I didn’t realize how big Denver is. I learned when trying to cover three (or four) meetings at the same time last November in two locations in downtown Denver and nearby Boulder. Together the meetings included about 8,000 people—Bible teachers, religion teachers, archaeologists and interested laypersons who came to hear some world-class scholarship.
Long ago, there was only one meeting. In the olden days, three scholarly organizations held their annual meeting simultaneously under the same roof, moving to a different city each year. They were the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the American Academy of Religion (AAR) and the American Schools of Oriental Research (ASOR). One large booklet listed hundreds of sessions, there was one registration form and anyone who registered for what was then known as the Annual Meeting could attend the sessions of any or all of the three scholarly societies.
Then, five years ago, SBL and ASOR had a fight over, of all things—surprise—money. ASOR, the professional organization of Near Eastern archaeologists, withdrew from the joint conference (or was kicked out, depending on who is telling the story). Since then, ASOR has held its annual meeting in separate quarters but in approximately the same location and time as the joint meeting of SBL and AAR.
Many people still lament the split, but SBL and AAR are not unhappy. They still draw more than 7,000 people to their joint meeting, which some characterize as a zoo. The people who use this term would like to see a further split, with SBL and AAR having separate, smaller and perhaps more manageable meetings. At present, with so many attendees, it’s hard to navigate your way around, to find colleagues and friends, to be collegial. Another problem: It is becoming increasingly difficult to find a big enough venue for such large meetings.a What’s more, few people attend the sessions of both organizations. The Bible scholars pretty much keep to the SBL program, and the religion scholars, who cover all aspects of religion, including many faiths besides Christianity and Judaism, stick with the AAR schedule.
ASOR, although not of one mind, is not unhappy with the split either. The ASOR annual meeting draws nearly 500 archaeologically oriented scholars to another hotel—this year near Boulder, Colorado, about 20 miles from downtown Denver. The ASOR meeting has fewer simultaneous sessions. It is easy to find your friends. Conversation in the lobby is always welcoming. In short, it is a relatively small, cozy collegial event.
Two of ASOR’s three schools are doctrinally happy with the split from the Bible people. Remember, it’s the American Schools of Oriental Research (plural). ASOR sponsors three overseas schools, one in Jerusalem (the William F. Albright School of Archaeological Research), another in Amman (the American Center of Oriental Research, or ACOR), and a third in Nicosia, Cyprus (the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute, or CAARI). The Amman and Cypriot schools would be just a bit uncomfortable meeting with the Bible scholars of SBL, and rightly so. After all, their focus is certainly not on the Bible. The Jerusalem school (the Albright) is more involved in Biblical archaeology and might welcome a closer association with SBL—but even some of these people do not want or need to get too close to the Bible. For example, many Near Eastern archaeologists in the Jerusalem school focus on the Early Bronze Age (3200–2200 B.C.), which has little to do with the Bible.
Who suffers from the split? Mostly, the Bible teachers from colleges, universities and seminaries who come to the SBL meeting from all over the country. They are now deprived of the rich archaeological component that ASOR once supplied to the joint meeting. In days of yore, Bible scholars who were primarily interested in SBL sessions also had access to ASOR sessions, which helped them enrich their Bible courses with the latest developments in archaeology.
There is now some talk of a hitch-up between SBL and the Albright to provide the SBL meeting with this archaeological component. Sounds like a good idea. At least the two sides are talking.
One other annual meeting took place this year in Denver: the Biblical Archaeology Society’s own “Bible and Archaeology Fest.” Four years ago, BAS, the publisher of BAR, started what has become a highly popular meeting of its own concurrently with those of the scholarly organizations. The BAS Fest is for laypersons—nonprofessional students and enthusiasts of the Bible and archaeology—largely readers of BAR and its sister magazine, Bible Review. Taking 039advantage of the opportune gathering of scholars from all over the globe, the Fest offers participants a choice of two complete lecture programs, each delivered by world-renowned experts.
By now the Fest has almost become a family affair. Many people come back year after year. (Next year, it’s in Toronto, the week before Thanksgiving.) Depending on where it is held (naturally, we go wherever the other meetings are), between 200 and 300 people attend.
My problem is that I would like to be in all three places at once. Because my primary purpose is to talk to prospective authors of articles for BAR and Bible Review, my participation in the Fest is limited to the wonderful, warm banquet held on Saturday night. One year the banquet speaker was late, so to take up the time, one of the scholars who was attending and I got on the podium and answered questions—any questions—from the floor. This was so successful that it has become an annual tradition.
This year I was joined on the podium by David Noel Freedman and Sidnie White Crawford. Freedman, now nearly 80, is a prolific author and general editor of the distinguished Anchor Bible series. In my introduction, I called him the greatest editor since R (R is the scholarly designation for the Redactor, who edited the final version of the books of the Bible). Crawford is a leading Dead Sea Scroll scholar and president of the Albright school in Jerusalem. The three of us had a good time, as did the audience, talking about the differences and similarities between Judaism and Christianity—and between their holy scriptures—as well as such other things as the evidence for, and the nature of, the Exodus from Egypt. We asked for a show of hands as to how many in the audience felt that the story of the Exodus was fiction. Only a few hands went up.
For those who have trouble choosing from the dazzling array of lectures offered at these meetings, let me pass along the advice of Gilbert Fowler White, the president of Haverford College when I was an undergraduate. He said that if it were up to him, he would title courses simply with the name of the professor: Reid 101 (Ira deAugustine Reid—sociology), Lunt 201 (William Edward Lunt—English History). Take the teacher, not the course, he said. That’s why I went to hear two towering Bible scholars—Rolf Rendtorff, now retired from the University of Heidelberg, and Tikva Frymer-Kensky of the University of Chicago—even though their SBL papers had the blandest of titles. Rendtorff’s title was simply “The Prophets and the Law.” Frymer-Kensky’s paper was titled, “Reading the Nebi’im and the Prophets” (Nebi’im is Hebrew for “Prophets”). Both scholars offered insightful lectures—Rendtorff painting with a broad brush and Frymer-Kensky focusing on the details of the tapestry that together comprise the whole fabric of the text. At least one of these papers may end up as an article in our sister magazine, Bible Review, so I will say no more.
One highlight of the Denver meetings was the presentation of a festschrift on the occasion of his 80th birthday to America’s leading ancient epigrapher and Bible scholar, Frank M. Cross, now retired from Harvard. A festschrift is a volume of scholarly papers written as a tribute to the honoree by colleagues and friends. This is the second such collection presented to Cross. The papers in it focus on epigraphy, a central aspect of which is the dating of ancient inscriptions by the shape, form and stance of individual letters. Cross practically invented this aspect of epigraphy, known as paleography. Hence the title of the volume, An Eye for Form. In a graceful response in which he expressed his gratitude, Cross, with his usual incisive wit, remarked, “The title, ‘Eye for Form,’ sounds mildly titillating. The subject matter, while exciting, does not quite live up to the suggestive title.”b
An especially moving SBL session was devoted to the scholarship of Jacob Milgrom, who serves on the editorial advisory board of Bible Review and who just completed the third and final volume of his commentary on Leviticus for the Anchor Bible series, a total of 2,714 pages. Tikva Frymer-Kensky described a central thrust of Milgrom’s scholarship:
Few scholars have been as revolutionary in their effect as Jacob Milgrom. It is almost hard to remember what people thought about the sacrificial and expiatory system of Israel before Milgrom’s work, when indeed they thought about it at all. Pollution was considered somewhat 040demonic in nature, and the sacrificial system was believed to be exorcistic, mechanistic and even a ritual cover-up for moral wrongdoing. Milgrom changed all that. In a model of judicious Biblical scholarship, he used meticulous philological study and careful Near Eastern comparisons to build a revolutionary new picture of the ritual system, the metaphysics underlying it and the theology which it exemplified and effected.
At another plenary session, Hebrew University professor Emanuel Tov, editor-in-chief of the official Dead Sea Scroll publication project, announced the completion of publication of the Dead Sea Scrolls—39 volumes in all, to which almost 100 scholars contributed. My interview with him will appear in a future issue of BAR.
The hottest session I attended was an ASOR plenary session entitled, “Can a History of Ancient Israel Be Written?” It featured three academic superstars: William Dever, excavator of Gezer, former director of the Albright School in Jerusalem and prolific author; Kyle McCarter, former ASOR president and now the William F. Albright Professor at Johns Hopkins University; and Norman Gottwald, author of the widely influential Tribes of Yahweh, among other major works. (Gottwald’s paper was read by the session moderator because at the last minute he was unable to attend.)
The session revealed how far the concerns of scholars are from those of most readers of the Bible. In certain respects, the two groups are not even speaking the same language. Ancient Israel, it turns out, means something entirely different to scholars than it does to the unwashed masses.
Dever inveighed against the so-called Biblical minimalists—scholars chiefly at the University of Copenhagen and Sheffield University in England—in a harshly polemical presentation that named names and often called a spade a dirty old shovel. He identified four “ringleaders” among the minimalists, two from Copenhagen (Niels Peter Lemche and Thomas Thompson) and two from Sheffield (Philip Davies and Keith Whitelam). They are all, Dever said, “practically speaking, [Biblical] nihilists” who contend that the Hebrew Bible is “nothing but a late Hellenistic phantasmagoria … simply political propaganda.” Davies’s scholarship is not simply “disingenuous,” according to Dever, it is often “dishonest” and “biased.” Whitelam, whose major book is titled The Invention of Ancient Israel—The Silencing of Palestinian History, “thinks … a history [of ancient Israel] is not only impossible, but illegitimate. That is not so much nihilism as it is political correctness. Which is more reprehensible,” Dever told his audience, “I leave to you.” Lemche also purveys “ideological cant, not honest scholarship;” one of his articles is entitled “The Old Testament—a Hellenistic Book?” And Thompson is “the most outrageous” of the four. The archaeological treatment in one of Thompson’s books is “amateurish … he knows next to nothing about current archaeological theory, method or results.” When challenged, said Dever, all these revisionists can do “ … is to engage in character assassination—the last desperate resort of those who have no facts. Lemche dismisses me as a ‘rustic’ and likens my repeated statements to Nazi propaganda.”
Dever believes a history of ancient Israel can indeed be written, based on archaeology and the Bible (the latter “critically analyzed” to reveal a “core history of events, which, although minimal, will prove reliable”). The Bible makes an especially important contribution to a history of Israelite religion and ideology, according to Dever. Later in his talk he described how such a history can be written, using as an example the events of the eighth century B.C., which occurred long after the Patriarchs, the Exodus, the settlement in the Promised Land, the period of the Judges, and the United Monarchy of David and Solomon.
McCarter’s talk was more measured, and presented a strong defense for the existence of King David and the United Monarchy. Gottwald’s paper mainly focused on methodological issues.
But not one of the speakers mentioned the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob—or anything else in the Book of Genesis. Nothing about Moses, the enslavement in Egypt or the Exodus. Not a thing about the trek through the Sinai desert or the settlement in the Promised Land.
That, it seems obvious, is what the average person thinks of when you mention the “History of Ancient Israel.” During the question period, none of the prominent scholars who asked questions and made comments noted this, what seemed to me strange, omission. The only exception was the Regius Professor of Old Testament at Oxford, Hugh Williamson. Dever had told his audience that “the Western tradition, the dominant cultural force that has driven the free world for centuries and will forge its destiny in the next millennium, derives essentially from the Biblical worldview. That tradition rests on the premise of history as purposeful and individual rights and responsibilities as the foundation of a moral and just society.” How can Dever make this claim, Williamson wanted to know, if the Sinai event and all of Genesis were left out? Dever replied that it was a good question—but he had no answer. He could not explain how saving the Bible for its moral lessons and cultural tradition as an anchor of Western civilization could be important without this early and central part of the Biblical message.
After the session I spoke with Dever, Harvard’s Lawrence Stager and Tel Aviv University’s Anson Rainey. Shouldn’t we at least raise the question of whether there is any history in the patriarchal narratives, I asked. The immediate, simultaneous, unanimous response: guffaws. The patriarchal narratives cannot have been written before the 12th century B.C., they said. That is when hundreds of new settlements sprang up in the Canaanite highlands, built by what Dever calls proto-Israelites. Look at the mentions of the Philistines in the patriarchal narratives, Stager told me. They didn’t come on the scene until the 12th century B.C. Or, consider the references to camels: They weren’t domesticated until the 12th century B.C. That’s why the patriarchal narratives cannot have been written earlier. Yet by the Biblical chronology, the patriarchs lived in the first half of the second millennium B.C. So, according to these major Biblical scholars, the patriarchal narratives apparently cannot preserve a recoverable historical core.
At dinner, however, Hugh Williamson alerted me to the difference between the date of composition and whether the composition contains any history. Even a late composition can contain elements of accurate history. The patriarchal narratives may not have been composed until the 12th century B.C.—or even several hundred years later—but this doesn’t refute the possibility that they contain a historical kernel, even if they have late glosses. This is not a popular position with scholars, however.
The core of the debate between the Dever crowd, on the one hand, and the minimalists, on the other, is the date of the Biblical accounts of the Israelite monarchy in the so-called Deuteronomic History (consisting of Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges, Samuel and Kings, the monarchic history being in the latter two). The minimalists say this was written in the fourth or third century B.C. Therefore, according to them, no reliable history can be gleaned from this account— it’s nothing but tendentious propaganda. Dever, on the other hand, insists that the date is 300 to 400 years earlier (eighth or seventh century, B.C.), which is closer to the date of the events the texts describe. (He uses the same arguments in his attack on the minimalists in his recent book, What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It?).
Another arch-antagonist of Dever’s is Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein. (In his talk, Dever did not refer to Finkelstein by name, only to “a few naive archaeologists who have become camp followers [of the Biblical minimalists].”) Finkelstein proposes to lower by about 100 years the dates of the archaeological remains (principally massive city gates at Megiddo, Hazor and Gezer) that are traditionally dated to the era of David and Solomon, leaving the United Monarchy with the few remains usually attributed to the 11th century B.C.
Not a single senior archaeologist has come out in support of Finkelstein’s so-called “low chronology” and many of them—Amihai Mazar, Ephraim Stern, Amnon Ben-Tor, Lawrence Stager, Trude Dothan among others—have come out against it. But the result of Finkelstein’s adjustment is that he dates the composition of the Deuteronomic History’s account of the Israelite monarchy to almost the same time as Dever. Dever and Finkelstein actually agree! Yet they will not appear on the same dais together. They simply come to their dates from different ends: Dever says the minimalists are wrong in dating the texts so late. And Finkelstein says that the archaeological remains are generally dated too early.
In short, Dever, too, is a minimalist! I mentioned to Dever the Merneptah Stela, the famous hieroglyphic slab that mentions Israel in Canaan already in the late 13th century B.C. But that’s a different Israel, Dever told me. That’s exactly what the Biblical minimalists say!
The minimalists from Copenhagen and Sheffield were nowhere to be seen at this year’s ASOR meeting. Even the scholars from Tel Aviv University, where Finkelstein teaches, were absent—in contrast to last year’s meeting, which Finkelstein dominated. So their side was not to be heard this year.
I realize that I am writing about some very personal, if scholarly, matters. My old friend Israel Finkelstein is furious at me for assigning Dever to review his most recent book, The Bible Unearthed (written with a leading archaeological journalist, Neil A. Silberman). What I have written here is almost certainly going to be perceived as unfair, inaccurate or biased—perhaps all three. I suggest, however, that this discussion be regarded simply as the opening shot in a volley, subject to correction by those who are more knowledgeable.
As a Yiddish proverb has it, you can’t dance at two weddings at the same time. Yet in Denver I was dancing at three.
I didn’t realize how big Denver is. I learned when trying to cover three (or four) meetings at the same time last November in two locations in downtown Denver and nearby Boulder. Together the meetings included about 8,000 people—Bible teachers, religion teachers, archaeologists and interested laypersons who came to hear some world-class scholarship. 038 Long ago, there was only one meeting. In the olden days, three scholarly organizations held their annual meeting simultaneously under the same roof, moving to a different city each year. They were the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL), the American Academy of Religion (AAR) […]