The Old Testament and History: Part I The Climate of Old Testament Scholarship

Over the course of the summer I was baptized by fire into the world of Old Testament history and all of the difficulties therein.  I was lucky enough to sit under one of the best scholars in Israelite history, Eugene Merrill.  More information on Dr. Merrill may be found here and here. Dr. Merrill’s book Kingdom of Priests: A History of Old Testament Israel  is especially recommended to anyone interested in this field.

While taking the course, I decided to focus most of my attention on the historicity of the Patriarchs–Abraham through Joseph–on which my research paper was written.  What I plan to do for this series in The Old Testament and History is 1.) Give a brief overview of what modern scholarship is doing in this field, and what these scholars believe. 2.) Argue for the historical trustworthiness of the Old Testament which is doubted (to say the least) by most scholars. 3.) Make popular some of the key players, cities, cultures and factors in this field which has the potential to shed much light on the Old Testament.

 

The Climate of Old Testament Scholarship

Although the field is not as wide as other fields such as the hard sciences, the scholars of the Old Testament and other Ancient Near Eastern cultures is not uniform.  That being said, it is safe to say that the majority of scholars in this field are at best doubtful of the reliability of the Old Testament, Genesis in particular, in recounting actual history.  Many even claim that Genesis has a literary nature of folklore that isn’t attempting to transmit history at all.  So, the claim goes, anyone who thinks that the patriarchal narratives in Genesis are talking about historical persons is guilty of 1.) misunderstanding the genre of Genesis 2.) misunderstanding the history of Genesis’ composition and 3.) imposing their theology.

These are serious charges and must be answered.  But at this point, I am only seeking to elaborate on the current climate of scholarship in this field.  Certainly there is a spectrum between those who accept Genesis as historical and inspired to those who believe the persons mentioned in the Old Testament until Solomon are literary characters created and edited by numerous redactors over the course of centuries.

 Names and Notes

Here I am going to give you a feel for what many of these scholars believe, but before this I would like to note one thing.  These men and women are scholars in every sense of the word.  This fact became very clear while reading Thomas L. Thompson’s doctoral dissertation The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives.  Thompson was/is a very influential player in what become known as the Copenhagen School in Denmark and was a professor at the University of Copenhagen.  His dissertation shows skill across multiple disciplines: literary comparison and the development of ancient documents, languages: Amorite/West Semitic, Akkadian, Sumerian & other Cuneiform languages, Egyptian, German, French, et. al, the interpretation of archaeological data such as sedentary layers, pottery, knives, and tombs, and lastly a philosophy of history.  This is not to say Thompson has mastery over all of this (he may, but I don’t know him personally), but to note the amount of time and work “unbelieving” scholars put into their field and the diverse skills needed to excel.

Therefore, the scholars are to be respected and though their theology angers us who believe, much good has come from their findings.  Thompson’s dissertation comes off, often times, as a polemic against the American Scholar W.F. Albright.  For years many American schools accepted the claims and arguments of Albright, but Thompson (and Van Seters) sought to bring to light that many of the claims have been overstated or completely overturned over the years.  If anything can be learned from these men and women, it’s that we must not overstate the case, and that we ought to be slow in accepting archaeological interpretations that are not adequately supported.

Now, for a taste of what these scholars have to say.  In a future post, a rejoinder will be given.

Soggins, J. Alberto, A History of Ancient Israel (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1984)

One of the values of the studies by Thompson and Van Seters has been their discovery that the mention of ethnic groups, places, and individuals in the patriarchal narratives makes sense only at a time of the united monarchy (for Van Seters as late as the post-exilic period), and certainly never before! …So we must conclude that, leaving aside the possibility of re-readings and later reinterpretations, the nucleus of the patriarchal narratives can be traced back without any difficulty to the time of the united monarchy. (p. 90)

…Once we accept that the patriarchal traditions were re-read at the end of the exile and in the early post-exilic period: the itinerary of Abraham then became the itinerary of those who were returning home, from south-eastern Mesopotamia, passing through Harran, the usual route between the two regions. (p. 92)

Notice here how Soggins establishes the stories of Genesis to a time when there was a united monarchy.  Read, here, Moses didn’t write the narratives–and certainly not in the form we have today.  Once this move is accepted, Soggins and others would argue that the meaning of the patriarchal narratives must be found in the time they were reinterpreted after the  return from exile–over 1200 years after the cultural setting of the patriarchal narratives.  The Jews, then, seeking to give their exile and restoration meaning reinterpreted the patriarchal stories in light of their own experiences.  Finally, Abraham becomes a representation of their sojourn back to Palestine.  Abraham isn’t a historical character, he represents the experience of Israel’s relation to Yahweh post-exile.

Thompson, L. Thomas, The Historicity of the Patriarchal Narratives  (Berlin: Walter de Gruyter & co., 1974)

But the stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical…(p. 330)

…I hope to be able to show to the reader’s satisfaction that not only is the claim of historicity for the patriarchal stories a serious distortion of history, but that it is also a misunderstanding of the formation and intention of the biblical tradition (p. 297)

I argue in my critique of Thompson’s book that he argues from literary criticism towards archaeological skepticism.  That is, he argues that the patriarchal stories are not intended to be historical towards the proposition “there is no archaeological evidence for the patriarchs.”  To Thompson, the story of Abraham is like the story of David Copperfield.  Just because we find evidence from the 19th century that people know of a David Copperfield–and that there are manuscripts with the name ‘David’–doesn’t make David Copperfield’s actual existence any more probable.  In fact, the archaeological evidence found (i.e. Dickens’ novel) isn’t evidence for the historicity of David Copperfield either.  All that it means is that ‘David’ is a name acceptable in England in 1850.  This analogy is critical, I think, for understanding Thompson’s methodology.

I’ve only posted these few references to give a taste of modern scholarship in relation to the history of the Old Testament.  As the series progresses, these claims will be challenged.

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