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Contra Davies

Davies and the other revisionists seem to think that they have "smoked out" the ideology of opponents like me when they declare that "for some people, more than scholarship is at stake." 

By William G. Dever
January 2003

    This is the first time that I have ever used the Internet because most of what I’ve been shown looks like “electronic gossip” to me. I write now for two reasons: first, because colleagues urge me not to miss any opportunity for dialogue with biblical revisionists like Davies, and secondly, because this website is not a standard electronic discussion group -- it uses peer review and does not allow uncritical or unprofessional postings that I am told characterize most discussion groups on the Internet. Let me take up several issues in response to Davies’ recent statement on this website.

    (1) Ideology. Davies and the other revisionists seem to think that they have “smoked out” the ideology of opponents like me when they declare that “for some people, more than scholarship is at stake.” Of course—but only for us? Virtually everything that Davies writes is heavily ideological and laden with personal polemics. Here again, as previously, he characterizes me as a devotee of “Albright’s temple”; a member of a “Harvard conspiracy”; a sort of crypto-Fundamentalist; a poser of “simple-minded questions of ‘is the Bible true or not?’” a “so-called scholar;” and, in effect, a McCarthyite.

    Elsewhere, in a recent review of my book What Did The Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? (Eerdmans, 2001), Davies has called me a “one-time ‘biblical archaeologist’ of relatively little field experience, who once went hunting for patriarchs and later sought Solomon’s city at Gezer” (see Davies’ review in Shofar, Fall 2002). He says I later “recanted” but have now returned to this agenda. Davies had circulated similar comments earlier in Internet discussion groups. In response, I wrote to him to point out that: (a) I had never connected the biblical patriarchs with EBIV or any of Albright’s views; (b) I had had more than 30 seasons of field experience; and (c) our well-known Gezer methods depended on stratigraphy and ceramic chronology, not biblical presuppositions. I challenged him to review the published record. Davies wrote back: “I have read what you say about yourself, but I choose not to believe it automatically, since your capacity for reinventing your past (and Israel’s) is well known” -- so much for objective scholarship, careful documentation, and constructive dialogue. As Anson Rainey has pointed out, Davies is the “mirror-image” of the fundamentalists he so furiously decries: “Don’t confuse me with facts; my mind is made up.”

    As for “Albrightianism,” I happen to agree with Davies’ critique; and if he had bothered to read my “What Remains of the House That Albright Built?” (BA 56, 1993), he would know that my answer was “Nothing except the ruins of some of the foundations.” But making Albright a whipping boy 30 years after his death does nothing to advance the present discussion.

    (2) On “schools.” Here again Davies bristles at my notion that he and the other revisionists constitute a “school”—yet he immediately invents a homogenous “Albright/Harvard school” to which we covertly belong! Davies says that we lack only a name. But we—that is, I and other opponents of “revisionists”—have a name: it is “mainstream scholarship.” So hereafter, perhaps I should refer to “mainstream” and “marginal” scholars; surely the revisionists must recognize, indeed, should celebrate, their idiosyncratic stance. As for other possible terms, I point out that “revisionist” is a term I took from Lemche and Thompson’s own early statement in 1974 in JSOT. I also claim that in some sense all good historians are “revisionists.” And furthermore, nowadays, we archaeologists, with our new archaeologically driven histories of ancient Israel, are the real “revisionists.” As for “minimalists vs. maximalists,” I agree with Davies that these are not helpful terms, and typically, I do not use them. The issue is not “revisionism,” but whether our revisions are based on established facts or ideological fancies.

    (3) “History.” What kind? How much? When? Davies says his is an effort at “understanding the Bible,” of knowing “what the stories mean.” But that is precisely my agenda as well—that, and nothing else. That is why I titled my recent book, What Did The Biblical Writers Know and When Did They Know It? Yet, when I ask the question, Davies declares that it “is both impossible and misguided.”

    Years ago I wrote to Davies to allay his suspicions that I am some sort of “credulist,” stating, as I have now in my book, that I am not reading the Bible as Scripture, that I am in fact not even a theist. He stated later that nevertheless I espouse “a view of history that is theistic” (in Grabbe 1997, p. 117, n. 20; he says Marx, too, was theistic.) Again, one can hardly win.

    My view all along—and especially in the recent books—is first that the biblical narratives are indeed “stories,” often fictional and almost always propagandistic, but that here and there they contain some valid historical information. That hardly makes me a “maximalist.” Secondly, I use abundant archaeological evidence to demonstrate that the context, within which alone these stories are intelligible, is not that of the Persian much less the Hellenistic era, but that of the Iron Age, i.e., pre-exilic. No one denies late editing; but the essential composition, not to mention underlying oral traditions, of J, E, D, and even some of P must antedate the fall of Jerusalem. When Davies claims that his late date (Persian period) is “mainstream,” he is misrepresenting the case at the very least (he says “either” composed or canonized.) Only a few mavericks like Van Seters would date J and E that late. As for Lemche and Thompson’s “Hellenistic” date, the only real documentation they have ever offered is a single footnote in Lemche’s 1993 SJOT article, declaring without evidence that the historiography of the biblical writers’ historiography is closest to that of Pliny!

    Incidentally, “understanding” the texts is possible only by placing them in context, and by definition only external data like archaeological evidence can provide that. If J, E and Dtr had been written in the Persian period, as Davies claims, surely they would reflect conditions of that era, and some anachronisms would give them away. I challenge Davies to show any “Persian” features -- ideas, institutions, Aramaic terms, material culture items, etc. -- that fit anything we know archaeologically of the Persian era in the provenance of Palestine. If Davies really wants to reconstruct a plausible Persian-period context, he must master the archaeological data. Yet in his 1992 book, he cites the basic handbook, Ephraim Stern’s The Material Culture of the Land of the Bible in the Persian Period 538-332 B.C. (1982), once, without discussion.

    In defense of his own efforts at history writing, Davies claims that his 1992 book has an “entire chapter devoted to the historical Israel.” I can’t find it in my well-worn copy. Does he mean Chapter 4, “A Search for Historical Israel”? This 14-page, largely negative prolegomenon is hardly a “history.” And the only archaeological evidence Davies cites is Finkelstein’s idiosyncratic views on Israelite origins, denying any “ethnic identity.” Elsewhere Davies concludes that “our ‘ancient Israel’ is a (sic) not the biblical literary entity, nor a historical one. It is a scholarly creation…” (1992:31). Since I first charged that Davies denies the existence of an “ancient” or a “historical” Israel, he has been on the defensive. Obviously, he denies any historical “biblical” Israel. Readers can easily judge for themselves. Davies’ claim that Thompson’s 1992 book “deals extensively with the states of Judah and Israel as historical entities” is absolutely inaccurate. Davies should know that Thompson himself has repudiated this entire 400-plus page “history” except for its Persian date (cf. in Grabbe 1997, pp. 178-79).

    (4) Archaeological Data. Davies claims that he “relies partly on archaeology”; he even mentions post-processual archaeology. Yet, the reader who goes back to the sources will find that in Davies’ 1992 book he cites Mazar’s widely used handbook, Archaeology of the Land of the Bible only once, in a footnote (1992:24)—and that is to dismiss it since it ends before Davies’ “Israel” in the Persian period. This is typical of Davies. When he and I were to face off some years ago at Northwestern University, I sent him in advance my paper on archaeology and Israelite origins; he replied by circulating a “white paper” in which he declared that Dever’s archaeological data were “irrelevant.” Davies’ recent review of my book in Shofar does not confront a single one of the dozens of “convergences” between texts and artifacts that I document. This is not a review at all, but a personal attack that he would not have dared to print in his own JSOT or any other peer-reviewed journal.

    (5) Archaeology, Bible and Politics. Davies might be surprised that I agree entirely with his statement  about the politicization of scholarship. But I have not been guilty of it. If Davies wants to paint me as a “Zionist,” as Lemche has done, let him quote anything from my publications over 30 years that would sustain that charge.

    (6) On the Issue of Anti-Semitism. I have never called any of the revisionists, and certainly not Davies, anti-Semites, saying only of Whitelam that “in my opinion his work borders on anti-Semitism.” Other reviewers such as Baruch Levine, Avraham Malamat, and Benjamin Sommers have made similar observations. What is “anti-Semitism”? It is not criticism of individual scholars who happen to be Jewish, that is legitimate scholarship, but rather an indictment of all Jews as untrustworthy, denying their legitimacy because they are Jews. Let readers go through Whitelam’s The Invention of Ancient Israel word-for-word, as I have repeatedly. Again and again, the conspiracy of those who have been engaged in “retrojective imperialism… an act of dispossession” of Palestinians from their land (1996:222) are Israelis -- all Jews, of course -- and those American Christian scholars who share in the “Judeo-Christian tradition” (passim). Elsewhere, Whitelam absolutely caricatures Israeli archaeological surveys in the West Bank, asserting that “the focus has been upon the Iron Age,” the period of the essential Israel”; “the practical effect has been to establish the presence of ancient Israel in the past, thereby creating a real presence in terms of its ‘historic right’ to the land.” Such rhetoric goes on and on. But what are the facts? (a) Finkelstein and many of the other Israeli archaeologists are “post-Zionists,” if anything, with no other motives in the survey except salvage work. (b) In the publication of the West Bank database in English in 1997, the Iron I or “Israelite” pottery is scant and barely discussed, while only the Islamic pottery is subjected to extensive analysis. What “bias”? Either Whitelam is ignorant of the archaeological data, or it is he who is biased. Whitelam’s book is certainly a political manifesto, heavily pro-Palestinian. It is only the writing of their history that Whitelam thinks legitimate. Whether he is responsible or not for the book’s translation into Arabic, it is sold in East Jerusalem bookstores as the “Palestinian Bible” used as a school text, and quoted by Arab intellectuals. At the very least, Whitelam’s book easily lends itself to these uses, and he must be held responsible.

    As for Lemche, at a symposium at Bar Ilan University where he and I squared off, he began his remarks by stating that he would not trust any Israeli to write a history of Israel because they, i.e., Jews, “could not be objective.” Recently, Lemche declared that “from a historian’s point of view, ancient Israel is a monstrous creation.” When challenged by a reader, Lemche tried to define the Danish word “monstrous” that he hand in mind as meaning simply “not of this world,” i.e., “fictitious.” But the reader, Angus Cook, consulted several authorities and learned that the word never means this in Danish, but rather “unnaturally large and ugly; grotesque; deformed.” It is precisely such inflated language that betrays the ideologue. As for Thompson, he scarcely deigns to use the name “Israel,” speaking consistently as some Assyrian texts do of “the house of Omri” (whom he thinks unhistorical; cf. Myth, p. 13); or else he treats ancient Palestine and Israel as “southern Syria’s marginal fringe” (cf. in Grabbe 1997, pp. 179-86; Myth, passim). Elsewhere he utilizes a questionable hypothesis: denying the existence of a people. Thompson declares, “It may perhaps appear strange that so much of the Bible deals with the origin traditions of a people that never existed as such” (Mythic Past, p. 34). Is this just rhetoric? What is one to make of such nonsense?

    (7) The Hebrew Bible as “Idealistic.” The only point I think Davies and others have made is that the portrait of a “biblical Israel” in the texts does not fit the actual Israel that we might construct from other sources. Of course not! And who thinks it does? The simple, obvious fact is that the biblical writers and editors portray Israel as it should have been, in their estimation, not as it actually was. Yet in their very polemics, they give away many aspects of the true situation. Davies simply states the obvious: the two “Israels” are not the same. But that is not only banal, it is irrelevant.

    (8) Demonizing one’s opponents. All the revisionists claim to abhor personal polemics (most recently Thompson in “A View from Copenhagen: Israel and the History of Palestine”), but they constantly demonize their opponents—the surest evidence that they cannot oppose the contrary facts. Earlier they sought to destroy the credibility of Iain Provan, one of the first to expose their ideology (cf. the exchange in 1995 in the Journal of Biblical Literature). He has now documented their slander at length in Long, Baker, and Wenham, Windows into Old Testament History: Evidence, Argument and the Crisis of “Biblical Israel” (2002). An even more devastating recent indictment is that of James Barr in History and Ideology in the Old Testament: Biblical Studies at the End of a Millennium (2000). Barr, Regius Professor of Hebrew, Emeritus, at Oxford University, says that Davies’ views are “too absurd to be taken seriously”; that Whitelam’s arguments are without any “factual evidence”; and that one observes “the alacrity with which hostile ideology is adopted as the obvious explanation.” Barr devotes some 70 pages to documenting what I have argued from the beginning: the revisionists are ideologues, not disinterested scholars.

    I began by being skeptical about any useful dialogue with Davies, on the Internet or elsewhere. I end on the same note and do not think that I will venture again onto the Internet. Let Davies answer me in peer-reviewed journals where I will continue to publish. And let him confront the archaeological evidence, if he dares. Name-calling is not sufficient.