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A Biblical History of Israel Paperback – September 30, 2003
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In Part 1 of A Biblical History of Israel, Provan, Long, and Longman deal with the methodological and philosophical basis for the historiographer’s reconstruction of history. While saving the actual reconstruction of Israel’s past from the biblical texts for later in the book, these first 104 pages are intended to be a rebuttal of modern critical scholarship that attempts to obliterate the existence of an historical Israel as we know it. The authors show just how faulty these critical scholars are by elucidating the glaring inconsistencies in their historical selectivity. While they try to give deference to archeology and extra-biblical texts, inevitably all manners of testimony are subjected to the interpreter’s presuppositions and cannot therefore be more objective than the supposed ideologically littered texts of the Old Testament. Critical scholars demand external confirmation prior to even considering the Old Testament’s witness. The authors contend that the Old Testament witness ought to be accepted unless it can be proven otherwise: the burden of proof is taken off of the text and placed on the dissenters.
Below is a chapter-by-chapter description of the authors’ arguments and their developments followed by a personal critique.
Chapter 1: The Death of Biblical History?
This chapter opens with an obituary of biblical history penned by K. W. Whitelam. Modern critical scholarship has now rejected biblical sources as relevant for historical reconstruction as it is too ideological and non-verifiable by sources external to the corpus. Historiography must not then try and resurrect the dead biblical history but should “move on to a different sort of history all together” (5). The agenda, according to Whitelam, should not be dominated or defined by the biblical texts. Of two recent trends in biblical scholarship, the authors identify Whitelam as being characteristic of the newer historiography that claims “outright that ideology has compromised previous scholarship on the matter of Israel’s history” (5). Thus there is no place for the biblical texts in the reconstruction of the history of Palestine.
Whitelam bases his argument on three things: His view of the ideologically shaped biblical texts; his understanding of archeology and its ability to demonstrate “that things certain things are factually true, which in turn demonstrates that the ancient Israel of text and scholar alike is an imagined past” (7); and the alleged ideology of the historian who might not deal seriously “with evidence because of ideological commitments of one kind or the other” (9).
The authors address each of Whitelam’s concerns proving them to be “neither convincing nor coherent” (9). Then they show that Whitelam’s dismissal of the biblical texts is a natural consequence given the background from which he is writing. The current debate over Israel’s history has a history to it and Whitelam’s views are not in a vacuum. The authors show how these ideas came about by examining the works of Soggin and Miller/Hayes.
The authors then go on to give a brief history of the discipline of historiography. In here they show how historiography has developed into scientific positivism resulting in a skeptical look at the relationship between history and tradition. They continue, “history and tradition were no longer assumed to be closely related to each other. Rather, history was to be assumed to lie behind tradition and to be more or less distorted by it” (24).
For Provan/Long/Longman, critical scholarship is marked by an arbitrary and inconsistent approach to the history of Israel. There is definite prejudice and, where tradition is concerned, “suspicion of tradition should be the starting point” (32) rather than giving it the benefit of the doubt.
Chapter 2: Knowing and Believing: Faith in the Past
Chapter 2 opens with a discussion on the use of testimony as a way of understanding and knowing the past. The only way we can know anything about the past is through the testimony of others (37). Testimony is interpretation of the past as well and therefore all that we know from the past has ideology, theology, and perspective behind it. What the critical scholars demand is an approach that, using scientific analysis, can reveal objective truth about the past of human existence. The authors show how this is impossible as testimony is required regardless and testimony is by nature somewhat subjective. They conclude this chapter by stating that, “Historiography is ideological narrative about the past that involves, among other things, the selection of material and its interpretation by authors who are intent on persuading themselves or their readership of certain truths about the past” (49). For our authors, all knowledge of the past is simply faith in the “interpretations of the past offered by others” (50) and “value-free academic endeavor does not exist” (39).
Chapter 3: Knowing about the History of Israel
In this chapter Provan/Long/Longman deal with trends in historiography from the past two hundred years. They discuss the principle of verification, which basically assumes that there can be no way of having confidence in the OT material as source material for the practice of historiography. Critical scholars require “non-biblical control evidence” (54), or externally verified sources, in order for the texts to be proven historically accurate. But “why should the onus be on the texts to ‘prove’ themselves valuable in respect of history, rather than on those who question their value to ‘prove’ them false” (55)? What these modern historiographers are after is empirical proof similar to that available in the natural sciences.
The authors then discuss three influential rules that have shaped the modus operandi of the historiography of Israel. They are, respectively, “First, eyewitnesses or otherwise contemporaneous accounts are to be preferred on principle to later accounts. Second, accounts that are not so ideological, or not ideological at all, in nature are to be preferred to accounts that are ideological in nature. Third and finally, accounts that fit our preconceptions about what is normal, possible, and so on, are to be preferred to accounts that do not fit such preconceptions” (57). Provan/Long/Longman critique each of these rules and challenge their usefulness. They say that there is no good reason to think that earlier accounts are more reliable than later accounts. On the second rule, they reiterate, “No account of the past anywhere is free of ideology, and thus in principle is to be trusted more than other accounts; nor should one presume that an ideological account cannot also be historically accurate” (62).
The authors then discuss three types of data that gives historiographers a lens to the past. These are, respectively, the biblical texts themselves, nonwritten archeological data, and extrabiblical textual data (63). Critical scholars automatically discount the biblical texts because they are religiously tainted. Thus the latter two remain the sources for uncovering the truth about the past. First, the authors show that archeological data is not neutral as some purport but rather that it is also subjected to the interpreter’s perspective and ideological leanings. Secondly they point out that all extrabiblical texts are likewise written by ideologically driven authors “possessing both a general world-view and a particular point of view that they bring to bear on reality, seeking selectively to organize the facts of the past into some coherent pattern and in respect of some particular end” (68). On the third rule, the authors discuss the principle of analogy, which asserts that testimony that violates a general sense of what is normal or possible within the realm of human experience is to be “suspected of unreliability” (70). This process of judging the testimony of the past experiences of others in terms of our understanding of present experiences cannot be “an arbiter of what is possible in history” (71) because it causes us to reject otherwise solid testimony simply because the experience was unusual.
Chapter 4: Narrative and History: Stories about the Past
This chapter turns to a discussion of “how the Bible testifies to the past” (75). Since the bulk of the Old Testament’s history of Israel is narrative in genre, the authors “consider the status of ‘narrative history’ within the field of historical studies” (76). Narrative histories, according to the authors, are obtaining wider acceptance in scholarly circles thus the biblical narratives ought not to be discounted before being given fair consideration. The art of reading biblical narratives must first rightly be used in order that history might rightly be reconstructed.
The authors get into a discussion about historical revisionism’s critique of using biblical narratives to reconstruct history. In particular, N.P. Lemche militates a fixed dichotomy between biblical Israel and “the Israel of the Iron Age” (78) and, in fact, Lemche is doing so at a time when there is a “major resurgence” of interest in biblical narratives.
Next the authors turn to the relationship between history and literature with the aim to establish that “a happy marriage between literary and historical concerns is possible, desirable, and necessary” (81). They argue that “much of the Bible makes historical truth claims, and these claims will never be rightly understood unless the literary mode of their representation is itself understood” (81). This view is problematic for many scholars as it brings into question whether life itself has the shape of a narrative or “is this merely an illusion created by historians” (81) as they attempt to reconstruct the past? Is there inherent meaning in the past beyond that which the historian assigns it by his shaping of the event? The authors then draw an analogy between portrait painting and historiography to oppose the “extreme constructionist view” (82) that ultimately makes history incomprehensible. The authors further argue that life has contours and structures built in by connected events and history. There is not simply an imposing of this structure by the historian or interpreter, but rather it is inherent in history. “[T]he task of the historian is to recognize the past’s contours and meaningfully connected features and to represent them in a verbal medium” (84). Both the artist and the historian are constrained by the structures and contours of their model as they attempt to represent it through their own perspective. Thus there is freedom of interpretation yet connectivity to the subject based on its inherent structure and limits. This puts a lot of responsibility into the historian’s hands. The authors argue that because of this, historians ought to be able to read biblical texts with a superior level of competence to rightly understand the literary features that illumine the historical reality.
The chapter closes with a case study of Solomon illustrating the authors’ approach to text and history.
Chapter 5: A Biblical History of Israel
This final chapter in the selected section is more or less an apologetic for the authors’ writing of this book and a summary of their methodology. When approaching the biblical history of Israel, which fills the remainder of the volume, the authors do so in light of all the preceding discussion and they give a brief foreshadowing of what that will look like in the subsequent chapters. They then discuss how their theistic convictions and theological motivations are held at bay in order that their approach might be better accepted across a wide range of open-minded readers. Finally, they emphasize the import of dealing rightly with the texts of the Old Testament because, after all, they are more than texts; they are Scripture.
Provan, Long, and Longman do a fantastic job reasoning through the elements of the methodology of historiography. They give a strong case for why we should question the minimalist scholarship and not readily trust their evaluations of biblical/historical Israel. The authors’ criticism of constructionism and positivism is poignant and well though out. They build a good case for the connection between history and tradition and argue that faith in the testimony of biblical narratives is the fundamental source from which to reconstruct Israel’s history. Understanding that not even archeology is objective but requires interpretation strengthens the priority of the biblical accounts.
As this is my first exposure to the historiography of Israel, my viewpoint is somewhat limited and I have very little to compare it to. However, I deduce that the Provan, Long, and Longman’s argumentation in this volume strengthen the overall maximalist perspective, the case for believing a biblical account of the historical Israel. Their arguments about narrativity, the contours of life, and the analogy of a painter’s interpretation of his subject, are particularly helpful in clarifying the limitations of a historian when interpreting history and how we ought to conceive of testimony. We are able to know the basic structure and contours of history though accounts may differ and interpretations may vary. Thus an astute scholar is open-minded and examines all sources well before passing judgment.
It is indeed difficult to criticize this work, as it is exceedingly useful and intelligent. There are however, a few concerns and questions that it might be helpful to discuss briefly in regard to the authors’ approach to historiography.
First, in their discussion on testimony, the authors say that all knowledge of the past is simply faith in the “interpretations of the past offered by others” (50). However, the authors do not seem to offer very much help in discerning which testimonies of ancient Israel are more valid than others. Which ones ought we to put our faith in? They do not readily accept principles like primary sources, sources near the event, and third party (non-ideological) sources as being preferred for historical reconstruction. Their argument on trusting the reliability of the biblical history of Israel is therefore not supported by the generally accepted historical principles most scholars use (Lester Grabbe, review of Iain Provan And V. Philips Long And Tremper Longman, A Biblical History of Israel, Review of Biblical Literature [http://www.bookreviews.org] (2004)). The authors also assume that generally people do not lie and that generally one is able to trust the testimony of the past. Therefore one should adopt the falsification principle rather than the verification principle towards testimony of the past, particularly the biblical history of Israel. While I agree that we should assume the testimony is true before assuming it is false, it seems a bit naïve to leave it at that and not seek further verification from other sources. Furthermore, according to the authors, all history is testimony and all belief in testimony requires faith in the person who wrote/produced it. Determining what testimony is true is a matter of judicious discernment based on sound scholarship. It seems that other sound scholarship has come to differing conclusions than our authors have reached. Perhaps the authors could elucidate their argumentation on these points, or perhaps my second contention below sheds light on why these interlocutors are at loggerheads with liberal scholars, waffling around in subjectivity. Is there not some objective criterion or governing hermeneutical principle that can be brought to bear in this debate?
This contention, the aspect of the authors’ methodology that was most problematic, is their failure to acknowledge the divine nature of the Old Testament texts from which we understand Israel’s history. In chapter five they give an apologetic for their approach and attempt to hedge themselves from this criticism, but nevertheless I believe it to be justified. The authors contend that their theistic convictions and theological motivations only minimally influence their work (103). How is that possible? Earlier they argued that “value-free academic endeavor does not exist” (39) yet they make very little of their own values. Are they sincerely non-bias and more objective than the other scholars? The extent to which they argue for the value of biblical narratives seems to pass over the most important element, namely, a presupposition of divine inspiration. The best they do is to acknowledge the OT to be Scripture and life changing (104) but hardly go on to explain how presupposing divine revelation ought to inform the way biblical narrative is read. If there is no divine inspiration behind the texts and all we are left with is interpretation, then there is essentially no basis for arguing one history of Israel over another. By excluding this element from their argumentation, the authors are left with no more than advice on how to properly read biblical narrative (89-97). In his discussion on a similar matter, Dr. Bruce Waltke duly notes, “Without the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration, we cannot write adequately or authoritatively about God” (B.K. Waltke, An Old Testament Theology. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2007. P. 97) and without the doctrine of Scripture’s inspiration we certainly cannot make sense of Israel’s history. As creatures we sit under the Word of God and not above it, as is the tendency of liberal scholars who make reason the foundation for theological ruminations (Waltke 73). Perhaps Provan, Long, and Longman pander to this practice more so than they ought.
It is a very thought provoking book.
Definitely not for someone who is just beginning a scripture study class.