Historicity of The Bible
The historicity of the Bible is the question of the Bible‘s “acceptability as a history”. This can be extended to the question of the Christian New Testament as an accurate record of the historical Jesus and the Apostolic Age.
When examining the books of the Bible, scholars examine the historical context of passages, the importance ascribed to events by the authors, and the contrast between the descriptions of these events and other historical evidence.
Archaeological discoveries since the 19th century are open to interpretation, but broadly speaking they lend support to few of the Old Testament’s narratives as history and offer evidence to challenge others.Materials and methods
Manuscripts and canons
The Bible exists in multiple manuscripts, none of them an autograph, and multiple canons, which do not completely agree on which books have sufficient authority to be included or their order (see Books of the Bible). The early discussions about the exclusion or integration of various apocrypha involve an early idea about the historicity of the core. The Ionian Enlightenment influenced early patrons like Justin Martyrand Tertullian – both saw the biblical texts as being different to (and having more historicity than) the myths of other religions. Augustine was aware of the difference between science and scripture and defended the historicity of the biblical texts e.g. against claims of Faustus of Mileve.
Historians hold that the Bible should not be treated differently from other historical (or literary) sources from the ancient world. One may compare doubts about the historicity of e.g. Herodotus; the consequence of these discussions is not that we shall have to stop using ancient sources for historical reconstruction, but that we need to be aware of the problems involved when doing so.
Very few texts survive directly from antiquity: most have been copied – some, many times. To determine the accuracy of a copied manuscript, textual critics examine the way the transcripts have passed through history to their extant forms. The higher the consistency of the earliest texts, the greater their textual reliability, and the less chance that the content has been changed over the years. Multiple copies may also be grouped into text types (see New Testament text types), with some types judged closer to the hypothetical original than others. Differences often extend beyond minor variations and may involve, for instance, interpolation of passages central to issues of historicity and doctrine, such as the ending of Mark 16.
Writing and reading history
The meaning of the term “history” is itself dependent on social and historical context. Paula McNutt, for instance, notes that the Old Testament narratives “do not record ‘history’ in the sense that history is understood in the twentieth century … The past, for biblical writers as well as for twentieth-century readers of the Bible, has meaning only when it is considered in light of the present, and perhaps an idealized future.”
Even from the earliest times, there was an awareness that parts of the scriptures could not be interpreted as a strictly consistent sequence of events. The Talmud cites a dictum ascribed to the third-century teacher Abba Arika that “there is no chronological order in the Torah”. Examples were often presented and discussed in later Jewish exegesis with, according to Abraham Joshua Heschel, an ongoing discourse between those who would follow the views of Rabbi Ishmael that “the Torah speaks in human language”, compared to the more mystical approach of Rabbi Akiva that any such deviations should signpost some deeper order or purpose, to be divined.
During the modern era, the focus of Biblical history has also diversified. The project of biblical archaeology associated with W.F. Albright, which sought to validate the historicity of the events narrated in the Bible through the ancient texts and material remains of the Near East, has a more specific focus compared to the more expansive view of history described by archaeologist William Dever. In discussing the role of his discipline in interpreting the biblical record, Dever has pointed to multiple histories within the Bible, including the history of theology (the relationship between God and believers), political history (usually the account of “Great Men”), narrative history (the chronology of events), intellectual history (ideas and their development, context and evolution), socio-cultural history (institutions, including their social underpinnings in family, clan, tribe and social class and the state), cultural history (overall cultural evolution, demography, socio-economic and political structure and ethnicity), technological history (the techniques by which humans adapt to, exploit and make use of the resources of their environment), natural history (how humans discover and adapt to the ecological facts of their natural environment), and material history (artifacts as correlates of changes in human behaviour).
A special challenge for assessing the historicity of the Bible is sharply differing perspectives on the relationship between narrative history and theological meaning. Supporters of biblical literalism “deny that Biblical infallibility and inerrancy are limited to spiritual, religious, or redemptive themes, exclusive of assertions in the fields of history and science. We further deny that scientific hypotheses about earth history may properly be used to overturn the teaching of Scripture on creation and the flood.” But prominent scholars have expressed diametrically opposing views: “[T]he stories about the promise given to the patriarchs in Genesis are not historical, nor do they intend to be historical; they are rather historically determined expressions about Israel and Israel’s relationship to its God, given in forms legitimate to their time, and their truth lies not in their facticity, nor in the historicity, but their ability to express the reality that Israel experienced.”
Hebrew Bible/Old Testament
Main article: Authorship of the Bible
A central pillar of the Bible’s historical authority was the tradition that it had been composed by the principal actors or eyewitnesses to the events described – the Pentateuch was the work of Moses, Joshua was by Joshua, and so on. But the Protestant Reformation had brought the actual texts to a much wider audience, which combined with the growing climate of intellectual ferment in the 17th century that was the start of the Age of Enlightenment threw a harsh sceptical spotlight on these traditional claims. In Protestant England, the philosopher Thomas Hobbes in his major work Leviathan (1651) denied Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, and identified Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles as having been written long after the events they purported to describe. His conclusions rested on internal textual evidence, but in an argument that resonates with modern debates, he noted: “Who were the original writers of the several Books of Holy Scripture, has not been made evident by any sufficient testimony of other History, which is the only proof of matter of fact.”
The Jewish philosopher and pantheist Baruch Spinoza echoed Hobbes’s doubts about the provenance of the historical books in his A Theologico-Political Treatise(published in 1670), and elaborated on the suggestion that the final redaction of these texts was post-exilic under the auspices of Ezra (Chapter IX). He had earlier been effectively excommunicated by the rabbinical council of Amsterdam for his perceived heresies. The French priest Richard Simon brought these critical perspectives to the Catholic tradition in 1678, observing “the most part of the Holy Scriptures that are come to us, are but Abridgments and as Summaries of ancient Acts which were kept in the Registries of the Hebrews,” in what was probably the first work of biblical textual criticism in the modern sense.
In response Jean Astruc, applying source criticism methods common in the analysis of classical secular texts to the Pentateuch, believed he could detect four different manuscript traditions, which he claimed Moses himself had redacted. (p. 62–64) His 1753 book initiated the school known as higher criticism that culminated in Julius Wellhausen formalising the documentary hypothesis in the 1870s, which identifies these narratives as the Jahwist, Elohist, Deuteronomist, and the Priestly source. While versions of the Documentary Hypothesis vary in the order in which they were composed, the circumstances of their composition, and the date of their redaction(s), their shared terminology continues to provide the framework for modern theories on the composite nature and origins of the Torah.
By the end of the 19th century the scholarly consensus was that the Pentateuch was the work of many authors writing from 1000 BCE (the time of David) to 500 BCE (the time of Ezra) and redacted c. 450, and as a consequence whatever history it contained was more often polemical than strictly factual – a conclusion reinforced by the then fresh scientific refutations of what were at the time widely classed as biblical mythologies.
Genesis creation narrative
See also: Genesis creation narrative
There is a Christian tradition of criticism of the creation narratives in Genesis dating back to at least St Augustine of Hippo (354–430), and Jewish tradition has also maintained a critical thread in its approach to biblical primeval history. The influential medieval philosopher Maimonides maintained a skeptical ambiguity toward creation ex nihilo and considered the stories about Adam more as “philosophical anthropology, rather than as historical stories whose protagonist is the ‘first man’.” Greek philosophers Aristotle, Critolaus and Proclus held that the world was eternal. Such interpretations are inconsistent with what was after the Protestant Reformation to be “commonly perceived in evangelicalism as traditional views of Genesis”.
The publication of James Hutton’s Theory of the Earth in 1788 was an important development in the scientific revolution that would dethrone Genesis as the ultimate authority on primeval earth and prehistory. The first casualty was the Creation story itself, and by the early 19th century “no responsible scientist contended for the literal credibility of the Mosaic account of creation.” The battle between uniformitarianism and catastrophism kept the Flood alive in the emerging discipline, until Adam Sedgwick, the president of the Geological Society, publicly recanted his previous support in his 1831 presidential address:
We ought indeed to have paused before we first adopted the diluvian theory, and referred all our old superficial gravel to the action of the Mosaic Flood. For of man, and the works of his hands, we have not yet found a single trace among the remnants of the former world entombed in those deposits.
All of which left the “first man” and his putative descendants in the awkward position of being stripped of all historical context, until Charles Darwin naturalized the Garden of Eden with the publication of On The Origin of Species in 1859. Public acceptance of this scientific revolution was, at the time, uneven, but has since grown significantly. The mainstream scholarly community soon arrived at a consensus, which holds today, that Genesis 1–11 is a highly schematic literary work representing theology/symbolic mythology rather than actual history or science.
Main article: Patriarchs (Bible)
In the following decades Hermann Gunkel drew attention to the mythic aspects of the Pentateuch, and Albrecht Alt, Martin Noth and the tradition history school argued that although its core traditions had genuinely ancient roots, the narratives were fictional framing devices and were not intended as history in the modern sense. Though doubts have been cast on the historiographic reconstructions of this school (particularly the notion of oral traditions as a primary ancient source), much of its critique of biblical historicity found wide acceptance. Gunkel’s observation that
if, however, we consider figures like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be actual persons with no original mythic foundations, that does not at all mean that they are historical figures … For even if, as may well be assumed, there was once a man call ‘Abraham,’ everyone who knows the history of legends is sure that the legend is in no position at the distance of so many centuries to preserve a picture of the personal piety of Abraham. The ‘religion of Abraham’ is, in reality, the religion of the legend narrators which they attribute to Abraham.
has in various forms become a commonplace of contemporary criticism.
In the United States the biblical archaeology movement, under the influence of Albright, counterattacked, arguing that the broad outline within the framing narratives was also true, so that while scholars could not realistically expect to prove or disprove individual episodes from the life of Abraham and the other patriarchs, these were real individuals who could be placed in a context proven from the archaeological record. But as more discoveries were made, and anticipated finds failed to materialise, it became apparent that archaeology did not in fact support the claims made by Albright and his followers. Today, only a minority of scholars continue to work within this framework, mainly for reasons of religious conviction. William Dever stated in 1993 that
[Albright’s] central theses have all been overturned, partly by further advances in Biblical criticism, but mostly by the continuing archaeological research of younger Americans and Israelis to whom he himself gave encouragement and momentum … The irony is that, in the long run, it will have been the newer ‘secular’ archaeology that contributed the most to Biblical studies, not ‘Biblical archaeology’.
Main article: Deuteronomist
Many scholars believe that the ‘Deuteronomistic History’ preserved elements of ancient texts and oral tradition, including geo-political and socio-economic realities and certain information about historical figures and events. However, large portions of it are legendary and it contains many anachronisms.
The “Conquest Narrative” in Joshua and Judges
A major issue in the historicity debate was the narrative of the Israelite conquest of Canaan, described in Joshua and Judges. The American Albright school asserted that the biblical narrative of conquest would be affirmed by archaeological record; and indeed for much of the 20th century archaeology appeared to support the biblical narrative, including excavations at Beitin (identified as Bethel), Tel ed-Duweir, (identified as Lachish), Hazor, and Jericho.
However, flaws in the conquest narrative appeared. The most high-profile example was the “fall of Jericho”, excavated by John Garstang in the 1930s. Garstang originally announced that he had found fallen walls dating to the time of the biblical Battle of Jericho, but later revised the destruction to a much earlier period. Kathleen Kenyon dated the destruction of the walled city to the middle of the 16th century (c.1550 BCE), too early to match the usual dating of the Exodus to Pharaoh Ramses, on the basis of her excavations in the early 1950s. The same conclusion, based on an analysis of all the excavation findings, was reached by Piotr Bienkowski. By the 1960s it had become clear that the archaeological record did not, in fact, support the account of the conquest given in Joshua: the cities which the Bible records as having been destroyed by the Israelites were either uninhabited at the time, or, if destroyed, were destroyed at widely different times, not in one brief period. According to Israel Finkelstein, the consensus for the conquest narrative was abandoned in the late 20th century.
In his view, the Book of Joshua conflates several independent battles between disparate groups over the centuries, and artificially attributes them to a single leader, Joshua. However, there are a few cases where the biblical record is not contradicted by the archaeological record. For example, stratum in Tel Hazor, found in a destruction layer from around 1200 BCE, shows signs of catastrophic fire, and cuneiform tablets found at the site refer to monarchs named Ibni Addi, where Ibni may be the etymological origin of Yavin (Jabin), the Canaanite leader referred to in the Hebrew Bible. The city also show signs of having been a magnificent Canaanite city prior to its destruction, with great temples and opulent palaces, split into an upper acropolis, and lower city; the town evidently had been a major Canaanite city. Finklestein theorized that the destruction of Hazor was the result of civil strife, attacks by the Sea Peoples, and/or a result of the general collapse of civilization across the whole eastern Mediterranean in the Late Bronze Age, rather than being caused by the Israelites.
Books of Samuel
The Books of Samuel are considered to be based on both historical and legendary sources, primarily serving to fill the gap in Israelite history after the events described in Deuteronomy. The battles involving the destruction of the Canaanites are not supported by archaeological record, and it is now widely believed that the Israelites themselves originated as a sub-group of Canaanites. The Books of Samuel exhibit too many anachronisms to have been compiled in the 11th century BCE.For example, there is mention of later armor (1 Samuel 17:4–7, 38–39; 25:13), use of camels (1 Samuel 30:17), and cavalry (as distinct from chariotry) (1 Samuel 13:5, 2 Samuel 1:6), iron picks and axes (as though they were common) (2 Samuel 12:31), sophisticated siege techniques (2 Samuel 20:15). There is a gargantuan troop (2 Samuel 17:1), a battle with 20,000 casualties (2 Samuel 18:7), and a reference to Kushite paramilitary and servants, clearly giving evidence of a date in which Kushites were common, after the 26th Dynasty of Egypt, the period of the last quarter of the 8th century BCE.
Much of the focus of modern criticism has been the historicity of the “United Monarchy” of Israel, which according to the Hebrew Bible ruled over both Judea and Samaria around the 10th century BCE. Thomas L. Thompson, a leading minimalist scholar for example has written-
- “There is no evidence of a United Monarchy, no evidence of a capital in Jerusalem or of any coherent, unified political force that dominated western Palestine, let alone an empire of the size the legends describe. We do not have evidence for the existence of kings named Saul, David or Solomon; nor do we have evidence for any temple at Jerusalem in this early period. What we do know of Israel and Judah of the tenth century does not allow us to interpret this lack of evidence as a gap in our knowledge and information about the past, a result merely of the accidental nature of archeology. There is neither room nor context, no artifact or archive that points to such historical realities in Palestine’s tenth century. One cannot speak historically of a state without a population. Nor can one speak of a capital without a town. Stories are not enough.”
In Iron Age IIa (corresponding to the Monarchal period) Judah seems to have been limited to small, mostly rural and unfortified settlements in the Judean hills. This contrasts to the upper Samaria which was becoming urbanized. This archaeological evidence as well as textual criticism has led many modern historians to treat Israel/Samaria and Judah as arising separately as distinct albeit related entities centered at Shechem and Jerusalem respectively, and not as a united kingdom with a capital in Jerusalem.
Excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, an Iron site located in Judah, support the biblical account of a United Monarchy. The Israel Antiquities Authority stated: “The excavations at Khirbat Qeiyafa clearly reveal an urban society that existed in Judah already in the late eleventh century BCE. It can no longer be argued that the Kingdom of Judah developed only in the late eighth century BCE or at some other later date.”
The status of Jerusalem in the 10th century BCE is a major subject of debate. The oldest part of Jerusalem and its original urban core is the City of David, which does not show evidence of significant Israelite residential activity until the 9th century. However, unique administrative structures such as the Stepped Stone Structure and the Large Stone Structure, which originally formed one structure, contain material culture dated to Iron I. On account of the apparent lack of settlement activity in the 10th century BCE, Israel Finkelstein argues that Jerusalem in the century was a small country village in the Judean hills, not a national capital, and Ussishkin argues that the city was entirely uninhabited. Amihai Mazar contends that if the Iron I/Iron IIa dating of administrative structures in the City of David are correct, (as he believes) “Jerusalem was a rather small town with a mighty citadel, which could have been a center of a substantial regional polity.”
Since Jerusalem has been destroyed and then subsequently rebuilt approximately 15 to 20 times since the time of David and Solomon, some argue much of the evidence of 10th century habitation could easily have been eliminated. However, Israel Finkelstein notes that significant architecture from later in the Iron Age (Iron IIb) has been found.
Since the discovery of the Tel Dan Stele dated to the 9th or 8th century BCE containing bytdwd, accepted as a reference to the “House of David” as a monarchic dynasty in Judah (another possible reference occurs in the Mesha Stele), the majority of scholars accept the existence of a polity ruled by David and Solomon, albeit on a more modest scale than described in the Bible.
Historicity of Jesus
Main article: Historicity of Jesus
The historicity of some New Testament teachings of Jesus is also debated by biblical scholars. The “quest for the historical Jesus” began as early as the 18th century, and has continued to this day. The most notable recent scholarship came in the 1980s and 1990s with the work of J. D. Crossan, James D. G. Dunn, John P. Meier, E. P. Sanders and N. T. Wright being the most widely read and discussed. The earliest New Testament texts which refer to Jesus, Paul’s letters, are usually dated in the 50s CE. Since Paul records very little of Jesus’ life and activities, these are of little help in determining facts about the life of Jesus, although they may contain references to information given to Paul from the eyewitnesses of Jesus.
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls has shed light into the context of 1st century Judea, noting the diversity of Jewish belief as well as shared expectations and teachings. For example, the expectation of the coming messiah, the beatitudes of the Sermon on the Mount and much else of the early Christian movement are found to have existed within apocalyptic Judaism of the period. This has had the effect of centering Early Christianity much more within its Jewish roots than was previously the case. It is now recognised that Rabbinical Judaism and Early Christianity are only two of the many strands which survived until the Jewish revolt of 66 to 70 CE, see also Split of early Christianity and Judaism.
Almost all historical critics agree that a historical figure named Jesus taught throughout the Galilean countryside c. 30 CE, was believed by his followers to have performed supernatural acts, and was sentenced to death by the Romans, possibly for insurrection.
Historicity of the Gospels
Main article: Historical reliability of the Gospels
Most modern scholars hold that the canonical Gospel accounts were written between 70 and 100 or 110 CE, four to eight decades after the crucifixion, although based on earlier traditions and texts, such as “Q”, Logia or sayings gospels, the passion account or other earlier literature (See List of Gospels). Some scholars argue that these accounts were compiled by witnesses although this view is disputed by other scholars. A review of Richard Bauckham’s book Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony states “The common wisdom in the academy is that stories and sayings of Jesus circulated for decades, undergoing countless retellings and embellishments before being finally set down in writing.” There are also secular references to Jesus, although they are few and quite late.
Many scholars have pointed out that the Gospel of Mark shows signs of a lack of knowledge of geographical, political and religious matters in Judea in the time of Jesus. Thus, today the most common opinion is that the author is unknown and both geographically and historically at a distance to the narrated events although opinion varies and scholars such as Craig Blomberg accept the more traditional view. The use of expressions that may be described as awkward and rustic cause the Gospel of Mark to appear somewhat unlettered or even crude. This may be attributed to the influence that Saint Peter, a fisherman, is suggested to have on the writing of Mark. It is commonly thought that the writers of the Gospel of Matthew and Gospel of Luke used Mark as a source, with changes and improvement to peculiarities and crudities in Mark.
Historicity of Acts
Main article: Historical reliability of the Acts of the Apostles
Archaeological inscriptions and other independent sources show that Acts contains some accurate details of 1st century society with regard to titles of officials, administrative divisions, town assemblies, and rules of the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. However, the historicity of the depiction of Paul the Apostle in Acts is contested. Acts describes Paul differently from how Paul describes himself, both factually and theologically. Acts differs with Paul’s letters on important issues, such as the Law, Paul’s own apostleship, and his relation to the Jerusalem church. Scholars generally prefer Paul’s account over that in Acts.:316:10
Schools of archaeological and historical thought
Overview of academic views
An educated reading of the biblical text requires knowledge of when it was written, by whom, and for what purpose. For example, many academics would agree that the Pentateuch was in existence some time shortly after the 6th century BCE, but they disagree about when it was written. Proposed dates vary from the 15th century BCE to the 6th century BCE. One popular hypothesis points to the reign of Josiah (7th century BCE). In this hypothesis, the events of, for example, Exodus would have happened centuries before they were finally edited. This topic is expanded upon in dating the Bible.
An important point to keep in mind is the documentary hypothesis, which, using the biblical evidence itself, claims to demonstrate that our current version is based on older written sources that are lost. Although it has been modified heavily over the years, most scholars accept some form of this hypothesis. There have also been and are a number of scholars who reject it, for example Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen and Old Testament scholar Walter Kaiser, Jr., as well as R. N. Whybray, Umberto Cassuto, O. T. Allis, Gleason Archer, John Sailhamer, and Bruce Waltke.
There is great scholarly controversy on the historicity of events recounted in the Biblical narratives prior to the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. There is split between scholars who reject the Biblical account of Ancient Israel as fundamentally ahistorical, and those who accept it as a largely reliable source of history—termed biblical minimalists and biblical maximalists respectively. The major split of biblical scholarship into two opposing schools is strongly disapproved by non-fundamentalist biblical scholars, as being an attempt by conservative Christians to portray the field as a bipolar argument, of which only one side is correct.
Recently the difference between the Maximalist and Minimalist has reduced, and a new school started with a work, The Quest for the Historical Israel: Debating Archaeology and the History of Early Israel by Israel Finkelstein, Amihai Mazar, and Brian B. Schmidt. This school argues that post-processual archaeology enables us to recognize the existence of a middle ground between Minimalism and Maximalism, and that both these extremes need to be rejected. Archaeology offers both confirmation of parts of the biblical record and also poses challenges to the interpretations made by some. The careful examination of the evidence demonstrates that the historical accuracy of the first part of the Old Testament is greatest during the reign of Josiah. Some feel that the accuracy diminishes the further backwards one proceeds from this date. This, they claim, would confirm that a major redaction of the texts seems to have occurred at about that date.
Main article: Biblical minimalism
The viewpoint sometimes called Biblical minimalism generally holds that the Bible is principally a theological and apologetic work, and all stories within it are of an aetiological character. The early stories are held to have a historical basis that was reconstructed centuries later, and the stories possess at most only a few tiny fragments of genuine historical memory–which by their definition are only those points which are supported by archaeological discoveries. In this view, all of the stories about the biblical patriarchs are fictional, and the patriarchs mere legendary eponyms to describe later historical realities. Further, biblical minimalists hold that the twelve tribes of Israel were a later construction, the stories of King David and King Saul were modeled upon later Irano-Hellenistic examples, and that there is no archaeological evidence that the united Kingdom of Israel, which the Bible says that David and Solomon ruled over an empire from the Euphrates to Eilath, ever existed. Archaeological evidence suggesting otherwise, such as the Mesha Stele, is often rejected as allegorical.
- “It is hard to pinpoint when the movement started but 1968 seems to be a reasonable date. During this year, two prize winning essays were written in Copenhagen; one by Niels Peter Lemche, the other by Heike Friis, which advocated a complete rethinking of the way we approach the Bible and attempt to draw historical conclusions from it.”
In published books, one of the early advocates of the current school of thought known as biblical minimalism is Giovanni Garbini, Storia e ideologia nell’Israele antico (1986), translated into English as History and Ideology in Ancient Israel (1988). In his footsteps followed Thomas L. Thompson with his lengthy Early History of the Israelite People: From the Written & Archaeological Sources (1992) and, building explicitly on Thompson’s book, P. R. Davies’ shorter work, In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’ (1992). In the latter, Davies finds historical Israel only in archaeological remains, biblical Israel only in scripture, and recent reconstructions of “ancient Israel” to be an unacceptable amalgam of the two. Thompson and Davies see the entire Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) as the imaginative creation of a small community of Jews at Jerusalem during the period which the Bible assigns to after the return from the Babylonian exile, from 539 BCE onward. Niels Peter Lemche, Thompson’s fellow faculty member at the University of Copenhagen, also followed with several titles that show Thompson’s influence, including The Israelites in history and tradition (1998). The presence of both Thompson and Lemche at the same institution has led to the use of the term “Copenhagen school”. The effect of biblical minimalism from 1992 onward was debate with more than two points of view.|
There is great scholarly controversy on the historicity particularly of those events recounted in the Biblical narratives prior to the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BCE. Regarding the debate over the historicity of ancient Israel, the maximalist position holds that the accounts of the United Monarchy and the early kings of Israel, David and Saul, are to be taken as largely historical.
In 2001, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman published The Bible Unearthed: Archaeology’s New Vision of Ancient Israel and the Origin of Its Sacred Texts which advocated a view midway toward biblical minimalism and caused an uproar among many conservatives. In the 25th anniversary issue of Biblical Archaeology Review (March/April 2001 edition), editor Hershel Shanks quoted several biblical scholars who insisted that minimalism was dying, although leading minimalists deny this and a claim has been made “We are all minimalists now” (an allusion to We are all Keynesians now).
Apart from the well-funded (and fundamentalist) “biblical archaeologists,” we are in fact nearly all “minimalists” now.— Philip Davies.
The fact is that we are all minimalists—at least, when it comes to the patriarchal period and the settlement. When I began my PhD studies more than three decades ago in the USA, the ‘substantial historicity’ of the patriarchs was widely accepted as was the unified conquest of the land. These days it is quite difficult to find anyone who takes this view.
In fact, until recently I could find no ‘maximalist’ history of Israel since Wellhausen. … In fact, though, ‘maximalist’ has been widely defined as someone who accepts the biblical text unless it can be proven wrong. If so, very few are willing to operate like this, not even John Bright (1980) whose history is not a maximalist one according to the definition just given.— Lester L. Grabbe.
In 2003, Kenneth Kitchen, a scholar who adopts a more maximalist point of view, authored the book On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Kitchen advocated the reliability of many (although not all) parts of the Torah and in no uncertain terms criticizes the work of Finkelstein and Silberman, to which Finkelstein has since responded.
Jennifer Wallace describes archaeologist Israel Finkelstein’s view in her article “Shifting Ground in the Holy Land”, appearing in Smithsonian Magazine, May 2006:
He (Israel Finkelstein) cites the fact—now accepted by most archaeologists—that many of the cities Joshua is supposed to have sacked in the late 13th century B.C. had ceased to exist by that time. Hazor was destroyed in the middle of that century, Ai was abandoned before 2000 B.C. Even Jericho, where Joshua is said to have brought the walls tumbling down by circling the city seven times with blaring trumpets, was destroyed in 1500 B.C. Now controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the Jericho site consists of crumbling pits and trenches that testify to a century of fruitless digging.
However, despite problems with the archaeological record, some maximalists place Joshua in the mid-second millennium, at about the time the Egyptian Empire came to rule over Canaan, and not the 13th century as Finkelstein or Kitchen claim, and view the destruction layers of the period as corroboration of the biblical account. The destruction of Hazor in the mid-13th century is seen as corroboration of the biblical account of the later destruction carried out by Deborah and Barak as recorded in the Book of Judges. The location that Finkelstein refers to as “Ai” is generally dismissed as the location of the biblical Ai, since it was destroyed and buried in the 3rd millennium. The prominent site has been known by that name since at least Hellenistic times, if not before. Minimalists all hold that dating these events as contemporary are etiological explanations written centuries after the events they claim to report.
Both Finkelstein and Silberman do accept that David and Solomon were really existing persons (not kings but bandit leaders or hill country chieftains) from Judah about the 10th century BCE, but they do not assume that there was such a thing as United Monarchy with a capital in Jerusalem.
The Bible reports that Jehoshaphat, a contemporary of Ahab, offered manpower and horses for the northern kingdom’s wars against the Arameans. He strengthened his relationship with the northern kingdom by arranging a diplomatic marriage: the Israelite princess Athaliah, sister or daughter of King Ahab, married Jehoram, the son of Jehoshaphat (2 Kings 8:18). The house of David in Jerusalem was now directly linked to (and apparently dominated by) the Israelite royalty of Samaria. In fact, we might suggest that this represented the north’s takeover by marriage of Judah. Thus in the ninth century BCE—nearly a century after the presumed time of David—we can finally point to the historical existence of a great united monarchy of Israel, stretching from Dan in the north to Beer-sheba in the south, with significant conquered territories in Syria and Transjordan. But this united monarchy—a real united monarchy—was ruled by the Omrides, not the Davidides, and its capital was Samaria, not Jerusalem.— Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman
Others, such as David Ussishkin, argue that those who follow the biblical depiction of a United Monarchy do so on the basis of limited evidence while hoping to uncover real archaeological proof in the future. Gunnar Lehmann suggests that there is still a possibility that David and Solomon were able to become local chieftains of some importance and claims that Jerusalem at the time was at best a small town in a sparsely populated area in which alliances of tribal kinship groups formed the basis of society. He goes on further to claim that it was at best a small regional centre, one of three to four in the territory of Judah and neither David nor Solomon had the manpower or the requisite social/political/administrative structure to rule the kind of empire described in the Bible.
These views are strongly criticized by William G. Dever, Helga Weippert, Amihai Mazar and Amnon Ben-Tor.
André Lemaire states in Ancient Israel: From Abraham to the Roman Destruction of the Temple that the principal points of the biblical tradition with Solomon as generally trustworthy, as does Kenneth Kitchen, who argue that Solomon ruled over a comparatively wealthy “mini-empire”, rather than a small city-state.
Recently, Finkelstein has joined with the more conservative Amihai Mazar to explore the areas of agreement and disagreement and there are signs the intensity of the debate between the so-called minimalist and maximalist scholars is diminishing. This view is also taken by Richard S. Hess, which shows there is in fact a plurality of views between maximalists and minimalists. Jack Cargill has shown that popular textbooks not only fail to give readers up to date archaeological evidence, but that they also fail to correctly represent the diversity of views present on the subject. And Megan Bishop Moore and Brad E. Kelle provide an overview of the respective evolving approaches and attendant controversies, especially during the period from the mid-1980s through 2011, in their book Biblical History and Israel’s Past.
Adapted from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia