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Comments on the Davies-Dever Exchange

We urgently need to hear in greater detail about the actual views of these scholars on particular issues rather than to be subjected to further rounds of mutual denunciation and sweeping generalizations. 

By Norman K. Gottwald
Pacific School of Religion
Berkeley, CA
January 2003

    I want to assert at the start that the vitriolic exchange between Davies and Dever involves a history of interpersonal feuding that few of us are able to follow in detail and that, in the final analysis, is irrelevant to the issues their discussion highlights. I have no interest in trying to sort out the history of wounded feelings that both nourish in this debate. My hope is to bracket their personal grievances, intense and bitter as they are, in order to locate what I discern to be the substantive issues about the history of ancient Israel in dispute, some of which they appear to agree about and others they avoid or downplay.

    First and foremost, both disputants acknowledge that the biblical stories are not factual accounts of history. That being the case, it is a mystery to me why Davies and Dever do not focus on particular tracts of the reported biblical history in order to articulate their views about the historicity of the biblical accounts. Unless I am vastly mistaken, their differences on particular historical issues are not nearly as great as their polemics seem to imply. Regrettably, we do not know their actual agreements and differences on many specific historical issues, mainly, I fear, because of the inflammatory emotional polemics that have engulfed them.

    The issue that Davies seems to ignore is the presence in the biblical text of a good many indicators of pre-exilic data that were not likely to have been invented in Persian times. It is all well and good to claim that the biblical text was shaped in its final form in post-exilic times, but how much of it reflects pre-exilic memories or actual information? This issue requires historical critical argumentation and not polemics. A fair approach to this issue would require Davies to offer a detailed examination and assessment of the archaeological data presented by Dever in his most recent book.

    The issue that Dever seems to ignore is the way that predominant biblical studies is taken by many to endorse a naive view of biblical history as legitimating the state of Israel’s exclusive claim to “the holy land.” It does not appear to me that biblical studies alone can resolve this issue. Davies is sure that it cannot. He concurs that the holocaust legitimates the state of Israel but does not invalidate a Palestinian claim alongside the Israelite claim. Dever, perhaps because he wants to rest his argument primarily on archaeology, does not articulate a clear stance on modern Israeli and Palestinian land claims. It is not sufficient, however, for Dever, while insinuating an anti-Israeli stance by Davies, to retreat to archaeological and biblical data to avoid this issue once it is raised.

    It is my own hope, perhaps a forlorn one, that the discussion can discriminate between the original political conflicts represented in the Bible and the political issues today. Those issues are real and urgent enough that they ought not to be entangled in, or restricted to, the personal controversy between Davies and Dever nor between any of the so-called “maximalists” and “minimalists,” labels which almost all the disputants involved reject as misrepresenting their views. We urgently need to hear in greater detail about the actual views of these scholars on particular issues rather than to be subjected to further rounds of mutual denunciation and sweeping generalizations.

    I hope I am not mistaken in speaking for most onlookers of this debate in asking for a greater focus on the issues and for a cessation of personal invective, difficult as that may be for those deeply invested in the controversy.