In my previous post I mentioned that there are four major schools of thought when it comes to how much of the Old Testament is historical. By schools of thought I am describing approximate ranges of thought, not fixed positions.
One caveat, all dates are BC (BCE).
Maximalists believe that for the most part the Old Testament is historical, hence the name of the school of thought. However, this doesn’t mean that they believe that it is all historical. As a group Maximalists tend to think that the historical parts of the Old Testament begin around Genesis 12 with the story of Abraham. They base this on the following:
- Maximalists see convincing parallels between the Old Testament and the Ancient Near East (ANE) in the 2nd millenium BCE.
- For the era of the patriarchs they see parallels between legal and economic texts of the greater ANE and those found in the book of Genesis.
- They also see parallels between the era of Ramses II in 19th dynasty Egypt and the account in Exodus.
- Finally, people like K.A. Kitchen tend to read the book of Joshua differently than most biblical scholars. By reading it differently, K.A. Kitchen is able to show to his satisfaction that the book of Joshua is in harmony witht the archaeological record of 13th century.
However, the maximalists are not monolithic, nor are they literalists. One area of disagreement is in the dating of Abraham. K.A. Kitchen dates Abraham to the 18th or 17th century based on parallels in the ANE and a straightforward reading of the years in the Bible itself (the exodus is pretty securely dated to the 13th century, so it’s just a matter of counting lifespans backward from there). Gary Rendsburg, another maximalist, puts Abraham in the 14th century. This again is based on counting backward from the exodus, but using more reastic lifespans for the patriarchs. On Rendsburg’s account the period of Israelite slavery was only abut 100 years, not the 400 years in the Old Testament. Neither Kitchen nor Rendsburg takes literally the Old Testament account of 600,000 Israelite males (2-3 million people total) leaving Egypt in the Exodus, and both put the numbers leaving Egypt as a couple of thousand.
Moderate Critical With High Chronology
Those in this school tend to see the historical parts of the Old Testament beginning in 1 or 2 Samuel, with some historical material in Judges. They base this on the following heavily summarized body of data:
- The Merneptah (also Merenptah) victory stele lists Israel as living in the region of Palestine in the late 13th century. Egyptian chronology is widely accepted as being very accurate, so somebody calling themselves Israel had to be in Palestine by that time.
- The beginnings of “monumental architecture” in the 10th century in Palestine. This coincides with the period of the United Monarchy of David and Solomon.
- The Tel-Dan inscription which dates to the 9th or 8th century and contains the phrase bytdwd or “House of David.” Hence someone important enough to have his own house named David
- The Mesha stele which mentions the “House of Omri.” Omri was an important king in Israel in the 9th century and is mentioned in 1 Kings.
- Various synchronisms from the 8th century on. Israel begins to be mentioned in Assyrian and Babylonian annals from this time period on.
- Analysis of material culture such as pottery, statues, idols, etc.
They reject the Bible as being historical before this time based on the following data:
- The book of Genesis has several anachronisms which at best show late editing, at worst late authorship. These anachronisms are: mention of Chaldeans, mention of Phillistines, domesticated camels, established desert trade networks, etc.
- Beyond the anachronisms in Genesis there is no real context into which you can place the patriarchal narratives. The reason maximalists can put Abraham all over the timeline is that none of them really fit.
- No evidence of any Israelites ever being in Egypt
- No evidence of any exodus from Egypt.
- The destruction patterns found in archaeological digs do not correspond to the destructions found in the book of Joshua.
- The settlement patterns in 13th century Palestine do not reflect the account in the book of Joshua.
Moderate Critical with Low Chronology
This school and the High Chronology school agree with the data as presented in the High Chronology section. However, they date it and interpret it differently. Because of this they see 1 Kings as the time when one begins to see history and the Old Testament converge. They modify the High Chronology position as follows:
- They downdate most of the finds in early Iron Age Palestine by 50-100 years. By downdating the finds they have the first signs of monumental architecture starting in the 9th century.
- They note that the monumental architecture and widespread writing in the north (Israel) predates that in the south (Judah) by around a century.
- Becuase of the previous two points they reject a United Monarchy ruled from the south. They don’t reject the presence of a ruler named David (the Tel-Dan inscription prevents this), but posit that he was more of a tribal chief than a ruler of an empire. If there was a United Monarchy it was ruled from the North by the House of Omri.
- They point out that the dating of material culture in Iron age Palestine has been circularly dated, hence it does not allow for stratigraphic dating of finds correcly. The stratigraphic dating schema for Iron age Israel needs to be recalibrated by lowering the dates, hence the reason this school supports a “low chronology.”
Here I am following Lemche, the most reasonable representative of the Minimalist school. This school would put Ezra/Nehemiah as the earliest possible historically accurate part of the Old Testament. Some in this school would go so far as to say that none of the Old Testament is historical. They accept all of the evidence for unhistoricity of the previous two schools and add the following:
- The Merenptah stele does not specify where nor who Israel is. This could have been a small tribe, not a large united people.
- The Tel-Dan (bytdwd) inscription, though mentioning “House of David,” is fragmentary and the reconstruction is subject to different interpretations. In any case “House of David” may or may not refer to a united polity.
- The Mesha stelae clearly mentions Omri, but to what extent was his kingdom “Israel”?
- The difficulty of unambiguously differentiating Israelites and non Israelite Canaanites. The material culture of Palestine is pretty uniform, as is the language. There is no real way to identify a polity called Israel or Judah without referring back to the Bible, which is circular reasoning.
My Thoughts, Your Thoughts
The previous may have been too abbreviated to follow; I hope it wasn’t. It has taken me quite a while to assimilate and process this information. If you have found it hard to follow, the take home message would be the following:
- Maximalists: History begins with Genesis 12
- Moderate Critical with High Chronology: History begins with 1 or 2 Samuel
- Moderate Critical with Low Chronology: History begins with 1 Kings
- Minimalists: History begins with Ezra/Nehemiah
Where do I stand on the issues? In my opinion the maximalists and minimalists are not viable schools of thought. I know of no practicing archaeologist, who digs in Israel, who subscribes to either of these schools. Those who know the most reject these schools. Maximalism is a religious position masquerading as an archaeological position, and minimalism is a political position masquerading as an archaeological position. My opinion is that only one of the moderate critical schools is correct, though I don’t know which one. My hunch is that further archaeological discoveries will vindicate the low chronology school, but I have no evidence for this.
However, in one sense I really don’t care which of those schools wins out. Neither is conducive to belief, at least not belief as defined by any of the more conservative religious traditions (of which Mormonism is most definitely a member, notwithstanding the blips of Sunstone and liberal Mormons). Put simply, if they are correct, almost none of the really good stories in the Old Testament are historical. And, since I am being pessimistic here, I think that the standard Mormon defense of “as far as it is translated correctly” doesn’t work for a variety of reasons. More on that later.
What do you think? Can a believer espouse a moderate critical position? Should a believer hold out for a maximalist position? Can a believer just say that since the moderate critical positions are not absolutely 100% correct they can safely be ignored by a believer? At what point does a body of empirical evidence become so overwhelming that a believer must stop rejecting evidence and begin re-evaluating beliefs? What part should any of this affect how one reads the scriputres?