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(Perhaps the) Last Comments on the Davies-Dever Exchange

I am still unclear for which reasons I ought to believe that the biblical story originated in the Persian period rather than earlier.

By Iain Provan
Regent College, Vancouver, BC
June 2003

    My own contribution to this discussion builds on the responses from Professors Gottwald and Isbell while sometimes qualifying them or moving beyond them in various respects.

1. Tone and Style

    I agree with Professor Gottwald1 that it would indeed be best if all involved in the debate could exercise self-restraint in their language when addressing or describing others and if at the same time all could remain focussed on the issues and arguments rather than on alleged motives and ideological tendencies. Having been on the receiving end of some intemperate language and comment in the past in this debate (to which Professor Dever alludes),2 I can well understand the challenge that such self-restraint poses; but it is certainly important, if rational debate is the goal, that the attempt is made. All too often, indeed, it appears that polemic has been employed in this debate to disguise a weakness of rational argument or indeed the evasion of such argument (I shall return to this point below).

2. Labeling

    I agree with both Professors Gottwald and Isbell that labeling has not been very helpful in pursuit of clarity in this debate, and I suggest that we simply avoid it and focus on the arguments that individuals propose rather than the groups to which those individuals allegedly belong. The problem with labels, even where they do not misrepresent someone’s position (and I agree with Isbell that “minimalist” in his sense does not misrepresent the scholars under discussion), is that they all too often subtly (and sometimes not so subtly) suggest to us that the arguments of certain individuals are a priori simply not to be taken very seriously. Thus, “mainstream” and “marginal,” for example, are unhelpful in this respect (although they may be accurate enough descriptively): they tend to suggest that the arguments of a “marginal” scholar do not require engagement, and indeed that the beliefs of those in the mainstream are probably correct and do not require much critical scrutiny (since they are the beliefs of the majority). Historically, of course, “marginal” scholars have sometimes turned out to be right. Many of the labels used in the debate in which we are now involved appear to me to have been used in precisely this dismissive manner, and I do not see that this gets us much farther along the road.

3. The Bible and Contemporary Politics

    I agree with Professor Gottwald that none of us can avoid the issue of modern Israeli and Palestinian land claims, given the various ways in which the Bible is bound up with this issue in the contemporary world. My own comment here, however, is that there is no necessary connection between “a naïve view of biblical history” (whatever we mean by that loaded phrase) and the legitimization of the state of Israel’s exclusive claim to “the holy land.” The use of the Bible for the latter purpose arises from a particular interpretation of the biblical (hi)story – one of the interpretations open to those who may read the Bible as telling us about a real ancient Israel and even of an ancient Israel chosen by God. I entirely disagree with Professor Davies, therefore, when he claims in a sweeping manner that “debate about ancient Israel is also debate about modern Israel.” It need not be so at all. Indeed, the Bible itself does not say (as Davies implies it does) “that Israel was the natural or rightful owner of this piece of land” – quite the opposite! Nor does it interpret “chosenness” in the manner that Davies does (note also Isbell’s comments on this). One detects in all of this, of course, the influence of Professor Whitelam’s 1995 book, the argument of which I personally find almost entirely unpersuasive3 but which appears to have a significant following nonetheless.

4. Argument and Assertion

    Professor Davies claims in his essay that opponents of “minimalists” focus largely on the outcome of their argumentation rather than dealing with the arguments themselves, which are “usually lost or pushed into the background.” However, I do not believe that “outcome” is, in fact, generally the focus of concern in much scholarly reaction to the kind of positions on Bible and history that are in mind when the term “minimalist” is used.

    Of much more concern to people is either the weakness of the argumentation employed in arriving at the outcome or, indeed, the non-existence of proper argument at all (especially in the cases of Professors Thompson and Lemche, indeed - in whose writings, it seems to me, bold assertion is the common substitute for argument). In the current exchange, for example, Davies tells us that “my reasons for thinking that most of the biblical writings were composed in the Persian period by urban intellectuals are manifold,” and he then goes on summarize the reasons/arguments (inviting the reader to go to his 2001 essay for their detail). The “arguments,” however, do not appear to lead in any way to the conclusion (what in Davies’ list is supposed to point inevitably to a Persian date?) and are themselves based on assumptions for which grounds are not specified and, indeed, on a poor reading of the biblical tradition. For example, the biblical tradition does not claim, when read carefully and with an eye to ancient literary conventions, that the Israelites “annihilated the ‘Canaanites.’”

    The 2001 essay does not help us further. After reading it, I am still unclear for which reasons I ought to believe that the biblical story originated in the Persian period rather than earlier. Indeed, that essay provides several good examples of the way in which naked assertion, rather than argument, often provides the basis for “minimalist” positions. “A reading that takes biblical descriptions of Israel as historical portraits … is incompetent, because it is not based on a detailed and critical reading of the literature [a.k.a. Davies’s reading of the literature?]” (241); “The Bible is not devoid of historical information, but it is not history” (241); “We are not talking about history-writing with an ideological agenda. We are talking about an ideological agenda that merely assumes the form of historiography” (244). There is not a valid argument in sight – only assertion; and yet the essay gives the impression that an argument has been advanced on pages 239-244, for it proceeds as follows (244-245): “If not from the history of the Holy Land, then what is the origin of biblical Israel? The direct answer is: from inside people’s heads” – specifically the heads of Jews of the Persian period. It is not the “outcomes” of “minimalism” that so many find disturbing. It is the fact that the “outcomes” often appear not to be truly outcomes at all, but to be already implied in the (unargued) starting-points.

    Of just as much concern is that when attention is drawn to the weakness or non-existence of proper argument, it is commonly the case that no rational answer is forthcoming – merely repeated assertion, often accompanied by polemic. Professor Gottwald rightly points out, in the context of the current exchange, that Davies “seems to ignore” the presence in the biblical text of indicators of pre-exilic data that were not likely to have been invented in Persian times, and he concludes that “this issue requires historical critical argumentation and not polemics.” Professor Isbell concurs in asking for a reasoned response on this matter. But the question is not new; its avoidance is not an atypical occurrence in this debate. Serious questions have been asked over several years (not the least by me) of what I now hesitate to call this “group” of scholars in terms of justifying their various positions on Bible and history; yet satisfactory responses have been in short supply. The same “story” is simply repeatedly told as if no one had ever raised an objection to it. For example, in explaining his approach to understanding the Bible, Davies tells us that for the knowledge of ancient Israelite and Judean history and society that helps him in this quest, he relies “partly on archaeology and partly on anthropological modeling.” The grounds for epistemologically privileging archaeology and anthropological modeling over and against biblical testimony in this way remain entirely unclear. It appears that Davies simply “knows” somehow that historical knowledge is securely derived from these extra-biblical sources and somehow he “knows” equally well that historical knowledge is not to be gained from the Bible. I have offered what I consider to be a serious critique of this kind of (to my mind, self-deceived) thinking;4 no evidence as to the existence of that critique can be found in Davies’ essay. This brings me to my final comment, however …

5. The Bible and History

    Professor Gottwald expresses a desire to locate the substantive issues about the history of ancient Israel in dispute between Professors Davies and Dever, and he suggests that, in fact, their differences on particular historical issues “are not nearly as great as their polemics seem to imply.” I tend to agree with this assessment, in so far as it concerns the broader framework within which they are working. In fact, I am concerned about just how narrow the whole discussion has been to this point and how many questions it begs.

    “Minimalists” regard the representation of Israel in the Hebrew Bible as “largely idealized, even fictionalized,” writes Davies, playing off these realities against “historicity” – begging an entire range of questions about the nature of historical writing. Dever writes: “… 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! … 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.” But what are the grounds for believing that the Israel that we might construct from non-biblical sources is the actual Israel or for believing that biblical writers and editors portray Israel as it should have been, in their estimation, not as it actually was (a particularly curious claim given the “actual” biblical narrative that we possess about allegedly ideal Israel). Even Gottwald involves himself in the question begging, in summarizing as follows: “Both disputants acknowledge that the biblical stories are not factual accounts of history.” What are “factual accounts” of history, exactly, and in which senses does the Bible not provide us with these?

    There are much bigger questions to be raised about the writing of the history of Israel than are ever raised, or even alluded to, in this current discussion. What is the nature of our knowledge of the past? What are historical “facts”? What kinds of sound arguments may be made for discriminating between our various sources of “knowledge” about the past? The questions that Davies and Dever discuss are important enough in their own way, but the coherent answering of those smaller and particular questions is very much bound up with the coherent answering of the larger and more general ones. We should better know what to make of claims that archaeology has or has not “shown” us something in particular, for example, if we better knew what our reasonable expectations should be of archaeology “showing” us anything at all. And we should better know what to make of claims about the deficiencies of the biblical literature in providing us with access to Israel’s past if we better knew what are the inevitable limitations of all historical literature in providing us with access to the past.

    Such massive questions we do not find here discussed or even alluded to. It is as if no one had ever raised significant questions about the modernist scientific historiographical project and, in particular, about the epistemology on which it is founded. Yet these questions have indeed been raised.5 Their evasion, I suppose, need never come to an end; but until it does, the kind of discussion that is represented on these pages will always appear to some of us (“marginal scholars,” I guess) to be in denial of what are truly the “substantive issues about the history of ancient Israel.” It will appear to be a kind of intellectual equivalent to fiddling while Rome burns.
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[1] My convention of “naming” will be to cite the person with his title in the first instance in each section, and thereafter refer to that person by surname only.

[2] Note the following responses to I. W. Provan, “Ideologies, literary and critical: reflections on recent writing on the history of Israel,” JBL 114 (1995), 585-606: T. L. Thompson, “A neo-Albrightean school in history and biblical scholarship?,” JBL 114 (1995), 683-698; and P. R. Davies, “Method and madness: Some remarks on doing history with the Bible,” JBL 114 (1995), 699-705. A full response to these articles is in turn contained in I. W. Provan, “In the stable with the dwarves: Testimony, interpretation, faith and the history of Israel,” in A. Lemaire and M. Sæbø (eds.), Congress Volume: Oslo 1998, Papers of the 16th Congress of the International Organisation of the Societies for Old Testament Study (Leiden: Brill, 2000), pp. 281-319. It is this essay that is reprinted in the volume to which Professor Dever refers.

[3] See I. W. Provan, “The end of (Israel’s) history? A review article on K. W. Whitelam’s The Invention of Ancient Israel,” JSS 42 (1997), 283-300.

[4] I draw attention once again to my 1995 and 2000 essays (see note 2 above).

[5] They shall continue to be so whether or not scholars begin to engage with them in a satisfactory manner.

See further I. W. Provan, “Pyrrhon, Pyrrhus and the possibility of the past: A response to David Henige,”

JSOT 27 (2003), 413-437; and I. W. Provan, V. P. Long and T. Longman III, A Biblical History of Israel

(Louisville/London: Westminster John Knox, 2003).