The Rise of the Revisionists: Positivism in O.T. Studies

While I iron out my priorities I thought I would give this article another turn.  This is a rerun for an old post which speaks to the radical atheistic reinventing of OT Israel by what has come to be known as “the Copenhagen School.”

Rewriting The History of Israel

Since about the beginning of the 1970’s a group of radical “revisionist” historians of Israel have been producing ever more virulent books and journal articles claiming to debunk the historical picture as set out in the Old Testament. Building upon the work of German scholars (one thinks especially of Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth), and utilizing a leftist sociologist brand of historiography, these scholars are now making pronouncements that, if even half-true, would destroy both the credibility of the Bible, and threaten the national identity of the nation of Israel. To quote two recent liberal writers:

“There is no more “ancient Israel.” History no longer has room for it. This we do know. And now, as one of the first conclusions of this new knowledge, “biblical Israel” was in its origin a Jewish concept.”

“Biblical historiography is not a product built on facts. It reflects the narrator’s outlook and ideology rather than known facts.”

These are the sorts of cocksure assertions that are routinely made by non-evangelicals today. In this study our aim is to rebut the types of brash claims as the ones just quoted. This survey can only scratch the surface of the present state of Old Testament historiography in the broader Church. We shall, however, be taking a look at the critical assumptions that drive the work of these individuals, and sampling some of their main contentions. To help us to gain a feel for the situation we shall be quoting two slightly more moderate revisionist books; both of which have been published in the last couple of years. Along the way, we shall also be making corrective observations from some of the latest evangelical literature. Our purpose is twofold: 1. By citing the liberal scholars themselves we hope to alert Bible-believers to adopt a less complacent attitude toward the “consensus of the results of contemporary scholarship” that we sometimes hear about from some evangelical sources. 2. We also want to give reassuring and faith-building responses to these revisionists in order that those interested can turn to their Bibles with renewed trust in God’s infallible Book.

Inspecting The Assertions.

Let us take another look at the two quotations from Thompson and Ahlstrom. I want to ask whether we can see behind these over-confident avowals to the prior commitments of their authors.

“There is no more “ancient Israel.” History no longer has room for it. This we do know. And now, as one of the first conclusions of this new knowledge, “biblical Israel” was in its origin a Jewish concept.”

“Biblical historiography is not a product built on facts. It reflects the narrator’s outlook and ideology rather than known facts.”

The first part of Thompson’s declaration is mere bravado. The second part, though, claims that “History no longer has room for it.” By “History” we take him to mean the study of history (or “Historiography”). Thompson implies that this statement is not just his own opinion. It is, rather, the certain conclusion at which any intelligent person who has “the facts” will arrive. We may not know everything, but “This we do know.” So Thompson thinks that scholarship has come to this assured resolution. Anyone who would attempt to gainsay him is obviously not sufficiently apprised of the facts, or, he is simply in error (perhaps because he/she is not a competent historian?).
Well, Thompson and his fellow revisionists have spoken, who then can make trouble? So having built on such a solid foundation of historical certitude, Thompson feels it his duty to announce, “And now,” being, as he is a custodian of what he calls “this new knowledge,” he must tell his audience that the whole edifice that is “biblical Israel” was all made up by the Jews and has no claim on the words “history” and “fact.” That is quite a thing to say! If he is to be believed, there is no confirmatory evidence, historical, archaeological, literary, or otherwise, that the Old Testament has got its facts right in any part.

Now on to Ahlstrom’s assertion. He is sure that the Bible’s relating of Israel’s ancient history is the product of individuals whose interests were quite other than to record factual information about the events that they wrote about. Ahlstrom assures his readers that the “known facts” reveal an altogether different scenario than that found in the Old Testament. The reason for this is simple. The stories of the Old Testament reflect “the narrator’s outlook and ideology.” The “known facts” can be paraded before us all by these experts, and can be proven to be at variance with the idealized tales of the Jewish authors. After all, intimates Ahlstrom, “the narrator’s outlook and ideology” makes him far from a neutral observer. By “outlook” he probably means the post-exilic world of someone trying to write past history as though he were actually there observing the events; a ridiculous idea given that these men are convinced that the Bible was not composed until then. The other word, “ideology,” is one of those loaded expressions that are intended to lull the “informed” (read, “misled”) reader into assuming that having any set of beliefs (especially religious ones) automatically disqualifies a person from being a reliable reporter of historical circumstances.

Historiography: The Quest For “Scientific” Respectability.

Without a doubt the successes of science have made other academic disciplines want to get onboard their “royal barge” and so claim for themselves the coveted appellation “scientific.” Science is often seen as being so precise, empirical, authoritative. Historians wish that their field of study could be viewed that way too. Thus, there has been an eager pursuance of a “scientific historiography” among many. Some historians have been so entranced by the triumphalism of modern science that they have been bent on finding an inductive methodology that can be presented in formal, technical terms. So long has this dream been pursued that it would not be surprising to discover some modern historians who have become quite unaware of any other way to approach their subject (or if they are aware of alternatives their commitment to the empiricalist objectivist approach makes it virtually impossible for them to view other methodologies correctly).
What, then, are the presuppositions of the new historiography? The evangelical scholar Iain Provan identifies two important trends that have helped push the critical consensus further to the left. The first is an almost totally diminished opinion of the historical trustworthiness of the biblical text:

“First of all, recent work on Hebrew narrative that has tended to emphasize the creative art of the biblical authors and the late dates of their texts has undermined the confidence of some scholars that the narrative world portrayed in the biblical texts has very much to do with the “real” world of the past. There has been an increasing tendency, therefore, to marginalize the biblical texts in asking questions about Israel’s past, and a corresponding tendency to place higher reliance upon archaeological evidence (which is itself said to show that the texts do not have much to do with the “real” past) and anthropological and sociological theory. Over against the artistically formed and “ideologically slanted” texts, these alternative kinds of data have often been represented as providing a much more secure base upon which to build a more “objective” picture of ancient Israel than has hitherto been produced.”

You will note that in this summary Provan has hit upon many of the facets of a putative “scientific” methodology. Notice the belief in archaeology as being able to reveal what the past really looked like. Notice also the social sciences of anthropology and sociology are brought to bear on the task of reconstructing ancient societies. Then there is the conviction that the biblical texts are “ideologically slanted” and are more art than history. This means for those who lean this way that they are well on their way to their goal of objective history – which finds no central place for Bible history.

The second trend Provan identifies smacks more than a little bit of political correctness. He speaks of,

“the tendency to imply or to claim outright that ideology has compromised previous scholarship on the matter of Israel’s history. A contrast has been drawn between people in the past who, motivated by theology and religious sentiment rather than by critical scholarship, have been overly dependent upon the biblical texts in their construal of the history of Israel, and the people in the present who, setting aside the biblical texts, seek to write history in an objective and descriptive manner.”

Provan then quotes Thomas L. Thompson, one of the leaders in the revisionist movement, who says that scholars of the past had, “an ideologically saturated indifference to any history of Palestine that does not directly involve the history of Israel in biblical exegesis…” Thompson and other revisionists believe that the “Palestinian Problem” has in large part been born out of peoples naïve trust in the pro-Israel historicized propaganda found in the Bible, but not in the facts (as these have now been ascertained). Thus, the scourge of “political correctness” has found a home in Biblical Studies departments in some universities (especially Sheffield, England, and Copenhagen, Denmark). Keith Whitelam of the University of Sheffield believes that the whole idea of ancient Israel is an invention. He has claimed that Old Testament and other scholars have participated “in a process that has dispossessed Palestinians of a land and a past.”

To Provan’s two trends we should like to add another, that of non-theological (more accurately, atheological) biblical scholarship. Another Sheffield professor, Philip Davies writes enthusiastically about the paradigm shift that he sees coming in approaches to ancient Israel:

“We are enjoying a climate in which a non-theological paradigm is beginning to claim a place alongside the long-dominant theological one. The new paradigm emerges by the simple effort of demonstrating that the old paradigm is a paradigm, sustained by consent and claiming a truth for itself to which it is not entitled. Being non-theological, this paradigm can renounce any stake in the historicity or non-historicity of what the literature says, or in the literary or ethical value of what is said.”

In the above quotation Davies sounds some tones familiar to anybody who has dealt with atheists. The last sentence in particular reminds one of the claims of the atheist George H. Smith, who, in trying to set atheism as non-committal in the area of world and life views, said:

“To view atheism as a way of life…is false and misleading. Just as the failure to believe in magic elves does not entail a code of living or a set of principles, so the failure to believe in a god does not imply any specific philosophical system. From the mere fact that a person is an atheist, one cannot infer that this person subscribes to any particular positive beliefs. One’s positive convictions are quite distinct from the subject of atheism.”

To show that this is not a wide-of-the-mark opinion, we give another quote from Davies:

“[T]here is a social world that the academy inhabits. … it is a social world in which gods cannot walk unchallenged around the vocabulary, nor where private beliefs of an unarguable kind can operate as working hypotheses without constant challenge. While individual academics can have such beliefs … the beliefs are no part of the social discourse and do not form part of the curriculum. The conflict is not about what you believe, but what you may be allowed to assume in your professional discourse.”

Here is the kind of haughty rhetoric with which anyone who reads Richard Dawkins or Stephen J. Gould is accustomed. God has no place in the academy. That is where academics are “open” to whatever scientific testing needs to be applied. Academics must be atheistic in the university even if they are theists the rest of the time. Like Gould (but not Dawkins or Dennett), Davies sees no contradiction here, “if it is realized that the two discourses are in fact separate, and even operate with separate notions of ‘truth’. What he means by this is that atheistic scientism deals with objective Truth, while faith in God is a personal “truth” that you can choose to hold or not. It appears to us that there is little doubt where Davies is going with this. He would eventually exclude all believing scholarship from the university, in the same way that the evolutionists have banned creationism from the academy.

However, as well as being both arrogant and naïve, all this sort of talk is a mere subterfuge for dealing one-sidedly with the facts. Provan makes the observation that:

“In truth, the discussion about scholarly ideology obscures the real issue, which has to do with the evidence. There is ample documentation that past scholarship, while acknowledging that historiography is more than simply the listing of evidence, has nevertheless accepted that all historiography must attempt to take account of the evidence. The real disagreement in this whole debate is, in fact, about what counts as evidence.”

To insure that this discussion can take place, Davies’s recommendation that only non-theological study be done in the academy must be zealously denied an entrance.

The Vanishing Individual.

Owing to the pressure to provide a testable scientific base for their discipline, modern historians have sought to uncover large general patterns in which historical trends can be measured. It is impossible to apply any form of measurement to individual men and women, or to unique events, hence the revisionists have kidded themselves that history is really the record of large-scale sociological and environmental change wedded unconsciously to ongoing evolutionary developments. Following men like the French social theorist Emile Durkheim, it is these global shifts, which can be interpreted along sociological lines, that it is the historians job to relate. Again, Provan is helpful: “Whether in Durkheim’s precise formulation or not, historiography on the positivist model clearly ceases to be a story about the past in which human individuals and groups play the central and crucial roles. Instead historiography becomes a narrative about the impersonal forces that shape both the past and the present.” Obviously, the Bible, with the strong prominence that it gives to individuals, is at the opposite pole to this kind of reasoning. Thus, to admit the Bible as history would be to turn against the “scientific theory.”

We can show the main contours of this thinking on a basic chart:

How Not To Study History: The Assumptions of Revisionist Historians.

· The historian must look for general laws to explain the past.
· Give primacy to geographical, demographic, economic, and sociological factors.
· The individual is of little importance in comparison to the above.
· These factors also diminish the importance of “testimony” in favor of “directly observed phenomena.”
· “Insights” from the New Literary Criticism of the Deconstructionists is to be utilized to understand the data (especially ancient texts).
· Hence, there is a predisposition to discount biblical history as “ideological” and self-serving propaganda.
· A “Confessional” (i.e. theistic) study of the text of the Bible is to be excluded from the academy, since it is faith-laden. Instead, a purely empirical (i.e. non-theistic) study of the Bible is the business of the university.

When this is all translated into a picture of Old Testament Israel, it is hardly surprising to find that such a history is being denied! It ought to be understood that this is the inevitable terminous to which liberal criticism of the Old and New Testament has been heading. The starting-point of the “real” history of Israel has been eroded steadily so that now there are scholars who deny that there was any history worthy of the name. After showing that arbitrariness has been the principle feature of Old Testament critical studies since the Enlightenment, Provan comes down to Davies and Whitelam:

“If Davies [who wants to retain a vestige of biblical tradition in Ezra-Nehemiah] is reluctant to follow the logic of the positivist attitude to tradition to its logical conclusion – perhaps because, without the biblical texts, we can no more write a worthwhile account of Israel in Persian and Hellenistic periods than we can in the earlier period… Whitelam is not so reluctant. Davies, rather than say nothing, is quite prepared to engage in the kind of arbitrariness that we have seen is endemic to the history of the history of Israel. He starts from tradition where it suits him to do so. Whitelam is prepared to say nothing at all, at least nothing that has anything to do with the Israel of biblical tradition.”

The Limits of Historiography.

The only way of knowing whether the revisionists are right or the evangelical traditionalists are right is to ask whether it is even possible to treat the past as if it could be tested empirically. The question then boils down to, “Are we using the right tools for the job?”

It might not have escaped the notice of the reader that at the heart of the present revisionism is a modernist-Enlightenment attitude towards the subject. Like modernism in general, historical revisionism views the scientific method as producing definite assured results. But is this in fact the true picture? Are the revisionists really up to date in their appreciation of historical methodology generally and historical narrative in particular? Can important individuals be ignored just because their impacts are far harder to measure than general trends? Isn’t interpretation an unavoidable part of data collection and prioritization? And is it, in fact, the revisionists who are uncritical in their methodologies? Is it really possible to go where the facts lead when already the facts must be fitted into the presuppositions of over confident revisionist ideologues? Finally, and crucially, is it reasonable to stand in doubt of ancient texts (particularly biblical texts) because of wrong-headed views of the value of oral and written testimony, and what material evidence can actually tell us? Upon the answers to these kinds of questions the whole matter revolves. Of course, we do not have the space here to provide full answers to these questions, but we shall give briefer replies to the most important points.

For starters, we must not be intimidated by the smug coolness of men like Davies and Thompson. Their type of historiography is suspect on a number of levels. To name just two; firstly, philosophers of religion like Alvin Plantinga and William Alston have seriously undercut the ground (i.e. classical foundationalism) upon which these revisionists have (unconsciously) built their methodologies. Second, people like Iain Provan and V. Phillips Long have demonstrated that despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, all historiography and archaeology relies implicitly on the testimony of others, especially those who have gone before. Further, Provan has shown that “the hermeneutics of suspicion” is both unworkable and even irrational in the normal course of life, so it has no place in the critical study of anything. Says Provan in an extended but memorable paragraph:

“Most of us characteristically adopt this approach to testimony in regard to everyday reality. We do not characteristically and as a matter of principle bring suspicion to bear on the testimony of others, demanding of each and every person that they validate their testimony to us before we accept its veracity. In fact, we generally regard it as a sign of emotional or mental imbalance if people ordinarily inhabit a culture of distrust in testimony at the level of principle, and most of us outside mental institutions do not inhabit such a universe. Suspicion, we know, may sometimes be justified. Yet we recognize that healthy people generally place trust in the testimony of others, reserving suspicion for those who have given grounds for it. In everyday life, then, the exercise of a thoroughgoing “hermeneutic of suspicion” with regard to testimony is considered no more sensible than the exercise of blind faith in terms of our apprehension of reality in general. Nor should either approach be considered sensible in terms of our apprehension of past reality in particular.”


A Stinging Reply.

One evangelical scholar who has had about as much as he can take has recently released an important and incisive refutation of Messrs Thompson, Davies, Whitelam, Lemche, Coote, et al. Renowned Egyptologist and archaeologist Kenneth A. Kitchen has written On The Reliability of the Old Testament, a thoroughly documented work of over 600 pages. As well as overturning the revisionist’s tables, Prof. Kitchen has one or two words for these self-deluded experts. He begins the book with a strong censure of recent works that exhibit sustained, “gross misrepresentations of the original, firsthand documentary data from the ancient Near East… regardless of the real facts of the case.” He inveighs against those “factually challenged” revisionists whose works are filled with “ideological claptrap,” as he puts it, but who continue to get a hearing anyway. In analyzing some of the work of T. L. Thompson, Prof. Kitchen writes (after citing Thompson’s dismissal of the evidence for historical Israel on the Merenptah stela – 13th century BC): “There is no factual reason whatsoever to doubt its citation of Israel as a neighbor of Gezer and Ascalon. Up in the hills west of Palestine’s coastal plain – that is where Merenptah’s Israel was, that is where [biblical] Israel (and later, Judah+Israel) was for the rest of its traditional history until the deportations by Assyria in 722/720 and Babylon in 605/586.”

By the end of the book one is assured of one thing; the connection between the well-attested facts of biblical history and the opinions of its disparagers is a chasm, filled with the hot air of arrogant postmodernists who (to adapt a line from C. H. Spurgeon), are unable to form a just judgment either of the evidence or themselves.

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