Sunday, March 13, 2005

Minimalists and the Hebrew Bible

For some years I have been hearing about the iconoclastic work of the minimalists (not a term chosen by them) concerning the historical status of the Hebrew Bible. These scholars question the reality of the Exodus, the era of the Patriarchs, and the so-called United Kingdom of Saul, David, and Solomon. Some doubt that the last three persons ever existed. A few hold that the Hebrew Bible as we know it was written as late as the third century BCE. As such it would be a product of the Hellenistic period, and subject to Greek and other foreign influences.

Among the leading scholars in this vein are Philip R. Davies, Niels Peter Lemche, Thomas L. Thompson, and Keith W. Whitelam. See for further details.

While I am not yet ready to sign on the dotted line, I am more convinced of minimalism than I used to be. An interesting straw in the wind is Thompson’s experience. After studying at a major German university in the ‘sixties when that country was still the main center of Bible scholarship, Thompson found that his thesis was rejected. Kept out of a teaching job, for a time he had to make his living as a house painter. Such events always put my antenna up. German Bible scholars were scarcely evangelical rigorists, as they came from a school that had questioned many beliefs of the churches. What was it that Thompson said that was so frightening to the Old Testament establishment (as it was then termed)? Perhaps they had reason to be scared. Today the middle seems to be falling away. What are left are the followers of inerrancy and Creationism, on the one hand, and the minimalists on the other.

Now we have a book by Thomas L. Thompson (The Mythic Past, 1991), which seeks to sum up his findings for a lay audience. It is perhaps the best volume to start with.

There is a larger pattern of study of this very influential body of documents, known variously as the Old Testament, the Hebrew Bible, and the Tanakh. In former times it was viewed as the inspired word of God, through and through. During the nineteenth century the German scholars of the Higher Criticism cast doubt on that view by demonstrating the heterogeneous origins of the text. The Pentateuch, for example, is a palimpsest of four separate strata. These could not have originated with Moses as (curiously) some German scholars and some Jewish scholars continue to believe.

At the same time as the findings of the Higher Criticism were coming into view, major discoveries were arriving from the Middle East. Champollion deciphered hieroglyphics, while others found the key to Mesopotamian cuneiform. From this material it developed that there were three major empires—Egypt of the Pharaohs, the Assyrians, and the Hittites that came to dominate the Middle East during the time to which the Biblical patriarchs were thought to have flourished. After all, the Exodus story purports to tell of the relationship between the children of Israel and one of these empires. After the occupation of Canaan it seems that the Israelites established a polity of their own, the United Monarch of Saul, David, and Solomon. Covering a large territory this state created cultural achievements on a par with the others. Among these were Solomon’s
Temple and the earlier parts of the Hebrew Bible.

There followed a search for archaeological evidence to flesh out this assumption. A number of historic sites were excavated, stratifications were worked out, and masses of pottery, amulets and other items of material culture came to light. While this material is indeed tangible, prior to the seventh century none of it can be correlated with the narrative of the Hebrew Bible. In this sense Biblical archeology has failed. In particular, it has failed to turn up evidence for the supposed great state of the United Monarchy. No one has found the archives and monumental inscriptions, the bureaucratic directives and diplomatic correspondence, that one would expect. Yet these appurtenances are standard equipment, even for such middling states as Mari and Ugarit. So it looks as if the United Monarchy is a phantom.

The larger question is this. The Hebrew Bible went from being the inspired word of God, to a compilation of the perspectives of a number of differing religious writers to a historical document. What is it now? Some say that Scripture has universal value. To be sure some parts, e.g. the ethical admonitions of the prophets and the skeptical insights of Job and Ecclesiastes, may have this quality. For the most part, however, the Hebrew Bible is, with all due respect, a chauvinistic compilation designed to serve the interests of a particular people. Many Christian exegetes, of course, continue to hold that the Old Testament (as they term it) is a teleological construction directed to the coming of the Messiah, known as Jesus Christ. I see nothing to support this assumption. The Hebrew Bible is a Jewish book--nothing more nothing less. Of course it has come to mean much to non-Jews, but so have the Buddhist and Confucian writings been influential among those who are not Indian and Chinese. To understand these writings, though, we need to acknowledge their national setting. Even so, the Hebrew Bible differs from those Asian texts in that it does not merely arise from an ethnicity, it strives to establish an ethnicity.

So what is the Hebrew Bible to mean to us now, at the beginning of the 21st century? An answer that occurs frequently these days is that it is literature, to be studied and admired as such. But how much of this very big book is literature. I would say that only Genesis, some passages from the prophets, most of the Psalms, and the three wisdom books of Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes qualify for this. Most of the Hebrew Bible is not literature. It is true that Mary Douglas, an innovative scholar, has written a book entitled “Leviticus as Literature.”

Part of the trouble with the Bible-as-literature movement is that it exempts one from the hard work of mastering existing scholarship. It is all just a seamless narrative, so why bother with this technical stuff? Then too the literary movement can cause one to overlook the baleful influence of such passages as the prohibition of male homosexuality in Leviticus 18 and 20, of which the second specifies the death penalty.

The only thing that is certain is that people will keep on reading the Bible. Apart from religious use, this reading is part of a larger pattern of the survival of the classics, television and the Internet notwithstanding. The classics are indestructible. Hooray for that.