Biblical Archaeology Review 44:2, March/April May/June 2018

Hershel’s Crusade, No. 2: For King and Country: Chronology and Minimalism

By William G. Dever

For more than 40 years, Biblical Archaeology Review under Hershel Shanks’s leadership has undertaken a number of campaigns or crusades—a series of media Holy Wars. One early cause involved the charge that some scholars were “sitting” on unpublished sensational discoveries and were denying the public access. Not surprisingly, that led to a protracted campaign to pressure those scholars not only to publish the Dead Sea Scrolls, but to give the public full access to all the materials. Hershel used the BAR platform with its large readership unabashedly to single out individual scholars and, if necessary, to shame them. (One recalls the cover picture of the then editor-in-chief of the Dead Sea Scrolls, John Strugnell, surrounded by buzzing fleas.) Many people, not just elite scholars, resented the tactics; but in all fairness, BAR did generate momentum that speeded up the eventual publication of the Scrolls. Hershel also weighed in on another thorny topic: the antiquities black market. In particular, he repeatedly asked: Should scholars publish items that surface on the antiquities market and come obviously from tomb robbing? And should they accept financial aid from wealthy collectors, even for noble causes?

These crusades are covered in separate articles in this issue. In my essay, I want to focus on another area that Hershel waded into: the infamous “minimalist-maximalist” controversy. It began mostly in Europe rather harmlessly in the 1980s and 1990s, with several attempts by Biblical scholars to write new histories of ancient Israel. Some such scholarly works virtually dismissed the Patriarchal narratives as legendary. Others adopted a sociological approach that seemed to ignore the theological importance of the Hebrew Bible. A few works dabbled with the archaeological evidence then available. But none appreciated its real significance or the fact that archaeology had become an independent and professional discipline with enormous potential. We can understand these discussions among Biblical scholars in the 1980s and 1990s in part by putting them into the context of the death of the older-style “Biblical” archaeology, which by then was acknowledged. The problem for many, including lay people, was how the new archaeology was supposed to be relevant for Biblical studies (or for faith). Would new, radically secular histories of ancient Israel become the norm?

This controversy, first spreading among European Biblical scholars and involving a few American scholars, came to a head with the appearance of a book by Sheffield University’s Philip R. Davies in 1992, In Search of “Ancient Israel.” Note that “ancient Israel” is in quotes. That’s because Davies didn’t find it; in fact, according to him, it wasn’t there. Davies attempted to distinguish three “Israels”: (1) There may have been a “historical Israel,” but it is not really accessible to us because the Biblical text is largely unreliable. (Davies mentions our vast archaeological data in one footnote, and that only to disregard it.) (2) “Biblical Israel” is only a late construct of the Biblical writers. (3) “Ancient Israel” is a modern scholar’s construct, that is, also not real, but fictitious. Keep the word “construct” in mind.

A few years later, in 1997, an American expatriate at Hull University in England, Lester Grabbe, published a volume of essays titled Can a “History of Israel” Be Written? Again, note the quotes. By now most contributors, all Biblical scholars, were skeptical. Few could conceive that an archaeologist might try. One scholar declared that there were “serious problems” in trying to relate archaeology to the Bible. Another simply demonized archaeologists—especially Americans and Israelis—and declared all histories “bogus.”

Two other works of the same era may be cited without further explanation, since their titles give them away: The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History (1996) by Keith W. Whitelam of the University of Stirling and The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology and the Myth of Israel (1999) by Thomas L. Thompson, formerly of the University of Copenhagen.

To make a long and ongoing story a bit more accessible, I hope I may be forgiven for citing a work of my own, in which I undertook a response to what was by then being characterized by some observers as a “minimalist-maximalist” controversy. The label is, of course, overly simplistic. Good scholars are maximalists on topics where we have adequate evidence, but minimalists where we must err on the side of caution.

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Already in 1998 and 1999 I had published several sharp critiques of what was being called “revisionism.” Alarmed by what I saw as creeping skepticism, in 2001 I published a semi-popular book titled What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?1 My answer was “a lot … and quite early.” My book was the first broad-scale attack on revisionist history by an archaeologist. I saw this movement as a “school,” by then well established at Sheffield (Davies and, later, Whitelam) and at Copenhagen (Thompson and the more moderate Niels Peter Lemche). My critique was admittedly polemical, because I saw much of the revisionist attacks on the Hebrew Bible as dangerously ideological. In particular, the onslaught was influenced by postmodernist notions that “there are no facts, only interpretations”; that “all claims to knowledge are only social constructs” (thus the tactic of “deconstruction”); and that “texts lead only to other texts.”

The issues by now constituted a historiographical crisis, with particular focus on the following areas: the Patriarchal/Matriarchal era; the Exodus and Conquest of Canaan; the rise of the Monarchy and “Israelite” ethnicity; and the growth of monotheism.

This crisis was provoked by a widespread loss of confidence in the historical reliability of the Biblical text as an adequate source for history writing, indeed for truth of any sort. It reminded one of the old “faith-and-history” theme that went all the way back to the birth of modern critical Biblical scholarship in the 19th century and even back to the Protestant Reformation. What in the Bible can an intelligent, modern reader really believe?

Already in 1995/1996, at the very beginning of the literary storm, Hershel grasped the significance of these issues, not only for Jewish and Christian readers, but also for secularists and all who value the Judeo-Christian or Western cultural tradition. So in 1995, he published in Bible Review (his other magazine, now defunct) an article by noted Biblical scholar Baruch Halpern, formerly of the University of Georgia, titled “Erasing History,” in which the author pointed out very early on the dangers of Biblical revisionism.a

Then in 1997 Hershel published a panel discussion with a BAR cover story, titled “Face to Face but Not Eye to Eye: Biblical Minimalists Meet Their Challengers.”b There on the cover are mug shots of myself, Kyle McCarter of Johns Hopkins University, Lemche, and Thompson.

Hershel himself had moderated the face-to-face interchange at the 1996 ASOR Annual Meeting and published it verbatim in the July/August 1997 issue of BAR. I was in full attack mode, followed a bit more moderately by McCarter. Lemche, predictably, made an effort at reaching a compromise, but Thompson bristled. Both Thompson and Lemche would not give up their insistence that the Tel Dan “House of David” inscription was a forgery.

Not surprisingly, no agreement was reached. The only thing we accomplished was to highlight the real issue at stake. We said yes; they said no to the question, “Was there any ancient, historical ‘Israel,’ about which anything could be said with confidence?”

Hershel Shanks—not an academic but a perceptive journalist with a keen eye for newsworthy issues (not to mention a potentially sensational story)—later devoted an entire March/April 2000 issue of BAR to the cover story “The Search for History in the Bible.” Consider that this was before my 2001 book broke the scholarly story and only a year or two after some of the provocative European volumes had appeared.

In that issue of BAR, Hershel pitted me against Philip Davies as the other principal antagonist. He added an article by the noted Israeli archaeologist Amihai Mazar of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (with reporter and sponsor John Camp) on his dig at Tel Rehov with a defense of the conventional 10th-century B.C.E. date for the United Monarchy, contradicting the recently proposed “low chronology” of Tel Aviv University’s Israel Finkelstein.c

In effect, the idiosyncratic “low chronology” that was put forward in the 1990s would rob the United Monarchy—Saul, David, and Solomon, in the 10th century B.C.E.—of any historical reality. All the archaeological evidence would be moved down to the ninth century B.C.E. Thus the revisionists gladly embraced Finkelstein’s research from the beginning. Again, Hershel was prescient: all along, chronology had been the 900-pound gorilla in the back room. One of the main reasons the revisionists rejected much of the Biblical narrative was that it was “too late” to be reliable. Conventional Biblical scholarship dated most of the compilation of the Hebrew Bible to the Iron Age (c. 10th to early sixth centuries B.C.E.), with some post-exilic additions and editing. But the revisionists rejected such an “eye-witness” account and insisted instead that the Hebrew Bible was entirely a product of the Persian, or more likely Hellenistic, period. In short, the Hebrew Bible was a late “foundation myth” of a defeated and embattled Jewish community in the Hellenistic-Roman era, seeking some sort of self-identity.

In his 2000 BAR article, Davies tried to defuse the argument by asking, “What separates a minimalist from a maximalist?” and answering, “Not much.” But his article rehearsed the familiar revisionist attack on the maximalist American archaeological school founded by the great William Foxwell Albright (1891–1971). Davies acknowledged that many people suspected that the revisionists were ideologically driven, but he concluded rather that our side was.

By now there were two increasingly opposing parties, even if not “schools,” as I was arguing. Yet in all fairness, Davies did see some role for archaeology in reconstructing the history of ancient Israel. (I like to think that he had seen the point I had been trying to make for years.)

My opposing article was titled “Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey.” I’m pretty sure that the title was Hershel’s idea: nothing sells like polemics! The piece certainly confronted the principal revisionists head-on, as it was a spirited defense against postmodernist, minimalist Biblical interpretations. It argued that there was a “historical” and a “Biblical” Israel, and that archaeology together with a proper reading of the Biblical text could actually recover much of that Israel. In retrospect, this BAR article was a prolegomenon to my 2001 book.

In the same issue, Hershel included an excerpt from Thompson’s Mythic Past. For Thompson, the Hebrew Bible is essentially late Jewish “tradition,” therefore “myth.” As he puts it, “Unlike events of history, events of tradition do not share in reality because of the uniqueness or singularity of their meaning.” Got that? It’s typical post-modernist jargon: clever rhetoric in place of facts.

After my 2001 exposé and Hershel’s popularization of some of the issues, the “minimalist-maximalist” controversy continued to gain traction. Much of it was aired in a series of volumes published by the European Seminar on Methodology in Israel’s History, founded in 1996 by Lester L. Grabbe, whose work Can a “History of Israel” Be Written? (mentioned above) was published as the first report. Charter members included Davies, Lemche, and Thompson, but the group included no archaeologist. Membership changed over the next 20 years, but no archaeologists, even the available European specialists on ancient Israel, were ever included (although David Ussishkin was eventually listed among the members). Eventually the Seminar dropped the old term “Israel’s”—becoming just “history.”

Hershel’s intervention in what began as a largely European scholarly controversy about the Bible was unabashedly American and populist. People here, believers or not, had the right to know. And he saw that a magazine about “Biblical archaeology” was pertinent because he rightly understood that archaeology could become a primary source for grasping the reality of ancient Israel’s life and moral vision.

By 2007, Grabbe had begun to rethink the issues. In his Ancient Israel: What Do We Know and How Do We Know It?—a title oddly reminiscent of my 2001 book—he acknowledged that archaeology was a much more promising source than skeptics had seen.

Virtually no American Biblical scholar (and no archaeologist, except me) entered into the ongoing debate, probably because most remained comfortable in the mainstream. And the obvious impact of postmodernism on revisionists’ history writing was overlooked because postmodernism seemed to most to be a European affectation (and still seems so to many).

Strangely enough, Israeli archaeologists, who would have had the most to lose to the postmodernism and minimalist onslaught (now sometimes dubbed “nihilism”), were largely silent. Years later, one of the few Israeli rebuttals by an archaeologist, published significantly in BAR, was “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism” by Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.d Israelis were apparently largely oblivious, or at least dismissive of the minimalist argument because it mostly involved “theory,” and Israeli archaeologists, pragmatic as always, were too busy accumulating “facts” to care. In any case, this preoccupation with history and theology was not seen as relevant to Judaism as practiced in Israel.

Furthermore, few Israeli archaeologists considered themselves primarily historians, although they did see that their data could make some contributions. The closest thing to a real history of ancient Israel was a series of brief popular lectures given in 2006 by Amihai Mazar and Israel Finkelstein. Meanwhile, Finkelstein saw his research being touted by the minimalists. Although he did not speak out against them, he never adopted their radical agenda.

In this interval, no new, mainstream histories of ancient Israel appeared, only idiosyncratic European works by Mario Liverani (2003) and Jan Alberto Soggin (2001), both of the University of Rome La Sapienza.2 A review of the historiographical problem and the literature appeared in 2011, authored by Megan B. Moore (then of Wake Forest University) and Brad E. Kelle (Point Loma Nazarene University), but it was little more than a guide to the perplexed (as Maimonides).3

The “minimalist-maximalist” controversy seems now to have come to an impasse, and it may no longer be newsworthy. The principals have all retired (except for Whitelam, now at Sheffield). Biblical scholars are now mostly preoccupied with a new fad called “cultural memory.” This approach really means that since we don’t think we have reliable sources for writing any real history of events, we’ll fall back on how supposed “events” were remembered—the story or the tradition. In that case, factual history is no longer the goal, nor is it essential to scholarship. Then, by definition, archaeology and its new facts are also irrelevant. With both potential sources marginalized, that is, texts and artifacts, we have come to “the end of history.” The new editor of BAR might well take up this challenge. The possible bankruptcy of scholarship is of concern to an enlightened public, some of whom may have their own idea of a way forward. Meanwhile, I have offered my own statement in the book Beyond the Texts.e4

One thing is clear to me and, I suspect, to nearly all BAR readers—a realistic, believable history of ancient Israel still matters. And many are coming to understand that archaeology is a crucial source of new and relevant information. From BAR’s early days, Hershel Shanks understood that relationship, and he strove mightily to educate the public to the issues in a way that no other publication did. That will be his legacy.