It is now time for Palestinian history to come of age and formally reject the agenda and constraints of “biblical history.” . . . It is the historian who must set the agenda and not the theologian.
—The Invention of Ancient Israel, pg. 35
T.L. Thompson has said in Journal of Biblical Literature 114:
There is no more “ancient Israel.” History no longer has room for it. This we do know. And now, as one of our first conclusions of this new knowledge, “biblical Israel” was in its origin a Jewish concept.
If you detect a whiff of arrogance and insane epistemological hypocrisy here, you are not alone.
There is a sort of arbitrariness in the way many “thinkers” handle issues of history. Rejecting some forms of tradition and the testimony of some passed down through the millennia, they nonetheless fail to be equally skeptical about all history. Why not ask, “is the past real at all?” And why single out Israel’s story and not, say, Rome’s?
In their intriguing exploration of historiography and the story of Israel, Ian Provan, V. Philips Long, and Tremper Longman III discuss, among many other things, the myth of evolutionary progress in history (A Biblical History of Israel). In this myth, the Greeks were a unique shining light in ancient history, bringing the light of reason to a world of superstition and lies. Yet the progress of “truth” was then halted for many centuries in the darkness of religious, medieval society and only begin to be revived in the Renaissance and only brought to fruition in the development of science as a method of analyzing reality.
Never mind that science works best in matters of developing technology and is an abject failure at defining life, the universe, or what truth is or is not. Science has enlarged mystery and provided fewer answers than realizations of our ignorance.
A naïve scientific view, for example, is that archaeology produces sure results (or more sure) than ancient writings telling stories of the past. Not only does finding layers of dirt, pottery, remains, and buildings tell us practically zero about the people and ideas of the past, but story is the tool of the archaeologist as much as the historian or theologian. So you find remains in northwestern Turkey. What are they? Oh, did Homer write a story about a civilization that lived here called Troy? Now there is a context to interpret these remains.
Not only does story play into the identification of remains, but story is essential to their interpretation. Why is there a large, circular platform of stones in a building with a pillared front? The ancients told stories of temples and animal sacrifices. We might need these stories to understand what we find.
And the stories that the archaeologists tell about what they find, stories based on a chain of stories from ancient sources and previous archaeologists, shape our understanding of the past.
In the end, the physical remains are pieces adding to the story. There is nothing scientific about the final results and conclusions. At best, the science is only in the details of identification, dating, and differentiation.
I especially appreciate the words of Baruch Halpern cited in A Biblical History of Israel:
Most of us live complacently with uncertainty as to how friends and even drivers of automobiles will behave or react at this or that time, because we have to. A similar level of uncertainty attaches to how we reconstruct history. Why some scholars expect to be as certain about the human past as the human present, when in both instances we are concerned with humans, is at best puzzling.
–Baruch Halpern, “Text and Artifact: Two Monologues?” in N.A. Silberman and D. Small (eds.), The Archaeology of Israel
Looking at the stories of the Bible as they relate to history, people groups, attributing causes and motives to movements in history, and so on, means accepting uncertainty.
When you explain the circumstances of your automobile accident to your best friend on the one hand and to the police officer on the other, not only are there differences in the account, but neither can we assume that the differences are purely selfish in motive. They could both be “the truth,” but what does “truth” mean? They could both be “false,” but what makes a story false exactly?
You might say contradiction makes a story false. And sometimes it is possible to prove a contradiction. Other times it is too easy to assume a contradiction. You say that it was the sudden sighting of a UFO that caused your wreck (you don’t mention this to the officer, but you do to your best friend). Your friend doesn’t believe you. The existence of a UFO contradicts his understanding of reality.
It’s analogous to the belief that the patriarchal narratives of Genesis are entirely or partially fabricated because they mention camels as domesticated animals. The “sure” results of scientific history, we hear from others, is that camels were not domesticated until the twelfth century, about 800 years after Abraham.
How did we determine that date? Well, for one thing, we excluded the evidence of the patriarchal narratives of Genesis. If we had not excluded them, we would say, “Camels were domesticated as early as the early second millennium B.C.E.”
The problem with the many claims we read and hear about the likelihood or unlikelihood of truth in the stories of the Bible is that the different commentators are playing cards with different decks. What does the person making the claim believe about the basis of knowledge, about how we can reconstruct history?
Yet, for all the claims that we are now postmodern and well beyond the naivete of post-enlightenment rationalism, too many people are willing to believe something presented by the speaker or writer as scientific or reasonable.
What we should ask ourselves is something else entirely: how do stories from the past tell me truth about the past?
History and the Bible story is not as simple as the denial of Thompson or Whitelam. It might pay to understand the bias of Thompson and Whitelam, not only in terms of 21st century politics, but also in terms of a philosophy of knowing. Should their pessimistic (nihilistic?) view of history (at least with regard to one area of history) concern us? Only if you embrace their philosophy on the whole.
More to come . . .