Last October, an academic conference was held at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago, on the Origins of the Jewish People and Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. The event, a Philip M. and Ethel Klutznik symposium and lecture, was supported by the United Jewish Federation of Chicago and Northwestern’s Jewish studies program. Among the invited speakers were such mainstream academic superstars as Peter Machinist of Harvard University, who holds the third oldest academic chair in the United States; Baruch Levine of New York University, who has written distinguished commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers; Marc Brettler, a leading young scholar at Brandeis University and author, most recently, of The Creation of History in Ancient Israel; and William Dever, former director of the William F. Albright School of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem and one of America’s premier archaeologists of ancient Israel.
The conference was structured to address a “crisis” in the study of history as described in the Bible; “crisis” was the word used in the title of the principal address delivered by Machinist: “The Crisis of History in the Study of Jewish Origins.” This crisis, as the various papers made clear, was caused by a group of scholars variously called the Copenhagen School, Biblical revisionists, Biblical minimalists and even Biblical nihilists. The reference is to a number of scholars, a few of whom teach at the University of Copenhagen, while others teach at universities in England, Scotland and even the United States. These scholars are in no way organized into a group and, indeed, have important differences, but they do share a certain skepticism regarding the value of the Bible in reconstructing the history of the period that the Biblical author is describing (as opposed to the value of the Biblical text for reconstructing the period when the text was composed, hundreds of years later).
As an alleged member of this school, I was invited to storm, if I could, the Biblical fortress manned by this formidable group of defenders. I was listed in the printed program as giving a “Response” to the speakers in the sections on “Historiography” and “Archaeology and Philology.”
Unfortunately, for the first time in my life I became seriously ill, ending up in the hospital just before the conference. I was unable to attend. The organizers managed to find someone else, however: They contacted Thomas Thompson of the University of Copenhagen, the author of several major works in this area, who agreed to take my place. I was, however, sent copies of some of the papers and received reports about the program from BAR editor Hershel Shanks. I have some thoughts about the conference that I would like to share with BAR readers.
The most interesting thing about the debate is that the two sides—if you want to call them that—are really not that far apart! Let me explain what I mean.
We begin with the patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac and 025Jacob. Not a single speaker at the conference defended the historicity of the patriarchal narratives in Genesis. Instead, they recounted a familiar story of scholarship: In the period after the Second World War, leading Biblical scholars created what has since been called the Albrightean synthesis, after its most distinguished proponent, William F. Albright of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. This synthesis correlated the patriarchal narratives with the supposed archaeological evidence. As a result, Albright and others were able—or thought they were able—by the identification of certain social characteristics in these narratives to locate the patriarchal age in time (about 1800 B.C.E.) and place (Mesopotamia), which naturally tended to reaffirm the basic story line of the Biblical text. This theme was developed in the leading history of the period, John Bright’s History of Israel,1 and in the leading commentary of the time, E.A. Speiser’s Anchor Bible commentary on Genesis.2 The commentary was especially influential: Benjamin Mazar, the leading Biblical archaeologist at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, deemed it “a masterpiece.” James Pritchard, one of the leading American Biblical archaeologists, called it “a milestone … one of the decisive books on the Bible written in this generation.”
In the mid-1970s, however, two books by North American scholars unravelled this meshing of the patriarchal narratives with the archaeological evidence. One book was by Thomas Thompson, who graciously took 026my place at the Northwestern conference and who was teaching at the University of North Carolina when he wrote The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.3 The other book, by John Van Seters, was entitled Abraham in History and Tradition.4 Although these two books demolished the so-called Albrightean synthesis regarding the historicity of the patriarchal narratives, undergraduate students and the public at large continued—and continue even unto this day!—to feed off Bright’s history and Speiser’s commentary. Yet none of the modern critical scholars at the Northwestern conference would dare defend this old Albrightean view. Benjamin Sommer of Northwestern University noted that “Thomas Thompson and John Van Seters … pointed out that many of the parallels between Genesis and Northwestern Mesopotamia in the Middle Bronze Age [parallels that the Albrighteans relied on] were vague or unconvincing. Others involve practices known from other periods and places in the ancient Near East and hence cannot demonstrate a special connection between Genesis and the period that Genesis purports to describe.” Sommer added that this would be recognized even by the speakers who had come to the conference and might otherwise be critical of the response of Thomas Thompson.
Let us pass more quickly to the Israelites in Egypt and Canaan. No one at the conference argued that he had any archaeological evidence of an Israelite presence in Egypt. Nor did anyone argue that he had archaeological evidence of an Israelite Exodus from Egypt. There was considerable discussion, however, regarding the Israelite settlement in Canaan. The Book of Joshua describes it as a kind of blitzkrieg, one Canaanite city after another falling to the Israelite attack. Archaeologists have excavated a number of these Canaanite cities. And, apart from a couple of exceptions such as Hazor, either there was no evidence of destruction or there was no city whatsoever at the time of the supposed Israelite conquest. Again in the words of Sommer, “The Conquest Model … has suffered grave criticisms since the early 1970s and few scholars continue to espouse [it].”
William Dever examined the evidence derived from Israeli surveys of West Bank sites and originally published by Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein.5
The finds indicate that a new people inhabited the highlands of central Canaan beginning in about 1200 B.C.E., the period of the Israelite Judges in Biblical terms. Professor Dever would not go so far as to call them Israelites, but he would denominate them “proto-Israelites,” the people who would later become Israel, according to him. But the interesting thing is that Dever agreed with Finkelstein that these people did not come from Egypt. Indeed, he agreed with other scholars such as George Mendenhall, Norman Gottwald, Keith Whitelam and Thomas Thompson that they did not even come from outside of Canaan. They started out as indigenous Canaanites. The pottery assemblages of these proto-Israelites were the same as their Canaanite fathers. Perhaps a few, he suggested, came from Egypt, but these could not be identified in the archaeological record. So much for the Exodus and Conquest.
The historicity of the United Monarchy—the period of David and Solomon—is a much-debated issue 027among scholars today, but it was not addressed at the conference. In short, the conference, to the extent that it centered on history, focused on the Divided Monarchy, the period after the division of the kingdom into Israel in the north and Judah in the south, sometime at the end of the tenth century B.C.E. When Machinist explored a specific Biblical text to show how the text could work with other kinds of evidence to reveal a historical account, he chose the account of Manasseh, who ruled over Judah in the seventh century B.C.E. That he did not choose an example from an earlier period is telling.
The chief disagreement at the conference, despite some reported name-calling, was whether the Pentateuch (the Five Books of Moses) and the Deuteronomic History (Deuteronomy through Kings) were composed before the Babylonian Exile (which began in 586 B.C.E.) or, as the so-called revisionists contend, in the Persian period (later sixth to fourth century B.C.E.) or even in the Hellenistic period (fourth to second century B.C.E.). No one even suggested that the Pentateuch or Joshua and Judges (which recount the Israelite conquest of, and settlement in, Canaan) were written contemporaneously with the events they describe or even within the next couple of hundred years thereafter. So the extent of the disagreement turns out to be rather narrow. And not a great deal depends on this disagreement, except to a few scholars who are deeply invested in the issue.
Much of this failed attempt in the period after the Second World War to correlate the Biblical account of early Israel had an obvious theological basis. This is most clearly visible in the so-called Biblical theology movement, led by G. Ernest Wright, a professor at Harvard from 1959 until his death in 1974. Wright, a disciple of Albright’s, was not only a theologian, but also a prominent archaeologist who led excavations at Biblical Shechem and Gezer. For Wright, the validity of the narrative portions of the Bible lay not within the text itself, but in its witness to divine acts in history—hence, the title of his 1952 book, God Who Acts.6 Alas, it was a crude and highly vulnerable theology, dangerously close to fundamentalism in many respects. He did not realize that this theology effectively burdened archaeology with responsibility for assuring the religious value of the Bible. By asserting that the Israel of the Bible and that of history were essentially the same, it shackled Biblical Israel to the discipline of archaeology and left the Bible vulnerable to the charge of being worthless if it was not historically reliable. If the archaeological substructure fell, so would the theology.
Ironically, by drawing a clear distinction between Biblical Israel, on one hand, and historical Israel, on the other, the so-called revisionists have created the opportunity to restore the religious value to the Biblical text. These narratives—as had been claimed earlier, before the obstructive interlude of Albrighteanism—were literary constructions, serving the ideological interests of a period centuries later than the time in which they were set. It was therefore in their literary, philosophical, even theological character that their original purpose lay and their contemporary value should be primarily sought.
On the archaeological side, the people we may now identify as historical Israel are generally agreed to have emerged at the beginning of the Iron Age (about 1200 B.C.E.) and to have been indigenous to Palestine. Their material culture is generally indistinguishable from that of the surrounding population, although allowance must be made for their particular economic lifestyle. These people did not descend from a single ancestor who came from outside the land; they did not escape from Egypt, nor did they enter the land with a religion received during a wilderness trek. They did not exterminate the indigenous inhabitants or even try to. They established, for whatever reason, a new conglomeration of settlements in the central highlands of Palestine. They cleared evergreen oak forests to create their farming villages. The proximity of these villages to each other, the gradual formation of familial links, the need for cooperation and the nonurban lifestyle almost certainly encouraged a sense of ethnic identity. Whether these people yet called themselves “Israel,” I have no idea. If so, it is not an Israel that we would recognize from the Pentateuch.
They eventually formed part of the population of two kingdoms, Israel and Judah. But these kingdoms also included an urban population, drawn from people other than the highland farmers. Even the Biblical narrative states clearly that both Israelites and Canaanites lived together throughout the kingdom of Israel. (See, for example, Judges 3:5–6: “The Israelites settled among the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Hivites, and Jebusites; they took their daughters to wife and gave their 072own daughters to their sons, and they worshiped their gods.” See also 1 Kings 9:20; Hosea 7:8; Ezekiel 16:3.) But while the Bible represents the two elements as clearly distinguishable, these distinctions are invisible to archaeology, and we are simply left with a mixed population.
The gap between the Biblical Israel and the historical Israel as we derive it from archaeology is huge. We have almost two entirely different societies. Beyond the name “Israel” and the same geographical location, they have almost nothing in common. Biblical Israel is fiction. But like all good historical fiction, it has an often realistic and accurate setting. This is also true of other parts of the Bible that modern critical scholars recognize as fiction: Ruth in Moab and Bethlehem, Jonah in Jaffa and Nineveh, Esther in the court of a known Persian king (or two), and Daniel in that of a Babylonian king. Yet none of these scholars feels threatened by the fictional character of these stories. As with “Merrie England” or the knights of King Arthur of my own country, a fictitious society can easily inhabit the place of a real one. That does not mean historians go looking for “Merrie England” or for the Arthurian period in English history.
The Israelites of the Iron Age as revealed by archaeology would not recognize the Biblical portrait of themselves in Genesis. Whatever their historical memories, myths, cult and folk customs were, we will hardly draw them from the Bible.
The dismantlement of the Albrightean synthesis—essentially the separation of the Israel of the Bible from the historical Israel as reconstructed through archaeology, anthropology and other social sciences—has led to a spectrum of views, as the distinguished contributors to the Northwestern colloquium amply demonstrated.
One obvious difference between Biblical Israel and historical Israel is the place of the Canaanites. Biblical Israel allows for the Canaanites to be those inhabitants of the land who are culturally and ethnically different from Israel. That distinction is a highly invisible one to the archaeologist, however, and we have yet to see how, or whether, an Israelite-Canaanite distinction can be drawn at all in the historical record. The distinction is ideological, and it serves the agenda of another time and another kind of society, when such things as genealogy began to matter. I mean the kind of xenophobic society reflected in the measures taken in the Books of Ezra and Nehemiah, where identity is based on descent (via Babylonia!), intermarriage is banned, and obedience to the Mosaic Law and Temple cult is paramount. This is where the profile of the Biblical Israel and that of the historical Israel (strictly, Judah) really come together. This definition of an “Israel” does not work in a feudal state. We could, if you like, call the hill farmers “Israelite” and the city dwellers “Canaanite.” But the Israelite kings and their retainers ruled from the cities. And we can hardly distinguish Israelites from Canaanites on the basis of allegiance to traditions about descent from Abraham or Jacob, or election by the deity Yahweh, or celebration of a flight from Egypt, because none of these things belongs to the past of historical Israel. Nor can we say when or why these traditions emerged in their literary form. We have to give up on any attempt to distinguish from the archaeological record between so-called Canaanites and so-called Israelites.
Thus far, I have directed myself to a consideration of the Biblical Israel from the Pentateuch through Joshua (and even Judges). But what of the history recorded in Samuel and Kings? Are the Biblical accounts found in these books any more realistic? After all, they do refer to monarchs and to events that are recorded elsewhere—but also to some that are not.
Take the famous stele from Tel Dan, which is said to contain the phrase Beth David (the House of David)—although this reading is questioned by some scholars. I personally have no great stake in whether this reading is correct or not. Perhaps one day it can be confirmed or disconfirmed. But let us assume for the moment that it is correct. So what? Does this confirm the existence of a historical person fitting the Biblical description of David with a kingdom as large as the Bible says he ruled? Hardly. And what of the Jerusalem that David supposedly ruled from? Any objective observer of the debate, much of which is carried on in these pages, must conclude that we are well short of anything like probability that there was an urban center here from which David could have ruled—at least based on the archaeological evidence.a In many respects, the current campaign to defend the Biblical picture of the United Monarchy, for which, incidentally, the Bible does not give us a name—what was it called?—reminds me of the defense of Abraham a few years ago. Will this one be any more successful? We shall see. But the methods and arguments that consigned Abraham to the world of fiction are much 073the same as those arrayed against David.
In short, critical Biblical scholars now realize that the two Israels—the Biblical Israel and the historical Israel—should not, indeed cannot, be brought together. The problem is not a scientific one, but a theological and political one for those who think the Bible has to be history if it is not to be worthless. Unfortunately, Biblical scholars are in a discipline where scientific views are most under pressure from those who think that religious and political arguments have some weight.
For the time being, however, archaeologists, epigraphers and anthropologists are free to do archaeology without the shadow of the Bible hanging over them, as William Dever has long advocated.
On the other hand, Biblical scholars can address the question of how, when and why the Bible’s Israel and its history were created in the full realization that most of these narratives were not written to record history, at least not what we now mean by “history”—an objective, critical and research-based reconstruction of the past. Such a history would have had no use and little meaning for an ancient feudal society. We need, then, to ask what their function was: Who commissioned them, if anyone? Who read them? How and to whom were the contents promulgated? And whose interest did they serve?
Of course, archaeology and Biblical scholarship should not be entirely cut off from each other (a very few people even manage to combine both). The Biblical Israel is, after all, the ideological product of a historical society. We need a reliable history of Israelite and Judahite society and religion in order to explain Biblical literature.
Biblical scholars, for their part, can also explore the historical contexts of the Biblical Israel through literary and ideological analysis: What does Deuteronomy, for example, reflect of the role of the monarchy in the constitution of “Israel” (Judah)? How does it envisage the government of its “Israel”? How does Chronicles? Or Leviticus?
The subject of the symposium at Northwestern was the Jewish people. It is in the Jewish people that the historical and Biblical Israels converge. But, obviously, it is the Biblical Israel in which Jews recognize themselves. In so doing they fulfill, as I see it, the precise purpose of the Jewish Scriptures: to create a sense of identity. For that reason, I see the Scriptures as creating Judaism and not Judaism as creating the Scriptures, though one can never insist on an entirely one-way process. I am much in sympathy with Thomas Thompson’s thesis that the Bible is misread if read historically, and I also agree with him that most of the Bible has no historiographical intention. It is a theological document.
The challenge that Biblical scholarship faces today is to explain that the Bible is not history, or at least cannot be used as a blueprint for a history—and also that this unavoidable conclusion does not devalue the Bible.
There is certainly a major role for archaeology in reconstructing the history of the land variously called Palestine, Eretz-Israel and the Holy Land. But unless that role is free of both Biblicism and politics, such a role is not true science. Many opponents suspect revisionism of being ideologically driven and biased. To me, the opposite is closer to the truth.
Last October, an academic conference was held at Northwestern University, outside of Chicago, on the Origins of the Jewish People and Contemporary Biblical Scholarship. The event, a Philip M. and Ethel Klutznik symposium and lecture, was supported by the United Jewish Federation of Chicago and Northwestern’s Jewish studies program. Among the invited speakers were such mainstream academic superstars as Peter Machinist of Harvard University, who holds the third oldest academic chair in the United States; Baruch Levine of New York University, who has written distinguished commentaries on Leviticus and Numbers; Marc Brettler, a leading young scholar at Brandeis […]