Biblical Archaeology Review 31:1, January/February 2005

Debate: Minimalists on Parade

An academic conference in Rome highlighted the positions of scholars who think the Bible has little or no reliable history.

Biblical Archaeology Review

At a recent conference on reconstructing Israelite history held in Rome, the so-called Biblical minimalist position was upheld by a number of prominent scholars. This position is not monolithic, however, and different minimalist scholars stressed different arguments. Among them:

  • The Bible cannot be used as a historical source.
  • Neither can archaeology, which can only tell us whether ancient Israelites ate from a bowl 20 or 30 centimeters wide. A history of Israel based on archaeology is useless.
  • There was no Exodus.
  • The famous Tel Dan inscription mentioning David, excavated by Israeli archaeologist Avraham Biran, is probably a forgery; and the Hebrew words in the inscription that read “House [Dynasty] of David” probably mean something else.
  • David and Solomon are only symbolic characters, not real characters.
  • The Biblical accounts of the United Kingdom of Judah and Israel under David and Solomon are simply later projections into a distant mythic past.
  • Judah did not even become a state until about a hundred years after David—if he lived.
  • Scholars who defend aspects of Biblical history come from a Biblical tradition; their conclusions are derived not from pure historical research, but from theological considerations.

The presentations were summarized by an official reporteur, from whom we quote below:

Giovanni Garbini of the Università di Roma La Sapienza:

The name Jacob “is clearly an artificial creation of post-exilic age [after the Babylonian Exile]. It was not Jacob who became Israel, but Israel who became Jacob ...

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