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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.



Introduction: General Problems of Studying the Text of the Bible in Order to Reconstruct History and Social Background

Keith W. Whitelam

Introduction

It would seem a matter of common sense that any reconstruction of the history of ancient Israel, or of particular aspects of Israelite society, should rely heavily upon the Bible for the majority of its information. Charles Foster Kent, in the opening volume of his influential A History of the Hebrew People, one of the standard works of American biblical scholarship at the end of the nineteenth century, described the Bible as ‘the text book of Old Testament history’ (Kent 1896: 4).1 He added that ‘Hebrew history, however, gathers its material from other sources as well as from the Bible’, and claimed that ‘to one who recognizes in that unique history the unique revelation of God to man, it is the history of all histories’ (Kent 1896: 5, 6). It is a view that has been restated recently with considerable force in Provan, Long, and Longman's A Biblical History of Israel, where they claim that ‘in principle no better avenue of access to ancient Israel's past is available’, and that not to depend heavily upon the Bible in the presentation of the history of Israel is irrational (Provan, Long, and Longman 2003: 98–9). However, careful reflection on these issues reveals that this matter is not nearly as straightforward as the appeal to common sense or rationality suggests.2 The rhetoric of the debate is interesting, ‘commonsense’, ‘rationality’, and ‘reason’ being key words in assessing the work of those with whom one disagrees. Yet, as William Hazlitt remarked, ‘reason, with most people, means their own opinion’ (cited in Porter 2000: p. xxiii).

Many scholars share the view that the Hebrew Bible offers the best, or the only, avenue to access Israel's past. Yet our standard histories of ancient Israel are a curious mixture of part prolegomena, part commentary on the biblical text, and part historical reconstruction. They are not narrative histories—synthetic treatments describing, analysing, and explaining the historical process—such as John Keay's India: A History (2000), Norman Davies's The Isles (1999), Mark Mazower's The Balkans (2001), or thematic volumes such as Linda Colley's Captives: Britian, Empire and the World 1600–1850 (2003) or Roy Porter's Enlightenment: Britain and the Creation of the Modern World (2000). The increase in the number of volumes devoted to the history of Israel, particularly in the 1980s, did not signal a growing confidence in the genre, but reflected a crisis of confidence in the historian's ability to reconstruct Israelite history. This is not a self-confident genre but one beset by self-doubts. The apologetic nature of these so-called histories of Israel, despite confident claims to the contrary, illustrates that the utilization of the biblical texts for historical reconstruction is not a straightforward or simple matter.3 See Provan, Long, and Longman 2003: 10–18 for a detailed treatment of key volumes in response to my pronouncement of the death of ‘biblical history’ (Whitelam 1996: 69).

One response to this crisis—what some have termed ‘the death of biblical history’—has been to call for an end to scepticism and a renewed faith and optimism in the biblical texts as historical documents which allow the historian to write a history of Israel.4 Provan, Long, and Longman (2003: 44) view the crisis as ‘an invitation to revisit some fundamental questions about epistemology’ that gives a proper place to philosophy and tradition. ‘This’, they say, ‘inevitably involves questioning the rationality of the principled suspicion of tradition, and ultimately (if not initially) of philosophy, that lies at the heart of Enlightenment thought about the past’ (2003: 44). They wish to attack and dismiss what they see as the ‘scientific’ method of historiography that emerges from the Enlightenment. This is strange, since it is normally some post-modernist thinkers who question Enlightenment notions of rationality. The recent volume by Provan, Long, and Longman (2003) represents an extended response to this loss of faith in the use of the Hebrew Bible as a source particularly for early periods of Israelite history. After a lively opening section which addresses some of the methodological issues raised in current debates, the second section is presented as ‘a biblical history of Israel’ which ‘sets the biblical texts at the heart of its enterprise’ (Provan, Long, and Longman 2003: 98). This is meant to indicate that the Hebrew Bible can and should be used as a trustworthy source for the reconstruction of the history of Israel from the time of Abraham until the Exile and after.

However, despite its confident pronouncements on the trustworthiness of the biblical traditions for historical reconstruction, it fails to deliver a synthetic treatment of Israelite history. For example, the opening chapter (‘Before the Land’) of this section is little more than a rehash of well-known problems that concerned historians particularly in the 1950s and 1960s: the setting of the patriarchal narratives and Near Eastern texts, the identification of the four kings in Genesis 14, and the date and route of the exodus. Despite its claim to take the ‘testimony of the biblical texts seriously’ (2003: 128), a large part of the volume is taken up with prolegomena rather than a reconstruction of the history of the region and its inhabitants.5 They acknowledge that extra-biblical sources tell us nothing about ‘the migration of an obscure family’ from Ur to Palestine, and so ‘we are almost entirely dependent on the Bible itself for our information about the Israelites “before the land” ’, particularly Genesis to Deuteronomy (2003: 108). They claim that ‘we are dealing with the genre of history’ (2003: 111) or ‘theological history’. Although the text appears to come from a later period, they do not accept that it is possible to unravel the possible sources of the Pentateuch. Nor is there any internal information within Genesis that would allow us to assign an absolute date to the period of the Patriarchs (2003: 112), not even Gen. 14. They then use the biblical chronology to place the exodus in the fifteenth century and place the Patriarchs in the first half of the second millennium BCE (2003: 113). They note that the information is not unambiguous, and then go on to discuss the Nuzi and Man texts. Yet their claim that the symbiosis of pastoral nomadism and village life is consistent with the picture in the Man texts (2003: 118–19) ignores the fact that this is true of considerable periods of time in Palestinian history, including into the modern period. The kinds of detail they describe in the Joseph narrative offer little more than verisimilitude as the test of historical authenticity. Notice that Pitard (1998: 75) remarks that this mode of life was not restricted to the second millennium BCE and cannot be used to argue for the authenticity of the narratives as historical documents. It is difficult to see how this is an advance on the treatment of the patriarchal and exodus traditions offered by Soggin and Miller and Hayes, who are so heavily criticized by Provan, Long, and Longman for their inconsistencies and lack of nerve in utilizing the biblical traditions. Although it might be said to be another example of ‘midrashic historiography’, in which the biblical text is supplemented with rationalistic glosses (Davies 1991: 14), it represents a very significant departure from the standard histories of Israel which emerged from the 1980s. Its rejection of much critical scholarship of the twentieth century and its appeal to biblical ‘testimony’ represent a move back to pre-critical practices rather than an advance in the study of the history of ancient Israel. Yet, despite its confident pronouncements, it illustrates that the reconstruction of Israelite history and society using the biblical traditions is not as straightforward as the common-sense approach suggests.6 Redmount (1998: 119), who argues for a historical core to the exodus narratives, is forced to conclude that ‘a study of the Exodus narrative raises many questions about the historicity and historical setting of the Exodus events, but provides few definitive answers’.

Notes:

1 He added that ‘Hebrew history, however, gathers its material from other sources as well as from the Bible’, and claimed that ‘to one who recognizes in that unique history the unique revelation of God to man, it is the history of all histories’ (Kent 1896: 5, 6).

2 The rhetoric of the debate is interesting, ‘commonsense’, ‘rationality’, and ‘reason’ being key words in assessing the work of those with whom one disagrees. Yet, as William Hazlitt remarked, ‘reason, with most people, means their own opinion’ (cited in Porter 2000: p. xxiii).

3 See Provan, Long, and Longman 2003: 10–18 for a detailed treatment of key volumes in response to my pronouncement of the death of ‘biblical history’ (Whitelam 1996: 69).

4 Provan, Long, and Longman (2003: 44) view the crisis as ‘an invitation to revisit some fundamental questions about epistemology’ that gives a proper place to philosophy and tradition. ‘This’, they say, ‘inevitably involves questioning the rationality of the principled suspicion of tradition, and ultimately (if not initially) of philosophy, that lies at the heart of Enlightenment thought about the past’ (2003: 44). They wish to attack and dismiss what they see as the ‘scientific’ method of historiography that emerges from the Enlightenment. This is strange, since it is normally some post-modernist thinkers who question Enlightenment notions of rationality.

5 They acknowledge that extra-biblical sources tell us nothing about ‘the migration of an obscure family’ from Ur to Palestine, and so ‘we are almost entirely dependent on the Bible itself for our information about the Israelites “before the land” ’, particularly Genesis to Deuteronomy (2003: 108). They claim that ‘we are dealing with the genre of history’ (2003: 111) or ‘theological history’. Although the text appears to come from a later period, they do not accept that it is possible to unravel the possible sources of the Pentateuch. Nor is there any internal information within Genesis that would allow us to assign an absolute date to the period of the Patriarchs (2003: 112), not even Gen. 14. They then use the biblical chronology to place the exodus in the fifteenth century and place the Patriarchs in the first half of the second millennium BCE (2003: 113). They note that the information is not unambiguous, and then go on to discuss the Nuzi and Man texts. Yet their claim that the symbiosis of pastoral nomadism and village life is consistent with the picture in the Man texts (2003: 118–19) ignores the fact that this is true of considerable periods of time in Palestinian history, including into the modern period. The kinds of detail they describe in the Joseph narrative offer little more than verisimilitude as the test of historical authenticity. Notice that Pitard (1998: 75) remarks that this mode of life was not restricted to the second millennium BCE and cannot be used to argue for the authenticity of the narratives as historical documents.

6 Redmount (1998: 119), who argues for a historical core to the exodus narratives, is forced to conclude that ‘a study of the Exodus narrative raises many questions about the historicity and historical setting of the Exodus events, but provides few definitive answers’.

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