Is a History of Ancient Israel Possible? Pt 1

3808505832_d3e6576eefIs it possible to speak of the ancient history of Israel?

I frequently encourage my congregation not to watch television documentaries about the Bible and history. Their mission is entertainment and controversy, not education.

But through internet, television, and other forms of information overload, it is hard to miss the fact that many people in positions of academic credibility dismiss the history of the Bible to varying extents.

Is it just me or is skepticism and conspiracy theory always at some kind of advantage, as if we are all too willing to be deflated by an expert telling us our great hopes and beliefs are wrong?

Don’t worry. Hang around academia long and academics lose the sparkly luster. The academic world rewards innovation and controversy in a manner not too far removed from the entertainment world. Don’t get me wrong, I read and benefit from academic research in history, Biblical interpretation, and theology. But on any topic I read about, I have learned I can find academic writers taking opposing sides and holding to every shade of variation in between.

Maybe when it come to the Bible and history, we are afraid the skeptics are right. Maybe we worry that scholars who are favorable to Biblical history are fudging their scholarship with faith. Maybe we have been soaked for so long in the idea that “science” is objective and “religion” is subjective that we fear to dig too deeply and find Jerusalem missing.

In a short series, I want to say a few things about the reality of ancient Israel and the history we read in the Bible. I will begin with a few thoughts about the most extreme book in opposition to Biblical history.

There Was no Israel: Keith Whitelam

You’d think there never really was an Israel if you believe the well-known 1997 book by Keith Whitelam, The Invention of Ancient Israel: The Silencing of Palestinian History. Yes, the book claims the Palestinians are victims of . . . the Bible (essentially), or at least victims of Euro-centric scholars taking the history depicted in the Bible too much at face value.

Here is a bit of the product description from amazon:

A controversial and provocative work, The Invention of Ancient Israel chronicles how the true history of ancient Palestine has been obscured. Keith W. Whitelam reveals how ancient Israel has been invented by scholars in the image of a European nation state; one that resembles the state of Israel created in 1948.

Keith Whitelam is a professor at the University of Sheffield in the U.K. The University of Sheffield has recently been criticized by Ben Witherington as a place where faith is deconstructed (see here in a Christianity Today article). Some say the criticism is unfair. Some lament the secularization of U.K. universities. I do not know the truth, but Keith Whitelam’s post as head of Biblical Studies there makes me wonder: a Biblical studies department headed by someone who doesn’t believe ancient Israel existed?

I find it very unfortunate that anyone would believe what Whitelam believes and even more so that his work is teaching Biblical studies at a university.

In future posts I will say more about evidence outside of the Bible for ancient Israel in history. I wrote a few weeks ago about “Finding Early Israel” in a two-part series for those interested. See here for part 1 and here for part 2.

For now, let me simply allow the wise words of one amazon reviewer who calls out Whitelam for special pleading and suppression of evidence:

In this book, which purports to take politics out of the history of ancient Israel, there is no room for archaeology–no room for the collared-rim jars the ancient Israelites left behind, no mention the four-room houses at ‘Izbet Sartah and, of course, none of Merneptah Stele, the ancient tablet (dated at 1212 BCE) which is also the first discovered recorded non-biblical reference to a people and a nation called Israel.

Meanwhile, I admit I have not read Whitelam’s book. I may read it at a local seminary library and comment more specifically on it in the future. But his ideas serve as a good start to a series on the history behind our faith.

How does history work? How can we know the past? How much uncertainty is there? Is skepticism superior to a general reliance on tradition? Did writers from the modern period (before postmodernism) exhibit an arrogant view of knowledge?

Can we say with the Psalmist, “O Jerusalem, if I forget you, may my tongue cleave to the roof of my mouth”?


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Archaeology, Ben Witherington, Bible, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Is a History of Ancient Israel Possible? Pt 1

  1. peterygwendyta says:

    Derek you said “Is it just me or is skepticism and conspiracy theory always at some kind of advantage, as if we are all too willing to be deflated by an expert telling us our great hopes and beliefs are wrong?”. Speaking from an evangelical viewpoint up until the last 15 or 20 years evangelicals have by and large been anti-accademic. To the degree that they wouldn’t even engage with people like Whitelam. When this happens the population at large thinks that people of faith don’t have any answer to these criticism’s. This is why I like see people like You in the Messianic movement and among evangelicals people like Ravi Zacharias, Chuck Missler etc who are not afraid to engage and search out these academic areas. It always comes to my mind when Jesus said to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength. We very often convieniently leave out the mind part. In my view we love God with our mind when we renew our mind and study the tings of God. This doesn’t mean we wait for someone to give us everything on a plate but that we study and search out these things ourselves.

    Thanks again for a great blog.

  2. yeze says:

    “a Biblical studies department headed by someone who doesn’t believe ancient Israel existed?”

    Think of Shlomo Sand, an Israeli professor who’s just written a book about the “myth” of the Jewish people. Could you believe it!!

  3. rightrudder says:

    “I frequently encourage my congregation not to watch television documentaries about the Bible and history. Their mission is entertainment and controversy, not education.”

    I disagree. I think that it is vital to know other views. When I grew up I was shielded from anything that was secular. Boy – did I have another thing coming. Starting about middle school I was bombarded with opposing views and it ruined my faith since my crowd didn’t deal with other views. Now I chuckle when I think of how my minister thought that having us memorize John 3:16 was all we needed to do to be prepared for the world. It was like sending the nerdy kid in to fight the brute. No chance.
    These opposing views are what makes Behe’s work so meaningful and Schroder’s “The Science of God” so brilliant. If there was just one view or one choice we would never be given the chance to grow towards God. We would be stagnant. In the story of the fall, God gave us a choice and now we are stuck putting the pieces back together.
    I believe very much in God and Israel and I believe truth wins. God will always conquer in the end – I like the battles along the way. Plus we need people to stab at the bible. That means the bible it can fail. And if we leave it out there and it doesn’t fail then it is an ultimate source of truth.
    But I don’t think you should buy off on everything you watch either. You should know what God is in your life and live that. I think one of the wisest moments in the bible is John 9:25. This man was healed by Jesus and only testifies what he knew was true. When asked was he a sinner he simply answered all that he knew, “I don’t if he is a sinner. The one thing I do know is that I was blind but now I can see.” What a great testimony! All we need to do is to testify as to what we know. I think many times people stretch “their” belief in the bible far beyond what it says and really sell the bible short by over-promoting it. The Church has been anti Newton, Galileo and Darwin – plus anti Jew on top of that. This is what gives rise to skepticism and it is a good thing too. It keeps bible views in check. And by doing that doesn’t it also make the bible true (Ex 20:7, using Gods name wrongfully)? And it is a good thing the anti bible people take it too far the other way because in the end we win back what we lost. But regardless we need to listen to the other side and know nothing is settled yet. In the end truth wins and it is better for going through the scrutiny. But I think we do need to engage in this battle. And I think that members of our congregation need to know what opposers say but not loose faith over it, instead they can gain understanding over it. Then when their children are bombarded they are prepared with truth.

    Plus, just the fact that they oppose the bible makes the bible true. Right?


    • Jeff:

      You know me better than that. I am not saying to avoid the TV documentaries because they show the opposing side. I am recommending avoiding them because they don’t present the information in a format conducive to accurate learning. Good books have many footnotes to aid further research. In a book you get a sustained argument. In general books are less inclined to distort things through an entertainment motive.

      But I know you love the History Channel shows about the Bible and archaeology. Watching them is fine if combined with a few pounds of salt. Also, it would be good to do some reading of various authors to supplement what you see on the TV shows.

      Here is an example: Harper or other serious publishers are not likely to publish a book extolling the “find” of Pharaoh’s chariot wheels in the Red Sea or Noah’s Ark or similar malarkey.

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