In our May/June 2003 issue, we republished a damning book review by Alexander H. Joffe of BAS’s Ancient Israel that originally appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. The reviewer seemed to be saying that we can no longer ask historical questions about the Patriarchal period or about the Israelites in Egypt or about the settlement in Canaan. We invited our readers to comment, and several did in our September/October 2003 issue (pp. 9–10).
Below is Joffe’s response to these readers’ letters. It is followed by comments from scholars William G. Dever, David Noel Freedman, Burke O. Long and BAR reader Luke Wilson.—Ed.
I would like to respond to the letters regarding my review of Ancient Israel.
1. To Ron Hendel I offer thanks for his kind words and for cutting to the heart of the matter. The problem is precisely “Israel’s memories of its own past.” Memory is not history, and in any event the Bible seems not to have been designed as history as we understand it in Rankean terms, a generally ‘objective’ and dispassionate recounting of events, organized in a linear fashion so as to denote or imply causal relationships.
As Hendel has himself shown in his work, different parts of the Bible correspond broadly to forms of ancient Near Eastern literature, including primordial history (narratives that relate to the creation of all and sundry in deeply ancient mythological time and with extra-human events and characters), protohistory (narratives that set the stage for the present with human-sized characters and events, which took place in not-so-ancient times, yet still before the firmly understood near past), and tendentious scribal products of royal (and priestly) castes. These were in turn refracted through the editors’ single overarching theological concern, Israel’s relationship with God.
William F. Albright’s personal theology, so well penetrated by Burke Long,a led him to regard protohistorical accounts such as those of the Patriarchs and the Exodus as “real” history, preconceptions buttressed by his frankly bizarre standard of negative proof (if something is not disproved, then it is proved). New information and more open minds have led us to a far more detailed but still unsettled picture of ancient Israel. To suggest as I did that “Albright lives” (a phrase that seems to have exercised many readers) means simply that the desire to find a harmonious approach to the Bible and history which leaves intact its historical narrative and, for some, its transcendence, remains strong. The question of whether transcendence requires “proof” in the form of history is beyond my competence, although emotionally I see no reason why it should be necessary.
To be sure, literature (even and perhaps especially in the form of canonical, national memory) preserves historical information, from hints regarding prosaic daily life through political events. But how do we glean information about history from such literature, or from any literature, be it the Bible or Madame Bovary? That we continue to have these debates a century after Wellhausenb and some three decades after Albright’s passing suggests no ready formula is available. The issue is not, as the editor of BAR suggested in his original commentary on my review, that I regard some questions as illegitimate, only that there must be a logical procedure that moves from historiography to history rather than haphazardly.
My only suggestion is that Biblical history might be reconstructed first from the outside in, from archaeology and extra-Biblical evidence (themselves hardly bereft of problems and presuppositions), to produce reconstructions that are then weighed against the Biblical texts themselves.
2. Let me assure Phyllis Anderson that I have a cast-iron stomach,c but my sides frankly split when I read her characterization of Albright. I share her assessment of 019Albright’s talents and enthusiasm, but to suggest that he didn’t mind listening to others and could admit that he was wrong is absurd. One need only to open any issue of BASOR [Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research] from around 1930 through the mid-1960s to see Albright’s complete domination of the field and his virtually unchanging views. It is especially revealing to examine his many book reviews, and even the footnotes of other contributors, where as editor he would occasionally take the liberty of interjecting his own comments and corrections! A great scholar, but not necessarily a good listener.
3. Luke Wilson’s characterization of me as a Biblical minimalist simply betrays a total lack of familiarity with my work. Everyone has a philosophical agenda, but that ain’t it. Besides, my teacher, Bill Dever, would kill me.
4. James Edgren suggests I am elitist. Having written extensively on the question of authority in ancient Near Eastern scholarship, I recognize this as an interesting issue. But let me put it this way. I have a Ph.D. in Near Eastern archaeology, 20 plus years of field experience and several dozen publications. So yes, I’m an elitist. But this is entirely separate from the historical kernels question, or that of “reviewing the authors,” whatever that means, much less “sour grapes.”d I question the [book’s] authors’ premises, not their skills or integrity.
5. Finally, Hubert Sturges cuts to the other heart of the matter.e A very minor mountain has now been made out of a little tiny molehill, and a couple extra copies of the book will be sold. And after all these years I am finally part of the BAR family of archaeological celebrities. But this is hardly the most controversial thing I have published! I eagerly await the chance to thrill and outrage BAR readers in the future. All your editor need[s] to do is ask. And you know, I’ve always wanted to go on a cruise.f
New Rochelle, New York
William G. Dever, professor emeritus, University of Arizona, responds:
I have always urged my students to think for themselves, to challenge authority (even mine). But I do not necessarily agree with all of Alex Joffe’s criticisms of Hershel Shanks’s edited volume, Ancient Israel. His main contention is that this kind of positivist history is “archaic and almost quaint.”
First, one should remember that Ancient Israel is essentially a revision of a work of 1988, compiled well before the so-called minimalist/maximalist controversy emerged and precipitated the current historiographical crisis. Read in context, this history is a product of its time, indeed one of the best such works. Today we are all more skeptical; but I would still defend a middle ground.
Second, while one or two chapters of Ancient Israel are perhaps too conservative, most are useful syntheses, by mainstream scholars. One cannot dismiss them contemptuously.
Finally, as for Joffe’s call for the use of more of what I also regard as “primary data”—archaeological evidence—we archaeologists are partly to blame for failing to publish our materials in accessible form, or to relate them to ongoing issues of history, theology and cultural values generally. It is high time for archaeologists, having finally become competent technicians, to address the Big Questions.
David Noel Freedman, University of California at San Diego, responds:
I will confine myself to Joffe’s comments about W. F. Albright, who is mentioned by name once in his review, and twice more in an adjectival form (Old Albrightian, neo-Albrightian), but whose presence and influence permeate both the book and the review (as shown by its last words: “Albright lives”).
To begin with, Albright, although dead these 32 years, still speaks for himself and for his school and doesn’t need to be defended, as his massive written corpus on the one hand, and his legacy in the hundreds and hundreds of scholarly descendants, who occupy many of the leading chairs in the graduate schools of the country (and beyond), testify. But in the interest of fairness, at least to a great scholar’s memory, some clarification is in order.
Joffe mentions the name Albright once, and only in the last sentence. While the surface meaning is clear enough, the tone may not be; and I am inclined to agree with the editors of BAR that it is derisive, if not of Albright, then of those who may be labeled with his name. That leads to the other two occurrences, “Old Albrightian” and “neo-Albrightian,” which are roughly equated and would seem to gather all the rest of us with direct or indirect connections to Albright in the same bowl, and there is nothing praiseworthy in the intention here. Perhaps we can all plead guilty to an interest in linking the Bible to the real history of the ancient Near East, including Israel and Judah and their neighbors. There were real people, who had a real life, and they produced the Bible, in which they wrote about themselves, their origins, their experiences, their present circumstances, and their hopes and dreams for the future. All of that has historical value, perhaps more about the writers than the those who were written about, but even their fictions have much to tell us about the realities of their times.
In Joffe’s response to the letters, I was slightly amused, but mainly perplexed, by the unqualified assertion about “Albright’s personal theology, so well penetrated by Burke Long …” While I know Burke Long well, and we had extended discussions and correspondence about Albright while he was preparing his volume on Albright, I doubt whether he (or anyone else) ever really grasped Albright’s “personal theology.” I was closely associated with Albright, first as a student, then as an assistant, and finally as a collaborator and co-editor (of the Anchor Bible Project), from 1945 until his death in 1971, but his personal religion (or theology) remained personal throughout that whole time. In his writing, he once defined his position as mediating between “Neo-Orthodoxy” and “Neo-Thomism,” which may tell those who are conversant with these somewhat contrary movements in early-to-mid-20th-century Christian theology something interesting about Albright, but I would derive from it that Albright was both sophisticated and nuanced about theology, and to brand him with a simplistic label, or imply that he was an ultra-conservative or anything like that, would be completely wrong. Albright was born of self-supporting Methodist missionaries in Chile, and he grew up in a very strict, ultra-conservative Protestant environment, but he rebelled totally against that framework of his life as he carried on his education through college, 063and then at Johns Hopkins, where he earned his Ph.D. degree. He would have said, and I would largely agree, that his personal theology had nothing to do with his scholarly research. Albright considered himself to be a scientific scholar first of all, and he personally treasured his election to the American Academy of Science above all the honors that he received.
Dr. Joffe will have to look elsewhere for the roots and sources of Albright’s historical conservatism. The latter was displayed in his approach to the Homeric epics, on which he published more than once, and in the same vein and spirit as his writings on the Bible or other ancient literatures. One could hardly accuse him of a theological bias in his treatment of the Iliad and Odyssey, which he believed contained authentic memories concerning real people, real places and real events, refracted through the transmission of oral traditions and poetic compositions. No doubt we are all influenced in varying degrees by our religious beliefs and other non-scientific presuppositions and predilections, but we recognize them and fight against them in the interest of objectivity and rational argumentation, as Albright did.
Then there is the matter of whether Albright stuck to his guns through thick and thin or whether he was flighty and changed his mind every time a new discovery was made or some inscription was found. Albright paid close attention to everything that was written in his field during his career, and his steady stream of responses shows how good a listener he was. He was capable of changing his mind, and did so quite often, while at the same time he held onto some basic principles. In this respect he was like most scholars, and I don’t see anything unusual or special in this regard. Dr. Joffe may not be aware of some of Albright’s early writings on a variety of Biblical matters. For example, there is a striking article on Samson as a solar-myth, which hardly comports with the views of the later Albright. And then there is a rather drastic treatment of the Song of Deborah, in which slash-and-burn might better categorize his reconstruction of the original poem. These are more in the tradition of his own teacher, Paul Haupt, than in the more conservative style of his later works. But even then, in his treatment of the “early poetry” of Israel, he never hesitated to alter and emend the text—hardly the behavior of a dyed-in-the-wool conservative. In “Archaeology Confronts Biblical Criticism” (The American Scholar, April 1938), Albright spelled out his own principles of Biblical research, and in it he made clear that he accepted the major premises of modern critical research. He remained true to those throughout his career.
Albright was a complex person, and to summarize and dismiss is not a service to him or to anyone else. Before having characterized (and caricatured) Albright in such summary fashion, Joffe might have done some serious research and discovered more of the truth about Albright and the rest of us who carry that banner.
Burke O. Long, research professor of religion, Bowdoin College, Brunswick, Maine, responds:
In recent exchanges about Alex Joffe’s review of Ancient Israel, a smoky cloud of labels (“minimalists,” “maximalists,” “elitists”) tends to maximize incivility and minimize critical thought. It might be well to take a step back and consider that some of the intellectual divides and emotional responses to a metaphor such as “Albright lives” may have their roots in incommensurate and uncompromisingly held premises.
BAR editor Hershel Shanks framed his discussion in terms of a presumably self-evident standard of legitimacy. “I often say that there are no illegitimate questions, only illegitimate answers.” (BAR, May/June 2003, p. 24) But research questions arise from frameworks. Questions take form in the highly disciplined language that is specific to fields of study. Besides considering the workings of academic study, there is no escaping the bundles of personal and group experience, intellectual and emotional commitments, even ideologies and politics, that ensnare everybody’s talk, mine included, in the social circumstances of constructing knowledge.
So allow me to reframe Hershel Shanks’s assertion. Rather than claim “no illegitimate questions, only illegitimate answers,” I’d say that there are many standards of legitimacy and illegitimacy, depending on what counts as allowable and appropriate inquiry within certain intellectual frameworks.
One way of reading the metaphor “Albright lives” is to take it as referring to one such framework, a particular tradition of intellectual and practical endeavor that arose from and lives in specific historical and social circumstances. Joffe names it a culture of shared desire, as he explains in this issue of BAR. It is a desire “to find a harmonious approach to the Bible and history which leaves intact its historical narrative, and for some, its transcendence …” This desire need not be tied to theology, nor is it exclusively found among Christians, as a glance at Michael Avi-Yonah, et al, A History of Israel and the Holy Land (New York: Continuum, 2003) will show. But the desire for harmony is especially strong among Christians, and among Christian Biblical theologians.
As a young man, the soon-to-be-famous W. F. Albright wrote of that encompassing desire when he confessed his ambitions to Sam Geiser, a college friend who would become a lifelong confidant. At the time, he told Geiser, he was preparing “the pre-history of our Christology,” on the “common ground where scientific rationalism and evangelical faith can meet.” Defining his mission against those who sought to protect traditional Christian doctrine from historical criticism of the Bible, Albright continued: “I shall, if God wills that my eyesight be spared, devote myself quietly to my technical researches, incidentally building a structure too strong for the batteries of apologetics. When it is over, orthodoxy will rub its eyes and say, wonderingly, ‘What was I afraid of? It all seems so reasonable now!’ Such are the laws of progress in our society.” (Letter, Albright to Samuel Geiser, October 8, 1918; Albright Papers. American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia.)
The result was an astonishing output of influential books that aimed at achieving that mission, and several generations of students, many of whom largely adopted a similar framework of inquiry and made distinguished contributions to the field of Biblical theology and archaeology. Fifteen years ago, David Noel Freedman, one of Albright’s illustrious students, wrote that his revered teacher was “not a historian…but rather an apologist for a somewhat traditional, even archaic outlook” (“W. F. Albright as an Historian,” in Gus W. van Beek, ed., The Scholarship of William Foxwell Albright [Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1988], p. 33.)
In recent years that drive to find a “harmonious approach” to the Bible has weakened or all but disappeared among some Biblical scholars and archaeologists. But certainly not among many contributors to, and readers of, BAR, for whom the 1999 revision of BAS’s Ancient Israel, or the reissue of John Bright’s A History of Ancient Israel (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2000) and perhaps William Dever’s What Did the Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) would have been welcome. In contrast, a number of prominent scholars have articulated a non-theological framework for studying the Bible and Biblical history. They adopt some different premises and ask different questions, while traversing a lot of common ground with those who seek a “harmonious approach” to the Bible and critical history writing.
What ought to be resisted are various attempts to assert dominance of the public spaces of Bible study by practitioners of one or another approach to the Bible.
I hope there can be room for many frameworks of study. And I’d try, probably futilely, to resist the insinuation of America’s uncivil talk-show discourse into talk about the Bible and archaeology.
Luke Wilson responds:
If Joffe’s position that the Patriarchal Age, Israel in Egypt and the settlement of Canaan are topics unworthy of serious archaeological scholarship does not put him in the Biblical minimalist camp, then he seems to be making very fine distinctions, indeed. Perhaps he or the editor of BAR needs to provide non-specialist readers like me with a technical definition of the term. By the way, Oxford University Press published a volume in 1999 entitled Israel in Egypt, by James K. Hoffmeier. Are they now in the business of publishing second-rate scholarship that is merely edifying?
In our May/June 2003 issue, we republished a damning book review by Alexander H. Joffe of BAS’s Ancient Israel that originally appeared in the Journal of Near Eastern Studies. The reviewer seemed to be saying that we can no longer ask historical questions about the Patriarchal period or about the Israelites in Egypt or about the settlement in Canaan. We invited our readers to comment, and several did in our September/October 2003 issue (pp. 9–10). Below is Joffe’s response to these readers’ letters. It is followed by comments from scholars William G. Dever, David Noel Freedman, Burke O. Long […]