accident while wandering around a Barnes and Noble somewhere in Atlanta. (My job took me on frequent road trips back in the ’90s and the aughts.) The book (in hardback) apparently had not sold well, and they marked it down significantly. Lucky me.

Reading and rereading

Philip Davies (1945-2018)

Thompson asked questions I had never considered. It soon became clear that I had never asked these sorts of questions, because I had been properly trained not to. Beyond that, American education generally favors the notion of “moderation” as a virtue in and of itself. Surely only an extremist would question the historicity of Moses or Solomon. And extremism in the pursuit of anything is a vice. Surely.

Despite my proper training, one simple question — “How do we know?” — began to gnaw at me, the way a steady drip wears away stone. For me, Thompson more than anyone else gave me permission (so to speak) to ask even more dangerous questions. However, it took me longer to get up to speed with Philip R. Davies. (See Neil’s tribute to the late, great scholar here.)

For example, I had started In Search of Ancient Israel but never finished it until this past summer. Longtime Vridar readers will recall that Davies, and especially this book had a huge impact on Neil. You can find much more detail about this work over at the vridar.info site. For more related posts here on vridar.org, follow the tags above. (Below, I’ll be referring to the second edition of this work.)

Davies far surpassed Thompson in at least one respect: his clarity of prose. He wrote in simple, declarative sentences without beating around the bush or getting lost in a labyrinth of relative clauses. For example:

A modern historian confronting the biblical text must ask what it is (s)he is being asked to believe, and ask herself or himself why it should be believed. It is not acceptable for an historian to trust the text or its unknown author. Credulity does not become an historian. Scepticism, rather, is the proper stance, just as in turn that historian’s own text must earn trust too, and not demand credence. (Davies 2015, p. 3, italics his)

Here are words for the historian to live by. In the practice of history, credulity is not a virtue. Skepticism is “the proper stance.”

History and non-history

Davies understood and made it abundantly clear that scholars in biblical studies continually and often quite deliberately blur the lines between literary, social, and historical constructs. You will recognize this problem as a recurring theme here on Vridar. He correctly identified “ancient Israel” as a literary construct masquerading as a historical model.

I want to ask here why it has been taken for granted that ‘ancient Israel’ is an accessible historical entity, and to examine some of the hermeneutical practices of biblical historians which arise from, and subsequently protect, this assumption. I am suggesting that there is no searching for the real (historical) ancient Israel because such a search is not thought to be necessary; but the thesis of this book is that a search is necessary, since ‘ancient Israel’ is not an historical construct, and that it therefore has displaced something that is historical. (Davies 2015, p. 11, italics his)

Now, scholarship has never regarded this biblical ‘Israel’ as a literary construct, but has treated it as an historical one. (Davies 2015, p. 12)

In the worst case, we’re left with a confusing melange that is neither literary nor historical, but something else entirely — a kind of scholarly stew that has value neither as history nor literature.

Literary periodization becomes historical time, literary figures are transmuted into historical figures. There are some exceptions, of course: Adam, Noah and maybe even Abraham (for the daring) are eliminated. But taking these figures out makes matters worse rather than better: the result is something that is neither historical nor biblical, but a scholarly rationalisation of the literary and the historical. Literary criticism of the Bible became, for generations of students, an historical enterprise. In a number of centres of so-called ‘learning’ it still is. (Davies 2015, p. 14, bold emphasis mine)

Davies explains further in a footnote:

I am aware that already in the last century biblical scholars reconstructed the history of Israelite religion on the basis of a critical reconstruction of the sources. But if they rearranged the furniture, the room was still much the same; the Israel whose religion was being rewritten remained unquestioned. In fairness, it should be remembered that archaeology was not yet able to moderate such judgments. In general, I would suggest that recent biblical scholarship in many respects has yet to be restored to the critical standards of the late 19th century. (Davies 2015, p. 14, italics his, bold emphasis mine)

Thinking and rethinking

As you doubtless already know, Davies faced a great deal of pushback for suggesting that mainstream scholarship had assumed too much. Many “honorable” men accused him of antisemitism. They suggested he had some perverse desire to “erase history.” But in reality, all he had asked was for critical scholarship to return to its roots.

The historicity of the literary ‘Israel’ ought everywhere to have been firstly a matter of ‘whether’ and only then, if at all, ‘how much’. But this has not been so, with very few exceptions: the procedure adopted by biblical scholarship has instead been to take for granted that what is literary can be deemed historical, and then to make adjustments or qualifications as these were judged necessary. ‘Ancient Israel’ was never a hypothesis, a possibility to be reconstructed. It was always taken for granted. And the onus of proof has always been on those who doubted the validity of this procedure, who questioned the hypothesis, who were accused of scepticism and hypercriticism, negativism, minimalism, cynicism. So long as there was ‘no reason to doubt that…’ there appeared to be every reason to believe, and no obligation to argue, much less prove. Uniquely in this discipline, the raising of doubt seems to attract moral approbation. (Davies 2015, p. 14, italics his, bold emphasis mine)

In hindsight, it would appear obvious that those who, on the one hand, count belief without evidence as a virtue would, on the other hand, view doubt as an unpardonable thought crime, despite their scholarly credentials. Asking how much of the story is true is a safe question. Asking how you know any of it is true falls outside the boundaries of good taste. Still, the ferocity of the backlash is stunning even today. The same strident criticism (ridicule blended with armchair psychology) still holds when those who doubt the historical foundations of the New Testament speak their minds in mixed company.

De-familiarization and the historical-critical stance

Davies correctly identified our social immersion in Christianity as an impediment to understanding the Bible as it is. We need to “de-familiarize” ourselves, a worthy but deceptively difficult goal.

Quite apart from the theological bias inherent in the discipline, to which I referred at the end of the last chapter, there is an obvious reason for this oversight: over-exposure to the literature. Familiarity with the Bible from an early age, including membership of a Christian congregation, has the effect of conforming the imagination and the structures of one’s thought to the Bible’s own. Most biblical scholars have a long acquaintance with the Bible, and its notion of ‘Israel’ has already been internalized in their minds, to the point where they take its multifarious uses to be homogeneous, its complexity to be simple and its contradictions to be invisible. The notion of a biblical ‘Israel’ is so familiar, so ingrained, that a critical analysis of its usage never occurs as a necessity. The ‘Israel’ of the biblical literature is automatically adopted as a term appropriate for scholarly use, including all its variety and contradiction. ‘Israel’ is a people; ‘Israel’ has a religion; ‘Israel’ has its own proper god; ‘Israel’ is really two kingdoms; ‘Israel’ is strictly one kingdom; ‘Israel’ is a land, etc. All this makes sense until or unless a critic unfamiliar with the Bible takes the stage, or one who is familiar with it takes steps to de-familiarize himself or herself—a move which challenges theological formation! (Davies 2015, p. 39, bold emphasis mine)

The over-familiarization problem occurs in NT Studies as well. Those of us who grew up in churches that preached the inerrancy of the Bible learned early on how to harmonize every book and every author. We grow so accustomed to the process that later, as we try to study the writings in their historical context, we stumble.

Recall how Simon Gathercole attempted to de-familiarize himself with the gospels, while reading Paul’s letters with fresh eyes. (See “Gathercole Dabbles with Counterfactual History.“) Of course, he failed utterly. Our over-familiarization with the NT is so strong that apparently neither he nor anyone else in the guild noticed just how badly he failed.


Davies’ work is full of great insights and mind-jarring new perspectives. If you haven’t read In Search of Ancient Israel yet, do yourself a favor and buy it now. Read it slowly. Savor it. And if you’ve already read it, do it again, especially if you haven’t read the second edition.

I’ll leave with one more quote. Davies suspects his readers will consider the very question of whether a historical “ancient Israel” (whatever that even means) existed is absurd. He explains:

But it is not absurd at all to ask the question, to insist on the search. It only seems absurd because scholars have never opened the question, so that it seems entirely off the agenda. It is the kind of question that threatens with a new paradigm, like the absurd idea that the earth orbited round the sun or that slavery was not a divinely-ordained institution. The student of the Bible gets the impression that ‘ancient Israel’ really did exist because she or he reads about it all the time. One might doubt that the Bible is not history, but one can surely not doubt a battalion of professors! (Davies 2015, p. 15, emphasis mine)

Davies dared us to ask the hard questions. What a great legacy for history and for biblical studies.

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Tim Widowfield

Tim is a retired vagabond who lives with his wife and multiple cats in a 20-year-old motor home. To read more about Tim, see our About page.

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13 thoughts on “Rereading Literature and History — Some Thoughts on Philip R. Davies”

  1. Herodotus apparently traveled through Palestine and failed to notice the Jews. Given how taken he was with presenting cultures that reversed the Greek take or went hugely tangental to the Greek take on things, that, you would have thought, would raise at least an eyebrow if not a huge red flag. Isn’t someone supposed to have remarked about the plank in one’s eye?

    The “Passover letter” of 419 BC found at Elephantine in Egypt in 1907 is correspondence with the Jerusalem authorities, and the Samaritan authorities concerning the restoration of a “Jewish” temple on the island. These “Jews” are polytheists; their temple contrary to Deuteronomy and Ezra/Nehemiah. Neither Jerusalem nor Samaria bat an eyelid to this and re-certify the cult. The Judeans and Samaritans are supposed to be hard-on monotheists; and at serious loggerheads with one another to boot; at this time! It continually astonishes me how good we all are at fooling ourselves; not just some of the time but practically most of the time.

    Great post; and a useful reminder to us all. Thanks.

  2. Thank you Tim, as a result of your rereading and the extracts you presented, of In Search of Ancient Israel ,I immediately bought a copy which I hope to enjoy soon.

      1. When on http://vridar.info/bibarch/arch/davies5.htm
        At the bottom, there is hypertext for
        Forward to The Birth of Biblical Israel
        which, for me, goes to
        which shows:
        Not Found
        The requested URL was not found on this server.
        Additionally, a 404 Not Found error was encountered while trying to use an ErrorDocument to handle the request.

        Just an FYI – the article is a great read and thanks for this post.

  3. “Davies correctly identified our social immersion in Christianity as an impediment to understanding the Bible as it is. We need to “de-familiarize” ourselves, a worthy but deceptively difficult goal.”

    This is very true. And even though this may seem trivial, I think that the fact the name “Yehoshu’a” has been translated differently in the Old Testament vs the New Testament is a significant impediment in regard to familiarization.

    This prevents people from having made a natural connection between Joshua and Jesus. It seems like Jesus is this new person who comes in out of nowhere, when in fact if these names were the same, the connection between Jesus and the Jewish scriptures would be much more obvious.

    For example, if Jesus name were Moses, then it would be obvious to many people that the Jesus of the Gospels may be a symbolic figure representing a new Moses. If his name were translated Joshua, then again the scriptural origins of this figure would be more obvious.

      1. Does anyone know the number of occurrences each disciple is referenced by a name (subtotaled by all permutations with cognomen, etc. if applicable) in Mark up to the original ending (chapter 16 verse 8).

        1. Disciples mentioned by name, once or less in Mark 3:20–16:8:
          • Once for — Andrew.
          • Zero for — Philip; Bartholomew; Matthew; Thomas; Jacob (son of Alphaeus); Thaddeus; Simon (the Cananean).

          NB: Three ambiguous mentions of Jacob/James occur at: the transfiguration Mark 9:2; the Mount of Olives Mark 13:3; and the Garden of Gethsemane Mark 14:33. However as Dennis R. MacDonald (2014) notes of the Boanerges, “In every instance but one they speak in unison”. And given that these ambiguous mentions also identify John as present, then they are unlikely to be mentions of Jacob son of Alphaeus.

          NB: Godfrey, Neil (22 March 2014). “Why is Peter’s Brother, Andrew, Overlooked So Much in the Gospel Narrative?”. Vridar.

      2. Jesus put a name on Simon, and that name was Petron. Notably the Markan author does not have Jesus appoint Simon as he did the other disciples, but just calls him a name.

        • Gundry, Robert (2000). Mark: A Commentary on His Apology for the Cross, Chapters 1 – 8. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing. ISBN 978-0-8028-2910-8.

        [Per Mark 3:13-19] pinning the new name “Peter” on Simon (with the resultant stylistic disasters that Σίμωνι, “Simon,” does not go into the accusative case, as do the other names because of their appositive relation to the accusative τοὺς δώδεκα, “the Twelve,” and that Πέτρον, “Peter,” is in the accusative not as one of the appositives to τοὺς δώδεκα [the twelve] but as an appositive to ὄνομα, “name”). In fact, then, neither “Simon” nor “Peter” is part of the delayed list. We can tell from the word order of Mark’s interruptive statement that emphasis falls, not on the meaning of the new name for its significance to Simon, but on the act of renaming for its signifying Jesus’ authority: ὄνομα [name] comes right after the verb and Πέτρον [Petron] does not appear till after the following τῷ Σίμωνι [to Simon]. Thus: “and he put a name on the [aforementioned] Simon, [i.e.] Peter.” —(p. 165)

        The name Judas Iscariot as literally meaning “Jerusalem Jew” (see MacDonald 2014, pp. 11–12. per meaning of Iscariot) is coherent with Tom Dykstra’s argument that the Gospel of Mark is a polemic against the Torah observant (hence “Jewish”) leaders of the Christian Jerusalem church who appear as the figures: Peter; James/Jacob; and John in the Markan gospel. And that the name Judas Iscariot is a reference to the Torah observant Christians still supporting said Jerusalem church. Dykstra writes,

        1. I worry about methods that gather from here and there various arguments or points that can be combined to present a thesis. Each one of those arguments needs first to be assessed in the context of its own origin, rationale, and so forth, and demonstrated to be related to other claims (not just said to be “coherent with”, but the two should be shown why a relationship is justified).

    1. But John 1:17 :

      For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Joshua Christ

      …may be interpreted in an anti-nomian and anti-YHWH sense: Moses gave the law of the demiurge, but Joshua revealed the grace of the Alien God of Marcion.

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