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What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did they Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel
William G. Dever
Excerpt from What Did the Biblical Writers Know & When Did they Know It? What Archaeology Can Tell Us about the Reality of Ancient Israel
My intent in writing this book was not to save the Hebrew Bible from its many detractors in our postmodern era, not least from the "revisionists," although I believe that we must take seriously their attempt to undermine the Bible's credibility as a source of historical facts and moral truths. The Hebrew Bible, however, will be read and cherished long after these "troublers of Zion" (if one will forgive a biblical phrase) are gone and forgotten.
What I have attempted to do throughout this book is twofold. First, I have focused on methodology, in order to unmask the revisionists' ideology and the postmodernist paradigm that lies partly hidden behind it, and in so doing to expose their faulty methodology in approaching the texts of the Hebrew Bible. Second, I have sought to counter the revisionists' minimalist conclusions by showing how archaeology uniquely provides a context for many of the narratives in the Hebrew Bible. It thus makes them not just "stories" arising out of later Judaism's identity crisis, but part of the history of a real people of Israel in the Iron Age of ancient Palestine. As the title puts it: "What did the biblical writers know, and when did they know it?" They knew a lot, and they knew it early.
My method in going about the inquiry here has been that of good historians everywhere, namely to sift through all the available data, however limited and faulty they may seem, in search of facts—especially those that can be established as such by "convergences." These convergences can be seen wherever the textual and the archaeological data, viewed independently, run along the same lines and point ultimately to the same conclusions. This is not old-fashioned "biblical archaeology," as the revisionists charge, nor does it presume to "prove" the Bible's historical claims, much less its theological propositions. It is simply sound historiographical method, which always depends upon the critical evaluation of numerous potential sources for history-writing and seeks to isolate a "core history" that is beyond reasonable doubt.
My chief complaint is that the revisionists tend to distort or even ignore what many now see as our primary source for writing history of ancient Israel, namely modern archaeology. At the same time, they approach their only source of data, the texts of the Hebrew Bible, with such overwhelming suspicion that they end up seeing the Hebrew Bible's narratives and ancient Israel largely as "fictions." As an archaeologist, I could easily write a 1000-page, richly documented history of an "ancient Israel" in the Iron Age and early Persian period. None of the revisionists, working with their methodology and data, could produce more than a handful of pages. That is why I say that they are, practically speaking, nihilists.
I suggest that the revisionists are nihilist not only in the historical sense, but also in the philosophical and moral sense. Here their basic approach to the texts of the Hebrew Bible gives them away as all-too-typical postmodernists.
One of postmodernism's fundamental devices is seen in the way in which the classical texts of the Western cultural tradition, including the Bible, are approached. To use typical language, this employs the "hermeneutics of suspicion." The texts are to be read as "metanarratives" that are subversive and must be resisted; as nothing more than "social constructs" that must be deconstructed. In postmodernism's extreme forms the texts are analyzed only to expose their ideology and to delegitimize their claims to knowledge and power. To use a typical slogan, "all readings are political." There is no truth or beauty to be found here; these are "texts of terror."
The revisionists read the Hebrew texts of the Hebrew Bible in much the same way. For them, the Hebrew Bible is only "literature"; but they have a tin ear and a foggy lens. They read the entire Hebrew Bible—not just the obvious mythological literature—as flat, monolithic, all the product of a brief time period and an extremely narrow cultural context. It is all a "social construct" of Hellenistic Judaism, little more than pious "survival literature," as Thomas L. Thompson calls it.
Nowhere in the revisionist literature do I find any appreciation of the sheer literary beauty or the lofty moral aspirations of the Hebrew Bible at its best. If the revisionists had their way, if the "indeterminacy" of the Bible texts were always highlighted, virtually no one except a few religious fanatics would bother to read the Hebrew Bible anymore. It is what seems to me the revisionists' latent(?) hostility to the Hebrew Bible and its worldview that troubles me most, not only because it inhibits critical inquiry and honest scholarship, but because it leads to aesthetic and moral devaluation.
Several of those who have waded through the flood of revisionist literature have observed an overall methodology that might be described as "creeping skepticism." I have noted this as well, in pointing out that nearly all the revisionists had written more or less confidently about an "early Israel" a few years ago, but have now repudiated their own works. Since there are few new data in the last decade (none textual), this seems clearly to mark an ideological shift, not any genuine progress of knowledge. But skepticism does not constitute a scholarly method, especially when it involves one in dubious presuppositions and leads to consistently negative results. Skepticism should be no more than one aspect of a scholar's general attitude toward data, namely the desire to be "critical" in the proper sense, that is, discriminating. It may be unfair, but I cannot escape the feeling in reading revisionist treatments of ancient Israel that the conclusion is foregone: there cannot have been an "ancient Israel," because that would be inconvenient for the theory. "Special pleading" for such an Israel is bad scholarship; but so is "special pleading" against it, and for the same reasons.
Throughout this book, as well as in much of my writing elsewhere over the past 35 years, I have sought to find and defend a middle ground. By temperament and conviction I am neither a positivist nor a nihilist; neither a credulist nor an atheist; neither a maximalist nor a minimalist. Where the progress of our knowledge of ancient Israel and a more enlightened and humane view of the Hebrew Bible are concerned, I am a "modest optimist" rather than a "creep*ing skeptic." Although common in today's climate of skepticism, the picture of "scholars" vying with each other as to who knows and believes the least about the past is to me a sorry spectacle. Would you consult a physician who thought good health only a "social construct"? Or a lawyer who was intent only upon overthrowing the legal establishment? There was a time when professional biblical scholars—those presumably best qualified to read and understand the texts handed down to us—could be looked to for some sort of moral enlightenment and leadership. The revisionists, even when they presume to be constructive, are not able to make much sense of the biblical texts or of archaeology. Instead, they have become demagogues. They do not grasp a simple truth: the Hebrew Bible does not have to be literally true, in every historical detail, to be morally true or edifying.
One contention of the revisionists, however, is true, although banal. "Ancient Israel" is indeed in some ways a "social construct," of both the writers and editors of the Hebrew Bible, as well as of later Jewish and Christian commentators, and indeed of modern scholars of any persuasion. But that is true of all claims to knowledge; the only question is whether such claims rest on some objective facts or are entirely fanciful. We may even grant the revisionists one of their favorite terms, "invention," as in Keith W. Whitelam's The Invention of Ancient Israel. But one should be reminded of the etymology of the English verb "to invent"; it is from the Latin invenire, "to come upon, to meet with" (Note: not to "make up" something that is not there, but to "discover" something that is). Ancient Israel is there, a reality perhaps often hidden in the idealistic portraits of the Hebrew Bible or obscured by its overriding theocratic version of history, and also hidden in the dirt awaiting the discoveries of the archaeologist. It is archaeology, and only archaeology, that gives back to all those ordinary, anonymous folk of the past—those who "sleep in the dust of the earth" (Dan. 12:2)—their long-lost voice, allowing them to speak to us today. Their knowledge of the larger world around them was circumscribed; and their experience of truth was limited, even if some of the more literate among them thought that in that experience they had heard the Word of the Lord. But these people, this Israel, must not be written out of history.
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