The Death of Biblical Minimalism

In Associates for Biblical Research:

The May/June 2011 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review is an exciting one. On the cover, some of the topics of the issue are listed, at the top of which are the words, “The End of Biblical Minimalism.” Minimalists are those who believe that only the barest minimum of the Bible is true, and then only if it can be incontrovertibly corroborated by extrabiblical evidence. This perspective is one that is eminently skeptical of the Bible. This is not how ancient documents are generally treated, which naturally raises suspicion that the Bible is being treated with a double standard for no other reason than that it is the Word of God. Speaking a little more generously than usual, minimalist Philip Davies claims that the Bible is indispensible for the historian, even though its “stories may be false, true, or a mixture of fact and fiction” (Davies, 2008, p. 5). For those who see the biblical text as a purely manmade production, the Bible is a mixture of a few facts and mostly fiction. As senior Israeli archaeologist Israel Finkelstein puts it, ‘The historical saga contained in the Bible—from Abraham’s encounter with God and his journey to Canaan, to Moses’ deliverance of the children of Israel from bondage, to the rise and fall of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah—was not a miraculous revelation, but a brilliant product of the human imagination’ (Finkelstein and Silberman, 2001, p. 1).

The article, “The Birth and Death of Biblical Minimalism” written by archaeologist Yosef Garfinkle, traces the biblical minimalist position from its inception 30 years ago to the present time, where discoveries have undermined it to the point of it becoming untenable. He focuses on one of the hot-button issues in archaeology: the existence of the United Monarchy.

For biblical minimalists, the United Monarchy is very nearly a fiction. They believe that if David and Solomon existed, they were nothing more than petty chieftains. Hoffmeier summarizes the minimalist position this way: “[I]f David and Solomon did exist, they were simply pastorialist chieftains from the hills of Judea, and the military exploits of David and the glories of Solomon were gross exaggerations from later times” (Hoffmeier, 2008, p. 87). In other words, there were no grand palaces and no royal inscriptions. In short—no kingdom.

Garfinkle focuses on one particular archaeological site called Khirbet Qeiyafa, where he serves as co-director of the dig…

Finkelstein is commonly labeled a minimalist, although he denies that label. He does share many things in common with biblical minimalists, such as a skeptical attitude toward the Bible and a clear bias in interpreting the archaeological evidence. This goes against standard procedure among scholarship. Generally, ancient texts are given the benefit of the doubt unless sufficient reason exists to doubt their veracity. Since the Bible has a long track record of accuracy, to dismiss it out of hand shows a clear bias against it. Second, evidence should drive interpretation and lead to conclusions—not start with conclusions and interpret all the evidence to support those conclusions. Finkelstein’s skepticism points to a preconceived conclusion that seeks evidence to justify itself, which, naturally, can only be done poorly…

Even William Dever—who is no friend to the traditional interpretation of Scripture—has fiercely opposed the minimalists, whom he calls “revisionists.” He says, “the ‘revisionists’…declare that ‘the Hebrew Bible is not about history at all,’ i.e., it is mere propaganda. For them, if some of the Bible stories are unhistorical, they all are—a rather simplistic notion” (Dever, 2001, p. 97). It is the typical case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”: the Bible is a religious book, therefore it cannot be historically accurate. Ongoing excavations argue otherwise…

Though much of the minimalists’ work is respected by other scholars, they are supremely guilty of allowing their biases to dictate their interpretation of the evidence. They make selective use of the facts and ignore or reinterpret evidence that disagrees with their position. Some of them grew up in fundamentalist homes, giving the impression that their interpretations are more the result of rejecting the faith of their early years rather than sound scholarship. This approach can be maintained only so long before the body of evidence will get to the point of being beyond their ability to manipulate. The archaeologist’s spade will continue to unearth more evidence season by season, year after year. It is only a matter of time before the minimalist position will become a relic enshrined in the museum of discarded ideas.

Read all here.

Israel Finkelstein: In the Eye of Jerusalem’s Archaeological Storm

The City of David, Beyond the Politics and Propaganda:

Archaeological activity in Jerusalem has been sucked into a whirlwind of conflicting political agendas, and the site commonly referred to as “the City of David” is in the eye of the storm. At issue is a place of seminal importance for the Jewish people and indeed for anyone who cherishes the heritage of Western civilization.

When dealing with archaeology in Jerusalem, one must first know the facts. Otherwise it is easy to be led astray by unfounded historical interpretations or to succumb to misinformation from those pursuing their own political agendas…

Read the rest here.

And from the conclusion:

The City of David’s monuments and antiquities — some yet to be discovered — are too important to be allowed to fall victim to politics or neglect. Whatever our political views, we need to be vigilant in maintaining this place as a tangible link to a rich past and as a site of honest historical inquiry…

Israel Finkelstein Revises his Dating: Is the Indefatigable Minimalist Slipping?

Associates for Biblical Research reports:

Israel Finkelstein revises his dating

“Two afternoon sessions at the Society of Biblical Literature Meeting were devoted to Archaeology and Text, and in particular to the dating problems associated with the transition from Iron Age I to Iron Age II. In these sessions Ayelet Gilboa spoke on Tel Dor, Amihai Mazar on Tel Rehov, Aren Maeir on Tell es-Safi, Israel Finkelstein on Megiddo, and David Ussishkin on Jezreel.

During his presentation, Israel Finkelstein revised his dating, and stated that he was now dating the transition from Iron Age I to IIA to about 950 BC. This was momentous. Based on their experiences in the Philistine areas and sites such as Lachish, Ussishkin and Finkelstein have been dating the start of Iron Age II to 920–900 BC and they, along with many others, have used this dating to argue that David and Solomon did not exist. Archaeologists working elsewhere in the southern Levant have found the comparatively short period of Iron Age II problematic because it was difficult to compress their Iron Age II levels into it. While they mounted archaeological arguments to support an earlier start to Iron Age II they were normally accused of being ‘biblically biased’.

Now that Finkelstein is digging at Megiddo, where there is a significant depth of Iron Age II material, he realises that the period was longer and that an earlier date for the start of Iron Age II is necessary. There are numerous books written by Finkelstein arguing that there was no United Monarchy because Iron Age II began long after the time it was supposed to have existed. Unfortunately these books will continue to have influence for decades to come, although the core argument is no longer accepted. The change does not mean that the United Monarchy did exist; it simply removes one of the hypothesised impediments.

It was interesting that in the presentations the only person to regularly refer to biblical texts was Finkelstein: for him, disproving the Old Testament appears to be a hobby-horse. Much of the scholarly world has been fixated on Finkelstein conveying his hypotheses as facts. It will be interesting to see if it now takes a less dogmatic stance.

Sadly, the only Israeli archaeologists in these sessions to present archaeology as a way of understanding ancient lives were Aren Maeir and to some extent Amihai Mazar. The others were caught up with the historical imperatives.”

This report is illuminating. Dr. Finkelstein is well-known for his skepticism towards the Bible, so this backtracking is rather surprising. Let us see if he remains consistent, or if he recognizes that he dropped the ball for his fellow skeptics everywhere. In either case, his bias against the ancient text of the Bible should be recognized by anyone who wants to be remotely fair minded and intellectually honest.

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