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A Guide For The Perplexed

What makes me a disciple of von Rad is that for me too the stories count for more than the “facts”. I have no commitment to “scripture”, but if I want to understand “ancient Israelites” or any other human groups or individuals from the past, I will do so better by coming to terms with what they thought about the past than what had actually transpired. If, as I think was most often the case, the writers of these biblical stories did not actually know what had happened, then the actual events have a restricted relevance to them: it would have made no difference to these writers whether what they narrated had happened or not.

See Also: The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2015).

In Search of "Ancient Israel": A Study in Biblical Origins (Bloomsbury T&T Clark; 2 edition, 1992).

By Philip R Davies
Chair, Palestine Exploration Fund
Emeritus, University of Sheffield, England
November 2015

Earlier this year I finished writing a Guide for the Perplexed on “Ancient Israel”, while a reprint of my 1992 In Search of Ancient Israel is to appear next month, with a new Preface. Modesty compels me to state that I have been invited to comment on these two volumes (2 Peter 2:22). But I have enjoyed the challenge.

It might appear from publications that I have an overwhelming interest in ancient Palestinian history, but In Search, as the subtitle indicates, is really about the history of the Hebrew canon. The most vociferous criticisms of the book managed to ignore that, but the question I have always wanted to answer is: why is there a Bible? I find it strange that this question, which I would imagine to be central to any kind of biblical scholarship, is much less frequently addressed than it should be.

I’d like here to explain why I think this question first struck me and continued to absorb my thinking, and why In Search was written—after perhaps too much delay—as a first draft of an answer. This explanation should also make clear how the book’s thesis represents a continuation of a debate that dominated the late twentieth century. That debate was neatly encapsulated in a brief exchange in the Expository Times between G. Ernest Wright and G. von Rad (Wright 1960; von Rad 1961). These two scholars represented two approaches to the biblical writings about the past that dominated the thinking of my student generation (1960s). Wright developed a theological position (known as the “Biblical Theology Movement”) which argued that “Israel’s theology” (meaning the biblical writings) was not so much a history of ideas but, as he had put it more explicitly elsewhere (Wright 1952: 38), a “theology of recital, in which Biblical man confesses his faith by reciting the formative events of his history as the redemptive handiwork of God”. “The realism of the Bible”, he continued, “consists in its close attention to the facts of history and of tradition because these facts are the facts of God”. Von Rad, with Martin Noth, was the most accomplished Old Testament tradition-historian (what Wright meant by “history of ideas”) of the day. As expressed in his Old Testament Theology (ET 1965: 106), his view of the relationship of Bible and history differs fundamentally from Wright’s in setting its focus on the tradition rather than the history as the theological point of engagement and in refusing to equate the two: “we are of course thinking” he says, “when we speak of divine acts in history, of those which the faith of Israel regarded as such, and not of the results of modern critical scholarship, to which Israel’s faith was unrelated”.

Von Rad went on to say: “this raises a difficult historical problem…..”, but before turning to this problem, let’s remember that by “results of modern critical scholarship” von Rad was not thinking primarily of archaeology but of literary-historical exegesis (unlike Noth, he hardly used archaeology). The fissure between the biblical narrative of Israel’s past and a critically reconstructed history had become evident in the nineteenth century, before the advent of archaeology, by the use of “Higher Criticism”, what we could call “literary archaeology”. As is well known, “biblical archaeology” (the basis of “biblical theology”) sought to replace such a method of historical research with what was seen as a more objective (that is, both positive and positivistic) means method of testing the scriptural story as reliable history. For Wright and those who took the same view, the only historical problem to be addressed was that of verification, a necessary task because the scriptures had to be based on real history: as he put it (ibid.) “now in Biblical faith everything depends on whether the central events actually occurred”. It’s an interesting question whether Wright came to this conclusion because he believed that archaeology verified the biblical account, or the other way round. For von Rad, too, the biblical stories were based on history, but the problem was more acute. He was impelled to assert (p. 118) that the “kerygmatic picture” is “founded on the history”. But the question “how” was not really tackled. He did not in fact speak of a historical problem: the German text reads only schweres Problem. Von Rad would not, I think, have regarded the problem as a historical one anyway (wrongly, in my view, but for the right reason). For him, history was history, and had to be accepted as such. But this history was not what “Israel’s faith” narrated, a story that also had to be accepted. The problem was to explain the variation between “history” and “Israel’s faith”, as he put it. He would not venture as far as his Marburg colleague Bultmann, who severed the “historical Jesus” from the “Christ of faith” and “myth” from “history”. He does speak of the “results of modern critical scholarship, to which Israel’s faith was unrelated”, but a better translation might be “did not correspond or refer (auf die sich nie bezogen hat)”, for the two were, in his view, certainly related.

Wright’s position, and with it “biblical archaeology”, is no longer possible or relevant. Story and event do not correspond closely enough, hence it cannot be said that the value of the stories lies in their testimony to the events—unless you want to write off large chunks of the Bible as useless if not deceptive. And oddly enough those who have accused the writer of In Search of doing that are not just wrong: they are guilty of that themselves. But von Rad’s problem remains.

I have no doubt that, while I did not share von Rad’s religious attachment to the Old Testament as Christian kerygma, I identified with the problem. Twenty years later, the discrepancies of “history” and “tradition”, revealed by “textual archaeology” (and indeed by stratigraphic excavation in some cases), had been amplified by archaeology through the published results of the West Bank survey. Systematic work in the area where the kingdoms of Israel and Judah had been meant that an archaeological history could now begin to be created, and the divergence between an archaeological and a biblical history is now becoming clearer. With this emerging history something else has become clear: von Rad’s “problem” does not lie with either “history” or “tradition”, nor with literary-historical criticism, nor with archaeology. Discrepancies with concrete historical data do not create a problem for the scholar of folklore and of collective memory: on the contrary, these discrepancies are what make such studies attractive and significant. If such a discrepancy constitutes a “problem” for the biblical scholar, the problem can only lie in the belief of the scholar towards the “tradition”, namely its sacred status. ‘Sacred” here may have a religious sense (for von Rad, its kerygmatic quality as Christian scripture; for Wright as being full of “God’s facts”) or it can be in a secular sense, as a tradition inseparable from Jewish or American identity. For many people today still regard the biblical history as part of their own history, and thus as defining who the believe themselves to be (Albright’s From the Stone Age to Christianity, first published in 1940, is one of the manifestos of this belief).

So imagine now a secular von Rad, teaching biblical studies several decades later in a more interdisciplinary and secular environment, who realizes that “traditions” do not have to be historically reliable, and that “tradition” itself may be a misleading term for written stories that may sometimes represent something “handed down”, though not necessarily for very long, but may also be created from very little historical memory at all. Not a religious believer, nor troubled by the separating of story from historical facticity, he is nevertheless fascinated by the stories of the past that the Bible tells. He wonders what kind of historical experience and what kind of literary imagination, even what kind of religious impulse, really did give rise to such stories (remember, he is being driven by the question “why is there a Bible?”). But in the end, he comes to the inevitable conclusion that the solution to his old problem is that we must of course have different Israels, an Israel (or Israels) of “tradition” and an Israel (or Israels) of “history”. He then retires to his study and starts writing a book to explain (mostly to himself) how he problems is to be defined and ways of dealing with it.

I hope I have shown how the book that was written represent no caesura, no revolt, no radical revision of anything. It was right in the mainstream. The question of how the “traditions” relate to the “history” may not be in the end answered as proposed in that book, but at least it can be realized that this is not a problem as von Rad perceived it. For there are all sorts of ways in which stories about the past come into being. The only new factor (admittedly rather important) is that the “Israel” of the Bible is itself only partly a product of the “history”, and mainly a product of the storytelling itself.

What makes me a disciple of von Rad is that for me too the stories count for more than the “facts”. I have no commitment to “scripture”, but if I want to understand “ancient Israelites” or any other human groups or individuals from the past, I will do so better by coming to terms with what they thought about the past than what had actually transpired. If, as I think was most often the case, the writers of these biblical stories did not actually know what had happened, then the actual events have a restricted relevance to them: it would have made no difference to these writers whether what they narrated had happened or not. This does not mean, of course, that the “facts of history” are unimportant to me, for even a historian of ideas or of mentalités or social memory, a mnemohistorian, can better evaluate memory when the images of the past that these stories project can be measured independently (by which I don’t mean “objectively”, a word historians should use very carefully).

Another three decades on, and I have now written The History of Ancient Israel: A Guide for the Perplexed. Here I have tried to bring the genre of “History of Israel”, which has already emerged from the theological womb in which is was still kicking in the mid-20th century, into a secular, multidisciplinary and philosophically savvy 21st century. I have tried to furnish a would-be historian of “ancient Israels” with a list of the tools needed and tasks understood to do the job properly (I am not, by the way, claiming to have enough competence with them all myself). First the historian must understand in what sense certain biblical writings might be called “history” or “historiography”, which entails knowing and comparing the various ancient Near Eastern and classical Greek genres of writing about the past. Next we can approach a discussion of “Israels”, beginning with those of the Iron age, which are a group named by Merneptah in the 13th century, and a kingdom, several centuries later, in the northern central highlands and also known as “house of Omri”. This kingdom, which was tribal like its immediate neighbours but incorporated elements from the Late Bronze urban civilization, lasted a few centuries before being ended and converted into an Assyrian province.

The next section describes “New Israels”, which include the population of Samaria (or part of it, at any rate), eligible to be regarded as a historical continuation of the defunct kingdom, and thus a “historical” Israel, but no longer in the political sense, but a cultural one. For “Israel” is now a cultural identity, one negotiated in biblical texts—texts that emanate from Judah, except for the books of Moses which were shared with Samarians (and possibly largely composed by Samarians). These Mosaic books tell of the origins of an Israelite “people” composed of twelve (variously enumerated) “tribes” descended from Jacob. This “Israel” is described as surviving in two forms, one embodying the populations of Israel/Samaria and Judah combined (represented in Genesis to Joshua and the framework of Judges, plus Chronicles and, in its own distinctive way, Ezekiel) and one in which this “Israelite people” gave way already before the monarchic era to two “houses” of Israel and Judah, of which the “house of Israel” is deemed to have been lost forever (Kings, Ezra-Nehemiah, most of the prophetic corpus), leaving the “house of Judah” to continue bearing an “Israelite” identity. So, depending on where you lived and how you constructed your identities, “Israel” was either Samaria (the territory which continued to be known exclusively as ’eretz yisrael [data in Davies 2013]), or Samaria and Judah together, or just Judah.

A further extension of an “Israel”, though without the name, might also be seen in the “Hebrews” who represent a larger Syrian-Palestinian/diasporic population of Yahweh/Elyon/El worshippers (and circumcizers) who in Genesis are ascribed descent from Abraham. The name “Hebrew” derives from the geopolitical region and Persian strapy of ‘abar nahara, “Across the River”, and the “Hebrew” language being Aramaic [Beattie and Davies 2011]). By being placed as a great-grandfather of Jacob, the ancestor of all nations living in “Across the River” he brings his Hebrew descendants into an Israelite circle. Most of these “Hebrews” were incorporated in the Hasmonean kingdom of Judah in the second century BCE, after which their common religious culture came to be known as “Judaism”, and they were treated as “Jews”. Those known as “Jews” thus remain the chief carriers of the identity of “Israel” (but let us not forget the Samaritans, who are Israelite but not Jewish). The appropriation of “Israelite” identity by Christians (at least in their liturgy) or in the manufactured identity of the Mormon “Israelites” are examples of further games played with “Israelite” identity, but which do not concern the ancient historian.

In all this, one major historical problem looms: how did Judah come to take on an “Israelite” identity? Those who keep up with Israel Finkelstein will know his answer: I have provided my own (Davies 2006), which of course I think is better, not least because it drawn arguments from a range of biblical materials and recognizes the difference between a political definition of “Israel” and a cultural one. What we can say, at any rate, is that modern Jews are only to a very slight degree (if at all) descendants of historical “Israelites” in the usual meaning of the term, but they are very definitely descendants of one of the biblical Israels—which, I would say, are also “historical” in my own extended sense of having been historically constructed and operating as agents of history). It is a shared remembered past, and not any Iron age or later Palestinian history of events, that defines their identity. It is, of course, even so a very ancient identity, but one that is religious and in the modern sense ethnic, but not racial or genealogical.

The Guide for the Perplexed then turns to the question of methods, arguing that “doing history” entails the ability to master not only the linguistic and literary methods and resources but also to interpret archaeological data historically (something not even all archaeologists are capable of). History is not constituted only (or, I would say, even mainly) a sequence of events, persons and objects. It is a kind of narrative or collection of narratives that we tell for numerous reasons: in order to explain who we are, dictate how we behave, learn what human beings are really like, justify relationships. To literary and archaeological competence must be added social-scientific acumen, since history is, like archaeology, a social science.

In short, every historian, but especially one addressing the very tricky topic of “ancient Israels” (tricky in content but also in context) must be more than a biblical scholar and more than an archaeologist. Even so, a critically-reconstructed history in the end is, or implies, a narrative, in which events, plots and persons and indeed every component is chosen, and chosen for reasons that we might want to consider before we apply words like “real” or “true”. This does not mean that “anything goes”: stories may accord more or less with knowledge we have about the past, and thus may be plausible or not or something in between. Our telling of stories about the past, however, reveals more about us than anything else, and the history of stories, the history of human constructions of the past, is an important part of the history of humanity.

The past is gone, and we are left with images and our stories and our identities that have arisen from it and that continually reinterpret it accordingly. The ancient Israels have gone, and the past that they inhabited lives beyond itself only in variety, through the often conflicting and contradictory stories and images (memories) that assert our connections with it. The biblical stories probably illustrate that point better than any others. I might end by suggesting—remembering the reception that In Search received on initial publication—that one more item should be added to the toolkit of the historian of “ancient Israel”: a thick skin and as much courage as can be mustered, because the topic is, let us be in no doubt, an ideological battlefield still.


Albright, William F. (1940). From the Stone Age to Christianity. Monotheism and the Historical Process, Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press.

Beattie, Derek R.G. and Philip R. Davies. (2011). ‘What Does “Hebrew” Mean?’ JSS 56: 71-83.

Davies, Philip R. (2007). The Origins of Biblical Israel, London: T&T Clark.
(2013). ‘Land of Israel’ in Alan H. Cadwallader (ed.), Where the Wild Ox Roams: Biblical Essays in Honour of Norman C. Habel, Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press: 32-41.
(2015). The History of Ancient Israel. A Guide for the Perplexed, London: T&T Clark.
(2015). In Search of ‘Ancient Israel’. A Study in Biblical Origins, (reissued with a new Introduction), London: T&T Clark.

von Rad, Gerhard. (1962). Old Testament Theology (tr. D.M.G. Stalker), vol. 1, London: SCM (German 1957, Munich: Kaiser)

Wright, George Ernest. (1952). God Who Acts: Biblical Theology as Recital, London: SCM.

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