Is 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”?