Given that most of the events described in the bible had taken place many centuries prior to the time that they were written down, it is extremely difficult to know when they are factual historical accounts and when they are partly allegorical.Ian Shaw and Paul Nicholson,
The Britsh Museum Dictionary of Ancient Egypt
© Dr M D Magee
Contents Updated: Tuesday, 21 May 2002
The Divine Crisis
- Just how old is the Old Testament?
- Did the House of David really exist?
- Is King Solomon a fantasy?
- If Jesus was a descendant of David and Solomon and they didn’t really exist, how can we know whether Jesus really existed?
William G Dever, the former head of the University of Arizona’s Near Eastern studies department answers questions like this. Dever, after more than 30 seasons of fieldwork in Israel, 12 years as director of the American post-graduate research center, has been a UA professor for 22 years, and was head of the largest graduate program in Near Eastern archaeology in the world. He is a leading spokesman for American and Israeli archaeologists who oppose what he and others call a “Divine Crisis” because of “revisionists” and their ideological agenda. He, of course, has no “ideological agenda”.
Work begun in the 1970s by Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters has spoiled the earlier consensus that the bible was historical, and opposite positions of “minimalists” and maximalists have emerged. The minimalists, also called “revisionists” and “nihilists”, see minimal historical value in the bible, and would radically correct Jewish history to dispose of early myths that find no basis in real history having left no trace in contemporary annals and archaeology. Maximalists, also called “literalists”, and even “fundamentalists”, see the bible as historical, and would rather revise history to fit the bible than do the reverse.
Minimalists ask of biblical texts: Who wrote them and why? Whose purpose did they serve? To whom were they addressed? The Patriarchs, Moses, Joshua and the so-called conquest, David and Solomon have all been challenged on the basis of evidence, or the profound absence of it. Nothing distinguishes Israelites from Canaanites, and the history of Samuel and Kings is basically fiction, albeit with “an often realistic and accurate setting”.
The crisis has come to a head during the last decade because the “revisionists”, mainly European scholars, argue that the Jewish bible was written, almost in its entirety, much later than traditional scholars accept—the bible was not written during the Iron Age (c 1200-600 BC) when many of its stories are set, but in the Persian (the fifth century) and Hellenistic periods (the third to first century BC). According to Thomas L Thompson, of Copenhagen, “The bible’s stories are not about history at all”.
An innocent layman, even one not particularly interested in religion, might wonder why we have to inquire into the history of Israel. It seems to be set out in astonishing detail in the Jewish scriptures—so well set out, the religious person might add, that they must be God’s word! The same layman might have the same thought about Christian origins. They too seem to be well described in the New Testament.
The truth is that religious history is not history. A historian wants to know what happened in history, and why, accepting that the natural world was subject to the same laws then as it is today. The religious writer wants to persuade their readers that their own religious viewpoint is the one to hold and, if they agree, to give them some moral codes to live by. In this way they hope to control their existence. History is scientific but religious history is tendentious. When history is written for some purpose other than to investigate the past then it becomes historiography—the art of the monks—polemic writing disguised as history. That is what the bible is.
To paraphrase a “revisionist”, Philip R Davies, of Sheffield University, the notion of an “ancient” or “biblical” Israel is a “modern conception”, perpetuated by Jewish and Christian writers for the same theological reasons as the writers and editors of the Jewish bible. If the revisionists are right, then the Jewish bible is a collection of myths, fantastic tales, and late religio-political propaganda—a “pious fraud” containing little history, and that little is hard to discern among the fiction.
Contradictions and Unreason
If the contention that biblical Israel is fiction is extreme, the response to legitimate questioning of biblical texts is more extreme. William G Dever blames it all on “postmodernism” or “political correctness”, and concludes:
Ancient Israel is a fact. That this historical Israel does not correspond in all details with the ‘ideal theological Israel’ portrayed in the Hebrew bible is true. In the end, however, that is irrelevant.
Roy Vince describes the article in which this appears (Save Us from Postmodern Malarkey, BAR 26, 2000) as
One of the most vicious “scholarly” attacks I have ever seen.
Perhaps he has not come across Gary A Rendsburg, an odious Cornell University biblicist who seems to think he is at the “cutting edge of Jewish studies”, as he puts it. Rendsburg thinks biblical Studies have gone from consensus to crisis. The consensus was that the bible contains “reliable historical information” that had been passed down “accurately”. Any contradictions are “minor problems” for the basic storyline is “trustworthy”.
The crisis is “relativism, skepticism, and indeed nihilism” which now dominates. “The arm of Marxism had spread to biblical studies”. Some minimalists “are driven by Marxism and leftist politics”. Some of them are “counterculture people, left over from the 60s and 70s, whose personality includes the questioning of authority in all aspects of their lives”. Some of them are even former evangelical Christians who now see the evils of their former ways. So, they are not all bad, then! At this rate, some of them might even be normal human beings!
Our bad-mouthing “scholar” admits Albright (the doyen of traditional biblicists) overstated the case, but not too seriously! His group later would come under attack by what their detractors would term parallelomania, and some of these great scholars often went too far in making connexions between the bible and the ancient world. But even though they made all these errors, at least they were clever! Minimalists are no good at anything.
Anson Rainey of Tel Aviv University has noted that Thompson, Davies, Lemche, and Whitelam (minimalist scholars) have never excavated an archaeological site or translated an archive of ancient Near Eastern texts, so they are “untrained”, and produce only “baseless twaddle”. Rendsburg goes on, “With the current group of revisionists, ideology, not objective scholarship, governs”. “If it is not actual Marxism, it is leftist politics in general”. What is more, “almost without exception, the scholars of this group are not Jewish!” They “are driven by anti-Zionism approaching anti-Semitism”. Cornell used to have a good reputation.
It is plain enough that this deep thinker slings around every insult he can find in his limited political repertory, and only succeeds in painting “idiot” all over himself. Rendsburg simply cannot see the wood for the trees. He is utterly blinded by his own rage. He quotes Robert Farrell on the Danish poem Beowulf because “the fact that a literary work is a literary work first and foremost, with its own agenda, does not automatically mean that it lacks any historical value altogether:”
Beowulf is a work of heroic history, a poem in which facts and chronology are subservient to the poet’s interest in heroic deeds and their value in representing the ethics of an heroic civilization. A poet writing in this mode does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is, as we know it. He rather sees it as less important than other considerations… His account will sometimes mesh reasonably well with history, as in the episode of Hygelac’s raid on the Frisian shore. But more often, his work will be a freely woven structure in which the characters and actions of the past will be part of an ethically satisfying narrative.Robert Farrell
The same words could apply to the Torah. The narrative is based on historical facts known to the author, but the author is more interested in presenting an “ethically satisfying narrative”. So while the author “does not disregard absolute historical fact, history, that is”, these facts take a back seat to the main thrust of the story.
Shakespeare�s histories are literary creations, but one would not deny the actual existence of the kings themselves. Arthur Miller�s The Crucible has a 1950s agenda, but the basic story line of the Salem witch hunts of colonial Massachusetts is historically accurate. And Robert Altman�s film M*A*S*H and the television series which followed speak clearly to the 1960s and 1970s anti-Vietnam War generation, but this does not mean that the Korean War is a fictional invention of the writers.
These citations show that Rendsburg has lost his track. He has forgotten what he is talking about. If he has not, then he never knew, and he is saying that others need training. Yet the minimalist argument is simple.
He is quite right to say that Beowulf is similar to the Jewish scriptures, in that the authors do not disregard historical fact, but these facts take a back seat to their main purpose. Minimalists agree! That is what they are saying! Literary books might contain history, but without reference to external evidence no one knows what it is!
Shakespeare’s historical plays contain history, and so does Beowulf, The Crucible and M*A*S*H, but Rendsburg has forgotten that we already know what is history and what is drama in these cases. We know that King Henry V was based in history and King Lear was not. If we did not know, then we might suppose Lear to be historical because the other plays are about historical kings. Much of the Jewish scriptures is King Lear—it bears little relationship to history, as Rendsburg seems to concur—and what is, like Henry V, based on history we do not know without external evidence. He concludes:
There still can be history in these texts, even if we would not wish to create true history based on these texts alone. Obviously, the narrative cannot be taken at face value for the recovery of ancient Israelite history. But at the same time, especially when a variety of sources from the ancient Near East confirms elements of the biblical narrative, we are absolutely justified in using the bible as a source for recovering the early history of Israel.
He gives an example. A text from Ugarit includes a trade agreement between merchants of Ugarit and those of Ur (Urfa, the birthplace of Abraham) negotiated by the king of the Hittites, as both cities were his. The merchants of Ur could trade in Ugarit, but could not buy land or property, or settle permanently there. In Genesis 34:10, the people of Shechem offer Jacob and his family these same three rights:
And ye shall dwell with us: and the land shall be before you; dwell and trade ye therein, and get you possessions therein.
So, Genesis 34:10 seems to reflect real history of roughly the right time for Jacob. QED, Rendsburg seems to think. But it took the Ugarit tablets to confirm it as other than fiction, and even then we are not sure it is history unless we know that the three elements are peculiar to the time and place and not common to agreed resettlement elsewhere in the ANE BC.
Is this arrogant and insulting “intellectual” really so blind or ignorant that he cannot see that he is epitomising the minimalist position, and not refuting it. Minimalists say precisely that “the narrative cannot be taken at face value for the recovery of ancient Israelite history”, and precisely that the Jewish scriptures are indeed only valid “when a variety of sources from the ancient Near East” confirms them. Quite frankly, there is only one conclusion from this astonishing example of McGill and Cornell “scholarly” debate. The man is so emotionally entangled in an irrational hatred that he has lost his marbles. Is it the function of prestigious universities and their publications to give a platform for such manic hate and unreason?
Oddly, Professor Dever, in his understanding of Israel’s early formative years, recognizes he differs little from the revisionists, despite his huffing and puffing. Dever counts himself among those who accept the Jewish scriptures “to the extent that it can be corroborated by archaeological scholarship”. He wrote a popular book to “isolate a core history, using archaeology as a supplement and corrective to the text of the Hebrew bible where it is biased, exaggerated, or too selective to be an adequate source for history”.
Dever provoked the “biblical archaeology” debate in the 1970s about whether “biblical archaeology” might be better termed “Syro-Palestinian archaeology”.
- Biblical does not mean a single period but a literary genre. There is no Iliadic Archaeology or Beowulfic Archaeology.
- “Biblical” is too broad a term. Anywhere mentioned in the bible over 2000 years might be considered biblical.
- Biblical refers to nothing that archaeologists do as archaeologists, excavating, cataloguing finds, tracing the development and evolution of material culture.
Dever’s reasonable case lost, even though most full-time archaeologists from the United States and virtually all from Europe and Israel favored Dever’s suggestion. Biblicists and theologians did not. Furthermore, Ziony Zevit in Biblica 83 (2002) tells us frankly:
The overwhelming majority of excavators interested in biblical periods who work in Israel and Jordan were not full-time archaeologists. Most are employed at seminaries or denominational institutions where they teach Bible or courses with names like “Ancient Israelite Civilization”.
They refused a terminology that did not declare clearly that this archaeology was biblical. Even more important to them was that the new terminology would have made it harder for biblical phonies to get financial support from patrons and institutions for their phony scholarship, and to recruit gullible believers for their amateur archaeology.
They argued “biblical” was appropriate as long as it was understood as meaning a particular people in a particular place and time—Israelites in the Land of Israel from the Iron Age until the days of Ezra and Nehemiah in the Persian period which followed the Iron Age, c 1200-332 BC, or even Jesus, Paul and the early church. It was similar in this sense to “Roman” or “Greek” applied to branches of classical archaeology. K F Kell had long ago defined biblical archaeology thus:
By biblical archaeology or knowledge of antiquity we mean the scientific representation of the way of life of the Israelite people as the only nation of antiquity that God had selected as bearer of revelations recorded in the Bible.
This archaeology is not scientific but a branch of exegetical theology. So, theologians would not let go of it, even though it begs the question. Indeed, because it does!
Dever must have been attacking, rightly, those using biblical theology for archaeological interpretation, though he was chary about raising it as an issue in public. The reason was most biblical scholars assumed that, if archeology could demonstrate that something might have occurred, then when the bible so indicated, it had occurred. This is called euphemistically “giving the bible the benefit of the doubt”. It is given this large degree of benefit because God wrote it. Such “bible is true” thinking gave the biblicist scholars a halo that seemed to make these Enochs think they were walking with God. “Predications were raised to prominence as proclamation while events tested and not found wanting were esteemed as witnesses to the proclamation. Events found wanting, such as the enslavement of Israelites in Egypt, were classified as myth, their lack of historicity ignored”.
Dever lost the debate because there are many more bible teachers in the world than archaeologists. Theologically driven biblicists wanted to retain their claim over archaeological data. Dogma defeated enquiry, religion dictated to science.
Syro-Palestinian archaeology was accepted in professional circles, and is now used in departments of archaeology, anthropology and history. Biblical archaeology became a word used by Christian popularisers and apologists in their propaganda publicised in magazines and popular books, mostly pandering to people’s ideas half remembered from schooldays and thought possibly to have some truth. Zevit concludes:
The debate had precipitated changes beyond professional terminology. It had disseminated the notion that the Albrightian synthesis of biblical studies and archaeology no longer maintained its integrity…
Dever categorically assures us that biblical archaeology is “long since dead” and “few mourne its passing”, yet the term biblical archaeology is still used by scholars to mean the interface between proper Levantine archaeology and biblical studies. Do those who use the term biblical archaeology know that it now has this restricted sense, or could they still be labouring under the impression that it was what it formerly was? If the scholars do know, do the clergymen and the earnest preachers of the Word also know? Should someone tell them? Many of these people are quoting selectively from modern workers, or superceded work to support their mythical beliefs.
In Dever’s view as a professional archaeologist, “The bible is about real people in a real time and place—like us”. In short, he is like the notorious W F Albright, an archaeologist who achieved world fame by refusing to let archaeology speak for itself, but incessantly forced it into the straitjacket of the biblical account of Jewish history. Joel Sweek says, about Dever:
Dever, while having at one time given out the suggestion of opposition to biblical archaeology, nonetheless can write passages that sound neo-Albrightian.
Only when revisionist biblical scholars began to invoke archaeological data, having lost confidence in the biblical texts as sources for history writing did archaeologists working in Israel become involved. Dever, like Rainey, says non-specialists are simply not competent to deal with the mass of complex data that will soon truly revolutionize the writing of ancient Israel’s history and religions, rather than the fashion for revisionist theories. Like Rainey, Dever criticizes Philip Davies, as a revisionist, for not being an archaeologist, as if only archaeologists can understand archaeologists.
If this is true then archaeologists might as well be confined to their own asylum. The point of archaeology must be to illuminate history. If this is not its point, then it has only one other possible purpose—to confuse history by digging away whatever might actually illuminate it if read properly, and by issuing utterly false accounts of what has been found. If the archaeologists genuinely seek to illuminate history but refuse to give accounts of their work that are intelligible to non-archaeologists, then again their discipline is valueless for the majority of us. Once archaeologists have clearly explained what they have found, there is no reason at all why historians who are not archaeologists should not interpret it. The archaeologists can present us with their data but we are not obliged to accept their opinions, especially when we have better ones. One suspects that this is one of Dever’s problems.
Anyway, Davies is not an archaeologist but he is a well qualified Hebrew scholar. He wants to know why the Jewish scriptures were written, not to prove them unhistorical, but to know what purpose they were meant to serve. Dever, is an archaeologist all right, but he is not a Hebrew scholar. If he criticies Davies for not understanding archeology, he can be criticized for failing to understand critical biblical scholarship. Like most Christians, Dever needs no scholarship to know why the bible exists, but Davies is trying to find out. It is a legitimate study.
The Bible is not a text of transcendental authority but a collection of human writings.P Davies
Writing of Thomas L Thompson seeing the Persian period as the earliest admissible context for the biblical romance, Dever calls him a “nihilist”. Davies also thinks the Jewish scriptures were written in the Persian period. N P Lemche, another minimalist, thinks the scriptures are even later—Hellenistic. Lemche has said he thinks the Tel Dan stele might be a fake. Baruch Halpern, who has adopted a stand against minimalism, thinks David is historical, but does not think the David of history is the biblical one. Even so the bible is not fiction. Yet, if David once lived but not as described in the bible, then it is fiction. Most critical biblical scholars consider that Genesis-Judges contains no reliable history, and they agree the scriptures emerged in their modern shape in the Persian period after the so-called “Return” from exile.
So, minimalism differs not a lot from the scholarly mainstream. The question is whether the scriptures were written then or simply edited. The bible aims to give the impression it is contemporary history, but it is an assumption based on the bible’s own chronology. The purpose of scholarship is to test assumptions. But those who seek out tenable theories to explain the nature of the Jewish scriptures are “nihilists” while dead heads that believe in a supernatural ogre playing toy soldiers with the human race are purveying pure truth as golden sunbeams. We should be seeking to understand the reasons for what we see in the ground, confident that the finger of God has nothing to do with it, but human motives, movements and ideologies do.
Dever admits that his views of the Patriarchal period and the Exodus are as minimalist as any minimalist. He must mean that he accepts they are mythical. But he is not at all minimalist about the Iron Age and the United Monarchy. Dever accuses “revisionists”, who deny any state of Israel before about 850 BC of “ignorance”, and adds that Israel Finkelstein, who Dever recognizes as being the authority on the Iron Age sites of Palestine, holds a minority view in asserting no ethnic distinctions can be made from the evidence, and there is no basis for distinguishing an “early Israel” in the early Iron Age. Plainly, people lived in the Palestinian hills in the twelfth century BC but only biblicists call them Israelites as opposed to Canaanites, like the rest of the population.
So, when Dever refers to the Iron Age or “Israelite” period, he classifies himself. He wants revisionists to refute the data, in typical evangelic style, as if the data are unequivocal. What the revisionists do is refute the biblicist interpretation. The inference that there is any sign of cultural change in the data that might suggest a different people appearing is what is refutable. As Finkelstein declares, there is no such sign. The data show continuity of occupation. One thing only impels biblicists to see phantom signs—their reading of the bible!
Dever is keen on showing the unanimity of those who support the idea of the scriptures being written in the Iron Age. “I and all other archaeologists I know (along with most mainstream biblical scholars) put the context in the Iron Age”. So all the archaeologists he knows are in the same camp as mainstream biblical scholars—presumably that can only mean they accept the finger waggling view of history. But what does he mean by putting “the context in the Iron Age?” The Jewish scriptures are set entirely in the Iron Age. It has no other context. It could have been written in its entirety at the end of the Iron Age in the Persian period, but could not have been written at the court of king David, as biblicists want to believe. He has to concede that these miraculously early histories were edited “rather late”.
Dever maintains a larger issue is “How do we know what we claim to know? How can we communicate that knowledge with any confidence?” Dever blames the lack of rationality he thinks he perceives on postmodernism, and its weapon, “deconstruction”, challenging the “positivist paradigm” of the Enlightenment, attacking reason and science as the basis of knowledge. Deconstruction, he says, approaches any text, ancient or modern, with suspicion, tearing it apart to reveal its supposed “inner contradictions”. Such “scholars” deny the book or work of art any inherent meaning. Ideology and politics—especially race, gender, and class—became the issues, not rationality. Deconstruction, Dever says, tends to intellectual anarchy and to anti-establishment politics. The “assault on reason” and radical reinterpretation of all ancient texts might pose a threat to the Western cultural tradition, founded as it is on the twin pillars of the biblical word-view and the modern Enlightenment.
It is difficult, subject to this criticism, to stand on any ground other than that on which Dever himself stands. If you offer evidence that a biblical text is mythical, then you are rejected as being postmodern, a grievous insult implying you will not believe any documentary evidence. If you take a milder line and suggest that a biblical text is equivocal and offer an ideological reason why it might have been written rather than a supernatural one, then you are turning the biblical writers “on their heads” and treating them as “guilty until they are proven innocent”. Become more conciliatory still and suggest tentatively that biblical history might have been romanticized, then you are making out that “all knowledge” is just a “social consruct”. The biblicist position is that any critic of the bible is an extremist until they accept that the bible is the true account of God’s finger waggling in Jewish history.
Dever says the revisionists are off target “for all the noise” they make, and complains that they attack him as their bête noire while leaving others with the same views unmolested. The reason is plain enough. It is Dever who makes the noise because he is outraged that the revisionist view should be put at all. He repeatedly dismisses revisionists as being off the mainstream, an isolated but vocal minority. But he cannot resist his self imposed role as bulldog—the revisionist’s most persistent challenger in print. Of course, by writing a load of irate polemic to add to his 250 other papers, he can give himself more material to boost his self-citations.
Dever’s more serious charge is that revisionists, like Keith W Whitelam of Sterling University, have politicized archaeology by accusing American, and especially Israeli, archaeologists of conspiring to “rob the Palestinians of their history” through their tendentious support for biblical mythology. Dever’s concern is that eliminating “ancient Israel” from history will challenge modern Israel’s right to exist. He concludes: “This challenge cannot go unmet”.
Historians Resist Polemicists in Israel
Associated Press, Jerusalem, 29 October 1999. Archaeological findings do not support and in many cases directly contradict biblical stories describing the birth of the Jewish people, according to Zeev Herzog of Tel Aviv University. There was no exodus from Egypt, Joshua did not bring down the walls of Jericho, and Solomon’s kingdom was a small, tribal dynasty.
Colleagues and critics warned that by targeting the accuracy of the bible, the research undermines the national myths that are the basis of Jewish claims to the land of Israel.
Herzog reviewed evidence now commonly accepted by most archaeologists showing that there was no exodus from Egypt at the time the bible says, and that Jericho fell in stages over an extended period, not in a single raid led by Joshua. More controversially, Herzog argues that the seeds of the Jewish state are to be found in the 9th century BC when groups of shepherds who had settled in hilltops established two rival states, Judah and Israel.
Excavations of cities from the supposedly majestic time of kings David and Solomon a century earlier, he said, revealed that the “cities” were scattered buildings and the kingdoms were small, provincial dynasties that exercized no real claim over the land. Jerusalem, the capital built by king David to rule over an empire that spanned much of the Middle East, was a small fiefdom.
Fellow archaeologist Amnon Ben-Tor of the Hebrew University, a critic of Herzog and his post-modernist school of thought, said Herzog uses archaeology to satisfy a political agenda, namely debunking the legends upon which the Jewish state was founded. Ben-Tor agreed that “there is a large measure of glorification in the bible”, but said that inscriptions and excavations from the 10th century BC show the ancient Hebrews had established a state ruled by David and Solomon, that was substantial if not magnificent.
Lawmaker Tommy Lapid, a secular rights champion who believes human authors wrote the bible, accused Herzog of trying to undermine the educational and ideological basis of the state. Herzog is “feeding propaganda to Israel’s enemies who want to negate our right to be here”, Lapid said. The bible contained many myths, but its basic historical facts document Jewish claims on Israel and form the basis for Jewish history, culture, language and literature.
Herzog’s article addressed archaeological discoveries from the last few decades, which have not entered the public consciousness, said archaeologist Moshe Kochavi of Tel Aviv University, because Israelis are not ready to abandon their national myths. Kochavi said books publishing these findings have met with particularly vehement opposition from the 30 percent of Israeli Jews who define themselves as in some way religious, many of whom believe the bible is the word of God. “The religious scream out when books like these, saying there was no conquest and that David’s period was not majestic, are written”, he said.
Israeli adults and schoolchildren regularly tour archaeological sites that guides say prove the bible was right, and the state devotes substantial resources to excavations thought likely to reveal evidence of biblical footsteps. Liberal Education Minister Yossi Sarid, who recently stirred controversy by expunging from textbooks what he says are myths of modern Israeli history, said Herzog’s work deserved consideration. “If it is interesting and well-founded, I do not see why it should not be presented in schools as an option”, he told a Jerusalem newspaper. (Adapted from Sari Bashi.)
In Israel, A Elon, a novelist, and Y Shavat, a historian, claim that the Israeli passion for archaeology—verging on a mania, according to Dever—is a secular religion, a sentiment for a lost past when God was your neighbour and the Good were safe. Surely this is precisely what biblical religions are. Tel Dan has been developed by the Israeli National Parks Authority, but is labelled by them in such an outrageously biblicist way that one suspects even they would blush. Then again, no. Yet, the “Haredin” of Israel, the ultra-orthodox right wing Jews, are violently opposed to archaeology, claiming that archaeologists are desecrating the sacred land. Really they fear that scientific investigation will disprove their religious tradition.
Ninety percent of fieldwork in Israel is sponsored by the Israeli government and subsidised by American institutions, and excavations are staffed by American students. Who would come to dig in these hot and unpleasant conditions except those who were motivated by a conviction that they were digging up God? Few indeed, and if this few, dedicated to archaeology rather than God, wanted to make archaeology of the Levant a career, they would be unlikely to get a post. The American university departments of biblical studies and biblical archaeology want committed evangelists, not skeptics. In any case, the university departments themselves are getting more cautious after modern archaeologists have dug down to the roots of the bible stories and found them rotten. Dever says the discipline of biblical archaeology in the US is dying and its funds drying up, even though popular interest is great. One might think because it is!
Postmodernists often do seem to want to evade problems rather than solve them. Dever’s points about the “scholarship” of deconstruction compared with careful cross-checking of source material to attempt to approach objectivity is surely valid. Deconstruction techniques might give a scholar some insights but, since these can hardly be anything other than subjective, they cannot alone be acceptable to anyone seeking some sort of objective truth.
David Clines of Sheffield University, explicitly presenting a postmodern agenda for biblical studies, says the tradition of scholarship does not matter very much, because the tradition enshrined and promoted the principles common to both dogmatic and modernist scholarship, the principles of a unified truth and a common quest for that truth that we were all engaged in—and “grand narratives” like that no longer carry conviction. Meaning matters too, but not some one right meaning because there is no such thing, but everyone’s meanings for that is all there is.
Tamara Cohn Eskenazi agrees with Clines and defends postmodernist exegesis by asserting:
It is an error to construe postmodernism as a nihilist denial of meaning.
What it rejects is privileged claims on behalf of some essential meanings that persist in time through language or words.
According to deconstruction, the futile quest for authoritative, original meaning or permanent meaning is a misapprehension of what meaning is or how it operates.
The postmodernists sound as contrary as Professor Dever. Eshkenazi’s last statement contradicts the first. Words have a meaning intended by the author, and the fact that the words later do not seem clear is not to deny that the author had an intention to convey a particular meaning. Like many of these classically trained people calling themselves biblical scholars, she does not understand science, and thinks in terms of the creeds they are used to. Religions, not science, make “privileged claims on behalf of some essential meanings that persist in time through language or words”. An “authoritative” meaning is quite different from a “permanent” one, and an original one might be neither. Religious souls believe in permanent meaning not scientific ones who know that discovery might require an authoritative interpretation to change.
The fact that postmodernists do not believe objectivity should be aimed for is reason enough for rational minds to reject it, but Dever uses it as a weapon, accusing his critics of postmodernism so that they can be written off. In the same way, critics of conventional dating are written of as Velikovskian, but these are just sad ploys by people who have run out of arguments. Perfection in anything is impossible but that is no reason why anyone should not aim for perfection. The same is true of objectivity. It might be impossible but it is up to critics to show how it falls short and might be approached more closely, rather than saying, “It’s hopeless. Let’s forget about truth and make everything up”.
Postmodernists note the axis of myth and history, with myth at the fictional pole and history at the factual pole, then note that history is often partly if not largely fictionalized while myth might be allegorical history and therefore contain historical truths. Apparently this is too hard for them to face, so they have come up with the “solution” of abolishing the distinction between history and myth. Instead it is all narrative to be essentially disbelieved except for whatever the reader decides to believe, having “deconstructed” the text! Any attempt to decide the degree of validity of a text by comparing it with agreed historical fact is for the birds. The acceptance of inbuilt bias that might be allowed for, or at least highlighted, seems insufficient for the postmodernist. Subjective writing cannot be avoided and so objectivity is discredited and discarded.
For postmodernists, there is no purpose in history, it just happens. Indeed, there is no purpose in history—it was not thinking about it, it does not have any aim—but the historian can look at history like a god. He knows what happened, he can see what happened before it, and what happened then. So he can ask, with hindsight, what influence previous events had on later ones. The purpose in history is the historian’s in trying to decide why some event happened in terms of previous causes. Other historians might disagree. It is out of the debate that ensues that truth emerges.